Big ag interests writing new state policy on farm runoff

Governor Terry Branstad’s plan to transfer water quality programs from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship stalled during the 2011 legislative session. However, state officials appear to be letting corporate agriculture interests control Iowa’s water pollution rules anyway.

Policy statements from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation were lifted almost verbatim for a new state plan to reduce runoff from farms, according to an exclusive report by Perry Beeman in today’s Des Moines Register.

I strongly recommend reading Beeman’s whole story. Excerpt:

The draft report, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the state to undertake in 2008 to address concerns about pollution that flows into the Mississippi River, is the result of nearly two years of meetings held largely behind closed doors. […]

The Des Moines Register obtained a copy of the report, dated Oct. 8, which has not been released to the public.

Portions of the report detailing agricultural runoff already have been fiercely criticized by key Iowa Department of Natural Resources staffers, who fired off a 62-page letter describing the plan as flawed, fraught with errors and too agriculture-friendly.

Others, including the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council, have criticized the secrecy surrounding the negotiations over what many consider one of the most important environmental policy initiatives the state has seen.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship prepared the portion of the report intended to address agricultural runoff, while the DNR took the lead on the sewage-treatment proposals.

DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins said it’s important to note that the document is just a draft, and the public will have a chance to chime in over perhaps 45 days after its release.

Beeman’s article includes passages from Iowa Farm Bureau publications, alongside nearly identical passages in the unreleased new state document. DNR officials were not impressed with the policy as a whole:

“We are not willing to endorse this document as written,” a group of DNR runoff-pollution experts wrote in a lengthy comment letter after reviewing the plan. “Major fundamental flaws permeate the ‘strategy’ while concrete ideas for implementation are not provided.”

The objections include what the staffers saw as a one-sided, agriculture-friendly strategy for solving long-standing pollution problems disrupting the Gulf’s lucrative fishing industry as well as fouling waterways throughout the Iowa and other Midwest states.

“This document reflects a narrow view not appropriate for a state-issued document,” the DNR letter reads. “This is evidenced by entire paragraphs being copied from an Iowa Farm Bureau comment letter (without proper citation) submitted in response to the Raccoon River Master Plan, and all costs and benefits being based on production of a single commodity crop.”

It’s ludicrous to shut out DNR staff when writing policy on farm runoff. Pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, and manure spills from livestock operations are major water pollutants in Iowa.

The DNR’s past enforcement of water quality rules has been weak. Earlier this year, an analysis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that the DNR failed to enforce compliance with the federal Clean Water Act. Environmental advocates consider the DNR’s response to that analysis inadequate. The Iowa Policy Project recently called for the EPA to apply leverage to hold the DNR accountable.

Click here to read Beeman’s previous reporting on how Iowa agriculture contributes to the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Last year the EPA declined to develop and enforce a plan to clean up the Dead Zone.

A new Iowa Environmental Council report on manure spills in Iowa can be found here.

  • This...

    …is one of the most important news stories of the year, IMHO. A real smoking gun. It demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt what everyone already knows: the Branstad Administration is an arm of the Iowa Farm Bureau. You could blog forever –  TB’s first DNR Director is an attorney representing air polluters….his second comes direct from IDALS.  The DNR hog lot regulator is terminated forthwith. Enviromental Protection Commission is packed by ag interests. The list is endless.  But I’m wondering if the tide is turning. With 60% voting in favor of the Natural Resources Trust Fund in 2010, and 72% in Polk voting in favor of the bond referendum and numerous other local enviromental measures getting approved by the voters, I’m thinking a smart politician might be able to make some hay by running on an environment first platform. Is anyone listening out there?

    • I would talk about it as crony capitalism

      and making other people pay for messes that only a small group profits from. “Environment first” isn’t going to cut it if Branstad can say he’s for economy/jobs.

    • Polluters (don't) Pay

      The Farm Bureau tail wags the Republican dog in Iowa.  The insurance company has been very successful in staking out a claim as a voice for the Iowa farmer.  The alternative voice has failed to rise to the fight to this point.   They do the best they can to get attention but are clearly failing in the war.  The enviros and the Iowa Farmers Union continues to provide a voice but being completely outspent can only be of limited effect.

      It is clear the public supports a cleaner environment and farmers would rather not pollute.  There must be a better way.

      I would suggest a new strategy.  Let’s join the Farm Bureau and work on their policy at the local levels.  They continue to claim to be a “grass roots” organization.  Let’s move their policy from within.  Go to local and district policy meetings and then pass policy from the floor at the annual meeting in DSM.  Perhaps we start by doing this ourselves and/or identifing a farmers in each of the seven F.B. districts in Iowa to stand up.  SEVEN VOICES  

      • it would be hard

        to take over the Farm Bureau from within, but people supporting a cleaner environment should definitely copy the Farm Bureau work on electing more local candidates (soil and water conservation district board members, county ag extension boards). Getting better people in some of those positions would be a big plus, even if it wouldn’t change state policy.

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