Fast track to meaningful clean water effort? Don't bet on it

An enhanced satellite image from NOAA shows how problems with water quality in the central United States -- including Iowa -- have a cumulative imapct in creating a
An enhanced satellite image from NOAA shows how problems with water quality in the central United States -- including Iowa -- have a cumulative imapct in creating a "dead zone" in the northern Gulf of Mexico each summer. On the image of the continental United States, red does indicate large cities and green areas indicate farmland. Water pollution notably nitrates used in farming flow downstream where each summer they create a zone near the mouth of the Mississippi River that's so low in dissolved oxygen that it can't support marine life. (Photo from NOAA)

There’s suddenly talk of putting water quality on a fast track to early passage at the Iowa Statehouse when lawmakers return to the Golden Dome of Wisdom in January.

Iowa Sec. of Agriculture Bill Northey says he wants it done early, and prefers a bill, Senate File 512, passed by the Senate last year but shelved in the House. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has unveiled no plan of her own and actually omitted mention of Iowa’s water woes from her inaugural address in May, now hopes a water quality measure will be the first bill she signs as governor.

This is an interesting turn of events for those of us waiting in vain for lawmakers to do something meaningful to curtail a flow of nitrates and phosphorus running into Iowa’s waterways. That runoff, mostly from cropland, spawns a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Not to mention the damage it does right here in Iowa.

Maybe you heard Thomas Olander, a third-generation Louisiana shrimper, being interviewed recently on Iowa Public Radio’s “River to River” program. Folks such as Olander are paying the price for our inaction. This past summer, the gulf dead zone, its oxygen depleted by fertilizer-fueled algae blooms, was the largest ever recorded.

“We’ve known dead zones for years now. But it seems like it’s growing, it’s getting bigger. And it’s becoming more effective of our fishing industry than ever before,” said Olander, chairman of Louisiana Shrimp Association. “Not only are we catching smaller shrimp, we’re catching a lot less shrimp.”

Maybe, if you don’t care about water, you might at least lament scarce, smallish shrimp. Maybe we need a cocktail-deep-fried-peel-and-eat coalition to push for a water cleanup effort in Iowa. Suggested slogan: “Don’t be skimpy, we love scampi.”

Iowa has promised to do something. But in the years since the state unveiled its voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy, even the optimists will tell you we’ve failed to move the needle. And this fast-track push may sound good, but it really isn’t an effort to do something meaningful.

Here’s why.


The bill at the center of all this fast-tracking, SF 512, is no needle-mover. It provides $27 million in new water quality money each year for 10 years, tapping a tax on metered water and gambling taxes. New bucks are welcome, although it’s a drop in the bucket in the face of a billion-dollar problem. But from there, the bill gets less promising.

It creates new programs, to be sure. There’s a Water Quality Infrastructure Fund, a Wastewater and Drinking Water Treatment Assistance Program, a Water Quality Financial Assistance Fund, an edge-of-field program, an in-field program, etc. Trouble is, it does not mandate any mechanisms for measuring the actual success of these programs. It sets no bench marks to meet. It’s all carrots, no sticks.

Officials, “may,” for instance, use money from the bill to develop an online mechanism for tracking and releasing data on “measurable indicators of desirable change in water quality,” but there’s no requirement. Those measures “may” simply include counting the number of projects funded. Annual reports to the governor and Legislature are mandated by the bill, but only include an itemized list of projects receiving bucks. All information on which landowners get money is confidential under state law.

How soon will Iowa meet its goal for cutting fertilizer runoff by 45 percent as prescribed by the Nutrient Reduction Strategy? That goal will be achieved “over time,” according to the bill. This is like a parent answering a child’s pleas with “we’ll see.”

The bill was opposed last session by just about every group that truly cares about cleaning up Iowa’s water. That’s telling. It’s more popular among groups who want water quality to cease being a front-burner issue in Iowa.

More projects will get funding. That’s not all bad. But don’t let anyone tell you this is a long-term comprehensive water quality initiative. It’s not. The House bill is better, with a focus on broader watersheds and more call for tracking progress, but it’s also flawed.

And don’t let them tell you Iowans really don’t care about these issues, because they do. And they’re willing to pay for protecting natural resources.

Just last fall, 74 percent of Linn County voters supported a property tax increase to pay for water quality and conservation projects. When’s the last time 74 percent of us supported anything beyond sweet corn and medical marijuana? Lawmakers shrugged.


In 2010, 63 percent of Iowans voted to create the constitutionally protected Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Instead of raising the sales tax by three-eighths of cent to fill the fund with up to $200 million annually for water quality, conservation and recreation projects, lawmakers have been shrugging annually ever since.

In February, the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll found 56 percent of Iowans support raising the tax to fill the fund. Instead, they were more interested in polls supporting legal fireworks.

Republicans don’t like raising taxes. It’s true. But there also are folks on the left who oppose the sales tax and demand we hand the whole bill to farmers. There’s an appealing ring to “make polluters pay.”

But it’s politically unrealistic in Iowa, where agriculture remains powerful, according to my sources. And it ignores the important public benefits of farm runoff control efforts.

Slowing down and soaking up rushing runoff mitigates flooding, protects lakes from beach-closing algae blooms, protects streams from damage and cuts the cost of drinking water treatment in communities that tap surface water or, like Cedar Rapids, tap shallow aquifers influenced by surface water quality. There are multiple economic, social, educational and public health benefits for all of us.

Farmers should pay. No doubt. But using public investments to speed up progress makes sense. And collaboration acknowledges political and economic realities. For instance, most of the land farmed in Iowa is rented from absentee landlords.

And I have yet to see a more politically popular, effective, protected and voter-backed funding mechanism than filling the trust fund. I’m always open to good ideas, however.

Still, regardless of where the money comes from, the most important issue is how we spend it and how we measure progress.


And if progress truly is our goal, Iowa’s volunteer, all “may” and no “shall,” “over time” water quality approach can’t last forever. In five years or 10 years, if science continues to show us we’re making precious little progress, sticks will be needed. Timelines, bench marks and requirements, written in law, not just suggestions for the willing.

So even if the latest fast track reaches the station and the governor signs a bill, this problem isn’t solved, and the debate doesn’t just go away. Don’t let legislators or the groups who bankroll their campaigns convince you it’s simply time to move on and stop harping about water quality.

They’ll spend millions of bucks next year trying to make you believe legislative races really are about flower pots and heated sidewalks and votes for zoo dormitories in Des Moines. Don’t believe them. Tell them far bigger issues are at stake. And small shrimp.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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