Why don't Iowa leaders do more to protect the environment? (updated)

David Yepsen published his final column in the Des Moines Register before starting his new job as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. It reprises some themes from many previous columns, such as the need to create a world-class education system and thriving economy in Iowa, with fewer layers of government.

As often happens when I read one of Yepsen’s columns, I wonder why he ignores some obvious paths to achieving his admirable goals. For instance, he wants Iowa to “set the goal of having one of the highest per-capita incomes in the country within 10 years.” Is this the same columnist who never met a labor union he liked? It reminded me of how Yepsen periodically slams the excessive influence of big money in politics, but won’t get behind a voluntary public financing system for clean elections.

In Yepsen’s final column, one passage in particular caught my eye:

Let’s set a goal to have the cleanest environment in the country within 10 years. The cleanest air. The cleanest water. The best soil- and energy-conservation practices.

We’ve had education governors. We’ve had sporadic focus on growing the economy. For some reason, we’ve lacked a similar focus on the environment. Creating a clean environment will create green jobs, but it will also make Iowa more attractive as a place to live and do business.

“For some reason”? I think most of us have a pretty good idea why improving air and water quality has never been a high priority for Iowa leaders. Follow me after the jump for more on this problem.

Probably no major Democratic constituency is fully satisfied with what Governor Chet Culver and statehouse leaders have achieved during the past few years, but I’ll bet no large group that reliably votes Democratic is more angry and disappointed than the environmental community.

We have some environmental champions in the Iowa House and Senate, and with their help, some good bills have become law since Democrats regained control of the legislature.

But unfortunately, our party’s leaders have done little on some issues that are priorities for environmentalists. The Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council came up with all kinds of good ideas for addressing greenhouse gas emissions, but policy-makers have ignored most of the council’s recommendations. Bills that would set ambitious standards, like increasing fuel-efficiency requirements for cars or mandating that utilities generate a higher percentage of electricity from renewable sources, don’t make headway because certain industries lobby against them.

The Iowa Democratic Party’s platform embraces the principle of “local control” (agricultural zoning at the county level), but the governor hasn’t done anything to make it happen. Statehouse leaders are content to let House Agriculture Committee chair Dolores Mertz (whose family is in the CAFO business) bury the local control bill year after year.

Not only are Democratic leaders not pushing for stronger environmental regulations, we find repeatedly that when the Iowa Department of Natural Resources takes steps toward improving environmental protection, legislators respond with bills that would prevent the DNR from doing so.

Iowa hasn’t been in compliance with the Clean Water Act for a long time now, and advocates have been pushing the DNR for years to implement Antidegradation Rules to protect water quality. Finally the rule-making process is getting somewhere, and what happens? Some misguided Democrats are trying to undercut the DNR:

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is almost done with rules that are years in the making meant to limit discharges into waterways, including special protections for tourist-drawing trout streams and the Iowa Great Lakes.

But under Senate File 442, the DNR would be forced to scrap a list of high-quality waters to be protected and start over. The bill also reduces the maximum cost an industrial plant or other permit-holder could be asked to pay for pollution-control improvements.

“It takes away our protections for the best of the best in Iowa,” Deborah Neustadt of Sierra Club said of the bill. “I’m not sure our senators understand that.”

I think they understand, Ms. Neustadt. They just don’t listen to us as much as they listen to the people seeking to undermine the DNR:

But as soon as the DNR started traveling the state with its proposals, the Iowa Rural Water Association, the Farm Bureau Federation and League of Cities went to the Capitol to kill the rules.

SF 442 is informally known as the “dirty water bill,” but it’s not the only dirty water bill that’s alive this session. The Iowa Senate recently passed SF 432, a blatant “attempt to circumvent Iowa DNR rule-making regarding the winter application of manure on frozen ground.” Here’s part of a March 30 press release from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement:

In response to last week’s passage of SF 432, a bill that undercuts the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) authority and leaves the door wide open for factory farms to dump manure on frozen and snow-covered ground in all areas of the state, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement members stood together with other environmental groups and those who care about water quality today to hold a press conference and call on leadership to do the right thing and put people before polluters.

In addition to Iowa CCI – groups strongly opposing SF 432 also include: Iowa DNR, Sierra Club, Iowa Environmental Council, Farmer’s Union, Des Moines Water Works, Izaak Walton League, Iowa Association of Water Agencies, Raccoon River Watershed Association and Plains Justice.

“The senate’s action is a travesty,” said CCI Executive Director Hugh Espey. “It’s a slap in the face to all Iowans who care about clean water and a decent quality of life. Iowa has some of the dirtiest waters in the nation; we need strong regulations that will give us clean water, not more factory farm manure in our water.”

Iowa suffers some of the worst water quality in the nation. High levels of ammonia pollution in the spring all across Iowa have been traced back to manure application on frozen and snow-covered ground. This is an irresponsible practice that harms our environment and puts our drinking water at risk. We must enact strong and enforceable restrictions of this practice for the well-being of all Iowans.

“For some reason,” as Yepsen might say, Iowa lawmakers would rather let big farms keep polluting everyone else’s water than let DNR rule-making proceed on this issue.

It’s not as if the DNR is aggressively investigating and combating water quality problems that stem from farm runoff. How embarrassing that even that agency’s limited steps are too much for the Iowa Senate. By the way, Democrats hold more seats in the upper chamber now than at any previous time in Iowa history.

Organized labor leaders are disappointed by the lack of progress on their priorities, such as “fair share” and “prevailing wage” legislation. Imagine how they would feel if the Democratic-controlled legislature were working to undermine efforts by the Iowa Department of Labor to implement stronger worker protections. This is comparable to what environmentalists are facing with Senate Files 442 and 432. With Democrats in power, we should not have to fight this kind of battle.

Don’t get me started on air quality issues either. Instead of doing something to address pollution from CAFOs that causes health problems and prevents neighbors from enjoying the outdoors, our Democratic legislative leaders collaborated with Republicans to pass the very bad odor-study bill in 2008, and Culver signed it. Many members of the Democratic caucus in the Iowa House and Senate opposed that bill, to no avail.

Very few elected Democrats have been willing to take a stand against building new coal-fired power plants in Iowa, even though coal combustion is a leading source of deadly fine particulate matter in the air. In a sense I’m grateful that Culver mostly stayed on the sidelines while others fought proposed coal plants in Marshalltown and Waterloo (both projects have been shelved). Governor Tom Vilsack was a vocal advocate for new coal plants in our state when he was in office.

Yepsen may be wondering why Iowa leaders have not focused on solving environmental problems, but to me the reason is obvious. Groups advocating for cleaner air and water don’t have as much money or clout as groups that benefit from the status quo. As Mr. desmoinesdem (a political scientist) might say, this is a classic collective action problem: advocating for a narrow special interest is often more effective than advocating for a broad, common interest.  

I’m stumped on how we can get Democratic leaders to support better environmental policies. I’ve stopped giving to the Iowa House and Senate Democratic leadership funds, but it would be nice to do something positive as well. If you’ve got any bright ideas, please post a comment in this thread or send an e-mail to desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com.

UPDATE: Remember, the governor can kill a pending bill by promising to veto it, as he showed recently. The environmental community would enthusiastically welcome that kind of announcement regarding Senate Files 442 and 432. And when you think about it, why would Culver want the legislature to undermine rule-making at the DNR?

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