Staff Columnist

Democrats agree on cleaning up water, differ on paying for it

In Iowa: Cover crops, good. Political cover, less good.

(File photo) A test strip from Clear Creek near Half Moon Avenue sits on a clipboard of results as a volunteer tests for nitrates for the Iowa Water Quality Information System in Tiffin on Tuesday, Mar. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(File photo) A test strip from Clear Creek near Half Moon Avenue sits on a clipboard of results as a volunteer tests for nitrates for the Iowa Water Quality Information System in Tiffin on Tuesday, Mar. 20, 2018. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

When it comes to improving water quality in Iowa, six Democrats running for governor largely agree on what they want — more money for efforts to reduce farm runoff, more water monitoring to both track the problem and test solutions and more partnerships with farmers who want to do the right thing.

And at least one candidate wants a very big table.

“The first thing we have to do is measure, so we know where we are,” said Andy McGuire, a physician and former state Democratic Party chair. “And then we get everybody at the table, and I mean everybody. Right now we have this fistfight all the time, so we get absolutely nothing done. So we’ve got to have everybody at the table.”

All six Democratic candidates have huddled with our editorial board around The Gazette’s biggest table. We, naturally, asked them to explain how they would address water issues as governor.

Iowa has a Nutrient Reduction Strategy for cutting nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into waterways. Most of that runoff comes from farming operations. Adopting conservation practices on a scale needed to stem the tide would cost billions of dollars. Instead, the state has thrown a fraction of those bucks into voluntary programs that haven’t significantly moved the needle.

The latest is a bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds that directs tens of millions of dollars to various water quality projects, but with no requirements for measuring success. The vague deadline for reducing polluted runoff is “over time.” Sometime, maybe.

“I would have vetoed that bill because I think it won’t do Iowa any good,” said candidate Fred Hubbell, a Des Moines business executive.

Cover crops, good. Political cover, less good.

Cutting runoff here to reduce the size of the infamous “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico grabs a lot of ink. But pollution causes problems here in Iowa, from the need for costly technology to clean up drinking water to beaches closed by nutrient-fueled algae blooms. Research has barely scratched the surface on the potential health effects of prolonged nitrate exposure.

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And the same runoff that carries fertilizer washes away soil and floods property downstream. Efforts to clean up water can save soil and reduce flood risks.

Five of six Democratic hopefuls favor raising the state sales tax by three-eighths of a cent to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, created by voters in 2010. The constitutionally protected fund for conservation and recreation remains empty because Statehouse leaders have declined to approve the sales tax needed to fill it.

It would provide $180 million or more annually. Up to 60 percent of those dollars could go to programs and projects addressing water quality.

“We’ve got to have a revenue stream, and that’s the place to start,” said John Norris, a former chief of staff to Tom Vilsack, both while he served as Iowa governor and U.S. secretary of agriculture. “We have to expand public research. Zeroing out the Leopold Center is the opposite of what we should be doing.

“We’ve benefited from revenue from the ag sector in this state for a long time. Which is why I’m supportive of all of us being a part of helping alter the practices from which we’ve all benefited. So it’s in all of our interest,” said Norris, who also favors doubling a 75-cent per-ton tax on fertilizer, with all proceeds spent on project partnerships with farmers.

“I’ve got relatives in Flint, Mich. You bet they’d pay three-eighths of a penny to have clean water moving forward,” said Ross Wilburn, a former Iowa City mayor who is now diversity officer for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

The lone candidate opposed to the sales tax increase is Cathy Glasson, a nurse and union organizer from Coralville.

“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. I know it was overwhelmingly passed by Iowans because it was the only option given to Iowans at the time,” said Glasson, who argues raising a regressive tax would hurt low-income families.

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State Sen. Nate Boulton, a Des Moines labor lawyer, disagrees with the notion Iowans don’t want to pay for water quality efforts.

“Taxpayers are the ones shouting the loudest they want to do this,” said Boulton, who introduced a bill to raise the sales tax and fill the fund. “This is something that has been sought for pushing eight years now. We’re doing what the taxpayers have asked us to do if we take that critical step.”

None of the candidates would push for mandatory measures forcing farmers to adopt practices, at least not initially. Even Glasson, who takes a hard rhetorical line against polluters, favors state incentives for farmers who want to “do the right thing.”

Said Hubbell: “I’m a believer that we should be doing voluntary cost incentives first, and if citizens and farmers aren’t happy with the results, if we’re not getting enough buy in, enough people aren’t doing it, then we need to look at other alternatives.”

McGuire said we should resist “demonizing” farmers. But she said, without significant progress during her first term, voluntary efforts may grow regulatory teeth.

“I would tell you I’m not very patient,” McGuire said. Take note, makers of big tables.

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

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