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Endorsement: Linn County Conservation Board has more explaining to do

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This editorial board could not come to consensus over whether to support a $40 million Linn County conservation bond on the Nov. 8 ballot.

On one hand, we applaud the Conservation Board’s proposal. Water quality clearly is a pressing concern in Linn County, as it is throughout the state. More conservation efforts are needed, and could mitigate future flooding events.

At the same time, we are concerned by a lack of specifics in the ballot language, and would have liked to have seen more organized and aggressive efforts to educate voters about the proposal.

The question being put to voters: “Shall the County of Linn, State of Iowa, issue its general obligation bonds in an amount not exceeding forty million dollars for the purposes of protecting sources of drinking water and the water quality of rivers and streams, including the Cedar and its tributaries; protecting land to provide natural flood storage to reduce flooding; providing funds to improve parks; providing biking and walking trails; and protecting wildlife habitat and natural areas, to be managed by the Linn County Conservation Board, with full public disclosure of all expenditures.”

The County Conservation Board, which will control the money, and the Board of Supervisors, which will provide oversight, have promised to spend 55 percent of bond proceeds on water and land conservation projects, 30 percent of park improvements and 15 percent on trails. We wanted that promise to be included in ballot language.

We wanted more definition around how projects would be prioritized for funding, and wanted to see more collaboration with other groups passionate about water quality. We wanted a more politically savvy effort on the part of backers to build partnerships with allies in other local governments and with groups pursuing other outdoor recreation projects.

The Conservation Board is making a very big ask of local taxpayers. Their effort to inform and persuade 60 percent of voters to embrace it has fallen short of the task.

But the board, despite its lack of polish, has identified a genuine need, especially when it comes to the critical work of protecting our land and water. A majority of our editorial board feels that the final product is too important to be scuttled because of a lackluster sales pitch. This majority urges Linn County voters to approve the conservation bond.

More than half of the money will be spent on the kind of water quality initiatives we have advocated throughout the year. That includes the restoration of wetlands that can hold runoff and filter contaminants, including nitrates. It includes restoring streams and oxbows, portions of old streambeds which hold water during wet seasons. Farmers and other landowners can voluntarily offer portions of their land, through sale or conservation easements, along streams, creeks and rivers for wetlands or other measures. All acquisitions and easements will be voluntary. There will be no land grab.

Woodlands and prairies could be restored. Dangerous low-head dams modified. Upstream water quality improvements controlling runoff have the added benefit of mitigating flooding downstream.

Under the Conservation Board’s current roughly $2 million yearly budget for capital projects, a few of these efforts can be accomplished annually. With the conservation bond, far more immediate progress can be made moving the needle on water quality in the county. Funds will be available to take advantage of partnerships with environmental groups or state and federal entities, partnerships that could leverage tens of millions of dollars in additional funding.

Otherwise, Linn County must wait for state lawmakers and the governor to finally come to some consensus on protecting Iowa’s land and water. And even if a Statehouse accord is reached, it’s uncertain how much would trickle down to Linn County projects.

But if a state water quality funding program is approved, the conservation bond would allow Linn County to be ready with matching funds to take part.

The 30 percent share for park improvements and 15 percent for trails would go for numerous projects identified by a two-year Conservation Board master planning process. The process included public input from Linn County residents who use parks, among other stakeholders.

In fact, this entire bond proposal was crafted in public meetings by the conservation board. But because that board is a governmental entity that doesn’t always show up on the media or public radar, its work on the initiative has gotten little attention.

That may not be the fault of the Conservation Board — voters also have a responsibility to stay informed about public work being conducted by public bodies — but with a $40 million ask on the table, the board must do more to raise awareness of its work and its intentions.

Early voting begins this week, but there still is time between now and Nov. 8 for the board and its allies to make a better, clearer case for the conservation bond proposal. There’s still time for a more thorough explanation of exactly what the money will pay for, if approved.

Part of that explanation should include a clearer road map on how the Conservation Board will arrive at its spending decisions. Will there be a formula that weighs the value of projects and sets priorities? And what, exactly, will be the Board of Supervisors’ role in oversight?

Without more specifics and a broader voter education effort, we doubt the bond measure can gain the 60 percent it needs to pass. That would be unfortunate, and a missed opportunity. Alongside efforts by Cedar Rapids and other local communities to curtail runoff and landowner partnerships in the Middle Cedar Watershed, the bond measure could make Linn County a leader in the push to address Iowa’s serious water quality problems. And it’s an issue in desperate need of leadership.

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

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