Iowa water issues taking a Statehouse back seat

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Since the Iowa Supreme Court issued its ruling last month denting up the Des Moines Water Works’ legal fight to hold drainage districts accountable for polluted runoff, it seems the momentum for a Legislative water quality push has faded.

The lawsuit put pressure on lawmakers to do something. With some pressure removed, they may do little or nothing. The Legislature is very good at nothing when it comes to the environment.

For example, the Journal-Eureka of Anamosa reports that Rep. Lee Hein, R-Monticello, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told a recent forum audience water quality is not a priority.

“I’m not against clean water, don’t get me wrong,” Hein said, according to the Journal-Eureka. “There will come a point where no matter what we do the water will probably stay at a certain level and I think we have better places to spend money.”

The same article quoted Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee and a key figure in the water quality debate, arguing Iowa’s impaired waters list, including more than 700 rivers, streams and lakes, is misleading because “impaired doesn’t mean polluted.”

“The word impaired just has nothing to do with pollution,” Zumbach said, according to the Journal-Eureka. “Impaired can mean too clean, impaired can mean too straight, impaired can mean too many trees.”

Not true, according to John Olson, a senior environmental specialist with the Department of Natural Resources and the go-to guy on impaired waters.

“No, that’s unfortunate that message got communicated,” Olson said, charitably attributing it to a misunderstanding. No waterways are impaired because they are too clean, straight or tree-lined, he said.

Many impaired waterways are polluted, based on Iowa’s water quality standards for bacteria and other impairments. That doesn’t mean they’re severely polluted, Olson said. Nor does a growing impaired list necessarily mean Iowa’s water quality is getting worse. But its litany of damaged habitats, fish kills and algae-choked lakes is hardly “Mission Accomplished.”

It’s true no waterways are on the list due explicitly to the presence of high nitrogen or phosphorus levels from agricultural runoff. But that’s because Iowa has no water quality standards for nitrates and phosphorus. Remarkable, until you remember you’re in the Tall Corn State.

“We would have a lot more impairments if we did have those criteria,” Olson said.

Which brings us back to the real issue languishing before the Legislature, namely finding more bucks to juice up the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It’s aimed at cutting nearly in half nitrate and phosphorus runoff spilling into the Gulf of Mexico and spawning the “dead zone.” Nutrients from up north cause massive algae blooms and die-offs sucking up oxygen. We’ve promised to do something about it.

On average, the zone is the size of Connecticut. Last summer, it may have been larger. Climate change, with potential for warmer waters and more rain up north could make it worse. It already costs the gulf seafood and tourism industries $82 million annually.

Or maybe the real problem is the gulf is too clean.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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