Focus as important as funding for water quality

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We’ve written many times over the last several months that the Statehouse debate over how much to spend on water quality efforts and where the money should come from too often ignores the more important question of how the money will be spent.

Fresh evidence supporting that view comes from a new report issued by the Environmental Working Group. It indicates that although taxpayers have spent more than $29 billion on conservation programs through the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the last decade, those efforts did not lead to major progress on clean water, air and other environmental objectives.

More than $4 billion has been spent in Iowa, more than any other state. And yet, hundreds of waterways remain impaired. Nitrate and phosphorus runoff from farm fields causes health concerns and headaches for drinking water systems and feeds beach-closing algae blooms.

One problem, according to the report, is the voluntary nature of the programs and their lack of focus. Another, in the case of the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays landowners to take land out of production, is measures meant to conserve land and water often aren’t permanent. As commodity prices rose between 2007 and 2014, landowners took more than 15 million acres out of CRP and placed the land into crop production.

And it’s not that CRP and other USDA programs make no difference in conserving natural resources. It’s that they may not be the best, most effective way to spend billions of federal dollars. What works for farmers and politicians may not be what works for actually cleaning up and protecting water. Other strategies could have a larger effect.

It should serve as a cautionary example for state leaders and stakeholders searching for a way forward on water quality. In particular, it should lead lawmakers to think twice about an approach championed by Iowa House Republicans, who want to direct $464 million in existing tax dollars into existing voluntary programs administered by the Iowa Department of Agriculture.

But it also applies to lawmakers and groups seeking to fill the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund using a sales tax increase. It’s likely if the effort gains traction in Des Moines there will be a legislative push to alter the fund’s original formula for how the money will be spent. It’s vital that new dollars be targeted for maximum benefit, not simply to scattershot programs popular with producer groups with benefits that are difficult to measure.

As the working group study shows, piles of money alone don’t make our water cleaner.

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