Proposals to clean Iowa's water are a start, but more will be needed

SUNDAY, December 13, 2016
 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids

Water pollution poses significant environmental and public health risks and has become a growing financial burden for Iowans. Recent water pollution proposals by Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and State Senator Rob

Hogg included preliminary funding concepts, but more is needed. Payments to water utilities preliminary funding concepts, but more is needed. Payments to water utilitiesand additional farm subsidies are not enough to solve Iowa’s agriculture pollution problem.

The Corbett and Hogg proposals are, in part, reactions to a federal lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) against government drainage districts. DMWW took this action earlier this year after decades of failed attempts to engage state officials, agriculture industry representatives and community leaders to seek solutions.

Government drainage districts were built a century ago to empty natural wetlands and construct some of the world’s most fertile farmlands. Remarkable feats of ingenuity, these systems have been re-engineered over the years to move water from farm to river. Unfortunately, these systems also release large amounts of pollution into Iowa’s waterways. Legal responsibility for this pollution has not been assigned and its impact has been ignored, as pollution grows steadily worse.

Agriculture and chemical-polluted water being dumped by drainage districts is not the result of the latest rain, drought or some other act of Mother Nature. Intricate systems efficiently move water tainted with dangerous toxins from ground to waterway — water that would have stayed put or moved much more slowly without man’s intervention.

Drainage districts should have the same responsibility for what spills from their pipes as do sewer, stormwater utilities, and factories. Stopping polluted water at the source is central to the DMWW case.

Solving agriculture water pollution will take more than money. The Hogg and Corbett proposals present ways to pay for some water initiatives, but both lack the controls, monitoring and regulation needed to adequately ensure we stem the flow of agriculture pollutants.

An effective plan to reduce agriculture pollution must:

1. Improve testing and monitoring of waterways to pinpoint pollution sources and measure results of programs;

2. Create policies that assign responsibility and regulate all significant point sources of polluted discharge equally and without exclusion;

3. Fund cleanup of Iowa’s dirty water

These three elements are vital because many local water utilities and Iowans who draw water independent of public utilities often lack the information they need to evaluate water quality and the tools required to remove pollution.

It has been suggested the Hogg and Corbett proposals would be advanced in exchange for DMWW dropping its suit. Iowa’s problem is much larger than what has been raised in the DMWW suit. Without all three above elements, Iowans may realize little benefit in the short term and we will fail to make meaningful progress in reducing Iowa’s agriculture pollution long term.

Let me be clear, I applaud Senator Hogg and Mayor Corbett for adding something constructive to consider. This type of productive dialogue stands in contrast to the political ad campaign the so-called Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, an organization co-chaired by Mr. Corbett and largely funded by the Iowa Farm Bureau, has been waging for much of this year. As of this month, this group has spent over $550,000 on television ads criticizing Des Moines Water Works for filing its water pollution case and personally attacking DMWW officials. I am hopeful Mr. Corbett will suspend his participation in the creation of attack ads and fully embrace the process of finding meaningful solutions.

I am optimistic. Iowans have a history of working together to solve difficult problems. It is possible the Corbett and Hogg proposals are the first signs consequential progress can be made curtailing agriculture water pollution. But, it is important we understand that spreading a few dollars around to make a lawsuit go away is of little consequence if we do nothing to stop agriculture water pollution at the source.

Graham Gillette is chairman of the
Des Moines Water Works Board of Trustees.