Keeping Iowa in the dark is not acceptable

If you watch the Iowa Legislature in action, there are some truisms you see time and again.

Such as: Each political party is in favor of transparency and accountability — until they gain the majority. Then those politicians see many reasons why transparency and accountability are problematic.

Another: If you don’t know where you are going, any path will get you there.

And then there is today’s truism: Don’t ask a question if you are afraid of the answer.

For the Republican majority in the Iowa Senate, the answer they do not want to hear is what the scientific data show about the pollution of Iowa lakes, rivers and streams with nitrates and phosphorus, two contaminants that come primarily from agricultural runoff. They do not want to know whether the problem is getting better or getting worse.

Last week, the Senate approved the budget for state general fund spending for agriculture, natural resources and environmental protection. The bill eliminates $500,000 for Iowa State University’s Nutrient Research Center, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported.

In past years, this allocation has paid for deploying and operating 66 river sensors across Iowa that scientists at Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship have used to monitor levels of nitrates and phosphorus in these rivers and streams.

The sensors, and the data they collect, have been used to help state officials and researchers know how well improvements to water treatment plants, wetlands and conservation practices on Iowa farms are reducing this significant source of water pollution.

In 2008, under pressure from environmentalists and fishing interests in the Gulf of Mexico, states is the Midwest agreed to reduce by 45 percent the nitrates and phosphorus they send downriver to the Gulf. These pollutants have created a “dead zone” in the Gulf that makes it nearly impossible for fish and other aquatic life to survive.

The real-time readings from the 66 Iowa sensors let scientists know how well, or not, Iowa’s voluntary plan for reducing the so-called “nutrients” in Iowa river water is succeeding.

Iowa law and the nutrient reduction strategy encourage, but do not require, farmers to reduce the amount of nitrates or phosphorus they are allowing to move from their land into nearby streams and rivers to be carried south to the Gulf of Mexico.

If House lawmakers go along with the Senate’s decision to remove money for the sensors, the success or failure of Iowa’s pollution-fighting strategy will just be a matter of conjecture. There will not be scientific data to show whether the efforts are working.

Without the instruments monitoring water quality 24/7, the Republicans who control both chambers in the Legislature, as well as the governor’s office, cannot be embarrassed if the water quality problems continue unabated.

Silvia Secchi, a University of Iowa professor and researcher at the university’s Public Policy Center, told the Gazette last week, “The Legislature does not like that the data and the science show our water is getting worse, and so they are trying to get rid of the data and show other institutions in the state that their funding will be cut if it produces information that they find inconvenient.”

No one quarrels with lawmakers for looking for ways to tighten state spending or to adjust state government’s priorities, with the state general fund for the coming fiscal year expected to be $8.5 billion. But the $500,000 for the water-quality sensors is not a big-ticket expense. The appropriation is equivalent to a family with an income of $50,000 needing to find $3 to cover an expense.

The decision senators made last week is demoralizing. Whether you agree with Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy or not, can’t we all agree that lawmakers, government policymakers and the people of Iowa who are paying the bills should have reliable data available to help them see what policies and practices are working and which need to be changed?

That is how it works in other areas of state government. The Department of Transportation monitors truckloads of data, including traffic volumes, accident statistics and the results from regular inspections of thousands of bridges.

Lawmakers have demanded that decisions to install speed cameras and red-light cameras be tied to data showing an improvement in traffic safety. The millions of dollars the state hands out in economic development assistance to businesses is tied to their promises of employment numbers and salary levels.

Senator Dan Zumbach, a Republican from Ryan, managed the budget bill last week on the Senate floor. He told colleagues Republicans want to put more money into conservation practices.

Of course, without the sensors, Iowans will not know if those conservation programs are working.

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Randy Evans can be reached at

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