Good news for water quality in Culver's final bill signings

Governor Chet Culver signed more than two dozen bills on May 26, the last day he was able to take action on legislation approved during the 2009 session. Two of the bills made up the last piece of the I-JOBS program, four more are aimed at helping veterans and Iowans on active duty, and the rest cover a wide range of issues.

Some good news for water quality was buried in the long list of bills and veto messages signed on Tuesday. For the details, follow me after the jump.

Culver signed Senate File 432, which regulates the application of manure on frozen and snow-covered ground. Environmental groups were up in arms about this bill when it passed the Iowa Senate, because it was intended to “circumvent Iowa [Department of Natural Resources] rule-making regarding the winter application of manure on frozen ground.”

Many people referred to this proposal as the “manure in water bill,” because as Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement noted in March,

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.

Iowans demand legislators not cater to corporate ag special interests and take bold action to put people before politics, profits and polluters.

A funny thing happened during those marathon days at the end of the legislative session. Strong amendments were attached to Senate File 432, which dramatically improved the proposed regulations. In fact, the final version of the bill imposes more restrictions on the winter application of manure than the rules the DNR was preparing. Iowa CCI hailed SF 432’s passage as a victory for water quality.

The bill Culver signed is not perfect; for instance, almost all the new restrictions apply to liquid manure only (from hogs), not solid manure (from cows). Still, the outcome is better than what we’d have if state legislators had left the DNR rule-making process alone. Thanks to SF 432, snow melts will send less pollution into Iowa waterways next winter and early spring. Whoever pushed the original draft of the bill must be very disappointed.

Also on May 26, Culver vetoed portions of several appropriations bills passed at the very end of the legislative session. You can find links to pdf files of his veto messages on this page of the governor’s official website.

I was glad to read this paragraph in Culver’s message explaining why he rejected portions of Senate File 467, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Bill:

I disapprove the item designated as Section 23 of this bill in its entirety. Section 23 delays the implementation date of the requirement to begin having septic tanks inspected at the time of property transfer from July 1, 2009 to July 1, 2010. With over 550 unsewered communities and over 100,000 leaking and/or malfunctioning septic systems in Iowa, this language is inconsistent with the objective of Senate File 261 that I signed last year to protect and improve water quality and to assure home buyers that they are purchasing a property that has a functioning septic tank. Importantly, we now have funds available through the IJOBS Program that I proposed for helping unsewered communities, and as [of] July 1, 2009, over 200 inspectors will be certified to inspect septic tanks.

Those septic tank inspections are important for water quality because an estimated 100,000 failing septic systems discharge an estimated 19 million gallons of untreated wastewater into Iowa waters every single day. Click here to view photos of two creeks that are on Iowa’s impaired water list because of unsewered communities and failing septic tanks.

Efforts to pass a bill on septic tank inspections stalled during the 2007 legislative session but succeeded in 2008. Culver deserves credit for blocking efforts to delay the implementation of the inspection requirements. Shame on whoever tried to slip that provision into this year’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Bill. (UPDATE: According to Lyle Krewson, lobbyist for the Sierra Club Iowa chapter, Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Joe Seng slipped this amendment in the bill several weeks before the end of the session. Good thing someone caught it!)

For more background on the connection between I-JOBS and water quality, click here. Sewer systems and septic tanks may not get much media attention, but this stuff matters.

I should also note that Iowa will benefit from a large pool of federal money committed to improving water infrastructure. The economic stimulus bill included funds for this purpose, and President Obama’s draft budget for fiscal year 2010 includes a huge increase in Environmental Protection Agency Clean Water funds.  

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