Water Quality Bill Critics Call “Irresponsible” Is On Its Way to the Governor

Jan 23, 2018

For the third year in a row, the Iowa House Tuesday morning took up water quality legislation, and by noon a bill finally passed on a mostly partisan vote.   

The legislation, which is now on its way to the governor, spends millions of dollars on water quality improvement projects over the next decade.       

But the final version pitted farm groups against environmentalists and there was bitter debate.  

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a research-based plan to reduce nutrients in Iowa waterways by 45 percent. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus pollute Iowa drinking water and create algae blooms that make the lakes unswimmable.    

Rep. John Wills (R-Spirit Lake) has worked as a water quality coordinator in the Great Lakes region for two decades.

He says SF 512 assures there will be money to carry the strategy out.

It's something that is an awesome step up." -Rep. John Wills

“It's a good long-term sustainable source of funding for water quality, something we have not had in the state of Iowa,” Wills said.  “It's something that in the absence of anything else is an awesome step up.”

The bill spends $286 million over 12 years to improve practices on the farm and in cities and towns.  

That money would be diverted  from existing sources that currently pay for schools, infrastructure, and other priorities.   

“I'm asking myself why this, why now,” said Rep. Sharon Steckman (D-Mason City).  

Steckman complained that leaders  jockeyed the water bill to the top of the debate agenda when the budget isn’t balanced yet.

“I really think we need to get our bills in order first before we start pulling revenue from schools,” Steckman said.

Most Democrats favored a version of the bill that also would have diverted money away from other priorities.  But they say in their bill there was more to ensure the dollars are targeted where they will improve the water the most. 

Why this, why now? -Rep. Sharon Steckman

Rep. Charles Isenhart (D-Dubuque) enumerated the kind of accountability the alternative bill would have made possible.

“Goals, timelines, measurement, monitoring of water quality in streams, public reporting of results,” Isenhart said.

The bill that passed instead  initially came from Gov. Branstad’s office and has the backing of major farm groups as well as Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.   

Northey called the bill do-able.  

Rep. Chip Baltimore (R-Boone) was one of a handful of GOP lawmakers who opposed it.

“I did not come down here to check a box and just because the words water quality are in the title of the bill does not make me proud to vote for it so I  can put it on a postcard when I campaign,” Baltimore said.

It's a trickle in the bucket. -Rep. Art Staed

Critics say the bill makes individual landowners less accountable for any money they receive to improve farm practices. Baltimore singled out the Iowa Farm Bureau for what he called its aggressive lobbying, and for in his words being unwilling to compromise.  

“Whether the Farm Bureau had any input or not, that’s immaterial,” Rep. Wills said.  “Any interest group will have impact or influence on any bill.”

The Iowa Environmental Council had a problem with both versions of the bill.

“The funding in these two bills is not really adequate to the challenge here, a one to four billion dollar problem,” said Manager of Government Affairs Kerri Johannsen, speaking on Iowa Public Radio’s River to River program.

“It’s a trickle in the bucket,” added Rep. Staed.

The council put out a statement calling the bill that gained final passage “an irresponsible use of taxpayer funds that gives no assurance of actually cleaning up our lakes and streams.”

Rep. Wills said Iowa is already making progress getting nutrients out of the water.     

“In the last five years with the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, 83 percent of our rivers and streams are monitored  with water monitor devices,” Wills said.  “They show that we’ve already reduced our nutrient load by one percent just in four years, so we want to continue with that goal in mind.”

In her Condition of the State speech, Gov. Reynolds called the legislation monumental.   

“It’s an important next step in making Iowa’s lakes, rivers and streams cleaner,” she added in a statement after the bill passed the House 59 to 41.    

The governor will announce the time for a signing ceremony at a later date.