- Associated Press - Thursday, March 27, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Environmental groups are expressing concern that a proposal being considered in the Iowa House would prevent the public from accessing information about water quality and land-use practices collected by projects partially funded with taxpayer dollars.

The proposed addition to a bill funding the Department of Agriculture deals in part with the development of a water quality initiative as part of the state’s strategy to reduce manure and fertilizer that runs into rivers and streams from fields. The program could provide as much as $23 million to fund farm projects and sets up water quality evaluations and creates a database of aggregate water quality and land use practices across the state.

Environmental groups say the data is critical to understanding the pollution risks in Iowa watersheds, how to prevent future problems, and clean up existing ones. Policies to keep that information confidential would eliminate public oversight. A Republican-led House subcommittee is considering the addition.

“There will be no way for the public to measure or share the progress of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy unless information from the water quality practices database is accessible to citizens,” said Angie Carter, a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. ICCI often protests large-scale hog confinement operations.

Department of Agriculture officials say they’re only seeking to ensure farmers that voluntarily participate in the program that details of their land practices won’t be made public. The department believes farmer may not participate if they believe activist groups can access their individual information.

“The provision they are referring to merely updates and clarifies language included in the bill last year designed to make sure farmers private data remains confidential,” said department spokesman Dustin Vande Hoef. “This provision is necessary so that important data showing the progress we are making on water quality can be collected and studied without risking the personal information of farmers being released.”

Linda Kinman, a lobbyist for Des Moines Water Works, said it’s understandable that individual farmers don’t want information about their land or projects released but aggregate information that doesn’t pinpoint individual land parcels is important to determine whether the policy is working to clean up water.

“We’re looking out for our customers,” she said. “We want improvements in our watersheds so our customers are better served. It is important to us to know some of that information.”

Water Works, which provides water to about 500,000 customers, had to spend $375,000 in the spring of last year to run its nitrate removal facility after nitrate levels from farm field runoff in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers exceeded federal limits.

Rep. Jack Drake, R-Griswold, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee, did not immediately respond to messages.

Rep. Charles Isenhart, D-Dubuque, the lead Democrat on the Environmental Protection Committee said he was approached by the Iowa Environmental Council which also was concerned about the language. He said he doesn’t believe agriculture officials intend to shield aggregate data that would not zero in on any specific landowner.

“We’ll discuss the language and tighten it up to allay concerns,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, D-Council Bluffs, said the bill will be evaluated and likely amended.

“I see little reason for public documents to be kept secret,” he said.

IEC spokesman Matt Hauge said a balance must be found that protects farmer confidentiality but provides adequate information.

“I hope that we can recognize there needs to be a balance between giving farmers the confidence to participate while giving the taxpayers confidence to keep funding the program,” he said.

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