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Linn County floats a water quality plan

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Maybe you’ve noticed our lawmakers and governor are treading water when it comes to figuring out how to raise new bucks for protecting and cleaning up the state’s impaired rivers and streams. It’s been in all the papers.

I may have mentioned it once. Maybe twice.

But in November, Linn County voters will have a chance to show the Statehouse crowd how it’s done.

This week, the Linn County Board of Supervisors is set to approve a request by the county’s Conservation Board to put a 20-year, $40 million bond issuance on the Nov. 8 ballot. More than half the money raised would be spent on water quality improvement and land protection projects, with smaller shares for park improvements and trails.

The property tax increase needed to pay back the debt would cost the owner of a home with the county’s median assessed value of $142,300 roughly $27 annually. Or $2.25 monthly.

The bond issue, dubbed Linn County’s Water and Land Legacy, needs support from 60 percent of voters to pass. Supervisors will discuss the proposal Monday, with a vote Wednesday that could put it on the ballot.

“For a cup of coffee per month, we can do something about water quality and future flooding that isn’t just throwing up a wall,” said Supervisor Brent Oleson. “We can make our contribution here. For that price, I think people will be receptive, if we make the case right.”

That $40 million, supporters contend, could be leveraged to draw much more funding from other government agencies, conservation groups and the private sector. It could also be used as a local match for future bucks from the state’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust fund, if lawmakers ever get around to filling the fund.

“This $40 million could be $120 million, $180 million,” Oleson said.

The funds would be controlled by the conservation board, with supervisor review.

“It could be wetland development, it could be easements along the river, could be land acquisitions along the river, stream bank protection,” said Dennis Goemaat, deputy director of the board.

Backers stress the kind of land acquisition they’re talking about would involve land along the Cedar River, its tributaries and other waterways with low farming or development value. In many cases, conservation easements could be used, where landowners retain ownership while agreeing to curtail use or development and allow conservation measures.

So nobody’s talking about a land grab. What they would like to grab, however, is floodwater, holding it in expanded or enhanced wetlands upstream before it makes its way into Palo, Cedar Rapids and other communities. Wetlands would be a major focus of the initiative. While Cedar Rapids builds its walls and levees, the county can do its part by improving the watershed’s ability to absorb runoff upstream.

Backers say the ballot measure is the product of two years’ worth of study and public engagement as the Conservation Board considered how best to cover future environmental protection and outdoor recreation needs. A feasibility study conducted by The Trust for Public Land concluded that a bond issuance would be the best way to provide funding.

The trust also commissioned a poll of 400 county voters by John Wilson Research, which found support above the 60 percent threshold for such a measure. Uses for the money, protecting drinking water, protecting the Cedar River and other waterways, creating wildlife habitat and holding floodwater upstream all scored support in excess of 85 percent.

A good example of how bond proceeds could be used to leverage partnerships can be found on Buffalo Creek at Coggon. That’s where country conservation, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are removing much of a low-head dam dating back to the 1960s, mitigating a safety hazard and improving the creek’s fish habitat.

In Morgan Creek Park, the county is partnering with the Nature Conservancy to restore “oxbows,” or old cut off stream channels that hold water from the main channel and provide wildlife habitat.

“This is just an example of what could be replicated 100 times,” Oleson said.

Linn County has a AAA bond rating, which wouldn’t be affected by this bond issue. The county has plenty of bonding capacity, and interest rates are low.

But no tax increase is a slam dunk, even for the right reasons. Ask the Cedar Rapids Public Library. The electoral scrap yard is filled with well-intentioned ballot measures.

And 60 percent is a very tall order. In 2010, 57 percent of county voters supported creation of the constitutional Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust fund. This November, that won’t be enough.

But the Linn County proposal, making generational investments in measures to improve water quality, protect lands and mitigate flooding, isn’t a typical plea for more taxes. Along with Cedar Rapids’ watershed partnerships and its efforts to curtail stormwater runoff, Linn County voters have a chance to cement this region’s leadership on water issues.

“Everybody uses water. And that’s the main thing here,” Oleson said. “Everybody knows Iowa has a water quality problem. And everybody knows that the Legislature and the governor can’t seem to get on the same page.

“Here we have our local square, one of 99 squares in Iowa, where people are coming together,” he said.

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

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