Soaking in leaders' water talk

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For folks who care about water quality, Monday’s Statehouse speechifying was on the dry side.

Among top leaders who gave speeches on the opening day of the 2017 legislative session, only two made mention of water quality as a priority. At least it was bipartisan.

“Another real problem we can no longer ignore: impaired waters,” said Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids. “This doesn’t mean that every stream, every river, and every lake in Iowa is a health hazard, but we do have over 700 impaired waters in our state ...”

Across the rotunda, House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow, R-Windsor Heights, seconded the motion.

“One of the great challenges we face is the ongoing work to improve the quality of our water,” Hagenow said. “Last year, this chamber passed a plan that would have devoted significant new resources to water quality efforts. Our work on this important issue should continue this session.”

Two out of five’s not a great batting average, but I‘m betting Gov. Terry Branstad will address the issue today in his final Condition of the State address. Water will be a priority issue. And that’s good news.

But soon, the gold-domed sausage factory will get revved up. What comes out at other end is anyone’s guess. Hope for the best, prepare for the wurst, I say.

The best would be an inclusive, broad-based process deployed to create a water quality strategy that gains some buy-in from a spectrum of interests, including farmers, environmental groups and others. That spectrum could look a lot like the large coalition backing a sales tax increase to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.

The wurst would be a largely closed-door process where Republicans and their agriculture and business allies craft an approach that looks impressive, funding-wise, but doesn’t include the sort of timelines, benchmarks and measurable results needed to prove it is cleaning water.

A tight state budget will make it more difficult for lawmakers to address water issues using existing revenues. A sales tax increase for the trust fund would provide new revenue, but top Republicans say they’re not interested. A sales tax boost also providing bucks for tax reforms could be more palatable.

It’s even possible water quality won’t turn out to be a priority after all. If Republicans embark on efforts to rewrite collective bargaining rules for public employees, create school vouchers, loosen firearms restrictions, tighten abortion limits and alter election laws, water quality could fall through the cracks.

It’s also possible water quality gets sidetracked by a GOP drive to punish the Des Moines Water Works for its lawsuit against rural counties over ag pollution running into the city’s water supply. A judge is scheduled to hear arguments in June, but there’s talk of legislation that would remake the water works board and outlaw such suits.

And we don’t know how Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will address the issue when she takes over the governor’s office.

So water quality is a “real problem” and a “great challenge,” but lawmakers still may leave us high and dry.

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

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