DES MOINES — Iowa farm leaders are happy about legislation that should provide a long-term funding stream for water quality, but they are quick to stress this is only a first step.

“This is a milestone, but it’s not an end-all,” said Iowa Farm Bureau Federation President Craig Hill.

The bill moves money from several other funds into water quality programs. Lawmakers say it commits $282 million over 12 years. That money will phase in gradually, with about $4 million in fiscal year 2019, beginning July 1.

It was one of two bills considered by Republicans in the Legislature last year and resembles a bill passed by the House in 2016. In 2017, the House passed House File 612, which provided a similar amount of money but included other language regarding a watershed approach to spending. As last year’s legislative session ground to a close, the House and Senate could not agree on a single bill and the issue was essentially tabled until 2018.

On Jan. 23, the House passed the Senate bill by a 59-41 count, with 55 Republicans and four Democrats supporting it. Thirty-seven Democrats and four Republicans voted against the bill, many of them saying they preferred HF 612.

Some lawmakers still supported the idea of raising the state sales tax to pay for the water quality funding, arguing both existing bills would cause problems in other areas for an already tight state budget.

“We’re disappointed,” said Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmers Union. “We were hoping there would be more discussion on how to improve this piece of legislation.”

Kirk Leeds, CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association, said his organization supports the increased funding but preferred the House bill.

“We certainly recognize the difficulties of the state budget,” Leeds said. “And this does generate a few million dollars for water quality. It is definitely a step forward, but it could have been more.”

Leeds said his biggest concern is farmers have a small window of opportunity for a voluntary approach to water quality. If they can’t demonstrate results during that window, the public will decide to take a different approach. He said he is not convinced this legislation provides enough help to show those results.

And he is hoping lawmakers don’t decide they have now addressed the water quality issue and can forget it for several years.

Other farm leaders are more upbeat, saying while this doesn’t solve the problem of money for water quality programs, it helps.

“It’s a good start,” said Dennis Friest, a farmer and leader with the Iowa Corn Growers Association. “It’s a very positive thing for us.”He said farmers have made tremendous progress in adapting environmentally friendly practices.

“Iowa pig farmers are happy to participate in continuing to improve water quality in Iowa,” said Gregg Hora, president of the Iowa Pork Producers Association.

Farmers need to continue to use manure as a resource, Hora said, and to implement practices that can improve water quality.

Cattle producers are also excited about the new legislation, according to JanLee Rowlett, government and regulatory affairs manager for the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association.

“We’re excited to see legislation get passed so we can build on our momentum,” Rowlett said.

The bottom line is that the bill provides more money than was available before, said the Farm Bureau’s Hill.

“This is not the end,” he said. “It’s a step.”

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