A 'big table' for Iowa water quality talks

An view of the rotunda on the 2nd floor of the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. The area shown is in between the House and Senate Chambers. (Steve Pope/Freelance)
An view of the rotunda on the 2nd floor of the Capitol in Des Moines, Iowa. The area shown is in between the House and Senate Chambers. (Steve Pope/Freelance)

One party will control the Iowa Statehouse in January, but that doesn’t mean water-quality discussions should be one-sided. As Republican majorities begin discussing possible legislative action, they should take special care to include important voices and perspectives from the diverse groups of Iowans who are pushing for, and will benefit from, cleaner water.

Republicans controlling the Legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad must build an effective response to water pollution in Iowa that’s built to last. To do that, they must bring a diverse array of stakeholders to the table. They must listen to many voices, even those saying what they may not want to hear.

They must commit to a collaborative process that is more than window dressing for the real show behind closed doors. A process that doesn’t look anything like the last big environmental issue handled by a Republican Legislature, back in 2002.

Back then, legislative leaders formed a 12-member working group, nicknamed the “12 apostles,” with six Republicans and six Democrats, to hammer out a series of new regulations for large-scale livestock facilities.

Trouble is, the apostles met behind closed doors. Which interest groups were given access to those deliberations? It’s anyone’s guess. But judging by the regulations those meetings produced, they were heavily influenced by farm groups. The working group worked largely for one side of the equation.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the regulations they created remain controversial to this day. They continue to be a target for environmental advocates and rural residents who see them as a giveaway to producers that did little to protect the environment. Local officials who hoped lawmakers would give them more control over where confinements are built remain hamstrung by loopholes. Allamakee County’s inability to stop a confinement project near trout streams is only one example of important ways the “apostles” regulations fail to balance interests, rights, protections and control.

The Republican majority of 2017 should take note. If it chooses to craft its response to Iowa’s serious water quality problems behind closed doors and only among friends, without collaboration beyond its allies, it will ensure discord over the issue will continue for years to come. Pursuing a political solution, rather than an Iowa solution, will have far-reaching negative effects.

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Certainly, farmers will take a leading role in any effort to curtail fertilizer runoff that, according to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, comes mainly from farmland. Producer groups inevitably will have a major say in what lawmakers approve. That’s appropriate.

But there’s also a broad coalition of groups seeking sales tax dollars to fill the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, created by voters in 2010. That coalition includes the Iowa Corn Growers and Iowa Soybean Association, along with a wide array of groups with a stake in water quality, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation.

There are water utilities, including the Des Moines Water Works, which filed a lawsuit over nitrate contamination in its surface drinking water sources that sparked much of the current debate over water issues. If the new GOP majority is truly interested in collaboration, it could send a clear signal by dropping legislation floated last year intended to punish the Des Moines Water Works.

We’re not suggesting such a collaborative, broad-spectrum approach will be easy. There will be disagreements over how best to fund our water cleanup. There will be divisions over how funding should be spent. Should the dollars be controlled by the Iowa Department of Agriculture or by local watershed authorities? What’s the best way to judge success, through the number of projects funded or through expanded water testing?

Lawmakers’ answers to those questions will affect every Iowan who farms, owns land, delivers drinking water, swims or fishes in our lakes, kayaks down rivers and streams and, in some parts of Iowa, drinks water. Curtailing runoff has major implications for saving soil and stopping flooding.

How lawmakers pursue those answers — and who they bring along in their discussion — will directly impact their ability to effectively address the problem.

Such a problem of statewide scope demands broad-based discussion and agreement. Relegating it to a response crafted in a backroom by an influential few would be a failure of leadership. The good news is thousands of Iowans with ideas and expertise stand ready to help Republicans lead the way to a lasting solution.

• Comments: (319) 398-8469; editorial@thegazette.com

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