OPINION

A sound I hoped I wouldn’t hear

Steve Lekwa

It seems I’m kind of fixated on sound, or the lack of it, in the past couple of columns. This week’s reference is to a sound I hoped that I wouldn’t hear this year. It’s the tinny rattle of a can being kicked down the road — again. The “can” is Iowa’s longstanding problem with water quality. The Iowa Legislature adjourned — again — without an agreement on how to begin addressing the problem. Many of us hoped this year would bring an agreement that could finally be pushed through, and there was good reason to hope. A majority of Iowans, including the governor and both legislative chambers, finally seemed to agree that water quality was not only a real problem, but one that needed to be dealt with. Each of the major players in the legislative process put forth ideas on how the state could begin the much needed and long overdue work to start cleaning up our water quality. Instead of coming to a workable agreement, all the proposals died and the ongoing gridlock prevailed — again.

The people of Iowa offered their answer to the water quality problem, and a host of other conservation concerns more than five years ago, when they overwhelmingly passed a statewide referendum to create a constitutionally protected conservation trust fund. It passed by a significantly larger number of votes than the governor, himself, received. That vote has consistently been ignored ever since and the trust fund thus created remains empty yet today. Finally, funding that trust fund was one of the proposals that died. The governor advised that he might be willing to consider that option in the future after the legislature adjourned. That comment gives conservation interests hope that the 2017 legislative session might be different. Time will tell if ideologies and differing priorities prevail, or if Iowa finally faces its responsibility to clean up its mess.

Several things were learned as water quality issues were debated. Des Moines was having to run its denitrification equipment more often as the years went by. It was becoming increasingly more difficult and expensive to provide safe drinkable water as water quality worsened. We learned that many more communities were threatened by the same problem, but don’t have the resources to acquire and operate such equipment. We also learned that Des Moines has no legal choice but to dump the nitrates they remove at great cost right back into the rivers from which they came. Folks here at home and downstream all the way to the Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” continue to deal with problems caused by excessive nutrients, and, though Iowa is not alone, it continues to be a major contributor to the problems they cause.

Some factions blame the problem on wet weather. Weather is certainly a factor in how rapidly nutrients erode from or are leached from the land, but that’s something we can’t control. It’s not a valid excuse to maintain the status quo, either. Studies may yet reveal improved methods to reduce nutrient loss from our soils and come up with better ways to remove them from our water, but a whole catalog of techniques that are proven to work are already available for those willing and able to put them into practice. Maybe the 2017 legislature will finally give Iowans a shot at the tools and finances needed to start addressing this embarrassing and long-standing problem, without pulling the financial rug out from under other important programs like education, transportation and other infrastructure needs.

Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation.