A fast track is the wrong track for water quality

Editorial from Cedar Rapids Gazette. Used with permission.

We read news this week that water quality legislation may be placed on a fast track when lawmakers return to the Statehouse in January. Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey wants it to happen. Gov. Kim Reynolds says she hopes “it’s the first bill I get to sign as governor of the state of Iowa.”

That sounds like good news. That is, until you dig into the details.

Northey prefers a bill passed by the Iowa Senate last year, Senate File 512. He told reporters he’s been working behind the scenes to gain passage, talking to farm groups, lawmakers and others. We asked his office for specifics on which groups Northey is engaging. We received a vague list, “AG businesses, cooperatives, conservation groups, community groups, city/county leadership, etc.” .

We do know which specific groups backed and opposed Senate File 512 during the 2017 legislative session. It was backed by the Farm Bureau, the Agribusiness Association of Iowa and various commodities groups. It was opposed by the Sierra Club, Iowa Rivers Revival and the Iowa Environmental Council, among other groups.

And that’s probably because Senate File 512 doesn’t require agricultural operations primarily responsible for nitrates and phosphorus flowing into Iowa waterways to do anything. The bill is full of “mays” where Iowa’s deteriorating water quality demands “shalls.” It creates a web of new funding bureaucracies but does precious little to measure whether those new funding streams are doing anything to clean up polluted streams. It’s aimed at meeting the Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goal of reducing nitrate and phosphorus runoff by 45 percent, but sets no bench marks or solid goals for achieving that objective. It says, repeatedly, the objective will be met “over time.”

The bill says officials “may” track “measurable indicators of desirable change,” but doesn’t require it. It creates annual reports to the governor and Legislature itemizing what’s been spent on projects, but nothing on their effectiveness. And, under Iowa law, the names of landowners receiving state help through these programs are kept confidential.

The Senate bill does make a new, $27 million annual investment in water quality efforts, using a tax on metered water and gambling taxes. But the legislation does too little to tell us what we’re getting for our money.

A bill that passed the Iowa House, though also flawed, is somewhat better. The House version creates a funding preference for water cleanup efforts including multiple projects within a single watershed. It also directs that projects “should attempt to quantify the amount of nutrient reduction to be achieved under the plan and should provide a reasonable means of verification.”

An entity called the Iowa Nutrient Research Center would crunch the numbers. Still, its “should” language is too weak.

We’ve long argued funding is only one piece of the water quality puzzle. How that money is spent and how we measure its actual effect are more important. We’ve called for bench marks, standards and goals. And we envisioned an inclusive process to hammer out these details, with all stakeholders offered a seat at the table. Too much is at stake, in terms of water quality, flood mitigation, lake tourism, public health, economic development and other issues to make this as another partisan power play.

Fast-tracking Senate File 512 to simply check off a box on the governor’s to-do list accomplishes none of these objectives. A fast track won’t lead us where we need to go.

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