Staff Columnist

Iowa policymakers can learn from Sutliff golf ball crackdown

Actual rules can keep stuff out of waterways

John Osterhaus, of North Liberty, hits a golf ball into the Cedar River for the 32nd annual Sutliff Golf Classic at the historic Sutliff Bridge on Saturday, February 17, 2018. (Photo by Mary Mathis)
John Osterhaus, of North Liberty, hits a golf ball into the Cedar River for the 32nd annual Sutliff Golf Classic at the historic Sutliff Bridge on Saturday, February 17, 2018. (Photo by Mary Mathis)

In golf, there are irons. In government, often, there is irony.

Maybe you read The Gazette’s story last week about an annual winter fundraising event at the Sutliff Bridge in rural Johnson County. It’s the Sutliff Golf Classic, where contestants try to drive golf balls to the opposite bank of the Cedar River, among other tests of golf skill. It’s a 32-year tradition unlike any other, as far as I know.

Money goes to scholarships. But, unfortunately, some balls go into the river.

Sounds like fun. So, naturally, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources received a citizen’s complaint, and officials swiftly declared it unlawful littering. No citation was issued, but, in the future, Sutliff golfers will need to use biodegradable golf balls, subject to DNR approval, or forgo river driving.

Now, I’m not here to encourage or defend littering. Certainly, none of us want to see a good river spoiled by a good walk spoiled.

What caught my attention was the notion of a citizen complaint prompting fast DNR action. If only word of this remarkable efficiency would reach the DNR’s Environmental Protection Commission, which guides the department’s policies addressing environmental threats. Or lack thereof.

Complaints from scores of Iowans to the DNR about lax regulations on water quality, large-scale livestock confinements and other issues largely fall on deaf ears. Last fall, the EPC, facing plenty of public outcry, refused to close gaping loopholes in hog confinement regulations. A few years back, when public comments ran overwhelmingly against scrapping a rule restoring topsoil to finished building sites, the EPC voted to scrap it anyway.

I know, I know, littering enforcement and environmental policy are like apples and golf balls. But just think if policymakers and legislators embraced the simple enforcement logic of Sutliff. Real, enforceable rules can be effective in stopping people from putting stuff into waterways that doesn’t belong there. Golf balls. Nitrate fertilizer, etc.

Littering is a bad thing. So is a gulf dead zone the size of Connecticut. So is failing to curtail runoff that feeds flooding.


And if we can keep Titleists and Slazengers out of the Cedar, certainly we can listen to citizens concerned about keeping manure out of, say, an Allamakee County trout stream.

Sadly, that’s not likely. A Big Bertha driver may get you to the other side of the Cedar, but it’s Big Agriculture that packs a much larger wallop in driving state policy and crushing environmental rules.

Bottom line, it’s all about making the green. And I mean the kind you contribute to candidates or pay to lobbyists, not mow.

l Todd Dorman is The Gazette’s opinion page editor. Comments:


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