IA-Sen: Judge playing down, Hogg playing up differences on water quality

Photo of Iowa stream courtesy of InIowaWater.org, a project of the Environmental Law & Policy Center

By entering the U.S. Senate race, former Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge ensured that environmental issues would become salient for many Iowa Democrats trying to choose among the four candidates running against Senator Chuck Grassley.

During the past two weeks, Judge has sought to minimize the daylight between herself and State Senator Rob Hogg on the need to address water pollution. But Hogg, widely considered Judge’s leading rival for the nomination, has made environmental concerns a big part of his pitch to Democrats.

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Rest in peace, David Hurd

Broken Kettle Grasslands near Sioux City, Iowa–photo by Matt Hauge, used with permission

David Hurd passed away in Des Moines this weekend at the age of 86. Police have ruled out foul play in his deadly fall from his condominium building but have not announced whether he took his own life or fell accidentally. He had been suffering from Lewy body disease, a progressive condition.

Hurd was a legendary figure in local business circles, a past CEO of Principal Financial and member of the Iowa Business Hall of Fame since 1994. He left a bigger mark on the capital city than most people of comparable wealth have done. The Des Moines Register’s Lissandra Villa wrote about some of his philanthropic contributions here.

Many progressive organizations benefited from Hurd’s generosity, but it would be particularly hard to overstate how much he did for Iowa’s environmental community. Morgan Gstalter reported for the Register on Hurd’s gift that allowed the Nature Conservancy to acquire the first portion of the Broken Kettle Grasslands in the Loess Hills area: “Now at 3,217 acres, Broken Kettle is Iowa’s largest remaining native prairie and is home to bison and rattlesnakes.” The photo at the top of this post shows a tiny part of the stunning landscape. That gift alone would have secured Hurd’s legacy in the environmental world, but he was just getting started.

I became acquainted with Hurd during several years when we served together on the Iowa Environmental Council board. He was a co-founder of the organization. A few qualities stick out in my mind. First, he was attentive but generally quiet during meetings–the opposite of some business types who tend to dominate group conversations. Possibly reading my mind, Principal’s current CEO Dan Houston told the Register that Hurd was “one of the smartest guys you’d ever meet” but also “a very humble man, very capable, diverse, global, international and kind. He listened so, so very well.” Yes. Hurd was frequently the smartest guy in the room, but he never made a big deal about being the smartest guy in the room.

Hurd didn’t throw his weight around. He never pulled rank on any other board member, despite having given more money to the council than anyone else. I never heard of him trying to interfere with staff work, which large benefactors of many organizations have been known to do. When new ideas or programs were floated, he wanted to know about real-world impact: how would doing this thing potentially make Iowa’s water cleaner, or reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Even more unusual for a prominent person in the business community, Hurd did not restrict his giving to environmental organizations I consider “politically correct,” such as the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation or the Nature Conservancy. He supported non-profits that opposed powerful corporate interests in our state. I’m thinking not only of the Iowa Environmental Council, which pushed for water quality rules that Big Ag groups fought all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court. He was a consistent donor to 1000 Friends of Iowa (on whose board I also serve), and our sustainable land use agenda is not popular with developers.

During his retirement, Hurd helped create the local Scrabble club. When people who had played against him would talk about how competitive he was at the game, I was always amused. In other contexts, he came across as laid back and didn’t give off a competitive vibe at all–which also struck me as atypical for a major corporation’s onetime CEO.

At the CNN Democratic candidates’ town hall a few days before the Iowa caucuses, I spotted David and his wife Trudy in the audience and went over to say a quick hello. I wish I had known that was my chance to say goodbye.

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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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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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Record nitrate levels are wake-up call on Iowa water

The Des Moines Water Works provides drinking water for roughly 500,000 people in central Iowa, about one-sixth of the state’s population. The utility owns the world’s largest nitrate-removal system, larger than those operated by cities ten times the size of the Des Moines metro area. Last Friday, that facility was switched on for the first time in nearly six years when “levels of health-threatening nitrates hit records in both the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.”

The news should be a wake-up call to state leaders: Iowa needs more than a voluntary strategy to reduce nutrients in our waterways. Not only are many of our rivers too polluted to support aquatic life, they are becoming more difficult and expensive to purify for drinking water. Nitrate levels are high in other parts of Iowa too, not only in the Des Moines area.

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