Staff Columnist

Bold Glasson gets murky on water quality

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cathy Gleeson speaks during a forum for Iowa gubernatorial candidates for the Democratic and Libertarian party primaries hosted by the League of Women Voters of Iow at Ballantyne Auditorium on the campus of Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, April 21, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Cathy Gleeson speaks during a forum for Iowa gubernatorial candidates for the Democratic and Libertarian party primaries hosted by the League of Women Voters of Iow at Ballantyne Auditorium on the campus of Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, April 21, 2018. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

So it’s Earth Day/Week. I say we mark it by continuing our effort to figure out how on earth Democrats running for governor would clean up our water.

This week, it’s Cathy Glasson of Iowa City, a nurse and president of the Service Employees International Union Local 199. She met with our editorial board this past week.

Glasson has bold, clear positions on some big issues. She wants to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour in three years. Not only does she want to bring privatized Medicaid back under state control, she wants universal, state-run single-payer coverage for all Iowans. Not only does she want to reverse Republican-backed changes to collective bargaining rights for public employees, she wants to repeal Iowa’s right to work law. Did I mention free community college?

Maybe you love those positions, or maybe not. And maybe you’re wondering how Glasson would pay for her plans. Details are sketchy. But the direction Glasson wants to go is as clear as a northeast Iowa trout stream.

On improving Iowa’s water quality, however, Glasson gets murky.

Glasson points to Iowa’s list of 750 impaired waterways. A good place to start.

“I support a full moratorium on expansion of new factory farms until fewer than 100 waterways are polluted. And we should aspire to zero,” Glasson said. She’s talking about Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs.

She wants more funding for the Department of Natural Resources, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and “stricter fines and penalties on corporate agribusiness.”

“We need to help and let independent family farmers compete against these major, massive corporate agribusinesses that have taken over a majority of the countryside in our state,” Glasson said.

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The need for better livestock regulations is clear, especially rules giving regulators and local officials more authority to stop confinement projects that threaten environmentally sensitive areas, such as the aforementioned trout streams. Livestock operations do impair waterways, especially the 40 or so on the impaired list because of fish kills attributed to animal waste.

But I can’t find any evidence in the data showing a moratorium would directly wipe more than 600 waterways off the list. If you’ve got it, send it along.

We asked Glasson about the nitrates and phosphorus flowing off Iowa cropland into Iowa’s rivers, streams and lakes. That fertilizer runoff spawns headaches for some drinking water utilities, feeds lake-closing algae blooms and grows the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone each summer. We’re just starting to grasp the potential health effects, but we know controlling runoff also mitigates flooding and saves soil.

“I don’t believe taxpayers should foot the bill for cleaning up the dirty waterways that we did not cause. And that should be … the corporate polluters who made the mess need to be responsible for cleaning it up,” Glasson said.

She wants to work with farmers to reduce nutrients and adopt more sustainable practices. We asked if she would make those measures mandatory,

“I think we want to incentivize and work with farmers,” Glasson said. “Because they do want to do the right thing we just have to make sure we can work with them to make sure they know what programs are available for them to utilize for them to be successful.”

So Glasson opposes using tax dollars, but also supports state-funded incentives to help farmers pay for planting cover crops and other best practices under the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Glasson isn’t sure where the money should come from. She mentioned a tax on fertilizer, an income tax on corporations that don’t pay state taxes and a “manure tax.”

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But one source she won’t tap is a sales tax increase to fund the voter-approved Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Sixty-three percent of Iowa voters approved creation of the constitutionally protected fund in 2010, but no tax increase has been approved to fill it.

“I don’t support it. I think I’m one of the only Democratic candidates who doesn’t support the use of sales tax to clean up water that we didn’t pollute,” Glasson said. “I know it was overwhelmingly passed by Iowans because it was the only option given to Iowans at the time. So it’s a good attempt to try to address the issue.

“I think we can do a better job making corporate polluters pay for the pollution that they’ve caused. And there in is where the money comes from to clean up the waterways and help independent family farms do the right thing,” Glasson said. She opposes regressive sales tax on principle.

Glasson doesn’t say exactly how corporations will be made to pay, how much we can hope to collect or how long it will take. She says she’ll consult with her “ag environment climate council” of expert advisers. “I’m a nurse, not an agriculture or crop expert,” Glasson said. Fair enough.

But she is a serious contender for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Water quality is supposed to be an important issue for primary voters. And this seems like a bunch of anti-corporate applause lines masquerading as a water quality plan. Some promising dots, but not connected.

Glasson pans the trust fund as “only one option,” but really offers no other solid option. And she’s the latest in a string of politicians on both sides of the aisle who argue Iowans who voted for the trust fund really don’t want it funded. Polls tell a different story.

Glasson is a strong, progressive candidate for governor, to be sure. But on water quality, we still don’t know how on earth she’d make progress.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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