116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
This editorial is part of our 2016 editorial focus, Building blocks: Working together to make our communities great places to live
Iowa is home to 725 streams, lakes and rivers impaired by pollution, including fertilizer runoff from agricultural operations. And, depending on the day, it may seem like there are just as many plans being floated to clean up and protect Iowa's waterways.
There have been more than a half-dozen proposals made over the last several months intended to address growing water quality concerns, especially worries about nitrates washed from farm fields into waterways, including sources of drinking water for some Iowa communities. Nitrates that exceed recommended federal clean water standards in drinking water can cause health issues, particularly in young children.
Water quality is a complex problem that will require a sustained effort, significant investment and broad-based support of diverse stakeholders.
To jump-start a constructive conversation on water quality issues, The Gazette's editorial board brought together some of those stakeholders to discuss the strengths and drawbacks of more than a half dozen plans for funding water quality improvements and their prospects at the Capitol.
In our discussion, it became clear to the Editorial Board that a successful and effective plan to fund water quality efforts must:
' Trigger funding of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund by raising sales tax.
' Offset that tax increase with some other tax trade-off.
' Allocate funding by watershed, through Watershed Management Authorities.
' Include a two-step adoption of farm water quality plans.
' Create timelines, deadlines and targets for meeting the goals of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
' Expand water quality monitoring and make the results transparent and publicly available.
No plan one proposed in recent months meets this standard. The good news is that stakeholders seem willing to consider alternatives. The sheer number of proposals shows there is a groundswell of support for addressing this urgent issue, and soon.
Iowa has a Nutrient Reduction Strategy created by experts at Iowa State University and praised by all sides of the debate as scientifically rigorous. Divisions remain on how best to pursue that strategy, aimed at reducing runoff and its effects from here to the Gulf of Mexico.
But it's nitrate pollution in the Raccoon River that has carried the water quality issue in Iowa from the back-burner to the front page. The Raccoon is a source of drinking water for the city of Des Moines, and it's the job of the Des Moines Water Works to remove excessive nitrates from water consumed by its 500,000 customers. Water works officials, faced with rising nitrate removal costs, filed a lawsuit against officials in three rural northwest Iowa counties contending they're legally responsible for nitrate contamination and the costs of mitigating it.
It's a complex problem, as our discussion with stakeholders made clear. Joining the conversation were Curt Zingula, a Linn County farmer and a member of the Iowa Watershed Improvement Review Board, state Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, Ann Robinson, agriculture specialist for the Iowa Environmental Council, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, a board member for the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, Jennifer Terry, environmental advocacy leader for the Des Moines Water Works, and Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi.
'For every farmer who does conservation I can show you two more who don't. This anecdotal science about how everybody is doing the right thing obviously is not happening,” said Terry. 'Look at our nitrate levels.”
'Essentially, the lawsuit has planted an up-yours attitude among farmers,” said Zingula. 'They're really more likely to dig in their heels and not cooperate when we have this lawsuit going on, which they feel is directed at them.”
Hogg has advocated raising Iowa's sales tax by three-eigths of a cent to fill the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, created by voters in 2010. The tax increase would raise $180 million annually, a large portion of which could be spent on water-related efforts.
As a trade-off to gain legislative support, Hogg would tie the passage of funding to the water works dropping its lawsuit. Hogg also would help the water works cover its rising nitrate removal costs.
'Our natural resources are very important. We have the world's best soil. And we need to preserve and protect these resources for future generations,” Hogg said.
Corbett, who formed the Engage Iowa think tank to address public policy issues in the state, also favors raising the sales tax to fill the environmental trust fund. But to make that more politically palatable to his fellow Republicans, Corbett would use couple the water quality effort with a drive to flatten and simplify Iowa's income taxes.
'Unfortunately, politics isn't simple,” said Corbett, a former speaker of the Iowa House. 'I look at the political realities of the partisan makeup of the Legislature.”
Another plan, advocated by farmer and environmental advocate Francis Thicke, would require every farm to create a water quality plan, much like soil conservation plans required for federal farm program participation. The Greater Des Moines Partnership has called for creating an implementation plan for the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and administering dollars through Watershed Management Authorities that cross jurisdictions. Gov. Branstad's plan to fund water quality programs using a portion of a sales tax originally intended for school building projects also sparked discussion.
'We have to do something different. We have to take the next step to get people's attention who haven't paid attention before,” said Robinson, of the Iowa Environmental Council, arguing that requiring farmers and landowners to adopt 'basic standards of care” with regard to water quality could lead to progress.
'To be progressive, we'll have to emphasize education first,” said Zingula, who points out absentee landowners who control much of Iowa's cropland are a serious obstacle to requiring farm plans.
Terry said Des Moines Water Works have been tracking and evaluating water quality plans. They have yet to see one they can endorse.
'Generally, they tend to be very vague. They don't tend to spell out how we'll measure success. And how we're going to tie incentives to behavior change,” Terry said.
We agree. None of the current proposals, alone, would do the job. But pieces from multiple plans could add up to an effective strategy.
AN EFFECTIVE STRATEGY
There is general agreement that the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund would be the best, most stable funding source for addressing water quality. The trust fund is constitutionally protected from legislative scooping. Lawmakers should raise the sales tax to fill it.
We agree with Corbett that political reality demands a taxation trade-off. Any initiative's chance of success would be bolstered by broad, bipartisan legislative backing.
So how should the money be spent? We agree with the Des Moines Partnership that funding should be watershed-based, and not be hemmed into the usual political subdivisions. Watershed Management Authorities, created by Iowa law and filled by representatives from those counties, cities and other political subdivisions, are uniquely positioned to oversee those efforts.
But we also believe dollars should help individual farmers and landowners make positive changes in the way farming operations affect water quality. Farm water quality plans similar to those advocated by Thicke make sense.
Initially, we'd make those water quality plans voluntary, allowing time for farmer and landowner education. But after a few years, they should be mandatory.
We agree with the Des Moines Partnership plan that the state must adopt timelines, deadlines and targets for meeting the goals of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, transforming its fully voluntary uncertainty into a set of standards that can be measured and judged. That's going to take expanded water quality monitoring. And we expect information on standards and testing to be transparent and publicly available.
Some advocates are against using public dollars to address a problem caused by farm practices. We disagree, and believe public dollars will be critical in assisting landowners and providing the sort of investment needed in larger watershed projects that can make a difference.
Although most businesses can add the cost of environmental compliance to the price of goods and services, it's tough for farmers to add the cost to commodity prices they can't control. A path that provides incentives to change, coupled with standards and deadlines, is better than punishing producers.
With education funding and other issues still unsettled, and an election looming, it's unlikely legislators will dive into the complexities of crafting a major water quality response this spring. But with the water works lawsuit moving forward, and so many plans on the table, we don't believe the issue will fade away. Nor should it.
We strongly encourage stakeholders to work together on a plan that is practical, robust and addresses major concerns from various constituencies. Legislators and candidates, must make water quality a priority.
' Gazette editorials reflect the consensus opinion of The Gazette Editorial Board. Share your comments and ideas with us:(319) 398-8469; email@example.com