Throwing money around



Not to be cynical but … there must be an election coming up. In just 40 minutes Tuesday the Iowa Legislature approved a “water quality” bill that will tax water consumers and give more than $200 million over the next several years to support the agri-chemical complex that pollutes our water and kills small towns. Gov. Kim Reynolds is delighted to sign it. She insisted that such legislation would be the first order of business. She had barely concluded her Condition of the State address before the wheels started churning. You could admire it as efficient, or just believe that Republicans wanted to throw some Des Moines money around quickly to show that they care about water quality.

The state already appropriates more than $10 million per year for cost-sharing grants to induce conservation. Yet the nitrate levels in the Raccoon River are rising, not falling, and so are toxic phosphorous deposits in Saylorville Reservoir fed by the Des Moines River. Farmers are not exactly busting down the doors to sign up for conservation programs. We see a lot more farmed ditches than we do restored wetlands, and it is not for lack of state and federal incentives.

Our nitrogen applications have increased five-fold over the past 50 years while our land in grass has declined by a third. We are losing a third of our nitrogen application to the Raccoon. Koch Fertilizer likes it that way. And the Koch Brothers pretty much own the legislature and Reynolds and Iowa State University that created the voluntary nutrient reduction strategy. The strategy is a call to engineering decried 80 years ago by our great native son Aldo Leopold, after whom a center was named to enhance the study of sustainable agriculture at ISU. The legislature stripped its funding last year. We know which direction this is heading.

You do not increase the tax on the source of the pollution, the petrochemical fertilizer companies, to discourage its consumption. You do not assess a fee on drainage districts, so all land owners share the responsibility of stewardship. You tax the poor woman on University Avenue in Des Moines to clean up the Raccoon River in her monthly water bill. And, you divert revenue from the Vision Iowa program as it winds down so that you can cut a check for a rain garden near Kanawha, or to hasten plans to convert Iowa lakes into marshes. (There is such a plan.) That does not sound like the conservative way to us: to levy a tax for which the spending has no accountability and can guarantee no results. It is a subsidy to the current system that is governed largely by entities that pay no resident corporate income tax in Iowa, far as we know — their headquarters are in St. Louis or Wichita or Wilmington, Del. Farm Bureau, a big stockholder in Monsanto, is a huge fan of this water quality plan. It helps Farm Bureau’s rich portfolio and gives their Republican candidates something to campaign on.

If we truly cared about water quality we would keep the current funding in place. We would restore the $300,000 to the Leopold Center. We would restore the confined animal feeding coordinator’s position in the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. We would continue the Vision Iowa program using gaming proceeds, and we would expand it into a bonding fund by leveraging wind energy property taxes whose use would be governed locally for community vitality projects. Vision Iowa transformed Dubuque and Storm Lake. It could do wonders for Pocahontas and Sac City, too. And we don’t have to levy a new tax or rob Peter to pay Paul. Let local officials decide how to rebuild their communities.

Most important, the governor and legislature could pass a sense of the people resolution that says, essentially: Congress should restore the 10% set-aside requirement that was set aside by Nixon Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz, when he exhorted us all to plant fencerow to fencerow to feed the world. That would fix our water quality problem, period. The world is still starving as we plant through the fencerow. Corn prices are in the tank, our soil is floating down the Mississippi and dredging Storm Lake has ceased forever. But we have a water quality bill. So let’s go vote.

A little help from our friends?

If the Iowa Lakes Corridor of Opportunity really wants Storm Lake to work with Spencer and Spirit Lake and Estherville on economic development, as is its mission, then a quiet conversation among the board is appropriate. The directors, many of whom run their town or county as bankers or politicians, need to get the word that Storm Lake bashing is not okay. They need to tell the folks in the schools that if we see much more of that behavior, you might not get much help with your new wrestling mats from the bank or support on your next bond issue. That’s how things work in small towns. To get along you go along. We’re trying to get along here in Storm Lake. We would appreciate it if our neighbors would teach their children to get along with us.

That’s what it will take. A few well-placed phone calls to the community college presidents and the school superintendents and the mayors will douse this stuff quickly. It is time for the Iowa Lakes consortium to show that our public tax subsidies are paying dividends for Storm Lake and Buena Vista County. The most effective way to show it is to tell us that the Iowa Lakes region supports our diversity and considers The City Beautiful a full partner in regional progress. Demeaning insults that drag everyone down can be stopped if people with clout put their foot down. They haven’t yet.