- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 23, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa lawmakers on Tuesday agreed to send a voluntary water quality bill to Gov. Kim Reynolds that doesn’t require comprehensive statewide monitoring of water pollution and excludes benchmark improvement goals, a point some environmental groups argue will lessen its impact.

The Republican-controlled House voted 59-41 for the legislation after floor debate took less than an hour. It passed in the GOP-majority Senate last session, remaining alive because of the two-year legislative calendar.

The House’s swift action masks years of disagreement in the Legislature over how the state should address its dirty waterways. The final vote isn’t expected to quell conversation, as highlighted by minority Democrats who note the bill doesn’t codify how the state should measure cleaner water.

The issue was deeply divisive for Republicans, some of whom pushed last session to add more collaboration from stakeholders like city, county and conservation officials. That proposal also had more Democratic support.

Rep. Chip Baltimore, a Boone Republican, voted against the final bill that passed Tuesday and appeared to criticize lawmakers who might view it as a legislative win for the midterm elections.

“Just because … the words ‘water quality’ are in the title of a bill does not make me proud to vote for it so that I can put it on a postcard when I go campaign,” he said.

The bill is expected to redirect $282 million over 12 years from state revenue toward existing voluntary water quality programs and create others. The funding would come from a water tax currently in the state budget and an existing infrastructure fund that collects gambling dollars. The funding is set to expire in 2029 unless the Legislature takes further action.

There has been little GOP support to start paying into a natural resources trust fund created in 2010 by voters. It requires raising the state sales tax by less than a penny.

Rep. John Wills, a Spirit Lake Republican who spoke on the chamber floor in support of the measure, defended its lack of water monitoring requirements by arguing that existing programs base their work on research set by a state-supported water quality initiative released in 2013. Known as the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, it aims to reduce pollution delivered to Iowa waterways and the Gulf of Mexico.

The same initiative estimates that effectively addressing water quality will cost the state billions of dollars.

Wills said he intends to introduce additional water-related legislation and promised the chamber “this is just the beginning, not the end.”

The final bill is expected to be the first Reynolds signs into law as governor. The Republican praised its passage Tuesday, but added it “does not mean the water quality discussion is over.”

“It should ignite a continuing conversation as we begin to implement and scale best practices that will continue to make an impact on water quality in Iowa,” she said in a statement.

Iowa has faced water pollution issues for years, and research shows it’s tied in part to farm runoff. According to the latest update from the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, agriculture and urban runoff contribute more than 90 percent of the nitrogen and 80 percent of the phosphorus leaving the state of Iowa.

Water dominated the 2016 legislative session, after a Des Moines water utility filed a lawsuit that claimed drainage districts in three counties didn’t properly regulate the release of nitrate pollution. The Iowa Supreme Court later determined the drainage districts have immunity to such lawsuits. But the issue has remained on the legislative to-do list ever since.

Iowa’s main agriculture department supported the final bill, as did groups like the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers Association. The Iowa Environmental Council, a coalition of more than 65 member organizations, opposed it. Kerri Johannsen, government affairs manager for the council, said the legislation falls short.

“It just really continues the status quo, which we all know is clearly not working,” she said.

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