By DOUG SCHMITZ
DES MOINES, Iowa — Gov. Kim Reynolds on Jan. 31 signed her first bill into law, which will fund $282 million in water quality projects through the year 2029 – one of many priorities she outlined in her recent Condition of the State address.
“This law is a significant step in the right direction and should ignite a continuing conversation as we work to make a positive impact on water quality in Iowa,” she said.
Passed by the Iowa House of Representatives by a vote of 59-4 on Jan. 23 and the Senate by a vote of 31-19 on April 19 of last year, Senate File 512 amends the state’s current wastewater treatment financial assistance program, creating a water quality infrastructure fund and establishing a water quality financing program.
Moreover, the new bill will provide for cost-share programs for infrastructure on agricultural and urban land under the water quality initiative, and create a water service excise tax and a related sales tax exemption. In addition, the bill will make transfers and appropriations, and other changes properly related to water quality, and include effective date provisions.
“This legislation is a significant boost as we continue our work on this important issue,” said Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey (who is still waiting on U.S. Senate confirmation for a top USDA post he was tapped for by President Donald Trump last year).
“We are excited to build on the strong foundation that has been established as we expand our collaborative, science-based efforts to achieve the water quality goals we all share.”
Under Senate File 512, $4 million in new funding will be provided by the state budget, beginning July 1, with $8 million in 2019 and $27.3 million-$30.2 million yearly through 2029.
“I’m really excited,” Reynolds said after signing the bill in her office at the Iowa Capitol. “We’ve been working on this a long time.”
Iowa Corn Growers Assoc. (ICGA) farmer-leaders were among several of the state’s farm groups that joined Reynolds as she recognized them and many others for helping to get water quality funding legislation through the Statehouse.
“State grants and loans for water-related projects will spur even greater private investment by farmers,” said Mark Recker, ICGA president and an Arlington farmer. “These dollars will provide additional resources, education and outreach, helping farmers scale up conservation practices on their farms and in their communities.
“As farmers, we want to do our part. I see it at every farmer event I attend, a strong desire by farmers to want to adopt conservation practices and to share with one another technical knowledge and key learnings. We are working with experts and scientists to use the latest technology and data in determining best practices.”
But Iowa Soybean Assoc. (ISA) officials said Senate File 512 represents a “timid response to a vital need for establishing widespread, sustained and measurable progress on an issue important to farmers and all Iowans.”
“It’s nibbling around the edges of what’s truly needed,” said Kirk Leeds, ISA CEO. “While some additional funding continues to point us in the right direction, it doesn’t get us too much further down the road in achieving the kind of results we all know are attainable and necessary.
“We’ll take the Governor at her word that the legislature’s action today ignites a much more constructive and reality-based conversation, and approach for achieving goals established in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.”
Leeds referred to comments Reynolds made in her Condition of the State address last month, pledging the passage of any new funding would “ignite the conversation” about ways to scale up water quality practices. He said the bill would reallocate tax money currently going to Iowa’s budget, while dipping into the state’s existing infrastructure fund.
Roger Wolf, director of ISA’s environmental programs and services, said that annual approval of more than $20 million in funding could be challenging during years when the state budget is pressured.
However, he said, “We look forward to picking up where this legislation leaves off. The legislation puts some fuel in the tank but doesn’t provide the horsepower needed to ramp up the pace and scale of practices proven to have a positive and measurable impact on water quality.”
Wolf said the ISA, in partnership with other rural, urban, agriculture and environmental stakeholders, has been actively engaged in funding and conducting in-field research on thousands of acres involving hundreds of Iowa farmers.
He explained knowledge gained from nearly two decades of work and investment underscored the ISA’s continued call for what he called a “watershed approach” to tackling the bipartisan goal of improving water and soil quality.
“Increased funding is just one piece of a much larger effort,” he said. “Watershed planning and implementation follow a simple philosophy: plan the work, work the plan. In addition to state funding, real and long-term improvements in water quality will require the shared involvement of rural and urban stakeholders. It will also demand identifying and unleashing new and impactful sources of financing above and beyond what the state can provide.”