Legacy vote message: clean air, water, land

The message from the vote last week is that voters want environmental quality and outdoor recreation initiatives to thrive. How will policy makers respond?

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Amid all the sorting of implications from the November 2 election, one message should not be missed: Iowa’s land, air and water are important to the state’s residents.

Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Amendment passed with over 60 percent of the vote — a margin that surely understates the support for environmental programs. The constitutional amendment creates a dedicated trust fund that will be funded upon the next state sales tax increase.

Overwhelming approval of the trust fund must be seen as a “floor” for support of water quality improvements, soil protection, state parks, recreational trails and better wildlife habitat. Support no doubt is much greater than the vote last week reflects. That’s because the trust fund is tied to a potential sales-tax increase that many more environmental proponents would oppose on various philosophical grounds — objecting to any tax increase, or that type of tax increase, or earmarking funds outside the legislative process by constitutional amendment.

Rather, the vote recognizes that longtime budget trends are shortchanging environmental quality efforts. Such programs largely have been dependent upon gambling revenue and have been underfunded for years.

Clearly, Iowans care about the environment and want increased funding for programs that protect our air and water and add additional outdoor recreation opportunities. And a vast majority favored the Legacy Amendment approach. Still, it depends upon a sales-tax increase that faces significant political challenges.

The message from the vote last week is that voters want environmental quality and outdoor recreation initiatives to thrive. Improvements to our natural resources can help attract economic development for Iowa cities and towns. How, policy makers must ask themselves, will they meet that firmly stated desire of Iowa voters?

Many eyes will be watching.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Tough choices look at total budget

Iowans rely on many publicly funded services.

Andrew Cannon, research associate
Andrew Cannon

It’s easy to forget all the publicly funded services on which Iowa businesses, health and personal lives rely.

Funding for education — our public universities, community colleges, and state aid to local schools — consumes more than 60 percent of Iowa’s budget. Realistically, there simply is no way to reduce General Fund spending without touching education.

We expect and rely on safe, well-maintained roads and highways. We need water that is clean and drinkable. We enjoy parks that are kept neat and safe by public funds.

Budgeting requires tough choices, even when the economy is thriving. Balancing a budget in tough times — when needs are greater than usual — is even more difficult.

Iowa has cut quite a bit already. Further reductions would come at a price that might not be so apparent on a sheet of paper. But they would become clear as Iowans move about their daily lives.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Farm fields or lawns? New report on water pollution

The quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers that are applied to corn and soybean fields dwarfs that of lawns and golf courses.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

How many of you have been in a conversation about Iowa’s water quality that went something like this?

  • Person 1:  Iowa’s waters really are filthy.
  • Person 2: They sure are. I know a lot of that is because of our state’s agriculture and all the fertilizers that farmers use.
  • Person 1: That’s probably true, but you know what is really a problem?  The fertilizers my neighbors are always putting on their grass. They put so much on all the time and sometimes even in the rain. Why? For a lawn that they never use?
  • Person 2: You’re probably right. I just drove across the river downtown and it was so gross. And I saw several lawn chemical companies out this morning.

If you’re anything like me you’ve probably heard people downplay the role of agriculture in degrading our waters and shift the focus to our urban areas. I recently had dinner with a small group of environmentally aware citizens and a conversation much like the above occurred.

I asked the group what percentage of the applied fertilizers in Iowa are put on farm fields and got responses ranging from 50 to 80 percent. It just so happened that I knew the real answer and it was way higher than the guesses I heard.

IPP’s latest report focuses only on the chemical fertilizers that are applied to the state’s farm fields, lawns and golf courses. It conclusively shows that the quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers that are applied to corn and soybean fields dwarfs that of lawns and golf courses. It isn’t even close. Roughly 98% of the nitrogen and phosphorus applied in fertilizers goes on the state’s farm fields.

On average the pounds applied per acre of these fertilizers are higher on lawns and golf courses but the total area that receives treatments is so miniscule relative to the acres of corn and beans in this state. In addition, these fertilizers are applied to areas that have plants that can immediately use the nutrients, whereas many fertilizers are applied to crop fields that do not.

This is not to say that lawn fertilizers in urban areas are blameless. Indeed, in some urban watersheds they may be a significant source of the nutrient pollution entering Iowa’s waters, but overall it’s safe to say that agriculture is where the vast majority of the nutrients that start as applied fertilizers originate. Throw in manure applications and the relative contribution of agriculture gets even larger.

Can that be changed? With cover crops, perennial crops, better cropping practices, and improved nutrient management plans among other things, that gap can be narrowed.  Narrowing that gap will bring with it improved water quality. That is something we can all celebrate.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

‘Loading the dice’ for the ‘new normal’

I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward extreme weather events. This means we must prepare for more frequent major floods — but also even larger floods.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Flooding is more and more a serious concern in Iowa. Some call it the “new normal.”

A book released earlier this year, A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008, edited by Iowa historian and environmentalist Connie Mutel, helps us understand the “new normal” phenomenon. We are likely to see more frequent and possibly larger floods as rainfall patterns change as a result of climate change.

Can we, with any scientific validity, directly attribute any flood, heat wave, snowfall, hurricane or drought to climate change? Not yet. But the fact remains that the sorts of rainfall patterns Iowa has seen recently, and many of the extreme weather events seen across the world are exactly what climate models predict, as noted by a recent report from Environment Iowa.

I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward making certain extreme weather events more likely to occur. What this means for Iowa is that we now have to prepare for more frequent major floods, but also be ready for even larger floods.

What can we do? There are no simple answers and clearly the solution is going to involve a combination of things. Iowa is taking the right steps by developing some excellent resources for municipal officials and local residents. But does the political will exist to make the difficult choices? Should we allow development in flood plains? (The Cedar Falls city council has decided to say no.) Should we build more levies around cities to protect them (but push flooding on to communities downstream)? Should we prohibit a net increase in runoff from any development site? Should we require or even pay farmers to reduce runoff from their fields?

In both rural and urban areas, healthy soil is the first line of defense against flooding as it can slow, store and clean prodigious amounts of rainfall and runoff. Unfortunately, as outgoing DNR Director Rich Leopold noted in an excellent and sobering editorial, our soils are not healthy. We’ve lost, and continue to lose, huge amounts of topsoil from our croplands and the soils in our urban developments aren’t really much better than concrete at holding onto water.

Healthy soil means cleaner water, less flooding, excellent crops and — quite possibly — dice that are a little less loaded. That’s a win-win-win-win for everyone.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

What ‘small government’ looks like

“Well, it is like, you want smaller government, this is what it looks like.” — Rich Leopold, outgoing Iowa Natural Resources Director

Andrew Cannon, research associate
Andrew Cannon

What does “smaller government” mean?

Richard Leopold, outgoing director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), has a few answers in an article in today’s Des Moines Register.

State general fund allocations to DNR have dropped over the past several years, from $22.1 million in FY09 to $15.6 million in FY11.

As a result of decreased general fund support, DNR has been forced to drop a number of programs and services. Leopold said:

I have gotten I don’t know how many complaints from legislators and small business owners about, “You used to do this and now you don’t any more.” Well, it is like, you want smaller government, this is what it looks like.

In a difficult economy, Leopold sees increased use of state parks. So more people are using the bathrooms, filling the trash cans and wanting to hike in the outdoors, and DNR has less money for staff to mow the grass, clean the bathrooms, empty the trash cans and keep the trails open.

Cuts in revenues lead to cuts in services that we all use. Often, they are the services that we’re so accustomed to receiving, we don’t notice them until they are gone.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Plenty of blame for Iowa floods

We can’t continue to follow the practices and policies that have created flooding problems, or create new policies that pose greater risk.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

In 2008 it was Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. This year Ames is getting a turn. Oh, and throw in some serious flooding around Oskaloosa, Manchester, Colfax and elsewhere, not to mention the dam failure at Lake Delhi.

What’s going on? Why are towns, universities, farmers, the wealthy and the poor in Iowa all suffering from flood damage with frequencies far exceeding statistical expectations?

Point your finger at what you want: more development in flood plains and pavement everywhere, fewer functioning wetlands, degraded soil, more agricultural drainage tile, more row crops, and increasing frequency of heavy rains as a result of climate change. All play a role in causing havoc in Iowans’ lives and generating steep bills that have to be paid by someone, somehow.

What can be done? There are lots of things that need to be done, but a guiding principle that must be adhered to is a simple one: first, do no harm. We can’t continue to follow the practices and policies that have created the problems in the first place, or worse yet, create new policies or programs that create even greater flooding risk. Should we continue to build in flood plains? Should we continue to pave over agricultural land to build sprawling surface parking lots? Should we continue to follow agricultural cropping practices that degrade soil quality and reduce the natural ability of the soil to hold on to water? Should we “improve” field drainage so that water flows into rivers and streams even faster? The simple answer to all of these questions is no. Of course nothing, including finding policies that will address these issues while not causing harm elsewhere, is ever simple.

Stay tuned as IPP will be looking at some of these issues in encouraging policies that improve the management and quality of Iowa’s waters in ways that benefit all Iowans.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Flush with awareness

While water quality has fresh international attention brought by the enormity of the BP disaster, we also need to be looking at what we’re doing right at home, little by little and day by day.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Today’s Cedar Rapids Gazette editorial spotlights the work of four West Branch Middle School students in illustrating for their community the water-quality impacts of drug disposal.

In West Branch, a small town east of Iowa City, the team of Kara Fountain, Allison Kusick, Gabby Salemink and Megan Tadlock brought awareness to the effects of everyday actions on our environment, actions we take for granted maybe just because of tradition.

Then, when we realize the impacts, we have to find acceptance of that reality, find a way to break old habits and find the willingness to adopt new solutions. Much of public policy works that way.

A couple of reports from the Iowa Policy Project underline the issues examined by the West Branch students. One report, last December, notes that pharmaceuticals are one segment of a class of organic water contaminants that are found from everyday household use and tend to resist traditional wastewater treatment. A previous report, in 2006, noted that Iowa water is not tested for many chemical compounds that had not been considered as contaminants — among them prescription drugs for humans and animals, as well as cosmetics, dyes, preservatives and detergents.

In short, we need a better understanding of what’s going into our water supplies, and what is worthy of concern. While water quality has fresh international attention brought by the enormity of the BP disaster, we also need to be looking at what we’re doing right at home, little by little and day by day.

The West Branch students, under the supervision of retiring science teacher Hector Ibarra, are among those adding to knowledge about these issues for all of us. They worked with the University of Iowa Hygenics Laboratory to look for traces of discarded medicines in processed sewer water. As the West Branch Times noted, they also hosted a day for local residents to bring unused and old pharmaceuticals to be incinerated.

These students are an example for all Iowans, let alone leaders among students, in their willingness to explore and put what they’ve learned into practice.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director