Choosing the right stream: How Iowa can keep clean water priorities and funding equity together

Iowa’s investment — or lack of investment — in water quality is a perennial issue driven by growing attention to pollution by the state’s most prominent industry, agriculture. Nine years ago, Iowa voters responded with overwhelming approval of a constitutional amendment creating a Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. The funding source was to be a new sales tax dedicated to natural resources programs, many to improve water quality.

The trust fund remains empty and other action to improve water quality has been scant. In 2013, under pressure from the federal government, the state rolled out the Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), supposedly to reduce nutrient pollution by about half, but with no deadlines or enforcement mechanisms. The NRS did include new programs to work with landowners to voluntarily change farming practices. Five years after that, in January 2018, the new governor put her first signature on a law to allocate more funding into water quality programs.

While some programs received funds through programs designed to implement the NRS, other water quality programs were eliminated or reduced. Thus, overall funding of water quality programs had not even reached the funding level of 2008 or 2009. [1] The 2018 legislation finally brought new money to the table, but not by expanding the budget pie. It put no new sources of funding into the package. Instead, it pitted existing uses of those funds for programs such as education and supports that benefit low- and moderate-income Iowans, and working families against conservation practices. Depending on the sales tax as the only source of new revenue also has equity problems.

As we illustrate below, not finding new sources to fund water quality or depending on sales taxes create funding equity issues. Such policy also eases the tax load on polluters who are not required to deal with the problems they create.