24 hour Dorman

Waiting for Dems' water plans

A saturated buffer of native prairie grasses borders a creek at a farm north of Dysart on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
A saturated buffer of native prairie grasses borders a creek at a farm north of Dysart on Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2016. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Most among the cast of thousands seeking the Democratic nomination for governor have mentioned Iowa’s lousy water quality as a problem in need of attention.

“I have tested the political waters and I found them high in nitrates, bacteria and sediment. But our political leaders are low in Iowa values,” said John Norris as he announced his gubernatorial run earlier this month.

Good stuff. Hat tip to the speechwriter, But so far, beyond some good lines and welcome words, there have been few mentions of actual solutions, plans or details. A deluge of candidates, but a trickle of ideas. A dead zone of policy prescriptions, so far.

Yeah, I know, it’s way early. ‘Tis the season for launching, introducing and exploring.

But I’ll also submit a campaign’s early days are a good time for laying a foundation of substantive policy proposals. As the intensity of the campaign rises with time, substance is among the first casualties of the daily barrage.

And while Republicans running the Statehouse have failed to come up with a solid plan for addressing water quality in a sustainable, meaningful way, Democrats also have lacked a cohesive strategy. Democrats have ideas, don’t get me wrong. Proposals floated, bills filed. Some very good. But as Republicans have struggled to act and, for some GOP lawmakers, even acknowledge there’s a problem, there has been no clear Democratic alternative.

A gubernatorial campaign might solve that problem. A Democratic nominee’s water quality plan could become the Democrats’ water quality plan.


That is, unless that nominee’s plan is to play it safe and stick with platitudes masquerading as a plan.

Democrats clearly are determined to make inroads among rural voters. It’s a no-brainer, given the debacle of 2016. Gubernatorial candidates’ introduction videos feature more crop shots and farm equipment than your average herbicide commercial. Rural roots are played up. Grain elevators make cameos. How about a big slice of pie?

Given that focus, I can’t help but wonder, will Democrats really hammer on the issue of farm runoff fouling waterways, creating headaches for some urban drinking water systems, clogging beaches with algae and spawning hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico? It’s a big issue for their environmental base, but how will it play in the Paton-Churdan metroplex?

Admittedly, I’m not much of a strategist. But I say it’s a big issue for all Iowans, rural and urban, one that any serious candidate for governor needs to address, in detail. We’ve seen plenty of dodging. Now how about some leadership?

One of two Republican candidates for governor, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, has a water quality plan. What say the Democrats?

At this early moment, Sen. Nate Boulton, D-Des Moines, earns the first gold star for specifics.

“As Governor, Nate will work with the legislature to fully fund the land and water trust fund that Iowans approved by an overwhelming majority at the ballot box in 2011,” Boulton’s campaign website says. It was actually 2010, but let’s not quibble.

“In the 2017 legislative session, Nate introduced the bill to do just that,” the site declares.

It’s true, Boulton was the lead sponsor of a bill raising the sales tax by three-eighths of a cent to fill the constitutionally protected Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The fund could provide sizable new investments in water quality projects, depending on how it’s spent.


“Funding the trust would create a sustainable funding source to begin cleaning up Iowa’s waterways through buffer zones and other conservation practices,” Boulton’s site says.

Norris has yet to outline a plan, but his resume suggests he’s likely got some ideas. Norris was a top aide to former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and worked in other capacities at the USDA. That’s on top of his years of experience in Iowa politics, policy and rural issues.

“None of the candidates knows more about agriculture, the environment, the promise of renewable energy or the roots of populism in the Democratic Party,” wrote Storm Lake Times Editor Art Cullen, who won a Pulitzer Prize this year for a series of editorials on the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against rural counties over ag nitrate runoff.

The Norris campaign ad writes itself.

State Rep. Todd Prichard, D-Charles City, is a question mark. His website says he is “committed to investing the resources necessary to fully fund the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy to keep wastewater and farm runoff out of our water supply.” He says these efforts should be accountable and meaningful. He does not say where those resources will come from.

In March of 2016, in his legislative newsletter, Prichard displayed a command of the issue, explaining how reducing runoff to improve water quality also mitigates flooding. But his command of a plan was less sure-footed. He expressed support for a Republican proposal to use a tax on the sale of metered water to fund water quality projects. He called for a plan that focuses on “local control,” but is also “holistic and comprehensive” considering watersheds, not “political boundaries.”

“The time to lead on water quality is now,” Prichard wrote.

In March 2017, Des Moines Register columnist Kathie Obradovich asked Prichard if he would consider a tax increase to provide new revenue for water quality. He hesitated.

“It’s a bridge that we may have to cross. And I think there’s hard decisions we may have to make,” Prichard said.

Voters “may” want something more definitive.

Among other hopefuls and explorers, details are sketchy.

Des Moines businessman Fred Hubbell, who just jumped into the race, decries a lack of political leadership on major issues. “They have consistently underfunded education, jeopardized Iowans’ health and allowed incomes to stagnate, all while failing to protect Iowa’s precious natural resources and ensure clean water,” Hubbell said in his announcement.


Union leader Cathy Glasson, who still is exploring a run, dubbed clean water “the birthright of every Iowan,” in her introductory campaign video. Jon Neiderbach, an attorney from Windsor Heights, said, “The quality of Iowa’s water, soil and air must be protected and pollution must be made uneconomical.”

Welcome words. Now how about some actual plans? It’s early, but it’s later than you think.

• Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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