Iowa's fight for water quality continues

Iowa’s 2017 legislative session ended without a bill to create a long-term, stable funding source for water quality. Hard feelings amassed all around, between the House and Senate, and between the legislature and the public at large. The stalemate on funding, dismissal of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, and retaliatory effort to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works in the statehouse has kept the debate alive, well, and as charged as ever.

Should Iowans expect a change of course in 2018? Gov. Kim Reynolds could make a difference. Reynolds told a crowd in Altoona, Iowa, last summer that she wanted water quality to be “the first bill [she] signs as governor.” She also participated in field days that promoted soil organic matter. However, she has been quiet on proposals she would like to see from the Republican-led legislature. Key committee leadership in the House and Senate will need to take care of the details.

The frail state of the budget will dominate discussions at the Capitol this session, and any bills addressing water quality will have to fit within this debate. State revenue projections continue to decline, with the latest projections indicating a $133 million shortfall from last year. Last session, we participated in Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy coalition urging for a ⅜ cent raise in the sales tax to fund a dedicated trust for natural resource protection. A sales tax raise is still possible, as it is known to have broad public support, but not likely without other tax revenue offsets.

All eyes will be on House Republicans to make a deal. The quickest path to the governor’s desk would be to pass the Senate bill from last session and allow the House to make amendments. All members of the House are up for reelection in 2018, adding to the pressure. The Senate bill from last session allowed for increased funding from an excise tax on drinking water and gambling revenues. Compared to the House bill from last session, it places more emphasis on administering projects through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship in a direct contract to landowners.

No matter what is decided at the state house this session, the fight for water quality will continue. It’s estimated an investment of $5 to $6 billion is needed to adequately address water quality in Iowa. With our state’s land value assessed at more than $200 billion, that figure represents a 2 to 3 percent investment in infrastructure protection. The Raccoon River, providing water for the Des Moines metro, is estimated to require $300 to $500 million alone. It will take a sustained effort of thousands of projects, hundreds of people, and, yes, millions, if not billions, of dollars.

Many water quality initiatives currently active in the state are funded through federal sources, or privately. And, a number of outreach efforts are underway to engage farmers in implementing cover crops and other conservation practices. We will explore these topics, and more, in our ongoing series on water quality.

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