Opinion

Iowa risks taking a step backward on water quality

The 6,100-acre Big Marsh Wildlife Management Area wetland complex is pieced together from many parcels of land, including this one shown in 2016 outside of Parkersburg. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation bought 172 acres for the complex near the West Fork of the Cedar River, using a state loan fund that the state may now do away with. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The 6,100-acre Big Marsh Wildlife Management Area wetland complex is pieced together from many parcels of land, including this one shown in 2016 outside of Parkersburg. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation bought 172 acres for the complex near the West Fork of the Cedar River, using a state loan fund that the state may now do away with. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

A few years back, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation bought 172 acres of land along and near the West Fork of the Cedar River in Butler County. It’s one of the many patchwork puzzle pieces knitted together to form the 6,100-acre Big Marsh Wildlife Management Area wetland complex.

Those wetlands can hold 2.6 billion gallons of water when filled to the brim. And when the Cedar River swelled in 2016, officials credited the wetland with reducing river crests downstream in places such as Cedar Rapids. In a city hunkered behind sand barriers, every inch counted.

The Natural Heritage Foundation used a low-interest loan from the State Revolving Fund to buy the land, which eventually was turned over to the Department of Natural Resources. The loan, plus costs and interests, was repaid.

The foundation has tapped the fund, created by the Clean Water Act, on 54 water quality projects over the past 12 years. That includes four projects along the Wapsipinicon River in Buchanan County.

But if Senate File 548 becomes law, the loan fund will be off limits to the foundation or any private entity that hopes to use its loans to buy land for conservation work before handing it over to government.

The bill has cleared the Senate and may or may not pass the House sometime between my typing and your reading. Here’s to hoping it gets snagged and scuttled.

No, this bill won’t put the foundation out of business. Those 54 projects are among 500 the group has spearheaded. It’s going to slow down some projects, and make some more expensive for taxpayers by cutting off a funding source.

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But it is yet another sign the Republican-controlled Legislature doesn’t really care about clean water.

If the GOP did care, it wouldn’t be removing a tool from a water cleanup toolbox that’s already woefully inadequate to fix the problems we face. It would be adding tools and resources and helping organizations on the front lines, not throwing up barriers.

But the Iowa Farm Bureau wants this bill. It’s one of only two groups, along with the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association, that support it. Backers contend allowing the Natural Heritage Foundation to tap the loan fund for land purchases gives it an unfair advantage over farmers who want to buy land.

That sounds swell until you see a map of Iowa showing the specks of land purchased using revolving fund loans, scattered across Iowa like scant sprinkles on a pickup windshield. This program is no threat to farming in a state that ranks 47th in public lands.

But the bill is a consolation prize for the Farm Bureau after a much more damaging piece of legislation, an astounding bill that would have thrown up massive legal barriers to public land acquisitions and even donations, faltered in the face of heavy public opposition.

The state’s most powerful agricultural lobby found the limit of its influence, for now.

A long, diverse list of groups and governmental entities that care about clean water are opposed to SF 548, including Citizens for a Healthy Iowa, the Des Moines Water Works, the Iowa Environmental Council and the Iowa State Association of Counties and others. The city of Cedar Rapids and the Linn County Board of Supervisors also oppose the bill.

Unfortunately, this is a legislative majority that has no real problem serving narrow but powerful interests in the face of broad opposition. Just ask Iowans who fought legislation in recent years sought by big utilities, or those now fighting a remake of our judicial selection system crafted to please an outraged slice of the GOP base. Last year’s water quality legislation also was pushed by farm interests in the face of opposition from conservationists.

More than 600,000 Iowans voted in favor of creating the constitutionally protected Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund in 2010, carrying 78 of 99 counties. Faced with calls from an array of groups for raising the sales tax to fill the fund — and providing tens of millions of dollars annually for water quality projects — lawmakers shrug.

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But when the Farm Bureau wants a bill, they jump. And if they ever get around to the sales tax, the Farm Bureau, which opposed it in 2010, will demand its proceeds go to farmers.

So we can work for cleaner water in Iowa, but only if large agricultural interests set the ground rules first. And their main goal is no rules.

No, SF 548 won’t roll back water quality efforts by a country mile. But in a state that’s making little progress on reducing nitrate and phosphorus polluting our waterways from here to the Gulf of Mexico, and that is now threatened by rivers swollen with rushing runoff, every inch counts.

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

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