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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Iowa Senate district 26 preview: Mary Jo Wilhelm vs. Waylon Brown

After several months of recruiting efforts, Republicans finally have a candidate willing to run against two-term State Senator Mary Jo Wilhelm in Iowa Senate district 26. This race is among a half-dozen or so contests that will determine control of the upper chamber after the 2016 elections. Since Iowans elected Governor Terry Branstad and a GOP-controlled state House in 2010, the 26 to 24 Democratic majority in the state Senate has spared Iowa from various disastrous policies adopted in states like Kansas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Of the senators who make up that one-seat majority caucus, Wilhelm was re-elected by the narrowest margin: 126 votes out of nearly 31,000 cast in 2012.

I enclose below a map of Senate district 26, a review of its voter registration numbers and recent voting history, and background on Wilhelm and challenger Waylon Brown. Cautionary note: although Brown is the establishment’s pick here, he is not guaranteed to win the nomination. "Tea party" candidates won some upset victories in the 2012 Iowa Senate Republican primaries, notably Jane Jech against former State Senator Larry McKibben in Senate district 36 and Dennis Guth against former State Senator James Black in Senate district 4.

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Throwback Thursday: The road not taken on Iowa's "Ag Gag" law

Iowa Capitol photo Fotolia_24694213_XS_zpsbnpz4jnl.jpg

A U.S. District Court ruling in August inspired today’s edition of Throwback Thursday. That ruling struck down an Idaho law making it a crime to lie to obtain employment at an agricultural facility, among other things. Iowa was the first state to adopt what critics call an "ag gag" law, aimed at making it harder for animal rights or food safety activists to obtain undercover recordings at farms or slaughterhouses. Idaho’s law went further than the bill Governor Terry Branstad signed in 2012; for instance, the Idaho statute also banned unauthorized audio or video recordings at a livestock farm or processing facility. Still, to this non-lawyer, some passages of federal Judge Lyn Winmill’s ruling (pdf) suggested that Iowa’s prohibition on "agricultural production facility fraud" might also violate the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment’s free speech clause and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.

Bleeding Heartland posted relevant excerpts from the Idaho ruling here, along with a brief legislative history of House File 589.

I sought Governor Terry Branstad’s comment on the court ruling and whether Iowa lawmakers should amend or rescind the language in Iowa Code about "agricultural production facility fraud." In response, the governor’s communications director Jimmy Centers provided this statement on August 6:

House File 589 passed with bipartisan support and under the advice and counsel of the Attorney General’s office. The governor has not had the opportunity to review the ruling from the federal court in Idaho and, as such, does not have a comment on the case.

"Under the advice and counsel of the Attorney General’s office" didn’t sound right to me. When I looked further into the story, I learned that the Iowa Attorney General’s office neither recommended passage of this law nor signed off on its contents.

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Rest in peace, Jack Drake

State Representative Jack Drake passed away this weekend at the age of 81. He had been the longest-serving Iowa House Republican, representing parts of southwest Iowa since his first election in 1992. His current district (House district 21) covers all of Union and Adams Counties and parts of Cass and Pottawattamie Counties. Since the Republicans regained the Iowa House majority in the 2010 elections, Drake had chaired the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee. Iowa House Speaker-Select Linda Upmeyer said in a statement today, "Iowa lost a dedicated public servant with the passing of Rep. Jack Drake. […] During his time in the Iowa House, Jack was a leader and trusted resource on agricultural issues which are so important to the State of Iowa. As the most senior member of the House Republican Caucus, his expertise and guidance will be sorely missed."

I have never met Drake, but by all accounts he was a wonderful person to work with. The word “kind” came up again and again today in my conversations with people who interacted with him, either as fellow lawmakers or as advocates.

Former State Representative Frank Wood, who was the ranking Democrat on Drake’s appropriations subcommittee in 2013 and 2014, told me he was “shocked” by the news and said Drake would be “sorely missed.” Wood “thought very highly of him when I worked with him. He always kept me in the know of what was going on and what his limitations were” in terms of the budget targets. Democrats often requested additional funding for various programs, and according to Wood, Drake “understood and flat-out told me, if I had more money, I would definitely put it in those areas.” During the 2014 legislative session, when environmental advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers fought for extra funds for the Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program, Drake was generally supportive. (The legislature approved record funding for REAP that year, but Governor Terry Branstad vetoed part of the money.) Wood also described Drake as “a gentle giant” and “a very non-partisan individual.” He toted the Republican line, but was “very pleasant to work with. I don’t think he had a mean bone in his body.”

State Representative Scott Ourth, the ranking Democrat on the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee during this year’s legislative session, told me, “What a sad day it is. Jack and I struck up a fast friendship right from the get go. He was very fair, an honest guy to work with, willing to compromise where his leadership would allow him to.” He “never stood in the way” of Ourth advocating for REAP funding or other Democratic priorities. Echoing Wood’s sentiments, Ourth described Drake as “a loving, kind, and generous man” and an elected official out of “the old school” with “no partisan divisiveness.” He was willing to work “with anyone and everyone” at the statehouse. Ourth summed up that he had “nothing but good things to say about that man” and would “miss him terribly.”  

Ourth also mentioned that since June, he has been working long hours in Drake’s district for a subcontractor on a large MidAmerican Energy wind farm project. (64 wind turbines are going up between Corning and Lennox in Adams County.) During these months, Ourth has talked with many of Drake’s constituents, who invariably said “what a great guy they thought he was” and how well he represented their district.

State Representative Chuck Isenhart, who also served on Drake’s subcommittee and is the ranking Democrat on the House Environmental Protection Committee, told me today, “Jack Drake was a kind and soft-spoken man.” He added that Drake “offered crucial, public bipartisan leadership to the establishment of Iowa’s local farms and food initiative in 2010, and has been a reliable supporter of the program ever since.”

With Drake’s passing, the most senior members of the Iowa House Republican caucus are Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Dave Heaton and Transportation, Infrastructure and Capitals Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Dan Huseman, both of whom were first elected in 1994.

Will elite support translate into Iowa Republican caucus-goers for Chris Christie?

From a liberal’s perspective, Bruce Rastetter is the closest thing Iowa has to a James Bond villain. After making his fortune off a polluting industry (large-scale hog confinements), Rastetter provided the "seed money" for the 501(c)4 group American Future Fund, which quickly became one of the most influential conservative dark money groups, a "prolific funder" of negative ads often "deemed false." In 2009, Rastetter played a key role in coaxing Terry Branstad out of political retirement. He then parlayed his status as the top donor to Branstad’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign into an appointment to the prestigious Iowa Board of Regents. Thanks to a little intervention from the governor, Rastetter moved quickly into a leadership position on that board, where he "blurred the line" between business and board work, hoping to expand one of his corporations’ land holdings on another continent. Last month, Rastetter made news as the apparent mastermind behind hiring business executive Bruce Harreld as president of the University of Iowa, over strong objections by stakeholders on campus.

A certain type of Republican is as attracted to Rastetter’s power as many Democrats are repelled by it. The “quiet but fierce” Rastetter is a top donor to GOP establishment candidates and committees in Iowa. He dislikes the “kingmaker” label often attached to him, but who else could get the governor, lieutenant governor, both U.S. senators, three U.S. House members, and nine presidential candidates to show up for an event in its first year, the way Rastetter did for his Iowa Ag Summit in March?

Rastetter says he donates to candidates to “make a difference,” not to “get access.” Whatever his motives, he has tremendous influence. Governor Branstad said earlier this year that he keeps in touch with Rastetter “at least once a week” and “greatly” values the businessman’s opinions. So do some other high-dollar Republican donors, who flew with Rastetter to New Jersey in 2011, hoping to recruit Governor Chris Christie to run for president. Last week, most of those business leaders stood with Rastetter again to endorse Christie’s presidential bid. The event in Des Moines capped a good couple of months for Christie here in recruiting backers from the Iowa GOP establishment.

How much will those endorsements help the New Jersey governor win over rank and file Iowa Republicans who show up at precinct caucuses?  

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Weekend open thread: Water problems edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

I spent most of Friday at the Iowa Environmental Council’s annual meeting, where as usual, I learned a lot from the conference speakers. (I’ve long been an active volunteer for the non-profit.) Chad Pregracke gave an inspiring and entertaining keynote address this year. Raised on the banks of the Mississippi River, Pregracke spent hours a day under its surface diving for mussels shells as a summer job. In his early 20s, he became obsessively committed to getting trash out of the river and cold-called businesses in the Quad Cities until he had enough funding for his first cleanup project. Favorable coverage from the Associated Press helped Pregracke raise more awareness and money. He later created the non-profit Living Lands and Waters, which has pulled a mind-blowing amount of trash out of waterways in twenty states. I am looking forward to reading Pregracke’s memoir From the Bottom Up: One Man’s Crusade to Clean America’s Rivers.

Several speakers at the Iowa Environmental Council conference discussed the Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit against drainage districts in northwest Iowa’s Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista Counties. The unprecedented lawsuit has angered many Iowa politicians, including Governor Terry Branstad, who has said the Water Works “ought to just tone it down and start cooperating and working with others […].” (Priceless response from Todd Dorman: “Tone it down? Tell it to the bloomin’ algae.”)

The most informative single piece I’ve seen about this litigation is Sixteen Things to Know About the Des Moines Water Works Proposed Lawsuit, a speech Drake University Law Professor Neil Hamilton gave at the 2015 Iowa Water Conference in Ames this March. The director of Drake’s Agricultural Law Center also wrote an excellent guest column for the Des Moines Register in May debunking the “strenuous effort” to convince Iowans that “the lawsuit is unfair and unhelpful.”

Last weekend, the Associated Press ran a series of well-researched articles on water infrastructure problems across the U.S. As a country, we were foolish not to invest more in infrastructure during and since the “Great Recession,” when interest rates have been at historically low levels. The AP reports underscore the mounting hidden and not-hidden costs of hundreds of municipalities deferring maintenance on water mains and equipment at treatment plants. After the jump I’ve posted excerpts from several of the stories, but if you want to be educated and appalled, click through to read them in their entirety: Ryan Foley, “Drinking water systems imperiled by failing infrastructure” and “Millions remain unspent in federal water-system loan program”; Justin Pritchard, “Availability of clean water can’t be taken for granted anymore”; and John Seewer, “Cities bear rising cost of keeping water safe to drink.”

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