Our biggest issue



Nothing is more immediately urgent to Iowa than climate change, yet it receives relatively little of our attention. The political debate generally revolves around taxes, national security and Social Security, immigration, civil rights and abortion. Yet the biggest story playing out right now in Iowa is the wetter and warmer climate that is flooding Cedar Rapids this week.

Climate change affects our economy, our culture, our public health and safety, and even public order. But the main debate is whether Fred Hubbell ran Younkers well enough, or whether Kim Reynolds likes or dislikes Gov. Culver’s signature Iowa Power Fund that everyone else has forgotten. The discussion certainly is not about that seven inches of rain at Marathon, headwaters of the Raccoon River, last week.

Dr. Gene Takle of Iowa State University, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, told our reporter Tom Cullen that the rain near Marathon is the “new normal” to expect in the Upper Midwest late summer. Takle, who shared a Nobel Prize, warned that we are in the midst of the more extreme weather construct that he predicted more than 20 years ago. Nights are warmer and more humid. Storms are more violent. Crops have a hard time with flooding followed by spates of drought. Soil is washed away at higher rates due to more extreme events. It will get worse, not better.

“Until we get people together, we’re just going to keep seeing disasters like this,” Takle said.

Many urgent problems face Iowa. Education funding. How to rebuild old schools and bridges. Mental health and Medicaid funding. Drug abuse. Guns and violence. It is all important.

Climate change affects our income in lower crop and land values. Depleted soil leads to less protein in soy. Depleted aquifers like the huge Jordan in Iowa and Ogallala in the southwest Plains might be exhausted in another generation from ethanol and livestock consumption. We will have to install more drainage tile, which costs money, and we will lose even more nutrients as heavier rains flush the soils. Climate change is the proximate cause of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. It makes us poorer. Warmer weather leads to peak electrical brownouts, to invasive species, to direct threats to human health. We are seeing all of it, now.

We have heard one candidate speak about the issue with the urgency it deserves. Secretary of Agriculture candidate Tim Gannon came to Storm Lake Sunday and called for the initiation of a 3/8th cent sales tax for water quality and natural resources. He said that revenue is fundamental to a comprehensive and flexible approach that can help farmers cope with huge changes they are experiencing right now. He called for an increase in funding for research at Iowa State University to attract the top researchers who can help us address climate change, maybe even learn to prosper amid it.

The rest of us are sticking with pickups that get 10 mpg and acting as if nothing is happening. But everything is happening just as Takle predicted a generation ago. Farmers know it, that’s why they are expanding drainage capacity. It will take far bigger changes than are at play now, Takle believes, for Iowa to cope in the immediate coming years. Very few of us want to deal with that reality. Gannon deserves credit for at least bringing up the topic, and it is a reason you should pay attention to him. He knows how farmers are getting hammered right now, as agribusiness and its stable of leaders in Iowa whistle past the graveyard. The answers start with scientists like Takle, which Gannon understands, and the ability of our universities to help us step back from the abyss. No matter is more urgent.

Sustainable housing

The pressure from the shortage of housing in and around Storm Lake might have reached the point where a developer can make some money at building. That’s the only conclusion that we can draw from the announcement that Storm Lake Apartments LLC, based in Waterloo, intends to develop up to 132 units along 10th Street — without using low-income housing tax credits. It has been assumed for years around here that the wage base simply could not support market-rate apartments without a tax-credit subsidy. And that is why it is so frustrating that the state has not allowed those credits to Storm Lake during the Reynolds Administration.

The spokesman says that Storm Lake Apartments is organized by investors with connections to The City Beautiful. If that is so, we assume they understand that this is a tough market. Somehow, they have found a way without tax credits. The city is generous, abating property taxes on new construction and helping with development costs, even offering steeply discounted lots for building. Maybe that’s all it takes.

We always have been uncomfortable with using tax credits because the benefits mainly go to the investors and not the working-class residents. The result is properties that are run on the lean by absentee owners. It will do if that is all we can afford. We hope that Storm Lake Apartments can show a way to meeting our housing needs without depending on a state commission doling out tax credits among their pals in Des Moines.