Confronting pollution. Iowa's water sources getting increasing scrutiny. We're questioning major stakeholders, crop production, environmental and nature conservancy on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, April 1 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Water is dividing Iowa, not topographically, unlike some other areas of the nation. In Iowa, there isn't a shortage, but purity is a concern. In central Iowa, that is creating animosity, finger-pointing, if you will, alleging responsibility and demanding court enforced changes. Elsewhere it is creating water clean-up partnerships between eastern Iowa cities and their upstream agricultural neighbors. In this high stakes struggle we're seeking insight today from Ralph Rosenberg, the Executive Director of Iowa Environmental Council and the Iowa Soybean Association's Roger Wolf. He directs that commodity group's environmental programs and services. And also perspective from Jan Glendening, Iowa Director for the Nature Conservancy. All three of you, welcome to Iowa Press.

Borg: Jan, how would you describe the Nature Conservancy just so that our viewers know who you are and is it an advocacy group?

Glendening: So we are an environmental conservation organization that works around the globe in all 50 states and more than 40 countries. We have worked in Iowa for 50 years on the ground working with private landowners on implementing conservation.

Borg: And Ralph, the Environmental Council?

Rosenberg: We're non-profit, we're privately funded, we're a member organization of other non-profits, of private organizations, some public entities as well and we have over 50 organizations and then hundreds of individual members.

Borg: An activist group?

Rosenberg: Well, we do education and we do advocacy as well, we do both.

Borg: And Roger, I think we can acknowledge that you are production agriculture people producing soybeans.

Wolf: We produce about 10 million acres of soybeans, about half a million bushels of soybeans annually.

Borg: Well, I want to introduce to you the people who are going to be questioning you today, and our viewers also. Across the table, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Let's start by talking about the problem, defining it. Mr. Rosenberg, how big is the problem? We hear this phrase impaired waterway. What does that mean and how many of them are there?

Rosenberg: Well, it is a problem and it's a statewide problem as well. We've had more impaired lakes and rivers than we've ever had before, last year we broke the record for the number of beach closures on the state monitored beaches. So it is a statewide problem and it's a problem caused by both non-point and point sources as well. We recognize it's not only the agriculture community, which gets a lot of attention, but it's also point source that contributes and that a true solution is going to have to cover both. But it is a statewide problem and it does include the impaired rivers, impaired lakes and beach closures.

Henderson: Miss Glendening, help the viewers, what is non-point and point source solutions?

Glendening: Point source pollution is what is coming out of our cities and point source, anything you can define that pipe to, so a factory and so forth. Non-point is everything that kind of comes in through the watershed basically.

Henderson: Mr. Wolf, do you agree with the definitions here about the scope of the problem?

Wolf: You bet. We're an agriculture state. We have 30 million acres that drain to 77,000 miles of streams and there's 945 cities and so from our perspective it is a combination of urban and rural working together and agriculture taking ownership of these challenges is really important.

Lynch: Now that we've sort of identified the problem and the scope of the problem, who is responsible for this problem? Mr. Wolf, I want to come back to you. Who is responsible for water quality issues?

Wolf: We all are. We all share in the investment needed to take care of these issues. And it's not just the water. Our economy is based on our ability to be productive in this landscape. And so we all have a stake in the outcome of this. And what we're working to do is to position Iowa as a national leader on soil and water work and addressing these issues --

Borg: But, Roger, he asked who is responsible and you say we all are, but I'm thinking is the guy who owns a house in Urbandale responsible? I think Jim is asking, who is causing it?

Lynch: Yeah, what is the cause of the water quality issue? Ralph, where does it start?

Rosenberg: Well, in a sense Roger is right, we all contribute to the problem. According to the Nutrient Strategy, which was this project that was put out combined with the ag community and state agencies and Iowa State University, over 80% comes from ag. But about 18% comes from urban. So the problem is statewide, the majority does come from our agricultural community. And so I think the solutions can be shared as well. I don't think the solutions have to be all on one person's shoulder. But we have to look at what the real problem is. If we only look at trying to solve point source we're going to be leaving over 80% of the problem unsolved.

Lynch: So then, Miss Glendening, who should pay for cleaning up the water?

Glendening: That's a very good question. I think we all should because it's something that we all collectively got here together as we have evolved, as policy evolved over the last several decades. That is what has contributed to the problem. And so we all need to come together. And a recent UNI study showed that over 80% of Iowans think that we all have a collective responsibility to pay for this.

Borg: Does that mean though, Mr. Rosenberg, are there different solutions? Do we eliminate the problem, the source of the pollution? Or do we treat the result?

Rosenberg: No, we have to go to the source of the pollution.

Borg: Every time? You don't just treat the result?

Rosenberg: Well, you may also treat the results in some instances, but if you don't treat the source then you're going to continue have a problem and you're going to end up treating it downstream so to speak. And so the -- it's not just being responsible, we also need to be responsible for the solutions as well. And you raised a real good question because we want to be responsible and we want whatever program it is or however taxpayers' dollar, to show that this really is treated statewide, that there really are results, that the water is improving and the public needs to see that. And so the responsibility for the solutions is statewide and then I think we also have a responsibility to be transparent about how successful we are.

Wolf: One thing I would say is that the Nutrient Reduction Strategy really did a great job of looking at the science and the performance of various practices that need to be deployed in the landscape and on farms, in fields.

Borg: That was a program for farmers?

Wolf: Well, it's a program for the state of Iowa and it brings together both the point source community and the non-point source community. Without that strategy we would be bifurcated into the point source community addressing their challenges via a permanent program and while continuing to work in the agricultural landscape. But the strategy really brings it all together.

Borg: Jan, would you say then there isn't one silver bullet?

Glendening: There is no silver bullet but there are many tools in the toolbox and we have the science and the technology, we know how to address this now. What is lacking is the funding and getting that outreach and education out there.

Henderson: Let's talk about some of the options that legislators have begun to discuss in terms of funding. This past week republicans in the Iowa House proposed using taxes that are paid on water usage and redirecting that money in the form of grants to cities for improving water treatment plants and drinking water systems. Mr. Rosenberg, is that just a drop in the bucket?

Rosenberg: It's too narrow of a solution and it also redirects funding from other sources because when you look at the issues out there, the loss of habitat, the loss of wetlands, the issues of working with farmers in terms of drinking water at the sources, it's too narrow of a solution, even if you agree with taking money out of the general fund, it's not broad enough. We also have to deal with the whole outdoor recreation and that does not address that at all.

Glendening: And the way I think about that is you can treat the cup of water that comes out of your tap or you can treat it up at the source and get the multiple benefits of better wildlife habitat for sportsmen, you can reduce our flooding impacts, you can improve the ag soils which is going to improve the foundation of Iowa's economy.

Borg: That pinpoints though more who is responsible and who is going to pay for it because the source can be more easily pinpointed rather than the user.

Glendening: Well I think we all -- we all use the water here in Iowa. So we need to come together and find a solution that addresses multiple benefits and really addresses our real natural resource needs.

Borg: But what I heard you saying is we go back to the source of the pollution to correct it.

Henderson: Mr. Wolf, I see you wanting to chime in.

Wolf: I was at the subcommittee meeting yesterday at the Capitol and I believe it was Peter Cownie talked about directing this tax to the issues connected with the treatment of water. And these cities are facing these challenges and I certainly understand that and I'm thrilled that the legislature is talking about advancing water quality. It's elevating that conversation. I'm thrilled with that. And of course I'm thrilled with -- there are features being talked about that connect with the Governor's plan and so on. So, but you're absolutely right, the other comment I made at that subcommittee is we'd like to see a revolving loan fund feature be amended to that bill, and we think that may happen as it works through, that would enable investment in the watershed with farmers, done in concert with the cities. This shouldn’t be an urban versus rural, we have to do this together.

Rosenberg: And it has to be sustainable and substantial. The one thing that the Governor did raise when the Governor put down his $4-point-some billion proposal was a recognition that a $4 million a year proposal or a $40 million dollar a year proposal, it needs to have a significant amount of money so that any solution has to do that and has to deal with both the drinking water as well as the recreational waters. And so there's a lot of proposals, when you talk about use, there's several legislators that talk about the checkoff and using an ag commodity checkoff system and I don't know if those are going to pass, but those target the ag community. Then there's others like our groups that support the legacy fund and the natural resources and outdoor recreation trust fund, which is a tax, but people know it has already been approved, it was approved in the Constitutional Amendment in 2010, it has been around for ten years, it's transparent, everyone knows the formula, people know where the money is going to be spent, it helps the ag community, it helps parks, it helps recreation, it's going to deal with wetlands. And we still feel that there is a chance and we still hope that the legislature takes it up realizing it is a tax.

Lynch: I want to come back to that, Mr. Rosenberg, because 63% of Iowa voters basically endorsed that plan when it was on the ballot. Why has it been so hard to get legislators to move forward with the funding, approve a sales tax increase? They raised the gas tax and there was never that kind of support for a gas tax hike. So what is the impediment?

Rosenberg: Well, I think the public still needs to express its concern about the urgency over it. I don't want to wait 27 years for it like we waited for the gas tax. But we need something, we need roads that lead people to Iowa, to stay in Iowa and Iowa as a destination. We want roads that are well-kept and safe so people come to our lakes and our rivers and our beaches. And so that may have taken 27 years but I don't think people are patient I think to wait 27 years for a water quality solution. They want to start seeing progress being made this year. I think there's some reluctance on legislators to vote for a tax increase two years in a row. But I disagree because I think the public supports that. And Jan mentioned the study from the University of Northern Iowa as well.

Borg: Roger, are you in agreement with that, that there needs to be public support? Are you disappointed in the way that support is not being found easily?

Wolf: Well, I'm proud of the fact that the Soybean Association has come out in support for the three-eighths cent sales tax as well as we support the Governor's plan. And we're open --

Borg: -- there's still uncertainty as to where the money is going to come from?

Wolf: Well, I don't spend a lot of time on the Hill but our policy director does and there's a lot of pressures, there's a lot of competing issues. But whether it's roads or schools or these are fundamental things that we have to have in this state. So I understand the pressure that they're under and ultimately we're going to need to find this revenue one way or another.

Borg: Jan, were you disappointed that the Governor's plan for using some of the school infrastructure excess money, not excess, but inflationary money that would be earned over the years that would go to water quality? Were you disappointed that didn't fly?

Glendening: I think, well I think the issues with the Governor's plan was that it's not substantial fast enough. It's just a few million dollars these first few years, or $10 million and it ramps up but it doesn't really address the issue. This is a $4 billion issue. We need to address this much quicker, in a better way. And I also don't like the -- I'm a mother, I have kids at home that are in school right now and I don't love the idea of something that I care so passionately about, which is our natural resources, people having to choose and the legislators having to choose between water quality and conservation and education.

Henderson: Mr. Wolf, I'd like to go back to you. Among the commodity groups you are the, yours, the Iowa Soybean Association is the loudest cheerleader for this effort. Why?

Wolf: Well, I think it goes back to the leadership of the farmer members that we work for and the boards that I represent. And they made a decision a long time ago that they had a stake in the soils and the water and it's just fundamental. We have to have stronger soils and cleaner water and we have to manage that water differently if we're going to continue to be competitive in this state. So that is what drives us. That is our overall mission and so they have made a big effort to invest in people and to actively engage farmers across the state and really applying science, helping them to becoming better. And that's the overall reason, we're trying to be better at producing, to be profitable and to take care of our natural resources.

Henderson: Do you agree that there's a need for $4 billion? And what percentage of that should go towards these cost share agreements with farmers?

Wolf: Yeah, it's a shared investment. And so farmers are going to be investing their dollars and they do now. We've made great progress in soil conservation. We still have work to do. But that is one of the big successes that we've had. Now moving onto nutrients, the science assessment helps us understand the scope and scale of the challenge. The fact that we're so nutrient rich in this state and that we have the infrastructure to produce and then we have this rainfall that fluctuates, we have dry years and wet years, and farmers are farming in the face of that weather. So it's complex, these challenges are complex but the scope and scale of the problem, if you will, is very large. We're owning a very large challenge. And so what we're about is really helping define the next generation of agriculture and what it's going to look like.

Lynch: Jan, I want to come back to you. Is part and parcel of this whole discussion whether or not state government should apply a heavier hand when it comes to water quality issues, soil conservation issues? Should the state be demanding more from Iowans, especially landowners?

Glendening: I think it needs to be in partnership and we need to do it together. Our rich soils help feed our economy. If our land is healthy, the flooding isn't as severe that's going on and we have more sportsmen and more wildlife habitat, you know, for my husband to go hunt. So I think it's critical that we work together to get this done.

Rosenberg: I think you made a great point though because right now it's a voluntary program and if there's not substantial funding, if there's not accountability, if there's not monitoring, the voluntary program is not going to work.

Lynch: You're talking about the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Rosenberg: Or even the overall issues regarding it. And we do appreciate when Roger talks about his work at the water shed level and the fact the Soybean Association is willing to put their money where their mouth is and say we need additional dollars and long stream funds. But if the voluntary program works, for it to work you have to have this kind of accountability, you have to have a steady stream of money, the public has got to know where it's spent, where it works, where it doesn't work and they want to see some results at the end.

Lynch: Does that scare farmers when you talk about applying a heavier hand?

Wolf: Well, we've never designed our voluntary programs to work in this manner. And I refer to when you go local and you go local to the water shed it's like a neighborhood, right? And Rock Creek in the Upper Cedar River water shed is a perfect example, those farmers came together, they assessed their watershed, they looked at existing land use, they looked at where can we blend the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and then those farmers came up with goals and objectives and timelines and those kinds of things and now we have an implementation plan that needs to be financed over time.

Borg: That is the plan, this incorporation with the city of Cedar Rapids?

Wolf: It's part of that Cedar River water shed and there's many, many other smaller scale water sheds that are coming together, but that is when the voluntary approach works.

Borg: Jan, you're shaking your head that you approve too. There are two contrasting ways of doing this. It's the Des Moines Water Works suing the three counties up in northwest Iowa, or there's the city of Cedar Rapids cooperating with upstream Cedar River. Which is working best?

Glendening: Well, we're part of the Cedar Rapids project that is going on with the city of Cedar Rapids, we're working with Charles City on very similar type of work, on how do you work collaboratively up at the water shed.

Borg: So I hear you endorsing collaboration --

Glendening: We endorse collaboration. I think a lot more can be done when we come to the table and we get everybody around the table, and it works best in local communities, and we talk about what are the needs of the people in the community and how we can align them.

Borg: Are you in agreement there, Ralph Rosenberg?

Rosenberg: The problem existed before 2016, the problem with clean water existed before 2010 when the Constitutional Amendment passed, it existed in 2006 when many groups, environmental groups, ag groups, outdoor groups came together to create that mechanism in the grassroots pressure for 2010. It was existing 30 years ago when people were talking about environmental protection in the legislature. How long are people going to wait? People want to see some results.

Borg: But what I hear you saying, we can't wait for the way Cedar Rapids and upstream is doing it? We need the Des Moines Water Works to be suing and forcing a change?

Rosenberg: Well, I do know that for the voluntary process to work we need to see a substantial amount of funds and a small amount of money that just helps one water shed won't work. You're going to need a substantial, steady stream of money. You're going to need some accountability. You're going to need it at a water shed level because otherwise then the voluntary won't work and then people are going to look for other alternatives. But you want to look at what is going to make that voluntary work? And if it doesn't work then people get impatient.

Henderson: One thing we have seen as an outgrowth of this court case is that it is sort of pitting rural against urban. As the leader of an organization, Miss Glendening, how do you deal with that in regards to this issue?

Glendening: I don't think it's right. So I work for a conservation organization, we protect land and water for nature and people. I also am a farm girl and I know the struggles that my brother as he's starting to farm has to face every day and making decisions on to try -- he's got 40 chances in his career to think about and make inputs to make his living. And when he has to make a decision that could impact his growing family and what his bottom line income is going to be, that's a hard choice. And that's something that we need to come together and the solutions, when you do something like the Iowa's Water and Land Legacy Trust Fund, if that was put together, that's a funding source that provides urban and rural benefits. We get more wildlife habitat, we improve quality of life and we get better drinking water.

Henderson: I can't count the number of times I've heard farmers say, if they're going to tell me how much nutrients to put on my farm ground, tell those urban people how much to put on their lawns. Is that a legitimate complaint?

Rosenberg: Actually I don't think -- I don't think any of the groups are saying we're going to tell an individual farmer what to do or how to do it. I don't think it's a legitimate complaint. I think it's whatever you call it, a straw person attack, I agree with Jan about the value of the legacy fund and I appreciate the fact the Soybean Association is also a leader in it because it addresses both urban and rural. In contrast to an urban/rural split, this three-eighths cent tax, the legacy, actually is an urban/rural partnership.

Lynch: Mr. Rosenberg, I want to ask you about a recent court decision that your organization was a part of. This district court judge ruled that the city of Clarion and the DNR should have considered more options in building a new wastewater treatment plant. Is there a point of diminishing returns where spending more money on a wastewater treatment plant doesn't buy you an equal amount of clean water, that there's less clean water for each dollar spent?

Rosenberg: We just wanted the rules to be enforced and the rules do have a cost benefit analysis that have to be performed so we're understanding of that. We just don't think the cost benefit analysis was properly performed. So then the options of how to best minimize degradation to the water wasn't even considered. So that is why we litigated because of the permit. We don't litigate that much but we felt it's really important, it's a tributary that goes into the Boone, goes into the Des Moines. On the other hand, we also support funding mechanisms to assist cities to upgrade their waste treatment facilities as well.

Lynch: Should cities assume that litigation is going to be a model in future cases, they have to look out for that?

Rosenberg: I hope not. I hope the cities look at non-degradation as a matter of preventing problems at its source, really taking some time and seeing how can we prevent the waters from getting polluted? These are point sources, again, we're not talking non-point. So we hope the cities really work at prevention because we don't want to litigate. But there are options and it is a matter of rules and law under DNR. So we hope it just spurs city models and also lets people know that there's both point source and non-point problems.

Henderson: We have just a minute left. You are all advocates for doing something. If you could, give us a succinct sentence, each of you, I'll start with Miss Glendening, why now? Why at this particular moment?

Glendening: We have had significant water quality issues and natural resource issues for years here in Iowa. And it's something that we need to invest in. Ag or ag soils are the foundation of our economy.

Henderson: Is this a tipping point, Mr. Wolf?

Wolf: Yes, this is a tipping point. We have to have strong soils, we have to have cleaner water. Our jobs and economy in this state depend on those things. It's a shared responsibility, it's a shared investment. We look forward to working with the legislature and the Governor on making this happen.

Henderson: Mr. Rosenberg?

Rosenberg: It's so special because it's urgent now. We don't want to have a Flint. We want to be proud of our rivers and lakes. We want to be proud of our waters. And that is what is urgent about it and if it means we have to raise some taxes then I think the public will support that as well.

Borg: We'll see. We'll have you back. Thank you so much for spending time with us today. And next week on Iowa Press, republican Congressman Steve King representing Iowa's Fourth District. Another republican is challenging his plans for an eighth term and we'll be asking him about that next week on Iowa Press. Steve King at 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. I'm a veteran. I am a builder. I'm a volunteer. I am a teacher. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign advocates for access to high speed broadband in all corners of Iowa for education, public safety, health care, government and economic development. Information is available at broadbandmatters.com. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa Public Television Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa Public Television.