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AMES, IA

Iowa's political leaders should shut themselves in a room until they reach an accord on fixing the state's water quality and soil health problems, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

Vilsack, speaking at the Small Business Administration's Small Business Innovation Research road tour on Aug. 17, said 2017 is the year for Iowa's leaders to approve a policy fix for addressing water and soil health in Iowa.

"Leadership needs to get in a room, lock the door and not come out until they've got a plan," he said.

The costs of further inaction could be dire, Vilsack said, especially if other states continue to address water quality while Iowa remains idle. Other priorities such as economic development will be moot if Iowa's water deteriorates too much, he said.

"If we're the only state that's not (addressing this), there's going to be hell to pay," the former Iowa governor said at Ames' Gateway Hotel and Conference Center. "And there's no better time than 2017. This should be the only thing, in my view, the only thing anybody talks about."

Vilsack noted that Minnesota and Wisconsin are addressing water quality, as are other Southern states.

"It is irritating to me beyond belief, and I'm serious about this, that I have a damned sign in my office in Washington, D.C., from the Minnesota Water Project," he said. "The former governor of Iowa has got to look at that damned sign every day and know that Minnesota has a clean water initiative."

Iowa lawmakers unsuccessfully floated several policy remedies in the 2016 legislative session aimed at addressing Iowa's polluted waters.

Focus on the longstanding issue sharpened after Des Moines Water Works in 2015 filed a lawsuit against drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, claiming that underground tiles are acting as conduits, funneling high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for about 500,000 central Iowa residents.

Gov. Terry Branstad proposed diverting a portion of future sales tax revenue growth meant for school infrastructure toward programs to curb water pollution — a notion quickly rejected by the House of Representatives.

Instead, House Republicans passed their own plan to generate nearly half a billion dollars for water quality efforts over 13 years by shifting money from state infrastructure projects and using revenue Iowans already pay on their water bills. But Senate Democrats reject the House bill as a shell game that would reduce revenue available for education programs.

Senate Democrats unsuccessfully pushed a bill that would have raised the state sales tax by three-eighths of 1 cent, which would generate about $180 million starting next year. About 60 percent of that revenue would have been directed at cleaning up Iowa's polluted waters.

On Wednesday, Vilsack said Iowa needs a "bold plan" backed by "serious money."

"I think the political leadership of this state, regardless of party, regardless of branch, they have a unique opportunity," the ag secretary said, "and I think they have a very serious responsibility in 2017 about getting genuinely serious about soil health and water quality."

Ben Hammes, spokesman for Branstad, said Iowa's governor remains committed to finding a way to improving Iowa's water quality.

"As it was last session, water quality will be a major priority of Gov. Branstad's this session again," he said. "We have spent the better part of this summer in communities across 26 counties seeing firsthand the practices that have been implemented by Iowans to reduce nitrates and phosphorus levels."

Branstad would like to build off of the House's work last session. He wants to provide $730 million for water quality through 2029 without raising taxes.

"From the beginning, the governor has been clear his goal is to provide for a long-term, reliable and growing source of revenue to properly implement the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy," Hammes said. "The governor has also said his proposals are a framework and we're willing to work with anyone interested in improving our state's water quality."

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