By the time you read this, St. Valentine’s Day will have come and gone. Still, it is the major traditional event of February, even though not an officially recognized holiday. It is the day we lavish special attention on those dear to us, even beyond the loving care we bestow upon them the rest of the year. This day accentuates our concern to do the best we can to provide for their well-being and happiness.
Unfortunately, many of our state’s elected officials do not feel the need to do their best to provide for our well-being and happiness. These are the people who vowed they would do exactly that if we gave them our votes. I am referring specifically to the water quality bill that the state legislature passed in the waning days of January, which was supported by Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and that Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law on the eve of St. Valentine’s month.
Water quality has been a long-standing issue in Iowa. When i assumed my position as assistant professor at Iowa State University in 1978, my first research project was part of a multidisciplinary team funded by the Environmental Protection Agency on the development and testing of farming best management practices to prevent water pollution. The sociological component of the research was one of the earliest efforts to examine factors related to farmers’ adoption and continuing use of soil and water conservation practices.
Over the years, with growth of the hypoxia dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and pollution of Iowa’s lakes and streams, came increased voices for action to improve Iowa’s water quality. It came to a head in 2015, with Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit against three rural Iowa counties, allegedly the source of high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, creating exorbitant costs for the Water Works to treat the water. Although the Water Works’ lawsuit claims were eventually dismissed by the federal judge in charge of the case, and Water Works CEO Bill Stowe was widely criticized for the action, the lawsuit was instrumental in drawing needed attention to Iowa’s water quality problem and to finally compel the state legislature to act.
Gov. Reynolds and the state legislature had an opportunity to strongly state that they were cognizant of Iowa citizens’ priority for clean streams and lakes and safe drinking water. In 2008, the state legislature began a legislative process to allow Iowans to vote on a constitutional amendment creating a dedicated trust fund to address Iowa’s natural resource needs. In November 2010, Iowans voted 63 percent in favor of amending the state constitution to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, with a dedicated funding source of a sales tax of 3/8ths of one cent. The sales tax would generate an estimated $150 million annually, of which 20 percent would be allocated to soil conservation and water protection. The law became effective in January 2011, but over the seven years following its passage, the legislature has continually ignored Iowans’ wishes by refusing to implement the sales tax — thus thwarting the Trust Fund’s purpose.
With little leadership from former Gov. Terry Branstad and Gov. Reynolds, the two houses of the legislature finally agreed on a makeshift water quality bill that commits $282 million to water quality initiatives over the next 12 years. The total includes $156 million allocated to farmers for soil and water conservation, with specific focus on reducing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Funding for the bill comes from existing sources, which can only mean reallocation of funds through cuts in other programs, such as funding for school infrastructure. Critics say the funding is grossly inadequate and the allocation directives provide little guarantee of impacting water quality.
Iowa Farm Bureau also supported the water quality bill, which is perplexing because the organization did not support the Trust Fund. The Farm Bureau’s main objection to the Trust Fund was the tax increase; however, full implementation of the Trust Fund would have provided more than twice the money provided by the current bill for agricultural programs over the next 12 years. Ironically, public opinion polls consistently show that Iowans support the sales tax hike for the Trust Fund. A poll just prior to passing of the water quality bill found 69 percent of respondents in favor of implementation of the sales tax, including 64 percent of respondents engaged in farming. The survey was sponsored by a coalition of organizations that included the Soybean Association. So, who does the Iowa Farm Bureau represent?
Our state legislature and elected officials waste money on issues that are not a problem — such as voter fraud — penny-pinch on real problems such as water quality, and cut funding for programs that could provide solutions to water quality problems, like Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. In this election year, those state legislators who voted for the water quality bill will tout how they have set Iowa on a course to clean water. Iowans should be wary of sweet talk and promises of sweet treats from our state elected officials, especially nearing election day.
Pete Korsching is an Iowa State University Emeritus Professor, a Nevada resident and a freelance columnist for the Nevada Journal.