Iowa's watershed moment

Now is the time to discuss plans to improve state's water quality

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In the wake of a 2016 legislative session where lawmakers failed to reach a consensus on addressing water quality in Iowa, there’s talk of convening a “water summit.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, floated the idea of a postelection effort to guide the next legislative water quality discussion. This past session, Gronstal contends, legislators touting various plans and approaches were “talking past each other.”

“So far, everybody’s talking unilaterally,” Gronstal said on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program. “It requires people to sit down at the table and work through some of these issues.”

His Republican counterpart, House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, agreed that a summit would allow interested parties to “to sit down and figure it out because there are multiple ways to get there.”

We also can see the value of a summit that lays the groundwork for legislative success. The 2017 legislative session offers a narrow window for action before the politics of a potentially wide open race for governor in 2018 washes away potential for bipartisan consensus.

One concern we have with the summit, as described by legislative leaders, is timing. We understand the election will play a large role in what happens with regard to cleaning up and protecting Iowa’s waterways. But we don’t think the discussion can wait until mid to late November with the next session looming in January.

That might be enough time if all lawmakers are looking to accomplish is finding a funding mechanism, whether it be a sales tax, a farm checkoff, shifting existing dollars or one among many other ideas.

But what’s truly needed is more complicated and time-consuming. And that’s a discussion of what specific plan the state should execute to clean up impaired waterways and reduce farm runoff carrying fertilizer pollutants, which is the main source of those impairments according to the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. What Iowa should do is a bigger issue than how we pay for it.

Many questions must be answered.

Should the state just toss more money into a current patchwork of conservation projects, or create a statewide, watershed-based, precisely targeted and coordinated approach? Should the Nutrient Reduction Strategy continue to be voluntary with no real timelines or deadlines, or should an plan be put in place for its implementation? Will success be judged by a transparent system of water quality tests and benchmarks, or simply by the number of projects the state funds?

What should be the balance between public investment and farmer buy-in? How will absentee landowners be brought on board? Is more stringent regulation in order if progress isn’t made over time?

These and many other questions should be answered before deciding how much to spend, or what source of dollars to tap. The issue won’t be resolved by simply throwing money at the problem. Money is important, but success depends on strategy.

We’d like to see lawmakers appoint working groups soon to start seeking answers for those questions and others long before voters go to the polls. Instead of one big summit, meetings should be held across Iowa, because different regions face different water challenges. Their work could feed into a larger postelection discussion.

Fortunately, considerable groundwork already has been done. The Iowa Soil and Water Future Task Force, headed by the Greater Des Moines Partnership, spent much of the last few months of 2015 creating an elaborate list of proposals addressing many of these issues. The task force included a remarkably large and diverse array of business, agricultural and environmental interests. It issued its report in January.

The task force recommended that lawmakers create a detailed implementation plan for the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, likening the massive effort to embarking on a large scale public works project. It calls for local Watershed Management Authorities to lead implementation of the plan, for a revolving loan fund to help farmers adopt best practices within its scope and for monitoring and measurement systems to measure its progress, among several other recommendations.

It’s a good example of how varying interests can be brought together to chart a path. Its emphasis was on determining a strategy that could work, not simply finding a funding source. It should be a template lawmakers consult as they consider a water summit.

We also believe an important component of crafting a plan involves educating Iowans.

A survey of more than 2,000 Iowans conducted last year by the University of Northern Iowa, at the request of the Department of Natural Resources, shows many Iowans understand the condition of Iowa’s lakes, rivers and streams is a problem. Among those surveyed, 70 percent said they are somewhat or extremely concerned about water quality. Fifty-three percent see it as a big or moderate problem, and 57 percent expect waterways to be more polluted in a decade.

The survey found that Iowans recognize that nitrates and phosphorus from cropland fertilizer runoff are a threat to water quality. But they also see water quality as a shared responsibility between farmers, business, government and Iowans. Eighty-five percent recognize clean water is needed for strong economic growth and 80 percent would be willing to change behaviors to improve water quality.

But the number who know what steps to take dropped to 58 percent in the survey. Forty-five percent reported that their knowledge of water quality issues is “neither low nor high,” with another 31 percent reporting their knowledge low or very low. And although they’re concerned about rivers, streams and lakes, they’re not worried about drinking water. Many haven’t connected the dots.

The process of coming up with water quality legislation should also be an effort to help Iowans understand what’s at stake, how protecting water and controlling runoff lead to multiple public benefits, from lessening the severity of flooding to keeping their favorite beach open all summer. We have elaborate plans for spending $2 billion annually to build and fix our roads and bridges, but no such detailed plan for saving and protecting our vital water and soil.

The comparison to a public works project is appropriate. We need a blueprint and an understanding of what will be needed to build it. Then we can decide how to pay for it.

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