Time for talks

By ART CULLEN

Given time, we are certain that Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties can arrive at a settlement with Des Moines Water Works over its lawsuit alleging nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River. A federal judge last week gave us just the time we need for the state’s political leadership to step up and mediate a settlement with a piece of water-quality legislation that everyone can support.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal told us last Monday that, after the November election, he will call on everyone to sit down for a water quality summit in Storm Lake to craft a legal and political solution to the problem of polluted surface water across Iowa. Gronstal said he would like the water works and the three counties to participate so they can help inform legislative strategies to make our water cleaner without crippling production agriculture.

US District Court Judge Leonard Strand subsequently announced that the water works trial, originally slated to start in August, would be delayed until next June. That gives legislators, Gov. Terry Branstad, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the litigants the leverage and the time they need to find a compromise.

Buena Vista County, at least, is open to settlement talks, according to Supervisor Paul Merten, D-Storm Lake. He is not certain what the counties could offer the water works. The counties merely need to say they will stand out of the way while the state negotiates with the water works. Rest assured that agriculture will be fully protected during these discussions. Branstad and Vilsack are best friends of Farm Bureau. Gronstal will be there to argue for some sort of standard that can be enforced short of a federal judge’s order.

We don’t have to fight this thing all the way to the US Supreme Court. Even the most hard-set legal combatants can arrive at settlements. This week major religious institutions and the Obama Administration agreed on a settlement after some prodding by court justices deadlocked on a 4-4 vote involving whether insurance plans required by federal law must allow women to receive contraceptives. The settlement says that the church doesn’t have to buy an insurance contract calling for contraceptives, but the insurance company will provide them for free, anyhow.

This is how you make progress in an apparently untenable situation.

Buena Vista County thinks it can afford to defend itself to the bitter end. It cannot. The tax base is not large enough to sustain a years-long court battle, and the county doesn’t have enough friends who will not turn their backs on them when the going gets tough as the Agribusiness Association of Iowa did. The Des Moines Water Works can’t afford this litigation, either. Its ratepayers are shouldering the burden of prosecuting the suit, and they will tire quickly of increasing water rates.

At first we worried that Gronstal would not have time to arrange a water quality summit that will have real, tangible results. Judge Strand washed those worries away.

Storm Lake looks forward to hosting a historic event that could set the way for a sustainable, profitable and clean agriculture for Iowa that keeps all of us whole.