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Water bill would give more responsibility to an inept Ag Department

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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Throughout the U.S. government, more often than not, agencies responsible for regulating a particular sector are also in charge of promoting that same sector. For some agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, these two roles work harmoniously.

For others, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, these two functions create an inevitable conflict of interest. That is, regulating any industry can lower that industry’s profit margin as businesses may digress from their most profitable operation in order to comply with any given government regulation.

By transferring water quality regulation from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, whose sole mission is “to conserve and enhance natural resources,” to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, of the aforementioned regulatory/promotional dual-purpose agencies, legislators are ultimately damaging both the efficiency of state government and our infamously defiled waterways.

Specifically, the bill (House File 643 and Senate File 500) plans to transfer programs dedicated to the enforcement of the Clean Water Act, known as Chapter 319, from Natural Resources to the Agriculture.

Unlike Natural Resources, the Agriculture Department has no particular mission statement. “You need to understand, there are two divisions. There is consumer protection, the regulatory side, and the second, the largest, is the soil-conservation side,” Chuck Gipp, division director in Agriculture, told the DI Editorial Board. Gipp outlined a wide variety of responsibilities, including financial, technical, and administrative assistance, as well as focusing on the business aspect while striving to “get the farmers to be better stewards of the land and water.” The agency website further outlines responsibilities concerning meat processing, feed, fertilizer, pesticide application, and dairy farming.

In other words, the 335 employees have a vast range of roles and functions, especially in comparison to Natural Resources’ 1,100 employees, who have a one-sentence mission statement to guide them in their practices.

The common argument for the consolidation is that farmers only have to talk to one agency led by someone they “trust”: Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, who achieved momentary notoriety last year for enthusing about Iowa’s industrial egg farmers mere months before salmonella contamination at two farms led to the recall of hundreds of millions of eggs.

Northey’s 2010 opponent, organic dairy farmer Francis Thicke (whom the Editorial Board endorsed in November), isn’t pulling any punches. “Well, I was asked this question during the campaign, and I was opposed to it, because the water-quality program of the Department of Natural Resources is very comprehensive, so [the shift] makes no sense,” Thicke told the Editorial Board Tuesday.

“[Northey is] opposed to regulation. That’s why they want him to have the money,” Thicke said. “One of the biggest problems I had is that he wants to retile the soils, which would be good for the production of corn and soybeans but would be questionable regarding water quality.”

The EPA has the authority to strip state governments of their funding if they fail to comply with federal standards, Thicke said. The federal agency also has the power to transfer regulatory practices from the state to the federal level, which could further threaten Iowa’s waterways by taking power out of the hands of those who have the most local knowledge and contacts for protecting the land at the most efficient level of operation.

Wayne Gieselman, speaking for Natural Resources, has repeatedly told news outlets that the goal of this bill is to create “most efficient government we can have in the state of Iowa.”

Thicke said he can’t believe Gieselman (a friend of his) personally believes that moving Chapter 319 will make Iowa’s government run more efficiently. “You have to read between the lines,” Thicke said. “He says that the goal is to run more efficiently. He’s got to say that, because his job depends on supporting it.”

We mustn’t put the fox in charge of the henhouse. It is absurd to ask an agency that promotes agribusiness to regulate farm runoff — especially when protecting business interests is much more politically beneficial.

Whether the goal is or is not to make the state government run more efficiently, common sense leads one to believe that this change would not be effective in cleaning our state’s decrepit waterways. It may help our agricultural sector become more profitable, but by stripping power from Natural Resources, the agency whose sole focus is on protecting our air, water, and soil, these profits will come at a price.


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