EPA leader focused on water quality, biofuels and livestock in first Iowa visit


Via North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality

Elizabeth Miglin | May 6, 2021

The new Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael S. Regan visited Iowa on Tuesday to discuss agriculture’s impact on environmental issues. 

Regan’s first visit to Iowa, included a tour of the Lincolnway Energy ethanol plant near Nevada, followed by a group discussion with farmers and a meeting with Gov. Kim Reynolds in Des Moines. Later in the day, Regan met with state and city officials to announce plans for a superfund site near downtown Des Moines. Notably, no discussions occurred with environmental organizations during his trip. 

The focus of Regan’s visit surrounded water quality, biofuels, and livestock production. Iowa environmental advocates have long supported regulation of nitrogen and phosphorus, two of the main farm fertilizers polluting Iowa’s lakes and streams. However, Regan spoke in favor of a nutrient reduction strategy focused on individual farmers taking steps to address this issue, according to the Iowa Capitol Dispatch


Regan’s visit comes as the issue of waivers to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard are before the U.S. Supreme Court. The waivers, which are highly objected to by farmers, allow oil refiners to not blend biofuels into oil production per the Renewable Fuel Standard, according to Iowa Environmental Focus. Although the Biden Administration does not support the reinstatement of the waivers, concerns have arisen over the administration’s push for electric vehicles and lack of support for corn and soybean-based biofuels. Speaking to these concerns, Regan emphasized the necessity for the co-existence of biofuels and electric vehicles for the foreseeable future.

Water Quality Identified As Top Environmental Concern In Recent Gallup Survey


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Thomas Robinson | April 20th, 2021

In a recent Gallup survey, Americans were asked about which environmental issues made them the most worried, and the two top responses were drinking water quality, and the condition of lakes, rivers, and reservoirs.

The majority of respondents were greatly concerned about drinking water (56%), and the pollution of rivers, lakes, and reservoirs (53%).  A minority of respondents were greatly concerned about larger environmental issues like climate change (43%) or air pollution (41%).  Water pollution is a problem that could personally affect a respondent in the survey which is attributed as the reason for such high concern over more widespread environmental challenges.  Concerns are likely to be elevated as high profile events such as lead exposure in the drinking water of Flint, MI linger in the minds of the public. 

Overall, opinions on the environment haven’t changed much over the past several years as respondents evaluation of environmental quality has remained about the same over the past 20 years that the survey has been run.  Unfortunately, around 52% of respondents think the environment is getting worse while only 42% of respondents thought environmental quality is improving which suggests that the public’s opinion of environmental quality is declining overall.

Water quality issues are prevalent in Iowa, for example, Iowa’s Racoon River that runs through Des Moines was recently identified by American Rivers as one of the nation’s most endangered rivers.  Poor water quality on both the Des Moines and the Racoon Rivers has required Des Moines’ water utility to install additional treatment to produce safe drinking water.

Controversial Manure Management Plan Approved By Iowa DNR


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Thomas Robinson | April 6th, 2021

Supreme Beef, a cattle operation stationed in northeastern Iowa, has had their proposed Manure Management Plan (MMP) approved by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The approval comes after a long series of hearings for the MMP that has faced scrutiny for the risk the plan poses to some of Iowa’s cleanest waters.  In particular, critics emphasized how unlikely it was that the cattle operation would evenly spread manure in the proposed 30 mile radius and that over application on farms closer to the feedlots could potentially pollute surface and groundwaters in the area. 

Northeastern Iowa is particularly susceptible to groundwater pollution from runoff and infiltration because of the porous karst topography found in the area.  Environmentalists who opposed the plan focused on Bloody Run Creek, a popular spot for fishing tourism because of the brown trout that can be found there, as an example of a pristine water that could be harmed by the IDNR’s decision. If the Creek was harmed Iowan’s could lose out on fishing tourism and the loss of one of the few “high quality” waters present in the state.

The Iowa Environmental Council has spoken out against the IDNR’s decision to approve the plan in a statement that took aim at the preferential treatment agriculture receives over environmental concerns.  

Microplastics And Biofilms Can Promote The Antibiotic Resistance Of Pathogens


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A recent study conducted at the New Jersey Institute of Technology demonstrated that biofilms formed on microplastic surfaces can serve as reservoirs for pathogens and promote antibiotic resistance.

Researchers found microplastic particles in wastewater treatment facilities boosted the antibiotic resistance of measured pathogens by around 30 times. Plastic surfaces are relatively hydrophobic which can result in the formation of biofilms that allow pathogens to interact with antibiotics in the wastewater.  When pathogens in the biofilms are able develop antibiotic resistance they can create a new challenge by sharing their resistance with other pathogens using antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs).  Increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics has been labeled a significant global threat which is now likely to be influenced by the prevalence of microplastics our wastewater. 

Microplastics are either manufactured for products like toothpaste or handsoaps, and can also be found as debris from other plastic products.  These plastic pollutants have been detected across the globe in many different environments and they present a unique public health challenge.  Additionally, toxic chemicals are known to be attracted to plastic debris in the oceans which can then be released into organisms when they ingest plastics. 

We currently don’t fully understand how low level chronic exposure to microplastics and the contaminants they may release has on the human body, but there is evidence that these particles can act as endocrine disruptors and cause significant harm. 

Mississippi River Cities Join New Initiative to Track and Reduce Plastic Pollution


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Nicole Welle | March 8, 2021

Cities along the Mississippi River will take part in a new project to help identify where plastic pollution entering the Gulf of Mexico is coming from.

The Mississippi River serves as a drainage system for 40% of the United States and sends huge amounts of plastic pollution into the Gulf of Mexico every year. To combat the problem, the new project will allow “citizen scientists” to record sources of litter they observe along the river on a mobile app. Officials will then enter the data onto a virtual map that policymakers can use to develop ordinances and plans to reduce plastic pollution, according to an Associated Press article.

Most plastic pollution enters the river through municipal storm drains and tributary streams. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic flow into oceans every year, and the debris often kills or severely injures fish and other marine life. Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer with the University of Georgia, hopes the project will spark conversation between mayors, stakeholders and community members.

“Mayors can use the data to bring stakeholders together to have conversations about what kinds of interventions make sense for their towns,” Jambeck said. “And community members can use the data to bring people together to discuss the issue and discuss what kind of actions they want to take.”

The new project follows an agreement made in 2018 by the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative to reduce plastic pollution in the Mississippi River valley. Baton Rouge, Louisiana; St. Louis, Missouri and St. Paul, Minnesota are leading the effort, and they are currently working on community education and outreach efforts. Webinars will be available this month to community members who wish to use the mobile Debris Tracker to help.

High Quality Waters At Risk From Proposed Manure Plan


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Thomas Robinson | March 2nd, 2021

A proposed plan for a manure application has come under scrutiny for the potential harm it could cause in some of Iowa’s high quality waters.

Supreme Beef, a cattle company in northeastern Iowa, has applied to spread cow manure in a 30 mile area around their operation near Monona IA.  Critics have warned that the plan may threaten water quality in the region, and pose a risk to the brown trout, a popular Iowa fishing attraction.  The plan proposed by Supreme Beef has been targeted for the likelihood for manure overapplication as well as a failure to include required conservation practices.

The area where manure would be spread is close to the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, an area where brown trout reproduce, which presents a threat to water quality because of northeastern Iowa’s karst topography.  Karst topography is characterized by easy groundwater flow, which means that any manure seepage or contamination from the surface could easily influence the water quality of the region. Iowan’s in the area have needed to address similar issues previously, particularly for private well owners.

Currently the DNR is accepting written comments for the plan until March 8th before they will issue a decision for Supreme Beef’s manure application.

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.

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


via Flickr

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.

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.

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.