After years-long debate, water quality legislation is headed to the governor
In early 2018 the Iowa Legislature took a step in addressing Iowa's water quality with a plan to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels by 45 percent. Kelsey Kremer/The Register
A bill committing $282 million to water quality initiatives will head to the governor's desk, the culmination of a debate that spanned three legislative sessions and two governors.
The Iowa House of Representatives, which had dug in its heels to oppose a Senate-backed water quality plan in favor of its own, surprised onlookers by bringing up the Senate's plan for a quick vote Tuesday morning. House lawmakers debated the issue for less than an hour, abruptly putting an end to legislative gridlock that has pitted the two chambers against each other.
Legislators voted 59 to 41 along mostly party lines to send Senate File 512 to the governor's desk, granting Gov. Kim Reynolds the first legislative victory of her administration. Reynolds, who took office last May, said she wanted water quality legislation to be the first bill she signs as governor.
"As I said in my Condition of the State address earlier this month, improving water quality is a shared goal of Iowans,” Reynolds said in a statement. "Many stakeholders — both rural and urban — played a key role in supporting this legislation and reaching a consensus.”
Former Gov. Terry Branstad ignited legislative debate on water quality in 2016 as Iowans were grappling with the fallout of a lawsuit launched by the Des Moines Water Works, which claimed rural farming practices were threatening the city's drinking water. Competing legislation has been advancing through the statehouse in various forms since then, pitting Democrats against Republicans, Republicans against Republicans, the House against the Senate, and city-dwellers against rural residents.
Those divides were still on display during floor debate Tuesday, but Republicans — who on the campaign trail repeatedly have promised to address water quality — garnered enough support amid promises for continued action.
"The bill builds upon the successful implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy and provides for long-term and sustainable funding," said the bill's floor manager, Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake. "This is just the beginning, not the end.”
Democrats, though, voiced frustration that the bill does not do enough to hold accountable those who receive money from the state, either through benchmark goals or the ongoing testing of waterways.
"Iowans are willing to pay for results if we know we are getting the results we are paying for," said Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque.
Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, who helped author a more bipartisan House plan during the last legislative session, was sharply critical of the bill, which he said is intended to placate special interest groups and does not do enough to include urban stakeholders.
"I don’t know about all of you, but I did not come down here to check a box," he said. "Just because the words ‘water quality’ are in the title of a bill does not make me proud to vote for it so that I can put it on a postcard when I go campaign."
Baltimore was one of four Republicans who voted against the legislation. The others included Reps. MaryAnn Hanusa of Council Bluffs, Jake Highfill of Johnston and Guy Vander Linden of Oskaloosa.
Four Democrats voted in favor of the bill: Reps. Bruce Bearinger of Oelwein, Helen Miller of Fort Dodge, Scott Ourth of Ackworth and Todd Prichard of Charles City.
What's in the bill
The bill would allocate an estimated $282 million to water quality initiatives over the next 12 years, Wills said.
That money would come from an existing tax on metered drinking water, which currently flows into the state's general fund, as well as gambling revenue, which currently is used to pay off bonds and otherwise would flow into the state's building and infrastructure fund.
The bill establishes a water quality infrastructure fund within the state's Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship. That fund will be used to support conservation infrastructure on agricultural land, including things like wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, terraces and waterways.
The bill also creates a revolving fund through the treasurer's office focused on water quality initiatives for cities and utilities.
"This funding will allow the Department to expand our investment in locally led water quality projects in targeted watersheds while also giving farmers and landowners statewide a chance to try practices focused on water quality," Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said in a statement.
Northey and the Iowa Farm Bureau lobbied heavily in favor of the Senate plan.
But Iowa environmental and progressive groups criticized lawmakers for using money that otherwise would have gone to the general fund.
"Corporate agriculture claims to be a $112.2 billion industry in Iowa," John Lichty, a member of Citizens for Community Improvement Action and West Des Moines resident, said in a press release. "The livestock industry alone claims $31.6 billion in economic output. They can afford to clean up the water crisis they created without placing a burden on Iowa taxpayers. Make polluters pay."
Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe issued a statement critical of the legislation as a way to "generate headlines for use in political campaigns."
"Water quality legislation that protects the health of Iowans should be the number one priority, not a pass-what-we-have-and-move-on priority," he said. "We look forward to working with the Legislature on meaningful water quality legislation in the future."
'Just the beginning'
Both Democrats and some Republicans in the House said they preferred the water quality bill Baltimore pushed through the House last session that was approved on a vote of 79 to 19.
That bill would have set up a financing structure that granted priority to groups that have multiple stakeholders who come up with water quality improvement projects at a regional watershed level. Baltimore said it would have created a more collaborative funding structure and required urban and rural stakeholders to work together.
Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, said he was "not exactly enamored" by the Senate bill when it arrived in the House for consideration last year.
But, he said, he has faith in Wills' promise that both chambers will work with the governor's office to pass follow-up legislation implementing some of the House's ideas.
"Today, technically, we’re just at the first phase of passing this legislation, and we’ll continue to evolve during this session," Heaton said. "I think that some of us who had concerns about the bill that we looked at at the end of the session can be reassured that work will continue and in the end make this bill a lot better."
Baltimore, though, said he would "literally be shocked" if the Senate agrees to advance any meaningful water quality changes after this bill is signed by the governor.
"Where the heck have you been for the last eight months?" he asked of senators, noting that if any changes were possible through compromise and negotiation, they'd be part of the bill debated Tuesday.
History of legislation
The proposal has bounced back and forth between the House and the Senate in various forms since 2016.
That year, then-Gov. Branstad announced he'd like to divert part of a revenue stream intended to fund school infrastructure projects into a water quality initiative.
Though that proposal met a lackluster reception in the Legislature, lawmakers followed Branstad's call for a long-term, dedicated source of funding for water quality, introducing House File 2451. Though House Democrats voiced numerous concerns with the bill, it passed the House with some bipartisan support as it advanced to the Senate. The Senate, controlled by Democrats at the time, did not take up the bill.
In 2017, Republicans gained control of the Senate and passed Senate File 512 — a bill with nearly identical language to House File 2451 — and sent it to the House.
The House refused to take up the Senate's bill, and the Senate refused to take up the House's bill.
On the final night of the 2017 legislative session, lawmakers worked through the night in an effort to reach a resolution on a number of issues, including water quality. But the stalemate continued and lawmakers left without reaching an agreement.
On Tuesday, the House agreed to take up the Senate plan and sent it to the governor's desk.