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.

Number of Impaired Waters in Iowa Decreases for the First Time in 22 Years


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Nicole Welle | December 3, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released the impaired waters list Tuesday, and the report showed that segments of 750 Iowa lakes and waterways contain pollution levels that fail to meet state requirements.

Almost 60% of Iowa’s lakes, rivers, streams and reservoirs assessed by the DNR over the last five years fell short of state requirements for one or more functions. These include fishing, supporting aquatic insects or recreational swimming and boating. Parts of the Des Moines River, which provides drinking water for 500,000 Iowa residents, and recreational areas like Lake MacBride are on the list, according to a Des Moines Register article.

This year’s list reveals the daunting reality that over half of the state’s waters are polluted, but it also provides some hope for the future. It showed that since 2018, the number of impaired waters in Iowa has decreased by 2.2%. It is not a huge decline, but it is the first time the number has gone down in 22 years. Bodies of water were taken off the list either because conditions improved or the DNR wrote plans to improve water quality.

Solving Iowa’s water pollution problem will require follow-through on those plans, and some environmentalists think waters should only be taken off the list after that happens. Cooperation from farmers will also be crucial since fertilizer and manure runoff is one of the state’s biggest contributors to water pollution. The state reported manure spills as the leading cause of the 97 reported fish kills this year, and farmers have so far been reluctant to take advantage of incentives to take part in conservation practices.

Gov. Kim Reynold’s proposed a tax raise earlier this year that would help fund water quality improvements, but the COVID-19 pandemic has suspended legislative action. Organizations like the Iowa Environmental Council continue to call for an increase in mandatory regulations since the current voluntary compliance system is not doing enough to improve Iowa’s poor water quality, and they hope that the state government will do more to address the issue in the future.

DNR Denies Grocers’ Move to Pull Back on Redemption Center Rules


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Nicole Welle | October 5, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources denied the Iowa Grocery Industry Association’s petition to change rules on where customers can exchange cans and bottles for deposits last week.

The current law requires retailers who sell cans and bottles to accept them back unless they can refer customers to a local redemption center. The trip to the redemption center must take ten minutes or less, and Iowa grocers are working to change the rule from a ten-minute trip to a 15-minute one way drive. This would reduce the number of stores in the state required to take back cans and bottles for redemption and force customers in some areas to drive a longer distance.

The Iowa DNR denied the petition in part because grocery store customers who would be affected by this change across the state have not had a chance to be heard on the issue, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article. Many supporters of the current Bottle Bill, like the nonprofit Cleaner Iowa, praised the decision, noting that Iowa already has very few redemption centers that are accessible to large numbers of people. Grocery stores are the most popular and convenient place to redeem bottle and cans for most people.

The grocer’s association filed another petition on Tuesday and said that it would look into alternative actions moving forward. The new petition filed with the DNR is seeking to force other retailers who also sell bottles and cans, like gas stations and hardware stores, to also abide by the current rules. The petition includes a long list of retailers who the association believes are ignoring the law. The DNR has yet to make a decision on this issue.

Iowa DNR Issued Water Quality Warnings for Half of State Park Beaches This Summer


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Nicole Welle | September 17, 2020

The Iowa DNR issued advisories for over half of state park beaches this summer due to unsafe levels of E. Coli bacteria or microcystins in the water.

DNR conducted weekly tests Memorial Day through Labor day, and 39 state park beaches had at least one week during the summer where toxin levels were high enough to trigger a warning. They reported a total of 118 advisories over the summer, an increase from the 79 advisories issued in 2019, according to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article.

E. Coli, which indicates the presence of feces in the water, was responsible for most of the warnings. However, elevated levels of microcystins, which caused 12 advisories, can lead to a range of health problems in people exposed to them. These include gastroenteritis, allergic reactions and potentially life-threatening liver damage. Microcystins are produced by certain types of freshwater blue-green algae.

Studies have shown that much of the bacteria and toxins causing the warnings come from manure runoff and contaminates from nearby fields. Sandy beaches also tend to have higher levels of bacteria from manure from geese and other animals. Higher levels of toxic algae blooms, however, can have a variety of causes. Weather, temperature, nutrient availability and other environmental stressors are all factors, according to Dan Kendall, and environmental specialist in charge of the beach monitoring program.

The DNR’s Lake Restoration Program has plans to begin reducing bacteria in some of Iowa’s lakes that have been most heavily affected and continue testing each summer to monitor toxin levels.

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.

DNR Sets Stricter Water Quality Thresholds for Iowa Beaches


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Nicole Welle | June 15, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided to follow stricter standards this summer for the amount of toxins found in the water at public beaches.

Microcystin is a toxin produced by cyanobacteria in algae blooms in Iowa’s lakes. It poses health threats to humans and animals that swim at beaches with high levels of the toxin and can cause abdominal pain, blistering, pneumonia and vomiting if ingested. Dogs have also died from being exposed to it, according to an Iowa Environmental Council news release.

In 2006, Iowa DNR began using a threshold of 20 micrograms per liter to issue beach advisories. However, they decided to lower it to 8 micrograms per litre this year after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended it.

The DNR currently monitors only a small percentage of Iowa’s recreational beaches, but they were able to issue a number of advisories and temporarily close beaches on Lake Macbride, Spirit Lake and Lake Rathbun last year when microcystin levels exceeded the threshold. The number of advisories issued this year is likely to be much higher than past years under the new guidelines.

Mining company makes second proposal to export water from Iowa


Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Tony Webster

Tyler Chalfant | March 16th, 2020

In a letter last week, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources asked a mining company for “specific information” about where it plans to send 34 million gallons of water from the Jordan aquifer. Pattison Sand Company, located near Clayton, Iowa, is working with the Oregon-based company Water Train to export the water from two wells on its property to drought-stricken Western States. 

This proposal is the company’s second attempt to export water, after the state said it intended to deny its first proposal back in February, saying that sending such a large amount of water out of the state would have “a negative impact on the long-term availability of Iowa’s water resources.”

The company’s current permit allows it to draw 1.6 billion gallons annually from the aquifer, which is a source of water for 500,000 Iowans and considered stressed in some parts of the state. According to the state, Pattison would have to apply for a new permit for this use of the water, as well as providing more specific details about the intended use. 

Iowa DNR releases annual report of greenhouse gas emissions


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Tyler Chalfant | February 4th, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is required to issue a report of estimated greenhouse gas emissions each year, and to forecast trends in emissions going forward. At the end of 2019, they released their 2018 report, measuring emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, perfluorocarbons, hydrofluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluorides. Combined, the total gross greenhouse gas emissions in Iowa reached 137.49 million metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent (MMtCO₂e), the highest emissions have been since 2010. 

This number has risen 3.38%, or 4.49 MMtCO₂e, from 2017, and 10.09% from 2016, when emissions were at a recent low. The greatest increases came from power plants generating more electricity from fossil fuels, increased fossil fuel emissions from the residential/commercial/industrial sector, an increase in agricultural emissions, and a rise in the production of ammonia in the industrial processes sector. 

With 30% of the state’s total, agriculture remains the largest source of gross emissions in Iowa. Power plant emissions have fallen over the past ten years, and have not been the leading source of emissions since 2011. However, like the rest of the state’s emissions, use of coal and natural gas in electric generation has risen since 2016, while generation from wind, nuclear, and hydropower have fallen slightly.

The DNR projects that agricultural and overall emissions will continue to rise over the next ten years. Overall emissions for 2018 exceeded the projection by nearly 7 MMtCO₂e, largely due to the rise in power plant emissions.

Iowa officials investigate fish kill following manure spill in Wolf Creek


Tyler Chalfant | November 5th, 2019

A fish kill was found in Wolf Creek in Tama County last week, after a manure applicator for Mayo Farm Inc. reported that about 2,600 gallons of manure leaked had from a drag hose. The applicator attempted to stop the flow, but estimates that up to 500 gallons reached the creek. Environmental officials from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources are investigating the spill.

Fresh manure contains ammonia, which kills fish at high quantities. Manure is used as a fertilizer because of the high levels of nutrients ‒ notably nitrogen and phosphorus ‒ that it contains. However, when too much of these nutrients enter an ecosystem, it can throw the system out of balance. Algae tends to bloom in nitrogen-rich environments, and certain types known as cyanobacteria can be toxic for aquatic life. 

Even when it isn’t toxic, overgrowth of algae can also kill fish through oxygen depletion, known as hypoxia. Nitrogen runoff from Iowa agriculture contributes not only to local hypoxia, but also to the largest ever “dead zone,” at the basin of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico. The voluntary practices recommended in the state’s 2014 Nutrient Reduction Strategy include reducing the use of fertilizers in order to reduce hypoxia. 

Iowa DNR warns against swimming at nine beaches


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The Iowa DNR’s map of affected beaches (/IowaDNR)

Eden DeWald | July 18th, 2018

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has advised beach goers against swimming at nine Iowa beaches across the state due to high levels of E.coli in the water. Signs have been posted to warn Iowans about the high levels of E.coli, but there is still no shortage of swimmers on the affected beaches.

E.coli, or Escherichia coli, is a bacterium that lives in the digestive tracts of humans. However, pathogenic strains of E.coli can cause infections in humans with symptoms including diarrhea and vomiting, and in some serious cases, kidney failure. Exposure to pathogenic bacteria can occur via contaminated food, water or contact with another infected person. Young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems are the most susceptible to an E.coli infection.

The DNR recognized that it is hard to pinpoint what causes these high levels of E.coli in water. However, E.coli outbreaks in lakes and beaches have been linked to human and animal waste. A paper from the Iowa Public Policy project published earlier this year also links E.coli to waste from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, of which there are an estimated 10,000 in Iowa.