Massaging Iowa's Broken Back

Governor Kim Reynolds said she wanted a water quality bill to be the first thing she signed this legislative session. She got her wish.

Unfortunately, the bill SF 512 that passed the legislature this week still fails to make the investment necessary to make any real strides toward implementing Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Accordingly, it also fails to heed the demands of the people of Iowa who increasingly support legislative action that creates significant, dedicated funding for water quality and outdoor recreation in our state.

If Iowa’s lawmakers think that the passage of SF512 absolves them of actually doing something about Iowa’s dismal water quality this session, they’re sorely mistaken. It’s a good start, sure. But it's a band-aid on a hemorrhage. A bill that contributes $200-something million over 12 years simply by reallocating existing dollars is hardly going to move the needle on a multibillion dollar problem. 

Think of it this way. Let’s say you hurt your back and a whole series of doctors and specialists told you that you needed surgery to really fix it. Knowing it’ll be expensive and the recovery time will be lengthy, seven out of every ten of your friends and family members offer to help pay for it. Yet you hesitate.

Then, finally, when the hospital administrator says that the first thing they want to do this year is address your back issue, you take action…and ask her to pay for a masseuse.

That’s basically what happened in Des Moines this week. SF512 is a massage for a broken back. It feels good for a bit but doesn’t actually fix the problem. Iowa ranks 48th nationally in water quality. We lose topsoil at unsustainable rates and we’re toxifying the Gulf of Mexico in the process. The Gulf Dead Zone this past year was the largest ever at just shy of 8,800 square miles. That’s equivalent to an area from Des Moines to Ames in width that stretches from the Missouri River to the Mississippi.

Water quality is a measure of land health. Our land is the backbone of our economy. Water quality, therefore, is Iowa’s broken back.

The friends and family offering to help pay to fix it are the seven in ten Iowans that, according to a November 2017 poll, support funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund with a 3/8 cent sales tax increase. The fund, established by 63 percent of Iowa voters in 2010, would generate over $180 million annually for parks, trails, conservation efforts, and of course, water quality. In fact, more than 60 percent of the Trust’s dollars (more than $100 million annually) would fund the type of conservation practices outlined the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

What’s more, the poll found that nearly 70 percent of Iowans say they would have a more favorable opinion of a legislator that voted for a sales tax increase to fund the Trust. Six in ten Iowans polled would favor a governor that voted accordingly.

So much for fearing tax increases in an election year.

The possible bright side is now that they’ve paid lip service to water quality, they can move on to tackling tax reform and in the process vote to increase the sales tax to fund the Trust.

Or maybe they won’t. Maybe they believe that a good rub down will cause us to forget about our broken back. But they’re wrong. The gulf states whose fishing and recreation industries are being wrecked by a New Jersey-sized dead zone won’t let us forget. The federal agencies tasked with addressing the nutrient-induced hypoxia won’t either. And unless our legislators show an unwavering resolve to keep water quality a state priority, we Iowans will remember all too well the spine problem we have in Des Moines come November.

"This is just the beginning, not the end," said Rep. John Wills, the floor manager for bill in the House.

Let's hope so. It’s time for Iowa’s lawmakers to listen to the people of Iowa and fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. It’s time for them to do what’s right, not just what’s easy.