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Water quality remains a priority at statehouse

Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she wants a water quality bill to be one of the first she signs into law in the new year, but plenty of questions about the bill remain unanswered.

In Jasper County local legislators aren’t sure water quality will remain a top priority as the state looks to battle its budget woes, facing a deficit of more than $131 million. With no tax increases on the horizon, lawmakers will likely have to trim the fat from the state’s budget by $40 to $90 million to give the state some much needed fiscal stability, which may make it difficult to get a water quality bill passed and completely funded.

Both the House and the Senate were working on competing water quality bills when the legislative session ended last year, and Sen. Chaz Allen, D-Newton, said he’s expecting to take up the issue when the Senate returns to session this month.

Of the two bills, the Senate’s proposal is farther along, but questions remain about its $27 million price tag. One of the biggest issues that remains for lawmakers is how to fund the bill once it’s passed.

“I think we’re going to look at both of those bills and come up with a compromise,” Allen said.

Funding for the Senate’s bill would be pulled from taxes that Iowans already pay on their water bills, as well as from money leftover from paying off project bonds for Vision Iowa. Each of these funding streams would generate more than $10 million, and the water quality initiative would be fully funded by 2021. In addition to existing programs, this would raise spending on water quality to $50 million by 2021, but critics of the bills say that won’t happen without the watershed approach, which would determine where critical tax dollars should be spent.

Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton, said he doesn’t think a “one size fits all” solution is right for the state, and he’s hoping to see a solution come forth that works on a smaller scale than statewide.

“I would like to refer to it not only as water quality but as soil health,” Breckenridge said. “If you look at the longevity of our soil and where we’re going at the  current rate, what can we do to help our farmers to incentivize and manage that farm ground to make sure that it is here for generations to come.”

The proposed House bill would have included incentives for farmers to plant cover crops and practice no-till farming, which help prevent nitrogen and phosphorus from leaking into the state’s network of streams and rivers. Breckenridge said he’d like to see some of those ideas incorporated into the final bill to make sure it has a lasting impact on the state’s water quality.

“It’ll have a dual impact, and it helps for future generations and the use of the soil now,” Breckenridge said.

Allen said he agrees with Breckenridge, but he’s concerned the key component of either bill is putting a long-term funding strategy in place to make sure the money is there to fund programs like the cover crop initiative. With both bills coming under review as the legislative session kicks off this month, Allen said he’d like to come up with a compromise that combines the best aspects of each bill.

“I want to see both bills,” Allen said. “It’s one of those things that needs to be done, but I want to see both bills and see what they’re going to be.”

While Breckenridge said water quality is a significant concern in the state, he also cautioned that it isn’t a problem that can be solved with a quick fix. The problem wasn’t created overnight, and a solution needs to have a lasting impact, Breckenridge said. Creating a steady source of funding for the bill, and making sure the bill works for Iowans across the state will be a priority this year, he said.

“It’s putting together the best plan to address this issue,” Breckenridge said. “The best management practices in this area may be different than other areas of the state, we need to look at it from that perspective so they can use the best management practices for those specific areas.”

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or

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