Iowa snags $97 million water quality, flood grant
Iowa’s efforts to tackle water quality and flood challenges got a $97 million boost from a federal grant announced Thursday.
Gov. Terry Branstad, state and local leaders, including the city of Dubuque, are expected to gather Friday afternoon at the Statehouse to discuss the grant.
“The money will help accelerate flood reduction and water quality efforts in some key watersheds across Iowa,” said Ben Hammes, Branstad’s spokesman. “It will help us continue to focus on efforts in both urban and rural areas.”
Hammes declined to provide many details on how the $96.9 million grant would be implemented, saying only that it will complement Branstad’s recent $4.7 billion water quality plan.
The governor has proposed extending an existing 1-cent sales tax that’s earmarked for school infrastructure improvements. He proposes diverting part of the growth in the sales tax over three decades to address losses of nitrogen and phosphorus from farmland.
Branstad said Iowa schools would be guaranteed all the sales tax infrastructure money they currently receive, plus $10 million more generated from growth annually. Additional money generated beyond $10 million would be shifted to water quality projects as the state’s tax base grows. The idea has received lukewarm reception from some lawmakers.
A summary of the state’s application said it is an agricultural leader “but its modern agricultural landscape has also reduced the land’s natural resilience, impacting flooding and water quality throughout the state.”
The state, the summary said, is creating a “holistic watershed approach” that would work to increase upstream water quality and reduce flood risk downstream. “The state designed this approach to sustain its valuable agricultural economy while protecting vulnerable residents in downstream communities.”
The federal grant will form nine watershed management authorities that will develop plans to create “hydrological assessment and watershed plans, and implement pilot projects in the upper and lower watersheds.” Dubuque is expected to look at how housing is affected by flooding.
“This grant will enable Dubuque build significantly on our efforts directly assist residents impacted by flooding and to make our infrastructure — and our community as a whole — more resilient to flooding,” Mayor Roy Buol said in a statement.
Susan Heathcote, water program director at Iowa Environmental Council, said she’s happy to see the grant supporting watershed management authorities, a key recommendation recently from a task force created by the Greater Des Moines Partnership.
The grant summary said Iowa has suffered from torrential rainfall and flooding that created eight presidential disaster declarations between 2011 and 2013, affecting 73 counties and more than 70 percent of the state.
Iowa also has been under duress to take action on water quality, including a lawsuit from Des Moines Water Works.
The utility is suing drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, saying field tiles are funneling high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for 500,000 metro area residents.
It seeks to require drainage districts, and indirectly farmers, to meet the same federal water quality regulations that business, industries and municipalities must meet on water entering the state’s rivers and streams.
Larry James, co-leader of the Partnership’s task force, said the grant is significant and could help kick-start some of the group’s recommendations.
James said water quality and water quantity go hand in hand.
“The more water is coming off of fields, the more nitrates and phosphorus that will make their way into waterways as we’ve seen in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids,” James said. “If we can slow the water down, we can help with flooding downstream.”
Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe has criticized the governor’s funding proposal and the task force’s recommendations.
He said the recommendations fail to “assign any accountability to producers for their responsibility to protect the natural resources of the state” and throws “public money at a private problem.”