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Iowa water quality sensors could lose funding under bill on governor's desk

The Raccoon River flows past Walnut Woods State Park in Des Moines.
Christine Warner
Critics of a bill on the governor's desk fear it could defund sensors that track pollution in Iowa's rivers and streams.

Iowa’s network of water quality sensors that track nitrogen and phosphorus levels could lose state funding under a bill that is awaiting the governor’s signature.

Republican lawmakers approved a budget bill this month thatwould cut $500,000 from the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, which awards grants for researchfocused on reducing nutrient loss and water pollution.

The bill would also end a current requirement for the research center, which is based at Iowa State University, to collaborate with the other two public universities.

Critics of the bill fear these changes would lead to the defunding of the University of Iowa’s real-time monitoring network that measures nutrients in the state’s rivers and streams.

Rep. Norlin Mommsen, R-DeWitt, said the $500,000 will be diverted to nutrient reduction projects like wetlands, saturated buffers and bioreactors through the Iowa Department of Agriculture instead of beings spent on research.

“We’ve got a ton of monitors out there already, so…like I said, the goal was to concentrate on projects,” he told reporters during the legislative session. “But it doesn’t totally restrict present practices if deemed necessary.”

The Iowa Nutrient Research Center would still have some funding it could distribute for research grants in its competitive award process, which means the UI could still apply for water sensor network funding.

But University of Iowa Professor Silvia Secchi said on IPR’s River to River that $500,000 is typically allocated from the Iowa Nutrient Research Center to the water sensor network managed by UI. She said defunding the program would leave the state without the ability to determine if its Nutrient Reduction Strategy is reducing pollution.

“We really need to make an effort to make sure that what we’re doing is based on science and facts, rather than wishful thinking that restoring a couple of wetlands is going to be enough to address our water quality problems,” Secchi said.

She said the sensors help researchers “produce excellent science,” and defunding them would undermine that. Secchi also said it could lead to the Environmental Protection Agency stepping in to regulate water quality in Iowa.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch reported that UI researcher Chris Jones, who manages the water sensor network, alleged the legislation came from Republican senators who disagreed with his blog posts about how the state’s water quality isn’t improving.

One of the lawmakers, Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, denied that he threatened to pull funding because of a blog and said the assertions were “potentially defamatory.”

He addressed the legislation during debate in the Senate.

“What we do know is practices on the land and in our towns is what makes cleaner water,” Zumbach said. “And so when we made the decisions on how to appropriate dollars, it was all about, let’s put practices that help clean our water.”

Democrats voted against the bill.

In a recent statement, Iowa Environmental Council Water Program Director Alicia Vasto said lawmakers are defunding water quality research at the same time that agriculture groups are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

“Defunding progress reporting and monitoring is not the direction we should be going in our approach to nutrient pollution in Iowa,” Vasto said. “Iowa taxpayers deserve accountability for the funding that is being spent on nutrient reduction practices.”

According to the IEC, Iowa has already been lacking sufficient water quality monitoring to be able to assess whether or not individual state-funded nutrient reduction practices are working.

Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has the authority to veto specific sections of budget bills like this one, but she has not spoken publicly about funding for the water sensor network.

The director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center did not respond this week to IPR’s questions about the bill.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter