116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Tone it down, water drinkers.
That was Gov. Terry Branstad's basic message this past week when asked about the Des Moines Water Works announcement that it has spent $1.5 million since December removing nitrates from the capital city's drinking water. A rate hike for its 500,000 customers is looming, along with a potential $183 million price tag for new nitrate removal equipment. Would the state step in to help?
'The Des Moines Water Works ought to just tone it down and start cooperating and working with others like Cedar Rapids is doing and other communities in the state of Iowa,” Branstad told reporters.
'If they want to cooperate and work with us, they're much more likely to get assistance and support. If they're continuing to sue and attack other people, that's not going to get them the kind of assistance and support they'd like to have,” he said.
The water works is suing officials in three rural counties for doing too little to control farm runoff that carries nitrates into the Raccoon River, which provides much of the city's drinking water. Large agricultural interests, including the Farm Bureau, have pushed back hard, with Branstad leading their charge.
They want clean water advocates to tone it down, just like a Republican lawmaker told teachers to 'quit whining” about Branstad's education funding veto. These guys are getting sick and tired of Iowans' complaints about their unpopular policies.
'I hope they'll just tone it down and decide to work with us on a cooperative basis. We're certainly interested in working with them,” said Branstad, who water works officials say has refused to meet with them. 'We want everybody to have clean water in our state and we want to do everything we can to make sure that happens.”
Everything we can, apparently, is turning water quality programs into stagnant, budgetary backwaters ever since he took office. Everything we can means providing zero dollars to the Iowa Watershed Improvement Board for the second straight year. Everything we can means vetoing hard-fought bipartisan efforts in 2014 to boost funding for farm runoff reduction strategies and the Resource Enhancement and Protection program, or REAP.
Branstad vetoed those dollars, claiming it was a tough, necessary call in the face of lean budget times ahead. And yet, fiscal 2015 just ended June 30 with an unspent ending balance approaching $300 million. The governor was flat wrong.
It's great that the governor appreciates Cedar Rapids' efforts to cooperate with upstream farmers and landowners on efforts to reduce runoff. They deserve praise. It's also great that Cedar Rapids was able to secure $2 million in federal funding for that effort. If it had sought state funding, it likely would be waiting instead of cooperating.
Truth is, if the governor and his allies had their way, we wouldn't even be talking about this issue. Like it or loathe it, the water works lawsuit has changed the political landscape, sparked debate and put water quality on the map. It can no longer be ignored.
'Attention on the issue, we've got it from people who weren't paying attention before. They are now,' said Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council.
Case in point, The Des Moines Register's editorial pages this month.
On July 6, the Register published an op-ed by Dennis Keeney, first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, arguing that Iowa politicians of both parties have failed to lead on water quality. Two days later, on July 8, former Iowa governor and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack responded to Keeney, insisting that water quality has been a top priority under his watch.
On July 23, Keeney, farmer and former Iowa ag secretary candidate Francis Thicke, former Leopold Center director Fred Kirschenmann and UNI Center for Energy and Environmental Education director Kamyar Enshayan responded to Vilsack. They proposed an intriguing idea of requiring farmers to create water quality plans much as they create mandatory soil conservation plans to remain eligible for federal farm programs.
'We cannot expect different results if we continue to do the same thing,” they wrote.
At the Statehouse, there are rumblings that a three-eighths-cent increase in the sales tax to fill a constitutionally created natural resources trust fund is slowly gaining steam. A large share of the roughly $200 million that could be raised by such an increase could be spent on water quality improvement and runoff reduction.
Take note, governor, a real debate is taking shape. Environmentalists, farmers and others are looking for solutions and calling for resources. The lawsuit lit the fuse.
Tone it down? Tell it to the bloomin' algae.
Around the Fourth of July, a large algae bloom die-off in north central Iowa's Crystal Lake depleted oxygen levels and spawned a massive fish kill. Algae blooms are fueled by phosphorus, and in Iowa, much of the phosphorus found in waterways comes from agricultural runoff. 'Nonpoint sources,” such as farm runoff, make up 80 percent, according to the state's Nutrient Reduction Strategy, with urban wastewater, lawn fertilizer and other sources dumping in the rest.
'It was a fairly substantial loss of fish,” said Scott Grummer, a fisheries biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Crystal Lake had been a 'phenomenal” spot for anglers. Now, it will take time and work to restock and restore the 'Home of the World's Largest Bullhead.”
Algae growth can spawn a toxin called microcystin, which can cause health problems for people and animals. Since 2006, state officials have posted 131 warnings at state park beaches when microcystin levels spiked beyond safe levels. Two beaches at Saylorville Lake near Des Moines, among Iowa's most popular outdoor spots, were closed earlier this month because of an algae bloom.
Lake recreation is a $1 billion business in Iowa. The governor moved school start dates to help resorts, but what about the clean water they depend on far more than teenage workers?
What the governor needs is a real water quality strategy, with money to pay for it. He needs to show he cares about the issue beyond lofty calls for cooperation. Instead of turning down the volume, the governor needs to turn on his famous political radar and see what's happening. There's a big problem. Iowans want it addressed.
He needs to do everything he can, at long last.
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