The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday against an interpretation of the Clean Water Act that excluded pollutants that travel through groundwater before reaching protected surface waters. Environmental groups have called the County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund decision “a huge victory for clean water.”
In a 6-3 ruling, the majority of the court rejected what Justice Stephen G. Breyer called the “extreme” positions of both sides. Under the Clean Water Act, facilities are required to obtain permits for point-source pollution, which originates from a single identifiable source, into navigable waters. The appellate court had ruled in favor of environmental groups arguing that this applied to pollution that “actually and foreseeably reach navigable surface waters,” a standard that Breyer said was too broad.
The Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, had sided with a wastewater plant on Maui, Hawaii, arguing that the law applied only to direct pollution into navigable waters. Earlier this year, the federal agency removed protections for smaller waterways, replacing an Obama-era rule. This decision limits the pollution allowed by that change as well, requiring permits for pollution into some smaller bodies of water if it functionally pollutes a larger, protected body as well.
Water quality advocates warn that these permits are easy to obtain, but the decision means that facilities can face lawsuits over, and have limits placed on, their groundwater discharges.
A news story published last week featured an Iowa farmer who illegally built to un-permitted barns containing about 2,400 hogs. State officials were unaware of the concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) for years.
That farmer and others are fighting in what Associated Press correspondent John Flesher called a “battleground” in Iowa. Questions of pollution and regulation have inspired lawsuits, anti-CAFO alliances and neighborly tensions throughout the state, as animal feeding operations continue to proliferate.
Below are four key takeaways from Flesher’s in-depth report. Read the full-length story on apnews.com.
The federal government relies state data for animal feeding operation data. In many cases, states keep tabs on only the largest operations (in Iowa, a true “CAFO” has a minimum of 1,000 species-variable “animal units” per confinement). The EPA counted about 20,300 CAFOs nationwide in 2018. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates there are about 450,000 animal feeding operations–places animals are raised in confinement (of any size)– nationwide.
Under the 1972 Clean Water Act, especially large livestock operations need permits for discharging waste into waterways. Since such discharges are often unintended, however, state and federal environmental agencies can only mandate permits for operations caught discharging waste. In some cases, farmers have been able to make spill-proofing improvements instead of applying for permits.
Studies show that livestock operations and anaerobically decomposing waste release massive amounts of ammonia and greenhouse gases. Because such emissions are difficult to measure, though, they are unregulated by the Clear Air Act. Studies have additionally correlated these emissions to human health issues such as childhood asthma. Cause/effect is impossible to prove, however.
The Trump Administration finalized the replacement of another Obama-era environmental regulation last week. Under the Clean Water Act, the 2015 “Waters of the United States” rule placed limits on polluting chemicals that could be used near streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water.
The rule, which impacted farmers, rural landowners, and real estate developers, was repealed in September of last year. President Trump has called it “one of the worst examples of federal” overreach, and now has replaced it with the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.”
This rule limits federally regulated waters to four categories: the territorial seas and traditional navigable waters; perennial and intermittent tributaries to those waters; certain lakes, ponds, and impoundments; and wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional waters. It also excludes from federal jurisdiction wetlands, previously converted cropland, and waste treatment systems.
Spokesmen for the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Gas Association celebrated the new rule for its limiting of federal power. Environmental groups have warned, however, that the change could put the drinking water of millions of Americans at risk of contamination. A panel of government appointed scientists said earlier this month that the rule “neglects established science” by excluding certain bodies of water.
The Trump administration’s proposed rollback of the 2015 Clean Water Rule would reduce federal jurisdiction over wetlands, streams and other small water bodies on Iowa farmland. Some Iowans see the proposal, officially made in mid-December, as a win for farmers, while others see it as a hit to much needed water quality regulation in the state.
Since the start of his term, Pres. Trump has wanted to limit Obama’s 2015 Clean Water Rule, which more clearly defined “Waters of the United States” within the Clean Water Act of 1972. This increased the protected area by about 3 percent (according to an op-ed from Bloomberg News) by adding more streams and neighboring wetlands, ponds and impoundments into federal jurisdiction and reducing those waterbodies that could once be given/denied protection on a “case-by-case” basis.
The current administration proposes removing wetlands without clear surface connection to larger bodies of water from protection, as well as “ephemeral” streams that only flow with rainfall or snowmelt, about 18 percent of the country’s total streams. The proposal is now undergoing 60 days of public comment.
In November, the country already allowed Iowa to halt enforcement of the rule until disagreement over it was settled in court. Most farmers seem to want that allowance made permanent by the Clean Water Rule rollback. The Iowa Farm Bureau shared a statement of support in December after the EPA announced the proposed rollback, and called the Obama Era rule an “overreach.”
As Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told reporters, “Iowa’s farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and small businesses can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that going forward a tire track that collects rain water won’t be regulated by the federal government.”
Iowa has serious water quality issues, however, caused for the most part by runoff from farm fields containing harmful nutrients like nitrate and phosphorus. The state recognizes the importance of on-farm streams and wetlands in managing soil and water quality, and encourages the construction of buffers between crops and waterways to minimize runoff into streams or wetlands.
Curt Zingula, a Linn County farmer who uses a saturated buffer on his farm to protect a creek, told theSioux City Journal he is proactive about water quality management, but thinks the Clean Water Rule “cast a shadow” over a landowner’s entire farm.
Others believe the rule was necessary, however, and think the proposed rollback will worsen Iowa’s water problem. A staff editorial in the Gazette called Ernst’s statements “hyperbole” and pushed for more focus on the water itself in the discussions surrounding the proposed rule change.
“If the Trump administration can’t explain how its definition will lead to cleaner water, and all of its related benefits, it should go back to the drawing board,” it reads. “Otherwise, it’s simply replaced Obama’s ‘overreach’ with a dereliction of duty to protect the nation’s waters for future generations.”
University of Iowa facilities management received notice on February 1 that its drinking water system contains levels of Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) that exceed the federal drinking water standard.
In an email sent out to University faculty, staff and students on February 9, it was reported that the drinking water tested on average between 0.081 and 0.110 mg/L over the last year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) for TTHM is 0.08 mg/L.
The notice read, “You do not need to use an alternative (e.g., bottled) water supply. Disease prevention specialists with University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics say special precautions are not necessary.”
University officials cautioned, “However, some people who drink water-containing trihalomethanes in excess of the MCL over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”
A study by the California Department of Health suggests that even short-term exposure to high TTHM levels in drinking water can have serious consequences for pregnant women. Scientists monitored 5,144 women during their first trimester of pregnancy. Participants who drank five or more glasses of cold home tap water containing 0.075 mg/L or more of TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 15.9 percent. Women that drank less than five glasses per day or who had home tap water with less than 0.075 mg/L TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 9.5 percent.
A reverse osmosis filtration system for the University of Iowa drinking water supply is currently in its design phase. Facilities management expects to have the new system up and running within the next 18 months. Officials say it will help address Iowa’s nitrate problem and filter out naturally occurring organic matter, resulting in fewer TTHM.
High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus inundate Iowa waterways and that coupled with high temperatures provides the perfect breeding ground for algae. The state has implemented a voluntary plan which encourages farmers to practice agricultural techniques that will lessen the amount of fertilizer run-off which leads to contaminated waterways in Iowa.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently advised beach-goers to avoid the waters at Lake Red Rock in Marion County due to excessively high levels of blue green algae which is known to contain toxins that are harmful to humans and can be lethal for animals. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources advises swimmers to take extra precaution in Iowa lakes during this time of the year. There are currently about dozen state-operated beaches in Iowa where swimming is not advised.
Attornys general from Iowa and 14 other agricultural and ranching states have spoken out against a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed rule for the Clean Water Act, fearing the proposal would place excessive regulations on farmers and ranchers. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has defended the proposal and said it does not intend to place strict federal regulations on farmers.
Approximately 600 households in southwest Iowa were recently issued a boil order before consuming tap water after water quality tests concluded that chlorine levels were not sufficient. Chlorine is used to kill bacteria and other harmful toxins as part of the water filtration process but there was no indication that bacteria or other toxins had actually contaminated the water supply.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has announced a series of public meetings to review the state’s water quality standards. The open discussions, which occur triennially in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act, will be held throughout Iowa in early September.
Iowans with ideas and opinions about state water quality goals are encouraged to attend one of the events. After the meetings, the department will review the public’s suggestions and adjust their work plan accordingly.
Rochelle Weiss, DNR water quality standards coordinator, describes the meetings as “the public’s opportunity to tell us what is important to them.”
Earlier this week, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and several other members of the Senate Agriculture Committee met with U. S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. The aim of the closed-door meeting was to clarify several intersections between environmental regulations and agricultural practices.
However, the meeting failed to resolve tensions between the two interests. Grassley released a statement noting his discontent with the EPA’s efforts, stating that “the meeting did little to alleviate [his] concerns.”
ANKENY, Iowa (AP) – An environmental advocacy group says it is delivering a petition with 5,000 names to the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission insisting the state crack down on water pollution that comes from large livestock farms.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement says it will demand at Tuesday’s commission meeting that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources issue a Clean Water Act operating permit to the Maschhoff Pork farm near Keosauqua in southeast Iowa.
The farm, with nearly 7,500 pigs, spilled thousands of gallons of manure into a creek on Nov. 4, just weeks after a DNR inspection. It has had several spills in recent years.
The state hasn’t issued a water permit to a hog facility before but environmental groups are increasingly pressuring the state to create rules to do so.