Our message at Environmental Lobby Day

Following are remarks by Marian Riggs Gelb, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council, delivered at the statehouse earlier today.  The remarks printed here are as prepared for delivery.

At the Iowa Environmental Council, we’re focused protecting Iowa’s natural resources and enhancing our quality of life.  Iowa should be a place where all of us, our children, and our grandchildren can live productive, healthy lives.

We must do more here at the statehouse to support environmental quality through public policies supported by sufficient investments to accomplish this goal. A healthy environment helps this state attract and retain businesses and qualified employees, and it directly translates to better health outcomes for our people.

As the economic downturn took hold in Iowa, we witnessed deep cuts in funding for environmental and conservation priorities.  We hoped these cuts would be short term, but instead, we are alarmed to see the Governor’s proposed budget for this year moves us toward accepting these cuts as the new normal.

The picture at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is particularly stark.  Since fiscal year 2009, the size of the state’s general fund is proposed to increase by just over three percent.  The governor’s proposed budget for this year would cut general fund support for DNR by one third over the same time period.

Facing rising personnel costs, the Department has absorbed these cuts by reducing the size of its workforce to a point where we now question its ability to successfully fulfill its statutory responsibilities.

This funding trend is in direct contrast to the commitment 63% of Iowans made to our natural resources when they voted for the constitutionally protected Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund.

The legislature must find ways to prioritize funding for conservation and protection of natural resources this session and recognize that leaving environmental quality behind will harm our efforts to realize an economically secure future for Iowa.

Today, I want to share a few stories from around Iowa that illustrate the connection between our environment and our state’s future.

Iowa Rivers Revival just named Charles City its 2012 Iowa River Town of the Year, and it’s easy to see why.  This community has come together to create new riverside parks and transform a dangerous low-head dam into a whitewater kayak course.  And they’ve committed to protecting water quality in Iowa by installing the state’s largest permeable paving system to reduce stormwater runoff and keep the river clean.

Charles City is a recreational and economic development success story.  But without good water quality in the Cedar River, no one will want to make use of these new amenities.  It matters what happens upstream.

To protect waters in the Cedar River and elsewhere around the state, Iowa should utilize a watershed-based approach to improve water quality, and funding should be prioritized for areas where it will provide the greatest return for the taxpayer’s dollar.

Making smart investments in water quality requires good water quality monitoring, which is critical to understanding how pollution is affecting our lakes, rivers, and streams and also to verifying our progress toward making improvements.

Another example of a well-loved project with connections to good environmental quality is the High Trestle Trail, just north of Des Moines.  The trail features a spectacular bridge over the Des Moines River offering one of central Iowa’s best scenic views.

The bridge sits at the extreme north end of Saylorville Lake that, like many lakes in Iowa, is increasingly filling in with silt washing off land.  That’s a problem, because as we all know so well, the reservoir provides critical flood protection to Des Moines, including the neighborhood just outside this building.

The continuing deterioration of Saylorville Lake and others like it raises serious questions about our commitment to controlling the problem of soil erosion.  Our state fiscal policies are seriously hampering the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship’s ability to get proven conservation practices on the ground to protect our farm fields and waterways from soil losses and nutrient runoff.

In fact, the number of professionals employed by the Department’s Division of Soil Conservation reached its peak in the 1980s and has since fallen by more than half. In the last five years, administrative support available to Soil and Water Conservation Districts is off 20%.  These reductions in personnel have resulted in significant delays of the installation of conservation practices in Iowa.

The minimum step Iowa should take is to adequately fund the implementation of conservation programs we already have.  And further, in light of the size of the problem we face—it’s time to identify certain bad practices—like planting crops right up to the edge of rivers and streams—that we simply shouldn’t tolerate in Iowa anymore.

Further down the river here in Des Moines, careful land use planning is critical to limiting changes that create greater risk of more flooding disasters for Iowa.  This issue touches all corners of the state—because all of us live downstream of someone else.

If you walk down Locust Street to the river, you’ll see the Principal Riverwalk—which is still under construction—and includes a flood wall.  Last year, the City of Des Moines announced that flood wall is likely two feet short of the level of protection the city needs based on a new worst case flooding scenario.  One plan to respond to this bad news bears a 40 million dollar price tag.

The legislature should implement better floodplain management upstream—including encouraging use of grass buffers and wetlands to store floodwaters and additional measures to control stormwater from cities.

And so, just along the Des Moines River between the High Trestle Trail’s bridge and the statehouse, we can find numerous reasons to take action to protect our environment.  And environmental protection matters in many other ways as well.

Governor Branstad has set the goals of bringing 200,000 new jobs to Iowa and making this state the healthiest in the nation.  These are both admirable goals.  At the Council, we believe a healthy Iowa environment will help to achieve them both.

Conservation action and careful development of our natural resources provide direct opportunities for economic development, job creation and a high quality of life.  And further, these activities help make Iowa a more attractive place to locate a business or look for a job.

And for the task of keeping Iowans healthy—outdoor recreational opportunities provide numerous ways for Iowans to move more and enjoy the great outdoors.

None of this will be possible if we accept the reality that the legislature is currently considering—where dramatic cuts have become the new status quo.  A healthy environment is the foundation of our quality of life, and environmental protection and conservation are worthy investments in this legislative session.  We hope the legislature will respond and put Iowa back on track to a brighter future.


One response to “Our message at Environmental Lobby Day

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