New Report: Iowa Losing Topsoil at Alarming Rate

(No worries, it's just priceless Iowa topsoil. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

A new report, which includes video images, shows that across wide swaths of Iowa our rich, dark agricultural soil is being swept away at alarming rates, which in some areas are 12 times higher than average soil loss estimates from national studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service.

More after the jump …

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Iowa House Democrats afraid to stand up to Big Ag

Although the 60-40 Republican majority leaves Iowa House Democrats few opportunities to block legislation, the Democratic caucus has taken a high-profile stands against some GOP proposals this year. House Democrats spoke passionately against preschool cuts in the first major bill of the 2011 session. Democrats fought the GOP’s bill to restrict collective bargaining at public rallies, all night in the House Labor Committee and for days on the House floor. The ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee spoke out against the GOP’s income tax cut bill, and Democrats tried to redirect that proposal toward middle income Iowans.

In contrast, House Democrats have made little noise about bills that elevate the needs of agribusiness over the public interest. Earlier this month, nearly a quarter of the Democratic caucus voted to protect factory farms from undercover recordings to expose animal abuses. I saw no public comments from House minority leaders opposing that bill, which may well be unconstitutional.

Last week state representatives approved House File 643, which transfers several water quality responsibilities from the Department of Natural Resources to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. After minimal floor debate, seven Democrats voted with all the Republicans present for a bill that would impair efforts to limit water pollution. I saw no public comments or press releases from House minority leaders criticizing the bill or decrying its passage.

Follow me after the jump for more on House File 643 and its implications.

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Branstad gives business more leverage against new regulations

Governor Terry Branstad’s latest executive order gives businesses and their advocates new opportunities to pre-empt government regulation of their activities. The governor’s spin on the new order presents it as a way to meet his administration’s job-creation goals:

“Executive Order Seventy-One will ensure that state government’s eyes are affixed on job creation, retention and development when issuing rules and regulations,” said Branstad. “This rule making process will assist in our administration’s goal of creating 200,000 new jobs and putting the roughly 106,000 unemployed Iowans back to work.”

The executive order will identify policies that hurt jobs before they impact job retention and development. […]

“As we travel the state we have heard Iowans voice their concerns over the burdens of bureaucracy that fails to understand the relationship between excessive regulation and job creation,” Branstad added. “Executive Order Seventy-One encourages a job-friendly environment as we build a strong foundation for the future.”

I’ve posted the full text of Executive Order 71 after the jump. It requires all government agencies to prepare a “jobs impact statement” before adopting any new rules and regulations, and to “minimize the adverse impact on jobs and the development of new employment opportunities before proposing a rule.” Furthermore,

Each Agency shall accept comments and information from stakeholders prior to the Jobs Impact Statement. Any concerned private sector employer or self-employed individual, potential employer, potential small business, or member of the public is entitled to submit information relating to Jobs Impact Statement upon a request for information or notice of intended action by a Department or Agency.

So, the governor is instructing agency employees to make “jobs impact” a greater consideration than other public-interest concerns (for example, reducing air pollution that causes life-threatening and costly illnesses, or restricting lending practices that trap consumers in cycles of debt). Furthermore, agency employees need to hear input from “stakeholders” (businesses and business owners) when drafting the jobs impact statements. Also, certain sectors receive privileged status:

The analysis in the Jobs Impact Statement should give particular weight to jobs in production sectors of the economy which includes the manufacturing, and agricultural sectors of the economy and include analysis, where applicable of the impact of the rule on expansion of existing businesses or facilities.

The likely outcome is that “doomsday scenario” analysis from advocacy groups like the Iowa Association of Business and Industry or the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation will now carry new credibility as part of the official “jobs impact statement” issued by state agencies. Any potential rule that manufacturers or agricultural operators view as too “burdensome” will be discarded, regardless of how many other Iowans might benefit.

For as long as I can remember, industry trade groups and lobbyists have exaggerated the potential jobs cost of regulations ranging from the Clean Air Act to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Meanwhile, no one is calculating the economic impact of, say, preventable respiratory illnesses in communities with high levels of particulate matter in the air, or making Des Moines Water Works customers pay to clean up pollution agricultural producers create in the Raccoon River Watershed.

Executive Order 71 dovetails with other recent Branstad efforts to increase business leverage against government regulations. All four of his appointees to the Environmental Protection Commission have close ties to agribusiness. The governor is also leaning toward moving Iowa’s water monitoring and water quality protection programs from the Department of Natural Resources to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

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A simple way to make Iowa's bad water quality worse

Signs of Iowa’s poor water quality are not hard to come by. Our state has more than 400 “impaired waters.” The Des Moines Water Works has the largest nitrate removal system in the world, because “the Raccoon River has the highest average nitrate concentration of any of the 42 largest tributaries in the Mississippi River Basin.” Even so, the Water Works sometimes struggles to handle high levels of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in the Raccoon River, forcing the water treatment facility to draw from a secondary source. Iowa watersheds are also a major contributor to the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, and the nutrients from “Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from commercial fertilizers and animal manure from farmland were the biggest contributing sources” of the excess nutrients that cause the dead zone.  

Despite those facts, Governor Terry Branstad and many state legislators have claimed the Iowa Department of Natural Resources takes too tough a stand in enforcing pollution rules. Branstad’s draft budget cut funding for the DNR. The department was a frequent punching bag at Republican-led forums around Iowa last month, designed to spotlight supposedly burdensome regulations on businesses.  

Branstad has expressed hope for a “change in attitude” at the DNR. He sent a strong signal by appointing Roger Lande as the new DNR director. Lande is a former head of the Association for Business and Industry and a partner in a Muscatine law firm that has represented the Iowa Farm Bureau as well as corporations like Monsanto.

Announcing Lande’s appointment, Branstad said,

“I can think of no one better to be a steward of Iowa’s precious natural resources than Roger Lande,” said Gov.-elect Branstad. “Roger and his family have long been champions of conservation of Iowa’s rivers, woodlands, greenways, prairies and trails and I am confident that Roger will excel in his new role as head of Iowa Department of Natural Resources.”

Apparently Branstad has now thought of someone better than Lande to handle water quality programs and Clean Water Act compliance: Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. Yes, even though runoff from conventional agriculture is a leading cause of Iowa’s poor water quality, Branstad thinks the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) might be better-suited to handle water monitoring and protection than the DNR. Some Iowa House Republicans are pushing House Study Bill 180, which would transfer the same authority to IDALS. Unfortunately, it won’t be enough to stop this measure in the Iowa House or Senate, because Branstad has the power to transfer functions to Northey’s agency without enabling legislation.

After the jump I’ve posted background on this issue from Iowa Rivers Revival and the Iowa Environmental Council, as well as contact information for state legislators and the governor’s office. The Iowa Environmental Council posted a link to their action alert here.

Iowa already does too little to limit water pollution. If Northey is put in charge of protecting water quality, get ready for more impaired waters and major algae blooms. Northey marches in lockstep with the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, one of three plaintiffs in a state lawsuit seeking to nullify the most significant water quality rules adopted in Iowa during the past decade.

In related news, the American Farm Bureau Federation has filed a federal lawsuit to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from limiting water pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.

The farm lobby has made it clear it sees the cleanup effort as a harbinger of more far-reaching EPA requirements across the country, including in the Mississippi River basin, where chemical runoff from industrial farms is swept to the Gulf of Mexico. […]

“This new EPA approach will not end with the Chesapeake Bay,” Bob Stallman, the Farm Bureau’s president, said in an address early this month. “EPA has already revealed its plan to follow suit in other watersheds across the nation, including the Mississippi watershed. That is why our legal effort is essential to preserving the power of the states – not EPA – to decide whether and how to regulate farming practices in America’s watersheds.”

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

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Environmental groups intervene in lawsuit on water quality rules

The Iowa Environmental Council, Sierra Club and the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center are intervening in a lawsuit seeking to throw out new water quality rules for Iowa. The State Environmental Protection Commission approved the “antidegradation” rules in December 2009, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources adopted the rules last year. Immediately following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of the rules, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, Iowa Renewable Fuels Association and Iowa Water Environment Association sued, claiming two EPC members should not have been able to vote on the rules, and that the rules violate an Iowa ban on environmental regulations that are stricter than federal standards. The Iowa Attorney General’s Office is representing the Department of Natural Resources and the Environmental Protection Commission in the lawsuit.

The Iowa Environmental Council, Sierra Club and Environmental Law and Policy Center sought to intervene to ensure that the antidegradation standards will not be relaxed. On February 3, a Polk County district judge approved the groups’ request, saying “the applicants for intervention are environmental groups that have been active in the administrative process and it would be more than beneficial to have their input as intervenors in this case.” After the jump I’ve posted an IEC press release containing more background information.

UPDATE: From an IEC action alert on February 8:

Once again, groups that represent wastewater dischargers are urging legislators to take action to eliminate or weaken Iowa rules that protect water quality.

The Iowa League of Cities and the Rural Water Association are asking lawmakers, who serve on the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee, to repeal Iowa’s anti-degradation rules. Anti-degradation rules are required by the federal Clean Water Act and are designed to stop further degradation of the rivers, streams and lakes.

Please contact the Legislators who serve on this committee to let them know how important these rules are to protect Iowa’s waters.

Click here for a list of committee members and here for background information and a link to send a letter to lawmakers.

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Events coming up during the next two weeks

A busy week at the Iowa legislature kicks off Monday evening with what’s sure to be a packed Iowa House hearing on a constitutional amendment to ban legal recognition for same-sex relationships. Groups supporting conservation of Iowa’s natural resources have several rallies and lobby days planned during the next two weeks. Those and other event details are after the jump. Please post a comment or send me an e-mail if you know of an event that should be included on this calendar.

Yet another winter storm is heading for Iowa this week, but spring rains aren’t too far off. Gardeners and anyone who cares about conserving water and reducing runoff may be interested in a sale of rain barrels (all repurposed to keep waste out of landfills). Proceeds benefit the non-profit 1000 Friends of Iowa, specifically to “support the development of an educational exhibit which focuses on land use and water as it relates to run-off from non-porous surfaces as well as to bring attention to the many uses for collected rain water.” Those uses include watering gardens, washing cars and general housecleaning. Click here for more information about the rain barrels and here to order by February 11.

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