Guest Columnists

Iowans deserve a watershed approach to water quality

Miller Creek is seen west of Gilbertville on Thursday, March 23, 2017. The creek's watershed is monitored for nitrate levels by the IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering center at the University of Iowa's College of Engineering. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Miller Creek is seen west of Gilbertville on Thursday, March 23, 2017. The creek's watershed is monitored for nitrate levels by the IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering center at the University of Iowa's College of Engineering. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Iowa’s water-quality debate continued at the capitol as legislators returned for the 2018 session. It appears the bill supported by the governor’s office will be the template for this year’s legislation. Iowans should ask if this is the best strategy to improve and protect water quality in Iowa.

Iowans should ask for legislation that provides:

• Sustainable funding.

• Funding that is spent strategically.

• Funding that supports water-quality monitoring.

• Funding for practices that improve water quality and decrease the negative impacts of flood events.

• Practices that improve soil health.

There is no increased funding for water-quality monitoring in the current bill. No strategy to target priority watersheds or evaluate their water-quality results to meet the 45 percent nutrient reduction goal in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. A program review committee meets once every 10 years, but does not review nutrient-load reductions or water-quality improvements. It emphasizes source water protections but lacks support for soil health initiatives. Best management practices cannot only improve water quality, but it can boost soil organic matter to build healthy soils and increase water retention in the soil which in turn decreases runoff, prevents soil erosion and retains nutrients.

It is estimated Iowa needs $5 billion to $6 billion to adequately address water quality. Since 2009, USDA has contributed more than $2 billion to Iowa for conservation. Yet, water quality in the state has declined. Iowans need to demand a better return on their investment of conservation dollars.

We know what practices work. It will take multiple practices to ensure Iowans receive multiple benefits of improved water quality, wildlife habitat and much more.

Research at our regent universities provided a suite of best management practices that are outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. There is no one practice that is a silver bullet to fix the high levels of nutrients in our waters.

It is well known that the most successful watershed projects are locally led. Holistic watershed approaches ensure local leader engagement and brings together urban and rural interests for the purpose of planning, development of priorities and implementation of practices where they will get the best bang for the buck.

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In southeast Iowa, the Soap Creek Watershed Board has been meeting and implementing projects for more than 30 years, and has successfully reduced flooding across a four-county area. A coordinated effort resulted in removal of Clear Creek from the impaired water list in 2010 using existing state and federal funding sources.

Such success can be replicated over the 22 existing Watershed Management Authorities across the state. But, it requires public and private funding, public engagement, local planning and support through our state agencies and regent universities.

As debate ended on water quality in 2017, the Legislature was divided between two proposed bills. The proposed bill (Senate File 512) that appears most is likely to be fast-tracked to the governor’s desk in 2018 does not give Iowans the best return on their investment. The bill increases funding for water quality by pulling from existing sources in the state budget that are not sustainable over time and does not provide an assurance that water quality will be improved. The bill also includes a provision that voids its own funding structure if the sales tax is increased statewide to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.

Clean water is all Iowans’ responsibility and requires a locally led, holistic watershed approach. The governor’s office and the Legislature need to provide the leadership and funding to ensure changes happen.

The Senate bill contains no increased funding for water-quality monitoring. No strategy to target priority watersheds or evaluate whether or not water quality is improving. The 45 percent nutrient reduction goal in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy does not ensure water quality will improve.

We encourage Iowans to ask state elected officials for more return on tax dollar investment in conservation practices, ensuring that Iowa’s water quality improves.

• Katie Rock is a policy associate at Center for Rural Affairs. Linda Kinman is executive director public policy at Iowa Association for Water Agencies.

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