Two committees at the statehouse have voted to shift authority over key state water quality programs from the Department of Natural Resources to the Department of Agriculture. Republican legislators say Iowa’s new Republican governor recommended shifting the duties to an agency headed by Republican Ag Secretary Bill Northey, and the Iowa Farm Bureau backs the move.
Representative Josh Byrnes, a Republican from Osage, says he believes farmers will be more willing to make improvements if the direction is coming from the Secretary of Agriculture. “Farmers are leaders,” Byrnes says. “And I think that farmers, you know, they know this best.”
If the bill becomes law, about $4.5-million in federal money the Department of Natural Resources had been spending on water monitoring and watershed improvement projects would, instead, be divied out by the ag department.
Representative Ross Paustian, a Republican farmer from Walcott, says he believes the Department of Agriculture would do a better job.
“And with their track record the last few years of their efficiencies with fewer employees, we think we can get more dollars out into the fields for more soil conservation projects,” he says.
Representative Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, a Democrat from Ames, says while the Department of Natural Resources has an image problem, this bill is not the answer. The ag industry seems to perceive that D.N.R. is anti-business and it is making it hard for the D.N.R. to work with landowners,” Wessel-Kroeschell says. “But this is clearly being rushed and has many, many, many problems.”
Representative Chuck Isenhart, a Democrat from Dubuque, argues a change this big warrants a new name for the agency. “Rename it the Department of Natural Resources Except Water,” he says. The bill has cleared a Republican-led committee in the Iowa House and a Democratically-led committee in the Iowa Senate.
A long list of environmental groups oppose the bill, arguing an agency created to promote agriculture is unlikely to set strict anti-pollution standards for grain and livestock farmers. Officials in the Department of Natural Resources say last year the agency spent nearly two million of the $4.5-million on soil conservation. The rest was used for water monitoring, flood mitigation, and writing watershed improvement plans.