Staff Columnist

Water comes up empty at the Statehouse

Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
Standing water in a wetland is shown at Squaw Creek Park in Marion on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

Water has been the center of attention all over Iowa this spring. Well, except beneath our Golden Dome of Wisdom.

OK, to be fair, there was one notable piece of legislation affecting water quality that cleared our Republican-controlled Legislature. But it actually harmed efforts to clean up waterways.

As I mentioned in a recent column, and The Gazette’s Erin Jordan described in a terrific in-depth story even more recently, lawmakers approved a bill that would bar private entities — mainly the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation — from using low-interest loans from a state fund to buy land for conservation projects, and then hand the land over to government.

As a result, there will be fewer conservation projects aimed at controlling runoff that carries nitrates and phosphorous from farmland into our waterways, and beyond. It was backed mainly by the Iowa Farm Bureau, which insists farmers trying to buy land are being shoved aside by Big Heritage in a state where the percentage of land held publicly amounts to a kernel or two on a very large ear of corn.

Gov. Kim Reynolds likely will sign the bill any minute now. She did say last year, as she signed water quality legislation also backed by Farm Bureau, the conversation would continue.

And it’s money that did most of the talking.

After all, the Farm Bureau donated roughly a half-million dollars to state campaigns in the 2016 and 2018 cycles to help win and sustain this friendly GOP majority. It’s true, the state’s most powerful farm group didn’t get the bill it really wanted, a remarkably broad power play designed to thwart virtually all donations of land for public use in Iowa. Lawmakers abandoned it in the face of heavy opposition.

So the scaled back bill on Reynolds’ desk is a consolation prize. And there’s always next year.

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As Jordan also reported this week, Reynolds has yet to name a new director of the Department of Natural Resources, a slot that’s been vacant for a year. Any day now, the search will bear fruit. Clearly, natural resources are an administration priority.

But we’ve still got our Environmental Protection Commission, with the power to shape water protection policy. The DNR’s website lists three members of the nine-member commission as farmers, but a quick tiptoe through the Google shows two more have active farming operations. There’s also a former Department of Agriculture employee, a tractor dealership owner and a John Deere executive.

We also have Iowa Sec. of Agriculture Mike Naig as the face of our water quality push. You might recall the Farm Bureau-backed group “Iowans for Agriculture” raised more than $300,000 in the final weeks of the 2018 campaign for TV ads boosting Naig to victory. The money came from large commodity groups and corporations, including Monsanto, which gladly tossed some bucks behind its former lobbyist.

And we still have a strictly voluntary plan for curbing polluted runoff known as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Trouble is, according to a recent analysis by the Iowa Policy Project, we’re actually spending less state money, in 2018 dollars, on water quality programs than we spent a decade ago. And even with the help of hundreds of millions of federal dollars, University of Iowa research finds that Iowa’s contribution to the flow of Midwestern nitrates feeding the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone has grown. That’s the flow the strategy, launched in 2013, is supposed to curtail.

On the same day the Policy Project released its study, the Environmental Working Group reported that thousands of private drinking water wells in Iowa have nitrate levels above the federal standard for safe drinking water. And that’s just a sampling from the fraction of wells tested.

Also, this just in, the same runoff carrying fertilizer into waterways also feeds flooding. That runoff is charged by heavy rainfall, and we’re seeing more heavy rainfall as our climate changes. The need to do far more about runoff seems pretty simple and compelling amid this spring’s floods.

But under the Golden Dome of Wisdom, crickets.

We need more dollars to make a dent. But the voter approved Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund remains empty at this hour. The Farm Bureau has been pretty successful arguing filling the fund will lead to a scary land grab, which is patently false.

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We have a sound scientific strategy, but no accountability for meeting its goals. The forces that abhor the notion of any accountability now control the levers of power. Voluntary it is, no matter how little progress gets made.

So it’s really not much of a surprise hopes for water progress came up empty at the Capitol.

But, the fact is, these folks control those levers because we put them there. And they sidestep the problem because they think most Iowans don’t care. Why didn’t the water conversation continue? Maybe we should talk about that amongst ourselves.

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

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