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Naturally Speaking: The Legislature is in session

For better or worse, the Iowa Legislature is in session. The legislators are hoping it will be a short session, allowing them time to campaign for re-election. They’re coming off of a 2013 session that saw passage of several major pieces of legislation made possible by good old bipartisan negotiation and compromise. Perhaps that can continue for the 2014 session.

No major new conservation or environmental initiatives are anticipated (again), but that’s not to say there aren’t some important conservation issues to consider in the few weeks to come before the first “funnel date,” Feb. 21, when all bills that are to move forward are to be passed out of their respective committees. The bills that survive past that date can still be debated and are likely to see a number of changes before, and even if, they finally reach the governor’s desk for signature.

The governor has already released his proposed budget. Although property tax relief and education issues gobble up a large chunk of the proposed expenditures, there are some important conservation considerations buried in the numbers. The legislature will come up with its own budget proposals that will not be the same as the governor’s, but the following numbers from the governor’s budget provide a starting point and a hint of what conservation interests might expect.

The governor proposes $8.6 million for lake restoration, dredging and water quality projects. What the legislature does with this proposal will have some impact on Story County with the ongoing effort to deal with water quality problems in the 4,000-acre Hickory Grove Lake watershed. An official plan to address some of those problems is now in place, but will require sufficient state funding to move forward. There’s an additional $4.4 million proposed for water quality initiatives. Iowa has approximately 21 million acres of cropland that’s been identified as a major source of nitrate pollution that contributes to Gulf hypoxia; better known as the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. It was measured at 5,800 square miles, or three times the target goal, in 2013. Locally, Des Moines and other communities continue their struggle to remove nitrate pollution from their drinking water. Industries and municipalities contribute significant nutrient inputs into Iowa waters, but they’re already heavily regulated. Agriculture remains the largest contributor of nutrient pollution into Iowa waters, but ag practices that help control nutrient loss into our waters are still voluntary. There is no single silver bullet to fix this problem. A combination of techniques, such as better timing and more accurate application of nitrogen fertilizer, cover crops, perennial buffer strips, wetland restorations and other practices will be required.

The governor proposes $5 million for continuation of major maintenance projects in the state park system. There’s an additional $5.8 million for ongoing regular maintenance in state parks, where deferred maintenance due to past budget cuts has become a huge problem. The proposal is a slight cut from last year’s budget and is less than the DNR’s request; $2.5 million is proposed for the State Trails Fund that helps trail development around the state. This has slowly come to be viewed as economic development as well as recreation, due to the positive experience of communities where well-developed trail networks have been established. REAP funding that has made so many local park projects possible holds level at $16 million.

There are other budget proposals for community attractions and tourism, water trails and low-head dam safety grants, and even money for a new state park in western Iowa. Conservation and recreation interests have seen far worse proposed levels of funding in the recent past, but Iowa is sitting on a record level of budget surplus, thanks to past cuts to many state agency budgets and an improving economy. Our levels of state funding for conservation and recreation still rank near the bottom of the stack nationally. There will doubtlessly be a lot of give-and-take as the fiscal 2015 budget comes together. We can only hope that Iowa will act responsibly to address some of the big conservation issues we face.

(Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation.)

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