A few links on making Iowa's water cleaner (updated)

To coincide with today’s annual conference of the Iowa Environmental Council, I’ve compiled some recent news related to Iowa water quality after the jump.

Voters in Polk County, the largest in Iowa by population, will find a bonding initiative near the bottom of the back page of their ballots. Background on the Polk County Land and Water Legacy Bond:

Conservation supporters say their research shows central Iowans are willing to back projects aimed at expanding regional trails, enlarging county-owned greenbelts and improving rivers and streams. The move, if voters approve, would cost Polk residents an estimated $9 per year in new property taxes on a home assessed at $100,000 if the entire $50 million were borrowed at once. […]

According to language now planned to be on the Nov. 6 ballot, the $50 million would be used “for the purpose of acquisition and development of land for public parks, or other recreation or conservation purposes to be managed by the Polk County Conservation Board, including protecting the water quality of rivers, lakes and streams, including the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers and their tributaries, protecting drinking water sources, wildlife habitat, and natural areas, prevention of flooding, and construction and improvement of trails and conservation facilities in Polk County.” […]

Conservation officials say the money as of now would be spent on previously identified capital improvement projects including roughly $1 million to $2 million in dredging and creek-bank stabilization projects at Thomas Mitchell, Fort Des Moines, Jester and Easter Lake parks; $3 million to $4 million in land purchases to extend the Chichaqua Bottoms, Raccoon River and Four Mile Creek greenbelts; $5 million to $6 million in park facility improvements such as a Fort Des Moines Park outdoor classroom and new rental cabins at Jester Park; and $3 million to $4 million in new connections and improvements to the Gay Lea Wilson, Chichaqua Valley and Easter Lake trails.

That detailed list, which is expected to cover roughly the first three years of work, would expand in later years to include other already-proposed capital improvement plans. Supporters intend, among other things, to build previously planned trail connections and buy upstream land to slow water in creeks and prevent flooding. Conservation Director Dennis Parker said his department has identified roughly $78 million worth of possible land purchases as part of various watershed and wildlife protection measures.

I voted yes on measure A for many of the reasons cited here.

A new website called In Iowa Water features a range of stories related to Iowa waterways. The Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center created the site. Current links on the front page include an upbeat feature on the new white water park in Charles City and a depressing story about how open coal storage piles and coal ash ponds diminish the quality of drinking water and the Mississippi River. Each story also has a link that allows readers to “take action,” for instance by sending an e-mail asking the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to investigate runoff from coal storage piles.

The impact of conventional agriculture on water quality will be a topic discussed during an upcoming Iowa talk by Ken Cook, president and co-founder of the Environmental Working Group. He will speak on Tuesday, October 9, at 7 pm in the University of Northern Iowa’s Lang Auditorium.

Why have farm interests had to resort to PR campaigns and social media initiatives just to redeem what used to be one of the most admired occupations in America? Why are those efforts likely to backfire and further isolate agriculture? Why do farm lobbyists defend agricultural technologies and policies that farmers themselves question? Why do the agriculture’s leaders denigrate local food initiatives and organic farming? Environmental Working Group’s Ken Cook shares candid observations from his 35 years of experience in agriculture policy.

The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation isn’t happy about Cook’s upcoming talk. That group’s environmental policy adviser, Rick Robinson, wrote recently to Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Chuck Gipp,

I hope the Iowa DNR does not use any of its limited resources to publicize the anti-agricultural propaganda of the Oct. 9 UNI event… There are some well-intentioned folks in the Cedar River Watershed trying to build new coalitions and continue to make progress on very challenging issues. The approach the UNI event takes, unfortunately, is divisive, and the solutions to the issue of water quality are complex and require true collaboration – something the speaker from the Environmental Working Group is not proposing.

I wish they would have instead invited Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, you or the ISU science team to the event to discuss the results of the water quality research and some of the solutions underway, or perhaps including some folks from other watersheds that have made progress to discuss their strategies so that the event is focused on real solutions.

The DNR, other public institutions or the coalition should not be associated with promotion or funding this kind of negative rhetoric.

Speaking of the Iowa DNR, a few weeks ago the agency sent its formal response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which criticized Iowa’s factory farm enforcement program in an investigative report this summer. The non-profit groups Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Sierra Club Iowa chapter have been trying to get the EPA to take action on Iowa’s failure to regulate pollution from CAFOs since 2007.

The EPA’s preliminary report is here (40-page pdf). Bleeding Heartland summarized its findings here. You can read the DNR’s full response here (13-page pdf). Iowa CCI summarized the key points in a September 12 news release:

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR)  issued a formal response yesterday to a July investigative report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that was highly critical of DNR’s factory farm enforcement program for:

* Failing to issue permits to factory farms when required,

* Not having an adequate factory farm inspection program,

* Frequently failing to act in response to manure spills and other environmental violations,

* Not assessing adequate fines and penalties when violations occur, and

* State setback distances for manure application not meeting  federal requirements.

In their response, which you can read here, the DNR promised to:

* Initiate new rulemaking beginning November 1, 2012 to bring Iowa into compliance with the federal Clean Water Act,

* Ask the state legislature for more funding to hire 13 new full-time field staff,

* Develop a plan to inspect every factory farm in the state of Iowa, and

* Change other protocols and procedures to bring Iowa’s program up to par with federal standards.

A different September 12 statement, jointly released by Iowa CCI, the Environmental Working Group, and the Sierra Club Iowa chapter, described the DNR’s response as “incomplete.” Excerpt:

Although DNR’s proposed work plan includes a timeframe to develop new rules for factory farm permitting requirements, the DNR work plan falls short of what is needed to keep more manure out of Iowa’s rivers, lakes, and streams, say members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (Iowa CCI), the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter.

“The bottom line is, every factory farm in Iowa needs a Clean Water Act permit that is strictly enforced with tough fines and penalties for violators, and there is very little in the DNR’s response that shows they are serious about cracking down on this kind of corporate pollution,” said Barb Kalbach, a fourth generation family farmer and Iowa CCI member from Dexter, Iowa.

“Permitting rules are a long overdue first step, but they will not lead to real improvements in water quality if DNR continues to assume that the state’s factory farms are meeting its ‘zero discharge’ standard,” added Tarah Heinzen, attorney for Environmental Integrity Project.  “DNR’s work plan does not adequately address EPA’s finding that DNR cannot even currently identify confinements in need of these permits.  Clearly rules alone will not be enough,” Heinzen added.

In addition to changing certain inspection and penalty protocols, DNR’s work plan acknowledges that staff and resources to regulate factory farms have dramatically decreased, while the industry continues to grow, and the agency called for increased state funding in fiscal year 2014.

“We support DNR’s efforts to increase staff to better comply with the Clean Water Act,” said Neila Seaman, Sierra Club Iowa Chapter director.  “We are pleased that the Iowa DNR has taken EPA’s recommendations seriously for its CAFO permitting program.  It is our hope that the Iowa Legislature also supports the DNR in this effort.”

UPDATE: This year’s drought has many Iowa rivers, lakes and creeks at the lowest levels seen in decades. Perry Beeman reported on a few “silver linings” for the Des Moines Register on October 6.

The drought already has saved the Iowa Department of Natural Resources hundreds of thousands of dollars on lake-restoration projects. The low water makes it easier to rehab shorelines and remove carp, so the state accelerated work in several places, including Black Hawk Lake near Lake View, said Mike McGhee, who oversees the work at DNR. […]

McGhee, the DNR lake-restoration staff member, said the low water levels prompted the agency to move more quickly to kill all the fish in Black Hawk Lake, which had been dominated by carp and other rough fish. The lake will be fully restocked with bass, bluegill, muskellunge and walleye after the restoration work.

The DNR saved $250,000 on the chemicals used to kill the fish, because the water was so low.

“We haven’t had conditions like this for 25 or 30 years,” McGhee said. The state also will do some work on streams leading into Black Hawk Lake while they are dry.

New water-level controls will be added at Little Storm Lake, too.

The low water means that many shorelines are exposed to the sun, essential for wetlands restoration. Many have been underwater since the floods of 1993, McGhee said.

The sunlight will germinate seeds, which will restore plants that provide habitat for fish and other creatures when the lakes refill, just as fire helps restore prairie.

Lake restoration funding took a hit in Iowa during the past couple of years, but at the end of the legislative session got a small boost to $6 million in the current fiscal year.  

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