The Des Moines Register. Jan. 25, 2015.
Good things could flow from water lawsuit
The lawsuit the Des Moines Water Works contemplates filing against three Iowa counties is not a war against rural Iowa, as some would have it. Rather, it is a civilized approach to resolving a threat to public health.
The public utility that provides drinking water to a half-million customers in central Iowa has turned to the courts for a remedy for water pollution that the legislative and executive branches of Iowa government have failed to deliver.
This lawsuit could profoundly redefine federal and state regulation of water quality, not just in Iowa but in all states where water quality has deteriorated in large part because of the use of chemical fertilizers by industrial-scale agriculture. The problem for the Water Works is high levels of nitrate from fertilizer, which poses health threats to humans and exceeds federal drinking water limits.
If the lawsuit proceeds, the Water Works would be asking a federal court to declare that emissions from the drainage districts managed by the three named counties fall under the definition of "point sources" under the federal Clean Water Act. If the court so ruled, these drainage districts would have to obtain permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and meet federal standards for what they dump into the rivers.
These are standards that must be met by other point-source polluters, including municipal sewage treatment plants and factories that send waste directly into waterways. Pollution from agricultural land, however, is defined as non-point source and by law is exempt from regulation by the EPA. This lawsuit could change that.
After years of kicking this can down the road with excuses and vague unproven promises of action, it is high time this issue is confronted head-on.
If Iowa farmers and state officials are serious when they say they are determined to clean up the state's water, then they have nothing to fear from a lawsuit that aims to make sure the steps they are taking are having a measurable effect. Farmers who are not serious about clean water are the only ones who have reason to fear a lawsuit.
The lawsuit could change the terms of the debate about the source of water pollution from agricultural land. The source of the problem is often attributed to runoff, as storm water sheets off the top of fields. The Water Works argues, however, that the problem is deeper in the soil, in the drainage tiles buried several feet below the surface, which carry off subsoil moisture at the plants' root zone.
These underground drainage systems, which have existed across Iowa since the state's early settlement, are concentrated in north-central Iowa. Drainage tiles funnel subsoil moisture to buried pipe, then to ditches or streams and then to the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. Eventually this water makes it to the intake pipes at the Water Works treatment plants in Des Moines.
Thus, this plumbing system is a direct pipeline from fields to rivers, and it carries heavy loads of nitrate that is not absorbed by the corn or soybean plants or otherwise filtered through the soil. If it ultimately files the lawsuit, the Water Works will argue that this is a point source and should be regulated by the EPA.
High nitrate levels represent health and financial challenges for the Des Moines Water Works. To meet federal drinking water regulations, the utility must remove nitrate when concentrations exceed federal standards. That means operating the nitrate-removal facility at a cost of more than $7,000 a day, no small expense for a utility with an annual operating budget of $37 million. If nothing is done, Water Works officials say, that aging facility must be replaced at a cost of possibly $100 million. Ratepayers will pay more, Water Works officials warn.
There are thousands of county-regulated drainage districts in the Des Moines and Raccoon watersheds. The Water Works chose the three counties that would be named in the lawsuit — Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista — because drainage districts they regulate happen to be dumping water into waterways at points monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey. Based on recent samples at those points, nitrate levels measure as much as four times above the federal limit for drinking water.
State leaders, including Gov. Terry Branstad and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and leaders of farm organizations reacted with horror at the very idea of a lawsuit. They say the Des Moines utility should acknowledge progress on improved conservation practices and give them time to have an effect.
These leaders also point to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which was created two years ago in response to pressure from federal officials concerned about excess nutrients creating the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
The trouble is that strategy relies entirely on voluntary action by farmers and does not require precise measures of whether those actions work. Iowa will have to invest billions of dollars in conservation projects — much of which will come at public expense. Yet, without precise water quality standards and monitoring, there is no way to know if those investments are producing meaningful results. The growing nitrate levels in water coming downriver toward Des Moines suggest not.
Iowa agricultural leaders say Des Moines Water Works officials should have discussed alternatives before threatening to sue. It's not too late for that, however, and that is why the utility was required to give the targeted counties an opportunity to respond within 60 days.
Iowa political and agricultural leaders should offer to sit down with the Water Works and state and local officials throughout the Des Moines and Raccoon watersheds to map out a plan for reducing nitrate levels. The Water Works should accept a good-faith offer and postpone suing while a plan of action is created.
That plan should focus on a broad spectrum of solutions, including more precise fertilizer application and restoring wetlands or installing bioreactors to filter nitrate. That plan should set specific goals, timetables and water-quality standards. And farmers should be prepared to have water sampled wherever drainage district pipes emerge from the ground. A logical source of money for these projects would be raising the state sales tax for the Natural Resources and Outdoor Trust Fund.
If agricultural interests are not willing to pursue these alternatives, they should be prepared to take their chances in court and a judge's ruling that says a pipe emerging from farm fields carrying pollution is no different from a pipe emerging from a factory or a city sewage-treatment plant.
Quad-City Times. Jan. 25, 2015.
Let legislators restore local school control
Thanks goodness bills introduced this week will force an Iowa legislative discussion of an executive branch power grab from local school boards.
On Wednesday, Iowa's Department of Education reversed its long-standing practice of letting school boards set their own start dates. It succumbed to pressure from Gov. Terry Branstad and a few others to keep Iowa schoolchildren out of school and available for August vacations and the state fair, affirming that executive branch bureaucrats know better than parents and school board members how to educate Iowa students.
What other conclusion could be reached?
The education department's new rules effectively eliminate legal waivers to an old Iowa law that says this about the start of school: ".school shall begin no sooner than a day during the calendar week in which the first day of September falls but no later than the first Monday in December. However, if the first day of September falls on a Sunday, school may begin on a day during the calendar week which immediately precedes the first day of September."
That's right, state law allows school start as late as the first Monday in December, a ridiculous practice no one has attempted in Iowa. In fact, all but two of Iowa's school districts chose start dates earlier than the state law suggests. In every instance in the past, the Department of Education allowed those early starts.
Now, Iowa's Department of Education believes differently. So with policy interpretation — not legislation — the department grabs control of local schools. This elevation of appointed bureaucrats over locally elected board members is un-American, un-Iowan and extremely un-Republican.
This new policy allows exceptions only if a local district proves to the bureaucrats that a September start date causes, "significant negative educational impact."
Of course it does. That's why elected school board majorities in all but two of Iowa's 338 districts publicly decided that August start dates work best for students, parents, teachers, coaches, athletics, academics and all of the other local interests.
Branstad's state bureaucrats are uninterested in the thoughts of locally elected board members. The new rules call for "scientifically based" or "peer-reviewed" data to seek an earlier start date.
Of course, Branstad's Department of Education didn't even try to suggest that September start dates provide better education. No scientific basis or peer review. The driver for this change is all about keeping kids out of school for the Iowa State Fair and the state's late summer tourist spots.
Lake Okoboji hotel and tourist attraction owners love it.
"Not starting schools until after Labor Day, or the week of Labor Day, is the greatest thing that's happened to us in years and years and years," said Butch Parks, owner of Parks Marina in Okoboji in an interview with Sioux City's KITV.
Legislation is needed to resume the time-honored Iowa practice of letting school boards set dates based on feedback from parents, students and education professionals.
Iowa school superintendents — including our Iowa Q-C superintendents — unanimously support continuing local control.
"The more the state of Iowa does stuff like this the more they take away the powers of local education boards," North Scott superintendent Joe Stutting told Times reporter Jack Cullen.
Even state education director Brad Buck wants legislators to weigh in. "I would love a legislative solution and a compromise with the governor," Buck said.
When Branstad's own appointee seeks "a legislative solution," we can guess that lawmakers will oblige and stop this unnecessary power grab.
Telegraph Herald. Jan. 21, 2015.
Upon further review, regents' plan short-sighted
The more we learn about the Iowa Board of Regents' proposed restructuring of how the state's three public universities are funded, the less we like it.
We editorialized on the plan a month ago. We like the idea of the University of Iowa, especially, putting more effort into encouraging more of the state's best and brightest high schoolers to stay in Iowa for college.
We also liked the idea of boosting Iowa Tuition Grant funding to the state's private colleges, which are vital to Iowa and without which the state's public universities would burst at the seams.
Last but not least, our community colleges, including Northeast Iowa Community College, address several important needs, both for students who will later matriculate at four-year colleges and for others who pursue important skills training for a wide range of trades and professions. They are a sound investment.
However, upon closer review, we see in the regents' plan some unintended consequences. Lawmakers should scrutinize the proposal and recognize that this plan is not in the best interests of the state over the long term.
While it is true that competition — in business, athletics or other endeavors — can provide incentives for higher levels of performance, the regents' plan is flawed in that it creates "intramural" competition with winners and losers based on measurements that are not the most important.
The state's three public universities — University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Iowa — are pitted against each other for larger slices of the funding pie. And this "pie" is less about educational quality and fulfilling the institution's mission and more about boosting in-state enrollment.
While raising the stakes might well cause the institutions to "up their game" in recruiting — the University of Iowa certainly has gotten the message — the rewards come at the expense of their sister universities. The pie is no bigger; it is just sliced differently.
Hotter competition for Iowa students among the public universities, especially when those universities offer easy scholarship money, is likely to hurt enrollment at the more than two dozen private four-year colleges that make Iowa home. That roster includes local institutions Loras College, Clarke University and University of Dubuque.
A system in which Iowa universities poach students from other in-state institutions — public and private — creates expensive competition with little or no promise of delivering what Iowa ultimately needs, more students at all of its colleges.
Consider the University of Iowa's establishment of the Iowa Heritage Award. It grants $1,500 per year, up to $6,000 total, to all incoming first-year and transfer students who have a parent, step-parent, grandparent or legal guardian who received any UI degree. Now, why does the public have to spend up to $6,000 per student to incent them to attend one of the nation's leading (and most economical) public universities? Maybe the $6,000 should go to a student who doesn't have a close relative who attended UI. Being more aggressive and localized in recruiting is one thing, but throwing money around is another.
In addition to the unnecessary expenditure of tax dollars, what else is the problem facing Iowa? Jobs — filling the workforce vacancies that Iowa has today and is projected to have for years to come.
Experience shows that it is easier to recruit someone for a job in Iowa when he or she attended college in the state. Enrollment losses at non-regents schools does not bode well for Iowa's prospects of meeting employers' workforce needs.
Those workforce recruitment efforts won't be getting any easier in Iowa, which is losing population and is one of the nation's "oldest" states.
Funding for higher education and the skills training that community colleges provide needs to be a legislative priority. It is not only about education — it's about bolstering the foundation of Iowa's economy through a vibrant and prepared workforce. That means helping all colleges in the state, not pitting them against each other.
Sioux City Journal. Jan. 25, 2015.
Prospects grow for action on roads, bridges
A meeting our editorial board held with Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds on Friday left us confident the Legislature will pass and Branstad will sign a compromise bill on more funding for transportation infrastructure this year.
Branstad believes a bipartisan package of proposals, including a gas tax increase, will emerge earlier, rather than later in the session. He also believes components of the package will begin in the next fiscal year rather than be phased in over a period of years.
If he's right, and we hope he is, Iowa's deteriorating system of roads and bridges (including, perhaps, Highway 20) is in line for a significant, immediate - and, in our view, essential - boost in 2015.
According to the Department of Transportation, the annual deficit for road-and-bridge needs in Iowa is almost $1.5 billion; for critical needs, more than $200 million. Iowa ranks second worst in the nation for the number of "structurally deficient" bridges, according to the Federal Highway Commission.
In our discussion, Branstad pointed to the results of a consultant's report on the state released last month as one reason why the issue appears to have more traction within the Statehouse this year. The Battelle Report cites physical infrastructure as an area of state weakness in need of improvement for economic development.
Battelle (a nonprofit, independent research firm located in Columbus, Ohio) was commissioned by Iowa Partnership for Economic Progress — the state's CEO-level, industry-led advisory board created by Branstad in 2011 — and the Iowa Business Council to provide the state with an economic development strategic plan for the future. The 18-month, $400,000 study was privately funded.
"Physical infrastructure remains a prerequisite for economic development," according to the report. "In fact, in Site Selection magazine's 2014 survey of corporate real estate executives, 'Transportation infrastructure' ranks first on site selectors' list of the most important location criteria.
"The declining condition of Iowa's highways and reduced availability of highway improvement funding through the existing gas tax is now among the top concerns of industry executives across the state." (The report cites broadband service, one of Branstad's legislative priorities this year, as another infrastructure concern.)
Concluded the report: "... it's clear that advancing Iowa's physical infrastructure is imperative to realizing the state's economic potential."
We have advocated for an increase in the state's gas tax as a way for Iowa to meet its fundamental responsibility to provide a safe, modern system of roads and bridges, but we remain open-minded to additional or alternative ideas under study and consideration in Des Moines.
Bottom line: We do not wish to see the issue pushed off for still another year. Simply put, it's too important.
Rhetoric from Branstad and state lawmakers in the weeks leading up to this year's legislative session gave us encouragement this will be the year for action in some form. Nothing we have read or heard since the session began, including our discussion with Branstad, diminishes our optimism.