Article by Des Moines Ikes Member—Neil Hamilton
(From the Des Moines Register Oct 14)
This beautiful fall is giving us an extra inning to enjoy nature. Visit a park like Easter Lake or bike one of our many trails and you see the evidence. If water levels were higher, the Raccoon River would be full of paddlers too. The pandemic has given extra value to people being outside.
Polk County residents have a perfect opportunity on Election Day Nov. 2 to show how much they care for nature and want to enjoy it.
By voting yes to approve the Water and Land Legacy bond referendum, voters will unlock $65 million to be used for conservation. The funding, about $11 per year for the average homeowner, will be used for: water quality, river protection, wildlife and nature preservation, flood mitigation, outdoor recreation, and trails.
Prospects are promising because in 2012, 72% of Polk County voters approved a $50 million Water and Legacy bond. The funds were put to great use on projects such as building the Jester Park Nature Center, renovating Easter Lake, improving trails in Brown’s Woods, and connecting bike trails. An additional $42 million in public and private funding was leveraged, meaning the impact almost doubled.
The new plan allocates $25 million for water projects, $20 million for parks, $10 million for trails, and $10 million for land. Even if you don’t live in Polk County you should encourage friends and family who do to vote yes. A yes vote will do more than unlock natural resource funding.
Approving the bonds will provide powerful evidence to state leaders that Iowans want more funding for nature. Most readers are aware that in 2010 over 62% of Iowans voted to amend our constitution to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, known as Iowa Water and Land Legacy or IWILL, with the next threeeighths of a cent increase in the sales tax. A decade later the Legislature and state leaders have still not put a penny into the fund.
If voters in Polk – and in Dubuque County, where a similar $40 million bond is on the ballot — vote the necessary 60% to pass the initiatives, perhaps politicians will wake up and get the message. Iowans want more natural resource protection and will tax ourselves to pay for it.
There is another important story in these referendums. We have three branches of government, legislative, executive, and judicial, and three levels of government, federal, state, and local. When it comes to protecting nature, it appears local governments are where the action is as citizens take matters into their own hands. Congress is tied in knots over self-inflicted crises like increasing the debt ceiling and keeping government open. At the state level all three branches seem to have turned their backs on nature. In June a divided Iowa Supreme Court rejected using the Public Trust Doctrine to hold officials responsible for protecting rivers. Manurespills and questionable decisions, like approving Supreme Beef’s 11,600head cattle operation near Bloody Run, a protected trout stream, give the impression some state officials aren’t very concerned about water quality or nature. The Iowa Legislature went home without taking real action on water quality.
That is why local actions are such a breath of fresh air. Polk County is leading the way, not just with the upcoming vote. The Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District Commission crafted a water quality strategy helping landowners install over 50 saturated buffers this year. The Iowa Department of Agriculture hadn’t installed that many in 10 years.
Another opportunity may soon open. In January local governments received more than $1 billion under the American Rescue Plan, the COVID-19 relief bill pushed by President Joe Biden. Guidelines for using funds are still unfolding, but some local governments are allocating funds for water infrastructure.
The lesson is if we don’t give up on nature and treat it with respect, then the reward can be a rich harvest of enjoyment.
Neil Hamilton is emeritus professor of law at Drake University and former director of the Agricultural Law Center.
Approving the bonds will provide powerful evidence to state leaders that Iowans want more funding for nature.