Group highlights Iowa DNR's failure to enforce manure management plans

Numerous large-scale hog confinements in five Iowa counties are not following recommended practices for applying manure to farmland, according to findings the advocacy group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement released today. Under Iowa law, livestock farms "with 500 Animal Units or more (equivalent to 1,250 hogs)" must have a Manure Management Plan. Iowa CCI members studied 234 of those plans in Adair, Boone, Dallas, Guthrie, and Sac counties (central and western Iowa). They found "missing documents, double-dumping, over-application, potential P-index violations, incorrect application rates, and potential hazards of manure application based on the geography and farming practices of the land." Iowa CCI filed a complaint with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources today, requesting a thorough investigation of manure management plan violations as well as reforms "to improve oversight and to hold factory farm polluters accountable," including stronger enforcement of plans and permits, "increased public access to manure application records," more thorough inspections of livestock farms, and "better training across field offices for DNR staff."

I enclose below the executive summary of Iowa CCI’s findings. The full complaint to the DNR is available here (pdf). Pages 4 through 6 offer detailed recommendations for "next steps" to address the problems. Appendix A lists 91 farms in the five counties that are large enough to need Manure Management Plans, but for which such plans are missing. Appendix B lists five farms for which Manure Management Plans were not in the DNR’s animal feeding operations database. Appendix C shows which documents were missing from dozens of farms’ Manure Management Plans across the counties. The file also includes county maps of watersheds and roads to show where the farms in question are located.

Since Iowa CCI members examined Manure Management Plans in only five of Iowa’s 99 counties, today’s case study reveals only a small fraction of statewide problems related to manure application. Kudos to those who researched and exposed the DNR’s failure to do its job.

Calls for tougher enforcement may be a dead letter, given the Branstad administration’s hostility to regulations that inconvenience business owners and the Iowa legislature’s resistance to approve even small measures to improve water quality (and I’m not just talking about Republican lawmakers).

Iowa CCI’s mission and methods have made it unpopular in powerful circles. But those who criticize the group’s controversial acts (like heckling politicians) should also acknowledge important work like today’s case study. While some Democratic elected officials are deeply committed to addressing our water pollution problem, as a group Iowa Democratic officialdom has said little and done less about agricultural runoff. Iowa CCI speaks for many people who are angry about pollution impairing hundreds of waterways, and who know that electing more Democrats alone will not solve the problem. That’s why it has long been among the largest non-profits working on environmental and social justice issues in this state.

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Longer summer break for Iowa kids, but with less lake swimming

Thousands of Iowa children went back to school today, having enjoyed an extra week or two of vacation thanks to a new state law preventing K-12 school districts from beginning the academic year before August 23. In response to lobbying from the tourism industry, most state lawmakers and Governor Terry Branstad sought to block local school administrators from starting in early or mid-August. However, as economist Dave Swenson explained here, "there is no evidence that early start dates interfere in any meaningful sense with the Iowa State Fair or with any other tourism activity in Iowa."

If only the governor and most of our state legislators were as tuned in to how dirty water hurts Iowa tourism.  

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Environmental Protection Commission fails to protect the environment

The Environmental Protection Commission voted yesterday to eviscerate a rule adopted in 2012 to reduce stormwater runoff from new construction sites. The rule previously required developers to put at least four inches of topsoil back on sites. Thanks to a lobbying campaign from home-builders, the new wording requires topsoil replacement "unless infeasible," without defining that term. So any developer who doesn’t feel like spending money to put topsoil back can claim it would have been "infeasible" to do so. If the homeowner can’t grow anything on the impacted clay, and runoff contributes to more flash flooding in the area or downstream, too bad.

Dar Danielson reported for Radio Iowa that only two of the nine Environmental Protection Commission members voted against the rule change: Bob Sinclair and Nancy Couser. Sinclair proposed different wording, which sounded like a reasonable compromise, but other commission members did not want to adopt new wording, which would restart the lengthy public input process. The full list of EPC members is available on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources website.

One of the newest commissioners, who joined the majority yesterday in putting a few developers’ interests ahead of the environment, is former State Representative Joe Riding. Branstad named the Democrat to the EPC earlier this year. Riding’s action is disappointing but hardly surprising. He didn’t serve on committees that focused on environmental issues during his one term in the Iowa House. A former city council member in the rapidly-growing Des Moines suburb of Altoona, Riding has probably worked with lots of home-builders.

As Todd Dorman wrote earlier this year, the EPC “abandoned all sense of balance and fairness on this issue.” Expect more flooding in Iowa, more topsoil loss, and more pollution from yard chemicals making its way to our waterways.

UPDATE: Matthew Patane reported for the Des Moines Register,

Prior to voting, Couser said the rule change would mean homeowners will get “thrown under the bus” if builders don’t have to evenly distribute topsoil.

“Although it may not be the intent of the rule to protect the homeowner, the homeowner definitely, 7-to-1, is telling us that’s what they want from us. They want their soil,” she said.

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Three ways to help save an important rule for Iowa water and soil

The next few weeks will be critically important for deciding whether Iowa keeps a statewide rule designed to preserve topsoil and reduce stormwater runoff, which carries pollution to our waterways. Bleeding Heartland discussed the 4-inch topsoil rule here and here. Todd Dorman has been on the case with several good columns for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, most recently here.

Follow me after the jump for background on the issue and details on how to weigh in. Submitting a comment takes only a few minutes, or Iowans may attend public hearings in Cedar Rapids tonight, Davenport on March 25, or Des Moines on March 27 (scroll down for times and locations).

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Iowa Supreme Court rejects Farm Bureau's effort to nullify clean water rules (updated)

In a 4-3 split decision, the Iowa Supreme Court affirmed today a Polk County District Court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit seeking to nullify new state water quality rules.

The environmental community and groups representing big agribusiness have closely watched this case for years, because the “antidegradation” rules are an important step toward bringing Iowa into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. Had this lawsuit succeeded, no strong water quality rules would have seen the light of day for the forseeable future in Iowa, because Governor Terry Branstad has packed the State Environmental Protection Commission with advocates for agribusiness.

Follow me after the jump for more background on the case and details about today’s decision.

UPDATE: Added reaction from the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Environmental Council below. If there’s a more hypocritical statewide organization than the Farm Bureau, I can’t think what it could be.

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A Little Vietnam in Dallas County

(Terrifying comment on the lack of basic safety awareness among some Iowa gun enthusiasts. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Yesterday I conducted a wetlands delineation for the Iowa DNR at Pleasant Valley Wildlife Area, along the South Raccoon between Adel and Redfield. Among the highlights: a good plant list that included a new sedge species, Carex oligocarpa; numerous butterflies, including Tiger and Black Swallowtails, American Lady, Spring Azure, Eastern Comma, and Red Admiral; experience with riparian soils; and overall a good day.

The most memorable part came in the last 15 minutes. Four 20-something year-olds noisily stopped about 450 feet away on the old canoe access road and began making sounds that could have been firecrackers. When the first clear rifle report came, I knew that this was no mere Independence Day warm-up. At least two bullets hit within 100 yards of me and a third whizzed overhead as I crouched behind a low dirt pile.

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