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Legislators advanced a pair of bills targeting water quality Thursday, marking the start of renewed debate over a contentious issue that has divided Iowans along urban and rural lines and left lawmakers scrambling for a solution.

Rep. Chip Baltimore, a Republican from Boone who is managing the House bill, said he hopes this year's approach will "change the tenor and scope of discussion" by getting urban and rural interests to collaborate.

"(We're) trying to get them to hitch their horses to the same wagon and pull in the same direction," he said.

House Study Bill 135 builds off of legislation that advanced out of the Iowa House last year. Like last year's bill, it would fund projects by shifting money currently spent on infrastructure projects and using sales tax dollars Iowans already pay on their water bills.

New this year is the concept of a revolving loan fund that would provide loans and grants to organizations formed through "28E agreements."

Those agreements let public and private groups join together to address a common purpose — in this case, addressing water quality on a regional watershed basis. The bill adds incentives to get farmers, landowners, business owners and other private groups to join together to seek out solutions.

"The concept of that is to provide lots of carrots and encouragement and enticement for people to join together and to assist them in funding their various projects," Baltimore said.

The state Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2013, aims to reduce rural and urban nitrogen and phosphorous levels by 45 percent, and officials estimate it could cost $750 million to $1.2 billion annually over several decades to meet those goals.

The public's focus on improving Iowa’s water quality sharpened in 2015 when Des Moines Water Works filed a federal lawsuit against drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties. The controversial lawsuit contends that the districts’ tile lines exacerbate pollution in drinking water by moving nutrients more quickly from farm fields to waterways, which cities like Des Moines must pay to remove.

In January 2016, Gov. Terry Branstad prompted legislative action by announcing a plan he called the "biggest and boldest" of his career to fund water quality. That plan ultimately failed to gain legislative buy-in, but lawmakers now say they agree that finding funding for water quality improvement projects is a top priority.

Branstad's office proposed Senate Study Bill 1034, which is currently being considered in the Senate. That bill is virtually identical to the bill passed out of the House last session.

“Water quality remains a top priority with the governor and the lieutenant governor this session,” said Ted Stopulos, the governor’s lobbyist, who said Branstad wants to provide a dedicated source of revenue without raising taxes on Iowans.

The Senate bill was advanced Thursday by a subcommittee, although lawmakers made it clear they view it as a starting point for additional discussions.

“This is the beginning of the process and we will see what comes over from the House,” said Sen. Tim Kapucian, R-Keystone. ”I would encourage farmers in the countryside not to sit around and wait for government funding. There are things that you can do on your own,” such as installing grassed waterways and watching their use of fertilizer, he added.

Sen. Robert Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said the bill needs  to require more monitoring,  metrics and accountability. “I think that a lot of changes are needed. But I would certainly be willing to keep working on it.”

A host of lobbyists from agriculture groups like the Farm Bureau and commodities groups spoke favorably about both bills. In addition, representatives of the organizations like the Iowa League of Cities and Iowa Chamber Alliance expressed interested in cooperating with lawmakers.

But several activists with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement criticized the legislation, saying both versions of the bill would require Iowa taxpayers to bail out corporate agriculture interests and don't require strong enough measures to clean up Iowa’s polluted waterways.

“Polluters need to pay to clean up their own mess,” CCI activist Jessica Mazour said during the Senate subcommittee. “This bill will take us further down the path of dirty water, and in 10 years we will be having this conversation again.”

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, said the House decided to take a different approach this year that focuses on more local involvement and engagement as well as forming priority regions. But she said it's a good thing to have two versions of the bill advancing.

"I'm really excited that there's two bills, actually," she said. "We'll see where the two marry up. That's kind of the nice thing about having two bills to work from. We just have more options, more discussion, and I think that'll be positive."

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