Gov. Reynolds Calls for a $2 Million Increase in Aid for Biofuels


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Nicole Welle | January 28, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Tuesday that her state budget calls for a $2 million increase in funding for the biofuels industry, and she hopes to work with the Biden Administration to help the industry further recover from setbacks caused by the pandemic.

Gov. Reynolds spoke at the virtual Iowa Renewable Fuels Summit, an annual event that brings together government officials, industry professionals and activists from across the Midwest to discuss the future of biofuels. She said that her $2 million addition to the $3 million renewable fuel infrastructure program would help to convert gas pumps to accommodate higher blends of ethanol. The program would also receive an additional $5 million from a change in fuel retailer tax credits under Reynolds’ plan, according to an Iowa Capitol Dispatch article.

The funds would add to the combined $19 million in CARES Act federal relief aid that the state used to back retail outlets and keep ethanol refineries open last year. Reynolds and several other summit speakers said that they hope the Biden administration will bring new attention to biofuels as it moves to address climate change. Iowa senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst have also joined Reynolds in fighting the EPA’s exemptions that allow small refineries to avoid required biofuels blending, and Reynolds hopes the new EPA administrator will discontinue the exemptions this year.

President Biden has made reducing carbon emissions one of his top priorities. Summit speaker Emily Skor, CEO of biofuels trade organization Growth Energy, said that growing the biofuels industry will accelerate the country’s transition to the zero-emissions future that Biden has advocated for. She added that biofuels have accounted for 75% of California’s carbon emissions reductions over the past ten years, and they will greatly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels over time.

Kim Reynolds Pauses Invest in Iowa Act Program for the Second Time


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Nicole Welle | January 11, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Thursday that she is once again pausing the Invest in Iowa Act, a proposal that would fund environmental and mental health programs, due to the effects of COVID-19 on the economy.

Reynolds originally shelved the proposal late last session after the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted the economy. She said that the program’s one-cent sales tax increase would be ill-advised during a time of economic uncertainty, and she still holds that view. Reynolds has said that she would rather follow up on tax cuts made in 2018 so Iowans can “keep more of their hard-earned money” and cited concerns about the pandemic’s effect on employment and the economy, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch previously reported that lawmakers from both parties have opposed the plan, so the Invest in Iowa Act is likely to stall without major revisions if Reynolds ever decides to act on it in the future. Some Republican lawmakers have discussed adjusting tax breaks to create funds for some of the work outlined in the act, but the Invest in Iowa act’s future is unclear.

Reynolds’ original Invest in Iowa proposal would have funded Iowa’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund and improved the state’s mental health programs, and reductions in income and property taxes would have offset the one-cent sales tax increase. Iowa voters overwhelmingly approved the trust fund in 2010 and hoped that it would help to solve Iowa’s water quality issues caused by agricultural runoff and other pollution. However, it is in desperate need of funding as the sales tax increase required to fund it has never reached the debate floor.

The Invest in Iowa plan would have created $171 million a year for water quality, outdoor recreation, and conservation projects. It also would have allowed counties to shift mental health funding from local property taxes to the sales tax. However, Reynolds did not discuss alternative sources of funding for water quality or conservation projects when she announced that she would pause the program on Thursday, and she said that she is currently looking for alternative sustainable funding for mental health services.

Lead in School Drinking Water: Opportunities for Improving Public Health in Iowa’s Schools


With permission from Amina Grant

Thomas Robinson | December 15th, 2020

In a legislative presentation Tuesday morning, David Cwiertny, Director of CHEEC, and Dr. Michelle Scherer, a professor at the University of Iowa, presented their work on lead in Iowa’s drinking water. 

CHEEC, the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, has worked with schools around the state to assess the amount of lead in drinking water through their Grants to Schools program.  The program provides $10,000 for schools to sample every drinking water outlet, and then take steps to address any potential lead or copper contamination.  On average, they’ve found it only takes $2,800 for testing and remediation suggesting that more can be done for Iowa’s schools without breaking the bank.  Cwiertny emphasized the large cost to benefit ratio seen for lead interventions, where for every $1 invested there is around a $10 benefit.  Unfortunately, COVID-19 has created concerns about school drinking water as stagnation can increase lead and copper levels in drinking water. As schools begin to operate drinking fountains again there may be an increased chance for lead and copper exposure.

Dr. Michelle Scherer discussed her research group’s efforts to test drinking water from both municipal systems, as well as private wells in Iowa.  Recent work by graduate students Amina Grant, and Danielle Land has found that some Iowans are potentially being exposed to lead in their drinking water.  Shockingly, they found that potentially 65,000 Iowans had drinking water that exceeded the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).  Dr. Scherer’s take-away message was that we need to know more about the challenge facing Iowa.  She emphasized that in home lead and copper testing needs to be more prevalent and available to properly evaluate the issue. Similarly to work being done in Illinois, Iowa needs to map lead service lines (LSLs) so that consumers can be made aware of potential exposures. Currently the Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that public health interventions need to happen at 5 microgram per deciliter blood lead levels in children and Dr. Scherer suggested that in the face of recent work these interventions should happen at lower blood lead levels. To better address the lead challenge facing Iowa both speakers stressed the importance of filter first legislation that could help reduce lead exposure in children.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead as there is no safe level of exposure without potential health risks.  In Iowa, 1 in 5 newborns have elevated blood lead levels, and there is no difference between rural and urban populations.  Traditionally, lead is thought to come from paints, air, and soils, however, it is becoming more apparent that drinking water is a prevalent source for lead exposure.  Lead in drinking water is difficult to control and regulate since most contamination comes from the distribution system and not providers.  Currently, there are many different guidelines and regulations for lead contamination. Unfortunately, Iowa is on the back end where water outlets are taken out of service only if lead levels exceed 20 ppb, which is 4 times the level accepted for bottled water (5 ppb).  Iowa needs a health based lead regulation that can be used by consumers to evaluate whether their drinking water is safe, and it isn’t unreasonable for a low level like 1 ppb to be the goal.

Number of Iowa Park Rangers Decline As Park Visits Increase


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Thomas Robinson | December 8th, 2020

In an IowaWatch review, Iowa’s parks may be at risk of declining quality as the number of Iowa park rangers and funding decreases.

Iowa’s parks will likely see around 16 million visits in 2020, an above average number of visits for the state.  The heightened number of visits comes as the number of park rangers has declined to 35 rangers from around 55 almost 20 years ago.  The decline in park rangers presents a challenge to maintain the quality of the parks, and, while the review found most parks were doing well, there is potential for future damage.

Unfortunately, the reason for ranger decline is that general funding for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been too low according to Sen. Ken Rozenboom.  In 2018, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission warned that if the general fund contribution was reduced further it may prevent the DNR from carrying out its mission.  Amid budget challenges, the DNR closed their forestry bureau which ended checks for the Big Tree program that now only functions with the help of volunteers.

Coronavirus has emphasized the importance of Iowa’s state parks as places for people to explore and safely get out of their homes.  For these parks to remain in good quality and accessible to those looking to be outside, future funding will be required to support the DNR and park rangers.

Water Export Deal Delayed After Water Futures Trading Discussed


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Thomas Robinson | November 10th, 2020

Pattison Sand Co. has delayed their appeal of a decision by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to deny a permit to pump water from the Jordan aquifer in Clayton, Iowa and export it out of the state.

The delay comes after the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) recently discussed trading on water futures based on the California Water Index.  Trading on water futures could potentially make the proposed water export much more lucrative, or, it could also make the market more competitive making the proposal less favorable.  The appeal will now be heard starting on December 1, 2021.

Concerns over the project’s implications have been raised by the Sierra Club and an Iowa state hydrologist suggesting that the pumping operation would set a dangerous precedent.  The Sierra Club has been prevented from intervening in the case after the judge overseeing the hearing ruled that the nonprofit organization lacked legal standing.

The Iowa DNR has previously denied Pattison Sand Co.’s proposal three times starting back in February of this year.  Pumping water from the Jordan aquifer could increase an already strained water resource which is used for drinking water and irrigation across the state.

Iowa DNR Proposes Budget Increase for Lake Restoration and Water Trails


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Nicole Welle | September 14, 2020

The Iowa Natural Resource Commission endorsed a budget for the DNR with increases for lake water quality projects, water trails and park infrastructure.

The Department of Management ordered the Iowa DNR to use the current budget as a baseline for the 2021-2022 proposal. DNR complied by doubling the budget in those three areas while keeping spending the same elsewhere. Most of the money in the budget comes from fees and grants rather than the state’s general fund, according to a DesMoines Register article.

All of the budget increases will come from the state’s gambling tax receipts if it is approved by the legislature. If the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission approves the current proposal, it will become a baseline for Gov. Kim Reynolds’ next proposal for the department.

Some raised questions about how an increase in the budget would affect possible cuts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. DNR Director Kayla Lyon said that she has not heard of any across-the-board cuts at this time, but it is possible that departments will have to consider reductions in spending later on.

The new budget will be submitted to the Department of Management by Oct. 1.

Gov. Reynolds Directs CARES Acts Funds to Iowa Biofuel Producers and Renewable Fuel Retailers


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Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Tuesday that $100 million of CARES Act funds will go to several agricultural sectors in Iowa.

Iowa is directing $15.5 million in grants to biofuel producers and $7 million to renewable fuel retailers. Both sectors suffered during the early stages of the pandemic when demand for gasoline dropped, and renewable fuel producers did not receive any funds directly through the CARES Act at that time, according to Iowa Public Radio.

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, says that he is grateful for the funds since as much as half of Iowa’s ethanol production came to a halt during the worst stages of the pandemic. He hopes that the money will give producers more time to recover and help prevent plants from being permanently closed. As of this week, production has resumed to around 85 to 95 percent of capacity.

Reynolds directed the remaining funds to livestock programs, new farmers, meat processors, fruit and vegetable growers and the schools that buy their produce from local growers.

US Reaches Ten Billion-Dollar Disaster Mark Earlier Than Any Year Prior


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Thomas Robinson | July 28th, 2020

As of July 8th, the US has already experienced ten weather and climate disasters where the losses exceed one billion dollars.

Billion-dollar disasters are weather or climate events that result in losses reaching, or exceeding, one billion dollars in damage costs.  In a concerning trend, the past five consecutive years have all had ten or more billion-dollar events averaging almost fourteen severe events per year.  There have been ten billion-dollar disasters so far in 2020 occurring earlier than any other year prior.   

Climate projections suggest that severe storms will increase in both frequency and intensity supporting the need for increased disaster relief funding to address the prevalence of expensive disaster clean-up.  Surprisingly, the storms responsible for almost half of the billion-dollar disasters since 1980 have been severe thunderstorms rather than hurricanes or floods.

Iowa has recently been involved in the billion-dollar disaster figure with the 2019 Missouri river floods which caused around $1.6 billion in damages.  As weather patterns become more severe, the likelihood storms reach the billion-dollar mark will increase making events like the 2019 floods more common events for Iowans.

Flood sensor updates to help protect Iowans this spring


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The Iowa Flood Center’s Iowa Flood Information System shows the location of flood sensors throughout the state.

Julia Poska | March 17, 2020

Two major updates to Iowa’s network of flood sensors will help protect citizens and property this spring, when projections predict the state will see major flooding.

The Iowa Flood Center recently received $150,000 from the Iowa Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, according to KCRG.  The IFC also received $30,000 from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The network’s service provider is phasing-out the previously used technology, according to KCRG, so the funding will provide new modems and data plans to keep the sensors running.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has also installed five new flood sensors along the Iowa-Nebraska state boundary, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported. Areas in both states along the Missouri River were devastated by floods last spring. With elevated flood risk forecast for this year, the sensors could help Iowa and Nebraska officials coordinate disaster response.

Major flooding on Mississippi River likely again this spring


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Most of the Iowa/Mississippi River boundary can expect to see moderate flooding this spring (via NWS). 

Julia Poska | February 20, 2020

Iowa communities along the Mississippi River will most likely see major flooding this spring.

A National Weather Service flood outlook released last week shows an over 50% chance of extensive inundation all along the state’s eastern boundary. Probability of moderate flooding is at 95% in most areas. Western Iowa faces lower, but still significant risk.

Heavy precipitation in 2019, still-saturated soils and heavy snowpack to the north contribute to the elevated flood risk.

Radio Iowa reported that Gov. Kim Reynolds said official are coordinating with local emergency management teams. Reynolds said the Army Corps of Engineers is releasing water already to make room for melted snow to the north.

Last summer’s Mississippi River flooding was the longest in recorded history, lasting nearly 200 days. A coalition of river city mayors estimated damage to be over $2 billion along the length of the river.

You can find 2020 flood outlook data at specific Iowa sites using the interactive feature at this NWS page.