Water quality 'priority' goes down the drain

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We were told again and again how water quality would be a top priority under our Golden Dome of Wisdom. Instead, it was the 2017 session’s last casualty.

Lawmakers threw it overboard as they sailed through darkness toward a sunrise adjournment Saturday. But no worries, Republicans who run the joint insist. There’s a “big desire” to address the issue. Next year, we’ll nail it.

Baloney.

If Republicans truly wanted to address the issue, they would have passed a bill. Differences between House and Senate approaches were not so large they couldn’t have been bridged through negotiation and motivated leadership. This is a majority that decimated Iowa’s collective bargaining system for public employees in 10 days flat.

GOP leaders waited until the final weeks of the session to finally get serious about this “priority.” It didn’t rate the sort of time, attention and energy devoted to, say, stamping out the imaginary scourge of voter fraud. And once the Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit tanked, doing nothing became an option.

This was supposed to be Gov. Terry Branstad’s “legacy” issue, and I’ve read he applied pressure behind the scenes. But how about some public pressure? Governors in the past threatened to veto whole budget bills and call lawmakers back for special sessions to address a big but stalled priority. If the governor rallied to the defense of Iowa’s water like he jumped in to save lean finely textured beef, things might have been different.

And if Branstad fails to veto a provision defunding the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, his environmental legacy will be as murky as an algae-choked lake.

What about Democrats? Sure, they don’t have enough votes to pass anything. But that doesn’t mean they can’t propose a cohesive, compelling water quality alternative. Some Democrats favor raising the sales tax to fill the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund created by voters in 2010. But others oppose the sales tax idea and have floated other proposals. There’s no consensus, which makes opposing any bad GOP ideas more difficult.

So on this “top priority” issue, neither major party yet has a plan that can pass.

On the bright side, the House and Senate bills tossed overboard were flawed. Yes, they would have made welcome investments in watershed-based projects, but funding would have taken years to ramp up, mechanisms for measuring success are weak and neither plan would be protected in the future from legislative scooping and slashing.

The trust fund, on the other hand, would be protected. But even an effort by 12 Republican lawmakers in the Iowa House to, at long last, fill it couldn’t gain any traction.

The GOP bills that did reach the House and Senate floors received bipartisan support, with some Democrats calling them a good first step. Trouble is, for some Republicans and farm allies eager to put the issue to rest, these approaches likely would have been the only step. Water quality? Check. Next.

So in failure, the opportunity to get water right remains in tact.

What lawmakers should do is get back to basics and reconsider the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the science-based blueprint for keeping farm pollutants out of waterways and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. It’s overall goal is laudable, but it lacks a definitive timeline, solid deadlines for achieving results and clear, accountable goals for local projects. Funding is a big issue, but how the money is spent is even bigger. Getting that right should be the real priority.

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

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