More regional government


Storm Lake city leaders, including the mayor and manager, are to be applauded for their concern for storm water runoff into the lake and the Raccoon River. Their enthusiasm should be tempered when it comes to diving into forming the Raccoon River Watershed Authority, which city hall would administer and which would direct funding to projects in the northern reaches of the watershed. City officials should proceed carefully and explore whether this is just another level of government, whether there is sufficient local expertise to prescribe landscape management at the authority board level, and whether city hall has the capacity to manage the operation.

Don’t get us wrong. We are all for better landscape management that protects rivers and lakes from sedimentation and nutrient overload. The architecture for such management already exists through state and federal soil conservation offices, local soil and water conservation boards, through Iowa State University’s Extension Service, and through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

That is quite enough government that gets information from the local level and processes it through the chain of scientific bureaucracy.

We are opposed to creating new levels of bureaucracy. Iowa has been building regional government for years to no practical effect. We have regional highway authorities, regional housing authorities and regional economic development authorities. The result? Hwy. 7 is a nice wagon trail. Storm Lake is said to be short thousands of housing units. No regional or state economic development authority has landed a high-paying job in Storm Lake or Newell.

The watershed would hire a coordinator. We have been down that road. The Storm Lake Watershed used to have a coordinator until the money ran out. Since then, a lot of good work has been done through the efforts of the private land biologists with IDNR, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and IDALS. No regional authority was required, just one-on-one work day-in and day-out by hard-working government employees and good land stewards. That’s what it takes: expertise applied to local concern, and bringing all possible federal and state resources to bear to help the good steward.

That’s how the Lake Improvement Commission works. It is strictly a local operation funded and guided by IDNR and its wealth of expertise. The city administers the commission and has its hands full. The past few years have been a real challenge for city hall. With the lake commission, the process is pretty simple: the local funding sources are set, the state funding is set and those funds are applied to run a dredging operation. Even then, things can get complicated and communication can break down. We don’t know why the city would want the extra headache of running this show with 86 government entities represented on the board.

It all seems to be a waste of energy.

There should be sufficient state bureaucratic resources to suggest to counties that they could do better at managing ditches and roads. The Department of Transportation and DNR folks are ready to help with grant suggestions and the like. The soil and water workers know what conservation techniques will work in Buena Vista or Pocahontas counties, and what projects qualify for grants or cost-shares. They know the best spots for CRP ground and are talking with those farmers and land owners all the time preaching the gospel.

State and federal agencies have conservation, agronomy and ag econ specialists flung to the four corners of Iowa. They know what needs to happen to clean up the Raccoon River. It’s just that they have a hard time convincing the 20% of the worst agland managers who make up about 80% of the problem. No regional bureaucracy can solve that basic problem. It is up to the landowner to do the right thing, in the end. The government is willing to lend a hand in any number of ways. All you have to do is call the county NRCS office and they will jump all over you with great ideas that can move your farm forward and might make you more money. That’s all we really need.

We don’t need an entirely new level of government that will decide how a huge pot of water quality money is spent through a board populated by well-intentioned people who don’t have a clue how to manage a landscape sustainably and, as important, profitably.