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Water quality advocates say policymakers are not diverting enough funds to Iowa's waters

BY CHASTITY DILLARD | MARCH 08, 2012 6:30 AM

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Iowa's rivers aren't clean enough.

Local environmental experts said despite support from voters in 2010, Iowa lawmakers are not diverting enough money toward restoring the state's waters.

"The Iowa River is like all rivers in Iowa," said David Osterberg, the director of the Iowa Policy Project. "They have lots of nitrates, a lot of sediments —that's why they are so dirty — and a lot of pesticides."

The Iowa Policy Project — a local nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that analyzes state policy issues — released a report last week detailing the loss of Iowa water quality funding.

Nearly 90 percent of Iowa land is used for agriculture. The report said waters running close to agricultural and urban lands hold an excess of nutrients, toxins and sediments, which the authors of the report called a concern.

"The Legislature is not spending enough money to clean up Iowa's rivers, lakes, and streams," said Osterberg, also a University of Iowa clinical associate professor of occupational and environmental health. "And right now, they are not even spending the average they have been spending in the last 10 years."

In the last decade, water quality funding hovered at around $20 million, but that number is down by about $5 million in recent years, he said.

"Our rivers run brown, and if they weren't brown, they'd be green because they'd be so full of algae because of the big pollutants," Osterberg said. "We are doing very little. Iowa has pretty terrible water."

In 2010, 63 percent of Iowa voters cast ballots in favor of more tax support for protecting land and water. Under that measure, 3⁄8 of 1 percent of the state's next sales-tax increase will go toward a trust fund to support conservation efforts. But until the Legislature passes another tax hike — which isn't likely this year — that money isn't coming.

Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck, R-Dixon, who is a part of the Iowa Senate Natural Resources Committee, said having good water quality is beneficial.

Hamerlinck said he's has worked closely with a state dye testing program to retrieve old leaking pipes.

"The good farmers out there who are stewards of the land don't want any nitrates in the water," he said. "Should we regulate the ones who are not stewards? Absolutely."

But residential fertilizer use is also to blame for the spread of nitrates, he said.

"If anything, what's wrong with Iowa's water is discharge from municipalities," he said.

American Rivers — a national organization dedicated to protecting rivers and streams — has fought to preserve the nation's waters since 1973. Spokeswoman Amy Kober said nothing is more fundamental than clean water.

"Most of our drinking water comes from rivers and we need our rivers to be clean and healthy if we want our communities to be healthy," she said. "Rivers give us so much. They give us drinkable water. They give us fishing. Also our quality of life and happiness in spending time out on the rivers."

Kober said the nation has come a long way, but work still needs to be done.

"But at the same time, we are facing some big potential turn backs in Congress," she said. "We need these safeguards at the national level to protect our public health.

The issue of rivers' cleanliness nationwide needs public attention, she said.

Will Hoyer, a research associate for the Iowa Policy Project and co-author of the organizations report, said the goal was to paint a picture for the public.

"It's good for people to know that there is a disconnect between voters," he said. "Legislators haven't been doing anything for years."

Hoyer said, though Iowa's waters are not getting worse, progress remains stagnant.

"There is hope for Iowa's water," he said "It can be improved. Clearly water quality can improve in the state and it just takes focused considerable effort and adequate funding."


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