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Guest Opinion

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

No easy choices

After the Des Moines Sunday Register article on February 12, 2006, I wrote down my thoughts on Iowa's polluted water problem! I procrastinated on sending it to the "Pilot Tribune," because every reader would be incensed. At my age, I don't need that!

But Mike Brecher has chosen to "re-open that can of worms", so, here's my thoughts on the topic...

There's no easy choices facing Iowa over water quality. For too long, everyone has chosen to ignore the problem. But, the Feds haven't! Several water-quality groups haven't either.

The problem is, basically, that while almost everyone recognizes that Iowa's waterways, lakes, and ponds are polluted in one way or another, nobody wants to accept the responsibility. To do so implies paying for clean-up. (With the exception of Storm Lake; it actually DID something!)

Blame there is! Enough to go around to every person in the state, maybe! Nobody wants to pay more taxes. Nobody wants another mega-bureaucracy interfering with their affairs. And, while Iowans may be able to live with water quality, as is, the rest of the nation isn't.

Iowa will not like EPA regulations, enforcement, and interference. But that's what is coming, unless this session of the Legislature comes to grips with the pollution problem- and actually does something about it.

I say everyone in the state is involved, because they are, one way or another. Citizens of towns and municipalities have sewage. Confinement operators have fertilizer. Cash grain producers have run-off and ground-water infiltration problems. Even the every-day guy who fertilizes their lawn is involved. There's a price to be paid for having bluegrass instead of dandelions, too!

While the citizens of the state have gone about their affairs, clean-water activists have been patiently waiting. It's been 24 years since the 'clean water' act of '72" was enacted; Iowa chose to either ignore it , or, procrastinate on action.

Not that methods of water clean-up haven't been available, either. Pollution removal is an evolving technology. But, sewage plant operators knew well-before '72 that effluent levels could be reduced, but it would cost enormous amounts of money to do so! And confinement operators knew before application of fertilizer that it should be worked into the soil. So, Iowans can't plead ignorance, here!

Nobody wants to pay the huge sums of money to alleviate or even reverse water pollution. "Study the problem" more, has been one popular approach. "Let the Feds pay for it", has been another approach. Or, "my neighbor is worse than I", has been said, more than once. All are valid approaches; none works.

Once started, the Federal Bureaucracy is like a huge wheel, crushing everything in it's path. The guy spreading lawn fertilizer may be faced with Federal fines, and/or jail time, if not in compliance with Federal regulations. And no farmer wants an enforcement team decending-down on their operations. Farmers are independent folk; perhaps the last of their kind. And we need raw meat, on-the-roof, to keep Iowans working!

So, what to do, here? Offhand, I'd say that right now, Iowa is kind-of like the kid caught with his hand in the cookie-jar. If you can get-away with it, the cookies taste mighty good; but if you get caught, there can be a high price paid! Iowa got caught, here, and the footsteps of the EPA are close!

Of the suggestions I have to cut-down on water pollution, none are palatable to everyone, because everyone shares in the blame. First, I suggest that all municipalities with lagoons and/or treatment plants bring their effluents into EPA compliance. This may mean vast new construction projects, the cost of which may have to be paid by new taxes. Federal help may be forthcoming, as might state help. But, in the end, new money means new taxes, I think!

Second, I think Iowa should have a "water severance tax" levied on confinement operators, the proceeds of which should be obligated for water clean-up. Applied fertilizer doesn't always stay on fields and go into crops: some ends up as run-off, some percolates into ground water. The tax proceeds should be used to construct a vast system of " side-stream reservoirs" to allow marsh vegetation to naturally remove excess nutrients from each river system.

Third, farmers who have no livestock but still apply fertilizers for cash grain should have to also pay a surtax either on acreage farmed or the fertilizer applied. Proceeds of this would also go into the "reservoir fund". An alternative would be to have a surtax on crops sold; neither of which is an "easy sell" to farm groups.

Fourth, while a several cent surcharge tax is already being discussed in the Legislature for more DNR revenue, this could be increased to five-cent tax, on every dollar spent in the state, with the proceeds either going into the "reservoir fund" or going toward dredging existing lakes deeper. Remember, every natural and man-made lake in the state has siltation and water quality problems.

Fifth, owners of vast, paved surface roads, like parking lots near malls or mega stores could, and probably should, do more to alleviate surface run-off and pollution. Every rain-storm and/or snowfall washes waste oil and gasoline into storm drains, which usually go directly into a waterway of some sort.

Obviously, the Legislature could choose to "do nothing", defy the Feds, and wait for the punishment. This approach has been used for the past 24 years, with results. But, patience at the Federal level wanes thin, especially so when the rest of the nation has had to comply with EPA rules and regulations. Remember, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, West Virginia, and even South Dakota had to clean-up their mine residue, often at great expense.

The last, and most profound question, is: How clean does Iowa want their waters? Iowa may never have had "clean" waters; those vast herds of buffalo didn't wander to Wisconsin to poop! And highly erodable soil was the same 200 years ago as it is today. Having every waterway in the state "acceptable" for swimming and boating may not be a feasible goal.

Insofar as being able to "afford" water clean up, I suggest that Iowans have been living on "borrowed time" for years! Past generations have indiscriminately applied fertilizers and pollutants; this generation might have to "pay up".