Don’t let special interests hijack natural resources fund

The Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines serves as a water supply and a growing recreational draw.
The Des Moines River north of downtown Des Moines. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

I have lived and worked on a small Sac County farm for the past 41 years. During our time on the farm, my family has restored wetlands and used sustainable farming methods. We have planted native trees and shrubs and worked to restore native fish habitats for endangered species. We have planted native grasses in filter strips along the Raccoon River and we are restoring an oak savanna.

Unfortunately, that is not the norm in many rural communities.

In just the past 25 years, I have seen corporate hog confinements replace independent livestock farmers across the state. My own community is no exception and I am surrounded by at least 30,000 hogs at any given time. Our state leads the nation with over 24 million hogs, creating over 22 billion gallons of liquid manure that is dumped on farmland.

With almost no real enforcement of manure management plans and lax regulations, it’s no surprise that nitrate and phosphorus pollution in our state water bodies has led to toxic algae blooms, unsafe levels of nitrate in public and private water wells and the world’s largest nitrate removal system at Des Moines Water Works. Sixty percent of Iowa’s waterways are impaired (polluted). Our state waters carry their toxic load down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico, where an ever-enlarging “Dead Zone” chokes out aquatic life.

As industrial hog numbers go up and water quality goes down, we must understand that this industry has reached a point where any further expansion will lead to even more degradation of water quality.

Something must be done.

Ten years ago, Iowans approved a constitutional amendment that led to the creation of the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, commonly referred to as Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Fund, or IWILL.

I voted for the measure along with 63% of Iowans who voted, and polling shows that 83% of Iowans support it today. Funding for the trust was to come from a sales tax increase that would allow 3/8 of each cent to fund the trust.

The amendment spells out how the trust money was to be allocated:

  • Outdoor recreation and natural resources like state parks, state forests, preserves;
  • Wildlife areas and local outdoor recreation and trails; and
  • Watershed preservation, lake restoration and Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program funding.

This would all be of great value to local economies as it would help to enhance local assets and natural features. Unfortunately, the Legislature has never moved to initiate the sales tax increase which would generate over $180 million annually for IWILL.

While there is more talk of a sales tax increase to fund IWILL, the conversation from some legislators seems to show they have turned away from the balanced formula for the trust. The Iowa Farm Bureau was the only original opponent of the amendment.  And now some interest groups want to hijack the trust and call it the ultimate solution to Iowa’s water crisis by shifting the money to Iowa’s failed Voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS). Although practices in the NRS do protect soils and water, the voluntary participation on the massive scale that’s needed will not solve our water crisis.

The right thing to do would be to pass the sales tax increase and fund the trust following the formula voters approved 10 years ago. On top of that, funding to clean our fouled waters should come from the industries profiting from creating the pollution. And finally, those serious about cleaning up Iowa’s waterways should be calling for strict rules and regulations for clean water, tough enforcement and a moratorium on factory farms in Iowa.