New ag secretary unlikely to make waves on water quality

Decaying organic material in snow runoff creates foam on the Iowa River, south of the Burlington Street dam in Iowa City. (Erin Jordan/The Gazette)
Decaying organic material in snow runoff creates foam on the Iowa River, south of the Burlington Street dam in Iowa City. (Erin Jordan/The Gazette)

So we’re getting a new Iowa secretary of agriculture. But if you’re hoping for a new approach for improving water quality, don’t hold your breath.

Current Secretary Bill Northey is being nominated to a position in the Trump administration. And there’s not much evidence any of the names publicly being floated as his replacement will chart a new, more aggressive course on cleaning up waterways fouled by farm fertilizer runoff.

His replacement will take over the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, which stands at center stage in the debate over how best to reduce that runoff, which eventually contributes to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone.

We’ve promised to help shrink the dead zone. This summer, the zone was larger than ever before. Awkward.

Among the possibilities for the new secretary are state Rep. Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, whose last name sounds oddly familiar; former state Rep. Annette Sweeney of Alden; and state Sens. Tim Kapuchian, R-Keystone, and Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan.

All four, like Northey, are farmers. Kapuchian says he’s not actively seeking the job. Other names might emerge.

It will be up to Gov. Kim Reynolds to pick a replacement, once Northey is confirmed to his new gig. The replacement will serve the remainder of Northey’s term, which ends in January 2019.


Much of the focus has been on political intrigue. Elevating Grassley raises the possibility he might later seek his grandfather’s U.S. Senate seat. Rep. Grassley held on to his state House seat in 2012 by beating Sweeney in a hard-fought primary. She was backed by agribusinessman Bruce Rastetter, a childhood friend, and his GOP allies. Will Reynolds wade into that messy history?

Less intriguing, it seems, is whether the new occupant will do more to address Iowa’s lousy water quality.

Northey’s stances on water quality look much like those of big farm groups and the Branstad-Reynolds administration: All water cleanup efforts should be voluntary. Setting clear benchmarks, timelines and deadlines for meeting them is a bad idea. Success is measured by how many conservation measures are put in place by farmers. Beefed up testing and monitoring? Meh.

Northey opposes raising the state sales tax to fill a constitutionally protected trust fund that would provide permanent dollars for new water investments.

Grassley, who also opposes a tax increase, championed a House GOP proposal using a patchwork of gambling taxes and proceeds from an excise tax on metered water to provide bucks for water quality projects. Much of this money would have gone toward programs funded through the state agriculture department.

Trouble is, the plan lacks accountability measures to determine if money being spent is actually moving the needle. In 2016, Grassley said the state already is doing enough to measure water quality, according to the Des Moines Register.

“The edge-of-field practices that are laid out in this bill are already shown to reduce nitrates coming off the fields. If we can get more of them out there, we know that they work,” said Grassley, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

So, like Northey, Grassley is a count-the-projects guy. But Republicans couldn’t pass their plan in 2016 or 2017.


Speaking of nada, the state budget that did pass pushed the Department of Natural Resources to eliminate funding for its IOWATER program, a nearly 20-year-old volunteer-driven water testing effort. Nonprofits and local governments will be expected to lead the effort. Fingers crossed.

Sweeney, like Northey, also has called for strictly voluntary water efforts, such as those pursued in the Southfork Watershed where her family farm is located.

“Leaders in our watershed organized water quality initiatives many years ago, recognizing a voluntary approach is the most efficient way to achieve measurable improvements. In contrast, a top-down regulatory approach limits farmer’s flexibility, and would bring a significant economic burden to our state’s economy,” Sweeney wrote in a 2016 Op-Ed appearing in the Register and multiple Iowa newspapers. It criticized the Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit against rural Northwest Iowa counties over nitrate runoff.

In the House, Sweeney steered a very top-down, regulatory “ag gag” bill to passage in 2012, making it a crime to get a job at an agricultural operation under false pretenses with the hope of exposing wrongdoing. Lying on your job application and blowing the whistle on sketchy practices could get you charged with “agriculture facility fraud.” Kapuchian played a key role in leading ag gag through the Senate.

Ag gag’s nothing-to-see-here, keep-out-or-else approach suggests Sweeney would not be a secretary eager to hold farmers and landowners accountable for their conservation practices, or press for hard data on their effectiveness.

But remaining silent might have been a pretty good idea for Zumbach at a January legislative forum in Anamosa.

“The word ‘impaired’ just has nothing to do with pollution,” Zumbach said, according to the Journal-Eureka, when asked about Iowa’s long list of more than 700 impaired waterways. “Impaired can mean too clean, impaired can mean too straight, impaired can mean too many trees.”

No Iowa waterways are impaired for those reasons.

Iowa needs an ag secretary who will push to transform Iowa’s nutrient reduction blueprint into a real call to action, driving more Iowa producers and landowners to act, holding them accountable for failing to take steps to reduce runoff and delivering the long-term bucks needed to make real progress.

I don’t see that secretary on this list.


Political intrigue is plentiful, but political courage is lacking. We may yet find some, but probably not in the ag secretary’s office.

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