Judge orders halt of Biden’s executive order pause on new gas, oil leases


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 18, 2021

A federal judge ruled that the Biden administration must restart regular sales of oil and gas leases.

The order forces the administration to abandon a central piece of its environmental agenda. President Joe Biden signed an executive order in January that temporarily paused new oil and gas leases on public lands to give time to the administration to review leasing policies. The reviews intended to better understand the leases’ contributions to climate change. The executive order was a return to Obama-era policies.

In the ruling issued by U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, he granted a request by Jeff Landry, Louisiana’s attorney general, and a dozen other Republican-led states and ordered the administration to hold quarterly lease sales nationally. The complaint filed by Landry and other states was introduced at the end of March. Doughty’s order will hold until there is an official decision made in the case.

The initial ruling said the “court does not favor nationwide injunctions unless absolutely necessary,” suggesting the injunction was not needed. Another concern is the monetary losses from not leasing this land.

While the decision garnered support from some republicans nationally, environmentalists are calling for the executive order’s pause to be permanent, according to Iowa Capital Dispatch. A long-term ban would assist the Biden administration in meeting its goal of conserving a third of U.S. land and waters by 2030.

Environmental council suggests Iowa’s utilities should speed up retirement of coal usage


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 17, 2021

Iowa should speed up the disuse of coal plants in the state according to new analysis from the Iowa Environmental Council.

The council said Iowa’s investor-owned utilities do no need coal power to meet the demands of residents. Steve Guyer, the council’s energy and climate policy specialist, said there are options to help Iowa build on its wind, solar, and other renewable energy sources, including power generated with hydrogen and battery storage of electricity. These energy options are enough to meet the needs of Iowans.

The Iowa Environmental Council is also joining forces with the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Sierra Club to appeal a decision by the Iowa Utilities Board that allowed MidAmerican Energy Company’s coal plants to evade reviews this year. The lawsuit is leaning on Iowa’s law that requires biennial review of plants to manage coal emissions, suggesting the MidAmerican company ignored options to retire coal plants and decrease emissions.

MidAmerican is the largest carbon polluter in the state according to the council, due to its owning and operating of five coal plants in Iowa. The company has no plan to retire the use of coal regardless of the council’s new analysis. The lawsuit was filed in a Polk County District Court on June 11.

MidAmerican has invested in the use of wind and solar resources in recent years, according to Iowa Capital Dispatch. The company has retired four coal plants in the last six years, but Guyer said coal is not needed at all in the state and no longer creates an effective “base load” of electricity.

Des Moines Design Panel Approves $28 Million River Recreation Project


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 16, 2021

A Des Moines city design panel approved plans for a $28 million conversion of Des Moines’ Scott Avenue dam into a fishing and kayaking area on Tuesday. 

The Scott Avenue conversion is the largest of four major projects planned for water trails development downtown and is one of the first to use portions of a $25 million federal grant arranged by Central Iowa Water Trails and the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The project is a part of the $100 million-plus plan to improve safety by replacing or changing low-head dams while improving recreation. While the biggest project at the Center Street Dam will be voted on later, the other approved projects are at the Prospect and Birdland parks and near Harriett Street. 

Plans for the Scott Avenue project add three “drop-offs” for kayaking, a fish passage, seating in areas near the river and a secondary dam to improve safety. At Tuesday’s meeting, discussion was focused around using limestone, granit, or other natural materials, such as planting prairie and lawn grass for stabilization and decor. 

Work on the project is expected to take two years, beginning in July 2022. 

Des Moines Water Works Urges Customers to Conserve Amid Drought


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 15, 2021

Des Moines Water Works has asked customers to voluntarily conserve water as drought and near-record water demand strains supply. 

On Monday, the utility asked metro residents to reduce their lawn watering by 25%. The utility has a capacity of 110 million gallons a day however, when demand reaches past 90 million the system risks water pressure problems. On June 9, Water Works pumped 88.6 million gallons, now the second highest peak since 2012 when 96 million gallons were pumped. 

In an interview with the Iowa Capital Dispatch, CEO Ted Corrigan noted if it doesn’t rain soon, the utility may need to ask for a 50% lawn watering reduction. This is only the second time during Corrigan’s 31 years at Water Works that the utility has asked customers to voluntarily reduce water usage. The last time a cutback was encouraged was in 2012. 

Water Works has had to lower its usage of the Des Moines River due to toxic algae issues which re-emerged a month early this year; making the river unusable. The current main source of tap water, the Raccoon River is running at 7.5% of its median flow.

Over the past decade, Iowa has spent over $40.6 million at six locations to treat and prevent algae toxin outbreaks. Nationwide, this issue has become a $1.1 billion issue according to a study by the Environmental Working Group

The request impacts Des Moines, West Des Moines, Johnston, Urbandale, Clive, Norwalk, Pleasant Hill and Ankeny city residents. 

Majority of Iowa currently experiencing some degree of drought


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 11, 2021

Nearly 90 percent of Iowa’s land is experiencing a drought of differing degrees due to low levels of precipitation in May.

32 percent of the state rated abnormally dry, 47 percent is in a moderate drought, and 10 percent received a severe drought rating according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map. Precipitation in May was more than an inch below average this year. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported on Thursday that the statewide average was 3.71 inches, ranging from 1.95 to 8.53 inches across Iowa. The start of June also saw a below average rainfall, dragging drought indicators lower.

The warm and dry conditions in the last month mixed with a below-average rainfall has expanded the land impacted by drought conditions. Northern Iowa saw drought conditions increase to cover two-thirds of the top half of the state according to the report. Southern Iowa saw similar levels of drought expansion as well.

Current weather conditions led to “below normal” stream-flow conditions across half of Iowa. Several river basins in the state are seeing lower flows, but portions of the Raccoon and Des Moines river basins have “much below normal flows”. The decrease could lead to about 69 percent less runoff than normal at the Missouri River basin above Sioux City, the report said.

As of June 10, only southeastern Iowa is free of drought and abnormal dryness conditions.

Local leaders urge Congress to reclassify PFAS


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 10, 2021

Local and community leaders are asking Congress to designate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, as hazardous materials this legislative session. This classification would trigger federal cleanup standards when the chemical is in drinking water.

PFAS can be found all over the United States in drinking water, soil, and air because they are commonly used in nonstick cookware and waterproof clothing. These chemicals are part of a family of persistent synthetic chemicals that can cause adverse health issues. Exposure to PFAS can lead to liver damage, obesity, high cholesterol, and cancer.

The two most well studied PFAs are perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS. Des Moines, Davenport, and Bettendorf all have high levels of these two chemicals.

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken steps since February to act on PFAS by creating a council on the “forever chemical”. PFAS are also found in the Department of Defense’s firefighting foam that is used at many airports.

Senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters introduced legislation that would hold the Pentagon accountable for its use of the chemicals and oblige it to initiate clean up programs on military bases. New Mexico is currently suing the Department of Defense after PFAS spread to several farms in the state.

Congressional leaders are advocating for specific deadlines to ensure the legislation is effective and the Department of Defense follows through with the clean-up.

University of Iowa Researchers Host First Annual BioBlitz


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 8, 2021

Researchers at the University of Iowa are hosting the 1st Annual BioBlitz at the newly restored Ashton Prairie on July 10th. The study gives participants the opportunity to contribute the first data points to a multi-year study by examining insect diversity changes over time at the site. 

Throughout the event, participants will be shown how to examine insects under a professional microscope and learn how to identify different species with the naked eye and the iNaturalist app. Guests will also hear from the leaders of the prairie restoration project on the vision for the prairie as well as how the collections and observations will contribute to greater research on ecological health. Event staffers noted “As this is the 1st Annual event, we hope to see some young scientists who can grow along with the biodiversity at the prairie over the years.”

Facilitators of the event include the University of Iowa Biology, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Office of Sustainability and the Environment, The Iowa Raptor Project, UI Museum of Natural History, the Iowa City Science Booster Club, and 10 visiting Interdisciplinary Evolutionary Sciences research students with additional support from the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

The event will be hosted at the Prairie Reconstruction Project Site at the UI Ashton Cross Country Course and will go from nine am to noon. Free registration is open for the event on the University of Iowa events calendar website. 

Iowa Ideas 2021 conference to focus on water quality


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 4, 2021

The Cedar Rapids Gazette is hosting an in-depth week on water quality later this month as a part of the Gazette’s Iowa Ideas 2021 virtual conference.

The events begin at noon on June 21 with a keynote session with Larry Weber, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. The week will include various panels on the value of water, eco-tourism, the upgrades some Iowa communities need to remove nitrates and pollutants from drinking water, and various other pressing issues. The week closes with a look at the 388-mile Cedar River and water quality efforts surrounding the waterway on Friday, June 25.

Twelve panelists will participate in the week of activities, looking to inform Iowans on water quality issues around the state and beyond its borders. Iowa Ideas is an initiative that aims to explore and discuss big issues that could shape the state’s future. The water quality week follows a higher education focused week in the spring.  

The Iowa Ideas week this month will feature conversation about controlling water pollution and runoffs, where ideas about how to protect water in the state will be shared. Panels and discussions begin at noon Monday through Friday with different guests daily. Free registration is open for the event on the Iowa Ideas website.

DNR Director decides against overruling Supreme Beef feedlot


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 3, 2021

Iowa Department of Natural Resources Director Kayla Lyon decided last Friday that she will not use the Director’s Discretion Rule to review an 11,600-head cattle feedlot.

More than 40 groups, individuals, and elected officials sent a letter to Lyon asking her to use the rule to veto the approval of the operation in late May. The Iowa DNR and the Iowa Attorney General’s Office notified the organizations, legislators, and individuals that the initial decision approving the Supreme Beef project will stand.

Environmental groups are concerned about the project due to its proximity to Monona and Bloody Run Creek—a protected waterway. The feedlot will be in the creek’s watershed, presenting the possibility of contaminating the water.

The Director’s Discretion Rule was objected to in the Iowa Legislature in 2006. Any challenge to the rule means the DNR must prove that the rule is not arbitrary, beyond its authority, capricious, or unreasonable. The rule can still be used regardless of the Legislature’s previous objection.

In Lyon’s letter, she said the DNR’s Legal Services Bureau advised her and said a subrule “lacks statutory authority”. Lyon cited chapters 459 and 459A of Iowa’s code as to why she could not conduct an alternative evaluation. The Sierra Club and other environmental groups disagree and are asking the DNR to formally outline how they came to their decision to the public.

According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, environmental groups can file a lawsuit against the Iowa DNR, but no suits have been filed.

The Iowa Legislature Failed to Extend Solar Tax Credits for Homeowners


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 1, 2021

Despite multiple bills introduced to extend the tax credit last year, many died in committee when the Legislature decided to focus on other budget issues during the overtime session. 

The failure of the legislature to extend the solar tax credits will impact more than 750 Iowa homeowners who currently qualify for credit with an average of $3,200 each. This number does not include the 2,000 person and growing waitlist of credit requests by participants, many being farmers according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. Businesses will continue to be eligible for credits, however the state has spent all of its money for residential projects.

The state has previously offered credits which offset 13% of project costs of under $5,000 for a residential project and $20,000 for commercial projects. Federal tax credits cover an additional 26% of project costs. Between 2012 and 2020, the incentive covered $36.6 million for 6,213 projects with combined costs of $291 million according to the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association.  

Solar energy advocates were told by GOP senators the residential credits would be removed because the industry is “mature” and doesn’t need them. Iowa has become a national leader in renewable energy, predominantly via wind, however the solar industry has grown quickly in the state as well. Around 85 companies have placed their solar energy supply chains in Iowa. Additionally, in 2015 there were only 350 solar-related jobs in Iowa compared to 2019 which grew to 900, according to a trade group.

Multiple solar energy groups are expected to advocate for tax credit legislation next legislative session.