Iowa Business Interests Face Off Over Proposed Ethanol Mandate


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Thomas Robinson | February 16th, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds has proposed a new ethanol fuel mandate which would increase the sale of renewable fuels at Iowa gas stations and shift existing tax credits to support higher percentage renewable fuels.

The proposed rule, House Study Bill 185, would mandate that all gasoline sold in Iowa must include 10% ethanol and that all diesel fuel must include 5-11% biodiesel depending on the time of year.  Gas stations would also be allowed only one non-renewable pump, and, would also be required to install new equipment that could handle higher percentages of biofuels.  The potential equipment upgrade has pitted fuel business interests against the governor as the required upgrades could potentially cost up to $1 billion dollars.

Fuel interests in Iowa, like FUELIowa and the Iowa Motor Truck Association, warn that the proposal may increase consumer fuel costs and drive truckers to not purchase fuel in Iowa.  On the other side, biofuel interests, such as the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, favor the proposal as it is projected to increase biofuel grants by around $7 million per year.  Competing interests between these two groups over a vital Iowa industry suggests that there will be heated discussions when subcommittee hearings for the bill begin on Wednesday.

Iowa GOP Senators Move to Cut Tax Exemptions for Forest Reserves


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Nicole Welle | February 15, 2021

GOP members of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee voted last week to advance a bill that would reduce tax breaks for Iowa forest reserves.

Currently, landowners qualify for a 100% tax break on land made up of forests as small as two acres. The new bill would reduce the forest reserve tax break to 75% of the property value, require a minimum of 10 acres to qualify and place a five-year limit on exemptions. GOP senators who introduced the bill argued that it could prevent landowners from cheating the system, but Democrats criticized its timing as Iowa fights chronic water pollution and continues to recover from the derecho that destroyed 25% of the state’s trees last August, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids criticized Republicans for pushing a bill that could interfere with derecho recovery. Lawmakers have made little effort to help landowners recover, and increased taxes would only add to the burden of recovery costs, Hogg said. Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott also opposed the bill, saying that Iowa’s limited forest helps reduce water pollution and supports the state’s wood industry.

Iowa’s woodlands currently support a $4 billion forest industry. Because woodland owners have to wait until a tree is mature enough to cut it down, the tax breaks help alleviate the costs of growing and maintaining their trees in between harvests. Without the current exemption, some woodland owners could be forced to replace some of their trees with row crops. This crop conversion could accelerate soil erosion and increase water pollution in the state, according to the Des Moines Register.

If passed by the Senate, the bill’s language would require the Iowa DNR, rather than the agriculture department, to verify that land qualifies as a reserve. However, the bill does not allocate extra money to the DNR, and the state did not conduct a financial study to estimate the added cost.

Drought Conditions Remain in Western Iowa Despite Extra Snowfall in January


Graphic of Iowa map showing drought conditions
Via U.S. Drought Monitor

Nicole Welle | February 11, 2021

Precipitation levels were slightly higher than usual last month, but the added snowfall failed to improve drought conditions in western Iowa.

2020 was an extremely dry year for the state of Iowa, and many parts of the state have not yet recovered. In January, precipitation was 0.35 inches above average for that time of the year. However, it also averaged 4 degrees warmer than usual, and the Iowa DNR reported that at least half of the state is currently experiencing abnormally dry or drought conditions. At the end of the month, a small section of northwest Iowa was in extreme drought, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

DNR officials warned that the shallow soils underneath the snowfall in western Iowa are dry enough to potentially push drought conditions into the spring. This could be problematic for farmers as they go into planting season. Even if precipitation levels continue to meet or exceed averages over the next few months, snowmelt likely won’t be able to improve soil conditions very quickly since groundwater is already frozen in place.

The U.S. drought monitor reported that 52% of the state is experiencing abnormally dry conditions, but it is still a significant improvement from three months ago when it was at 64%. State and Federal officials will host a virtual public meeting to discuss the conditions in western Iowa further on January 13.

Tom Vilsack’s USDA Secretary Nomination Passes Committee, Moves to Full Senate


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Nicole Welle | February 4, 2021

The Senate agriculture committee approved former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s nomination as U.S. agriculture secretary Tuesday and sent it on to the full Senate for consideration.

Some Republicans, including Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, are expected to join Democratic Senators in confirming Vilsack’s nomination. Once confirmed, Vilsack will begin his second tour as agriculture secretary, a position he previously held from 2009 to 2017 under President Barack Obama. His position under Biden will come with the responsibility of leading the department during a global pandemic that has increased the need for food assistance, and he will be tasked with urging the agriculture industry to prioritize combatting climate change as Biden’s nominee, according to a Des Moines Register article.

Vilsack fielded multiple questions about climate change and biofuels while the Senate agriculture committee considered his nomination. As an Iowa Republican, Sen. Joni Ernst took an interest in his views on ethanol and biofuel production. She asked if he would support their production as President Biden looks to shift the country to electric vehicles, a move she said would put farmers at risk.

Vilsack responded that it is necessary to advance the production of both electric vehicles and biofuels moving forward. He referenced a recent study showing that greenhouse gas emissions from corn-based ethanol are 46% lower than from gasoline, and he reassured the committee that Americans need the biofuel industry for the foreseeable future as electric vehicle technology catches up. Vilsack added that expanding renewable energy can also benefit farmers. Iowa farmers and landowners receive about $69 million annually from energy companies that lease their land for wind turbines, and those opportunities could expand as demand for electric vehicles increases.

WOTUS Rule Changes Could Potentially Harm Iowa Farmers Says Iowa Ag Secretary


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Thomas Robinson | January 26th, 2021

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig says that if the Biden administration follows through with plans to change the rules of the Waters Of The United States (WOTUS) provision in the Clean Water Act, Iowa farmers could pay the price.

While exact details of the coming changes to WOTUS rules are unknown, it is likely the Biden administration will return components back to where they were under the Obama administration.  Secretary Naig’s reservations have been labelled by as a “political hoax” since the Clean Water Act already excuses much of the regulation on non-point sources of pollution such as agricultural fields. 

The discussion around the WOTUS rule centers on what can be defined as a “navigable” body of water.  A navigable water is defined as a water that is affected by tides, or has been used for transport in the past, present, or future.  The Trump Administrations changed the WOTUS rule in April, 2020 to improve the clarity for what waters are considered “navigable”, however, the changes failed to add any clarity and likely resulted in a lessening of water quality protections.

The issue of non-point source pollution in Iowa has made the news before when the Des Moines Water Works sued multiple drainage districts over their pollution of the Racoon River. The utility hoped that tile drainage from fields could be regulated as a point source rather than a non-point source and help alleviate the strain nitrogen pollution was placing on their operations.  The suit was dismissed after the court ruled the drainage districts could not address the injuries incurred by the utility while also ignoring whether drainage systems are point source pollutants.

Iowa’s Drought Is Likely to Stretch into Planting Season


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Thomas Robinson | January 19th, 2021

Iowa is currently experiencing drought conditions in the western portions of the state that climate officials say could last into the spring planting season.

In a recent meeting with regional climate and natural resources officials, Dennis Todey, the director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub, emphasized that Iowa is entering the new year with dry soil and that it is unlikely soil conditions will change quickly.  Since more rainfall is needed to address Iowa’s dry soil there is an increased chance Iowa will continue to be dry into the spring.  2020 was the 36th driest year out of 149 years on the record, leaving around 61% of the state at some level of drought.

Iowa’s drought conditions can likely be attributed to La Niña conditions which usually indicate a greater chance for colder temperatures and average or slightly above average precipitation. La Niña weather patterns develop as colder sea surface temperatures occur in the Pacific around the equator as part of the El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  These ocean conditions can result in warmer winter temperatures for the southeast U.S, and colder winter temperatures for the north west.

Overview of the Devastating Derecho that Swept Across Iowa in August


RADAR composite of the August 10, 2020 Derecho.
RADAR composite from the National Weather Service

Justin Glisan | January 18, 2021

Aug. 10, 2020 will go down as a significant weather date in state history. A derecho, which is a convectively (thunderstorm) initiated straight-line windstorm, propagated through Iowa’s central west-to-east corridor. The term “derecho” was coined by Dr. Gustavus Hinrichs at the University of Iowa in the late 1800s and is derived from a Spanish word that can be interpreted as “direct” or “straight-ahead.” Formed in the early morning hours in southeast South Dakota, the line of thunderstorms moved across the Nebraska border into Iowa where it significantly strengthened east of Carroll, Iowa, as downbursts formed. Downbursts are key for the formation of low-level, strong straight-line winds; moist air high up in a thunderstorm interacts with surrounding drier air, forcing atmospheric water vapor to evaporate fast. Rapid evaporation cools the air producing a relatively large volume of cold, dense air. These bubbles of dense air drop rapidly, hit the surface and spread out, creating straight-line winds that can produce widespread damage. As the derecho entered central Iowa, the center of the line pushed out creating a bow echo; this feature indicated rapid strengthening as downburst clusters became more numerous. The system expanded north and south as it moved through east-central Iowa where a broadening swath of damage was found in satellite images. The derecho held together for 770 miles and over 14 hours before losing strength as it entered western Ohio.

Damage to crops, grain bins and structures was catastrophic. The derecho also moved over the D3 (Extreme Drought) region in west-central Iowa, producing agricultural damage to already stressed corn and soybeans. USDA Risk Management Agency (RMA) data indicated that around 8.2 million acres of corn and 5.6 million acres of soybeans across 57 counties may have been impacted by the derecho. Urban areas from Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities reported substantial and long-lasting power outages along with severe damage to trees and structures from extremely strong, sustained winds. Recorded wind gusts along the derecho’s path ranged from 58 mph to well over 100 mph; according to the National Weather Service, “maximum recorded wind speeds were around 110 mph over portions of Benton and Linn Counties in eastern Iowa.” A personal weather station in Atkins (Benton County) reported a gust of 126 mph.

Percent of Global Population Experiencing Drought Could Double By The End of The Century


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Thomas Robinson | January 12th, 2020

Scientists have projected that by the end of the 21st century,, the percent of the global population at risk for extreme drought will double compared to current conditions.

In a recent study, researchers at Michigan State University have simulated hydrological conditions expected by the end of the 21st century, and their findings suggest that the number of people at risk for severe drought could increase from 3% between 1976 and 2005, to 8%.  The southern hemisphere, which already faces severe water shortages, such as in South Africa, is expected to be disproportionately affected by climate change. Unfortunately, the United States is also expected to have increased risks of drought because terrestrial water storage (TWS) will likely decrease in the coming years.

Terrestrial water storage is a measure of water stored in rivers, soils, and other reservoirs that plays an important role in how available water is as a resource. The researchers used recent modelling advancements to include TWS in global hydrological, and land surface models to better analyze how changes to TWS can influence drought conditions across the globe. 

Iowa has suffered from drought conditions over the past two decades, and climate projections suggest that extreme weather, like the Derecho, will become more commonplace.  Extreme weather poses a threat to Iowa’s crops and residents, and in the face of concerning projections, steps should be taken to help mitigate the effects climate change has on Iowans.

Mississippi River Gets a D in Water Quality Thanks to Agricultural Runoff


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Nicole Welle | December 24, 2020

A new report from America’s Watershed Initiative revealed a concerning decline in Mississippi River water quality over the last five years by giving its water quality a D, and it placed the blame on uncontrolled agricultural runoff from Iowa and other Midwest states.

Iowa has been one of the Mississippi River’s biggest polluters for years. The Iowa DNR’s ambient stream monitoring showed that the amount of nitrogen polluting the river has doubled over the last 20 years, and the annual load surpassed 1 billion pounds twice in the last four years. This has been disastrous for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico as the dead zone, an area of water no longer capable of supporting marine life due to high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, continues to average at 5,408 square miles, according to an article in the Gazette.

Iowa’s current Nutrient Reduction Strategy is meant to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from agricultural runoff entering the dead zone through the Mississippi River, and the state has made progress in some conservation efforts like promoting cover crops, restoring wetlands and installing bioreactors. However, these practices alone have not been enough to make up for the rapid intensification of agriculture in the state. Agricultural runoff continues to increase as farmers apply nitrogen fertilizer over the recommended rate and choose to opt out of voluntary conservation practices without penalty.

Many Iowa environmentalists have called for state government-imposed mandatory regulations to ensure that farmers adopt conservation practices and reduce harmful agricultural runoff into the Mississippi River and other waterways. This would include putting a limit on the amount of manure and commercial fertilizer farmers can apply to their fields and ensuring that water quality standards are met.

Action on a federal level could also improve water quality in the Mississippi River. President-elect Joe Biden has said that he will increase federal spending on incentives for farmers who plant cover crops and reserve their land for conservation, a plan that would improve water quality and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Biden also nominated former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he is likely to work on improving the nation’s water resources like the Mississippi River and establish a line of federal funding for conservation efforts.

Iowa Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Farm Pollution Case This Week


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Nicole Welle | December 17, 2020

The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether a lawsuit filed against the state of Iowa for allegedly allowing factory farms to pollute the Raccoon River should go to trial.

Food and Water Watch and Iowa Citizens for Community improvement filed the case back in 2019. The lawsuit claims that state officials and lawmakers are denying citizens’ rights to clean water for drinking and recreation under the Public Trust Doctrine by allowing crop and hog farmers to pollute the Raccoon River watershed, according to an Iowa Now article.

The Raccoon River is the main source of drinking water for 500,000 Iowans, and Des Moines water works is currently forced to run expensive treatment systems to maintain acceptable nitrate and other pollution levels. The river has exceeded federal nitrate limits for safe drinking water on multiple occasions over the past ten years and poses a health risk for for people and wildlife that rely on it as a safe water source. If the case goes to trial, it will urge the court to replace the state’s current policy allowing farmers to implement environmental practices voluntarily with mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. It would also ask for a moratorium on new and expanding hog confinements to help limit manure runoff into Iowa’s waterways.

The state argued for the dismissal of the case on the grounds that, because the Iowa Constitution places responsibility of farmers’ interests and water quality on the legislature and executives, the court should not intervene in policy considerations on the matter. A judge denied the state’s motion to have the case thrown out back in September of 2019, and the court will likely make a decision on wether it will allow the case to go to trial in the next few months.

Any attempts to regulate agriculture in Iowa have been historically met with heavy opposition. Iowa leads the nation in corn and pork production, but a system that has such devastating effects on the environment and jeopardizes Iowans’ health and safety cannot continue without substantial reform. Environmental groups in Iowa have long called for policy changes that put mandatory limits on agricultural pollution. If this case is allowed to move forward and succeeds at trial, those changes could finally become a reality and move the state closer to to solving its contaminated water problem.