Iowans, utility companies conserving less energy after 2018 law


Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | July 9, 2021

Iowans are conserving less energy following the passing of a 2018 law that changed the state’s efficiency requirements.

Senate File 2311 capped spending on utility-sponsored energy efficiency programs in Iowa. The law was passed in the last few days of the 2018 Iowa legislative session with the support of most Republicans in the state House and Senate. The caps were below the amount utilities were already spending on programs. In 2018, the Iowa Environmental Council lobbied against the legislation, saying utility companies were the only winners, as businesses and citizens would “pay the price of this action.” 22 states have energy efficiency resource standards that serve as a target for citizens to meet.

In 2020, two years after the law’s passing, Iowa’s total kilowatt hour savings were more than 300 million lower than in 2018 according to the Energy News Network. The drop is more than 50 percent of the energy savings in Iowa’s recent history. A yearly state energy efficiency scorecard from the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy dropped Iowa to 36 out of the 50 states. Iowa is beat by some of its midwestern counterparts—like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois—but still placed higher than the Dakotas, and Nebraska. Iowa held 24th place in 2018. 

The Iowa Legislature Failed to Extend Solar Tax Credits for Homeowners


Via Flickr

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.

Environmental Panel Approves New Water Quality Rules


Via Flickr

Josie Taylor | May 24, 2021

An Iowa environmental panel approved new controversial water quality rules last week. Critics are worried it will threaten Iowa’s waterways.

The Environmental Protection Commission, which is a group appointed by the Governor, approved rules on water quality certifications related to permits. They approved heavy equipment that is currently banned to be used in waterways. It also removes wetland loss restrictions. 

Some groups however, like The Iowa Environmental Council believe the new rules will take away important protections for Iowa’s waterways. This council is made up of 80 environmental groups and 500 individual members. This group is also concerned that water quality standards will be easier to violate. 

The Iowa Environmental Council stressed concerns over the Department of Natural Resources because they claim these new rules will limit what DNR can consider when looking at permits. DNR, however, gave a statement to the Des Moines Register making it clear that they still intend to guarantee safe water for Iowans. 

In their statement, the Department of Natural Resources gave support for the new rules passed by the panel. They say these rules will take action to prevent pollution, along with other positive actions.

New Bill Would Give Iowa State Parks an Additional $3 Million Each Year


Image of lake in Pilot Knob State Park, Ellington, IA.
Via Flickr

Elizabeth Miglin | March 4, 2021

A plan to provide $3 million towards state park improvements passed a legislative subcommittee on Monday, March 1st.

Rep. Brent Siegrist, R-Council Bluffs, introduced the bill to provide additional funding to state parks in light of deferred maintenance. The bill would create a Restore the Outdoors program to fund vertical integration projects that focus on major repairs and renovations. 

Similar to legislation from 1997, House File 647 would provide the DNR with $3 million annually from gambling taxes over a three-year period. Despite concerns over budget restrictions caused by casino closures in 2020, GOP leaders are expected to give the bill a hearing in the Natural Resources and Appropriations committee. 

“I will continue to press this issue because I think it is very important to our quality of life in Iowa,” Siegrist said

The interest to improve state parks comes after a tumultuous year. Not only did Iowa’s state parks celebrate a centennial anniversary, but there was also a record 16.6 million visitations last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the impacts of the derecho left many state parks in need of renovation.  

“I think that, especially after last year when so many people used our state parks, it is just a good thing to keep them as maintained as we can,” subcommittee member Rep. Tom Jeneary, R-Le Mars, said to the Iowa Capitol Dispatch.

All three representatives on the House Natural Resources subcommittee approved the legislation.

Decade-old conservation amendment may finally receive funding


Photo from Max Pixel

Tyler Chalfant | November 26th, 2019

In a 2010 referendum, Iowans approved a constitutional amendment to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, a permanent and protected source of funding dedicated towards conserving and improving the state’s water quality, farmland, and natural wildlife habitats, and providing opportunities for recreation. Nearly a decade later, that fund still remains empty

The fund requires a state sales tax increase of 3/8th of a cent, something the legislature never approved. Recent polling has found that 69% of Iowans support this increase, up from 63% who voted for the amendment in the first place. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver says that the funding would have to be a part of a net decrease in Iowans’ tax burden, while some Democrats are concerned that the tax is regressive, as it disproportionately places the burden of fixing environmental problems on those with low to moderate incomes who did not cause them.

Still, Governor Kim Reynolds has said she’s working on a plan to fill the fund which could be voted on during the legislative session starting in January. A one-cent increase in Iowa’s sales tax would generate an additional $547 million, $170 million of which would be directed to the Trust Fund. The constitutionally protected funding would primarily be committed to natural resources, soil, water, and watershed conservation, as well as the resource enhancement and protection program known as REAP and local conservation partnerships.

Iowa elected officials support mandatory stream buffers


Photo by Adam Sondel, Pexels

Tyler Chalfant | September 17th, 2019

The Conservation Districts of Iowa passed a resolution earlier this month calling for mandatory buffers to protect the state’s water by prohibiting crops from being planted within 30 feet of a stream. These buffers protect waterways from erosion and nutrient pollution, and also promote biodiversity by preserving habitats. 

The Conservation Districts of Iowa, or CDI, is made up of 500 soil and water conservation district commissioners, elected from each of the soil and water conservation districts in the state. The group’s purpose is to promote conservation practices and policy, and they now plan to lobby the Iowa Legislature on this issue, hoping to pass a law to make buffers mandatory. Minnesota passed a law requiring buffers of 50 feet, and now has a 96% compliance rate.

A similar resolution failed to pass the CDI last year. Laura Krouse, one of the commissioners who proposed the resolution, credits the change in opinion to the heavy precipitation and flooding that the state has experienced over the past year, which hurt farmers across the state. Many farmers already plant perennials around streams, but others don’t, and farmland regulations are expected to meet resistance. 

Opposition Secretary Mike Naig of the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources said that he opposes making buffers mandatory, preferring voluntary, incentive-driven programs. Krouse responded that Iowa has, “relied on the voluntary approach for 70 years. It’s not working in some areas.” 

Iowa passes new bill on advanced plastic recycling


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Pyrolysis technology can recycle the bottles inside these bags AND the bags (flickr).

Julia Poska| April 12, 2019

The Iowa Legislature and Governor Reynolds passed a bill this week in support of chemical recycling facilities for plastic in the state.

The bill defines gasification and pyrolysis, two chemical recycling methods, as processes that convert waste plastics into raw materials like crude oil, gasoline and other chemicals by heating and melting them in oxygen-deficient environments then processing them accordingly.  Those materials can be used to make new plastic products or as “feedstock” to fuel industrial processes. Plants conducting these activities in Iowa will be regulated more like manufacturing plants than solid waste disposal facilities, according to the trade publication Plastics Recycling Update.

There are obvious benefits to recycling plastics. Transforming plastic waste into useful materials will keep it out of landfills, rivers and oceans. A National Geographic story on plastic recycling said that pyrolysis plants can handle filmy plastic bags, which most traditional recycling plants cannot. Recycling also reduces the amount of new material that must be manufactured to meet demands.

Recycling Today reported that five advanced recycling facilities could generate $309 million annually by converting 25 percent of Iowa’s plastic waste into industrial feedstocks or transportation fuel. According to National Geographic, however, it is still cheaper to make diesel from fossil fuel than plastic. The article said pyrolysis startups have closed in the past because they haven’t been able to make money or meet pollution control limits.

Burning plastics releases carbon and toxins into the atmosphere, albeit at fairly low rates  according to industry experts. Michigan State University Extension says gasoline and diesel produced from plastic appear to contain more energy and less carbon that traditional fossil fuels, too.

Plastics Recycling Update said the Iowa Recycling Association had been opposed to the bill but did not say why. This post will be updated if and when the Iowa Environmental Focus is able to learn more.

Iowa general assembly adjourns, still no water quality funding


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Iowa legislators have failed to approve long-term funding for water quality projects that were approved by voters in 2010. (Michael Leland/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 25, 2017

The Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund remains empty after legislators adjourned the 86th General Assembly on Saturday without passing policy to fund water quality improvement in the state.

Long-term funding for water quality was not included in next year’s $7.2 billion state budget, even though the vast majority of Iowa voters supported establishing the fund more than seven years ago. The House and Senate each devised their own plans for funding, but neither plan garnered support from both houses.

Legislators in the Senate proposed an amendment that would have increased Iowa’s sales tax by three-eighths of one cent. The plan would have generated around $180 million dollars per year for the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund, 60 percent of which would have gone to water quality improvement projects. The proposal was championed by Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, a coalition of environmentalists, political leaders and Iowa businesses dedicated to promoting water and land conservation measures. Although the sales tax increase had support on both sides of the aisle, it lost in the Senate vote 34 to 16.

The Iowa House of Representatives proposed a plan that would have redirected money from a sales tax Iowans already pay on tap water to water quality improvement projects. The 6 percent tax currently funds infrastructure projects for community school districts and other municipal projects. The plan was approved by the House, even though some Democrats criticized the it for cutting funds from other state programs.

Kirk Leeds is CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). In an interview with CBC, he said, “This year’s legislative session was a missed opportunity to act boldly on improving Iowa’s water.” Leeds continued, “ISA will seek continued partnerships with farmers and cities to make real progress on conservation to the benefit of all Iowans.”

Iowa Flood Center endangered by state budget proposal


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The Iowa Flood Center’s Iowa Flood Information System provides an easy way for Iowans to access real-time flood and rainfall information. (Iowa Flood Center)

Jenna Ladd | April 13, 2017

The Iowa Legislature released a budget proposal on Tuesday that would effectively close down the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa.

The proposed budget cuts would eliminate $1.5 million in state funding for the Iowa Flood Center (IFC), which was established by the legislature shortly after floods devastated much of eastern Iowa in 2008.

Dave Wilson is Johnson County Emergency Manager. He said, “Before the floods of 2008, it was hard to communicate the risk to the public in a form they can understand. Pulling the funding for that project would be shortsighted. I’m kind of shocked they are even considering it.”

Slashed funding would mean that the center’s Iowa Flood Information System (IFIS) would also be shut down, according to a statement by IFC’s co-directors Larry Weber and Witold Krajewski. IFIS is an online tool that provides free, user-friendly access to “flood alerts and flood forecasts, more than 250 IFC real-time river and stream gauge sensors, more than 50 soil moisture/temperature sensors, flood inundation maps for 22 Iowa communities and rainfall products for the entire state.”

The center is also in the middle putting a $96 million federal grant to use through the Iowa Watershed Approach. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Disaster Resilience grant is currently funding flood mitigation and water quality improvement projects in nine Iowa watersheds.

State Representative Art Staed of Cedar Rapids serves on the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s Flood Mitigation Board. Staed said, “We have repeatedly witnessed the devastating impact that floods have on our Iowa communities and it’s our responsibility as state lawmakers to work with local communities to minimize and mitigate flooding and the resulting damage to life and property.”

The proposed budget would not decrease funding for K-12 education, which is expected receive a 1.1 percent budget increase this year. However, it does eliminate $397,000 in state funding for the Iowa State University Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

IFC co-directors urged concerned citizens to contact state legislators to express support for the continuation flood center funding. They write, “This bill is expected to move very quickly so it is imperative you reach out as soon as possible.”

Iowa Department of Agriculture provides funding for urban water quality projects


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Clive, Iowa is one of the cities that has received funding from the state to implement a water quality improvement demonstration project. (Kim/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | March 14, 2017

The Iowa Department of Agriculture’s Iowa Water Quality Initiative awarded grants for 12 new urban water quality demonstration projects.

The funds, totaling $820,840, will be met with $1.18 million dollars in matching funds and other in-kind donations. Gov. Terry Brandstand founded the Iowa Water Quality Initiative in 2013. Since then, 45 water quality demonstration sites have been established in addition to this year’s twelve new urban sites.

Gov. Brandstand said, “We know this is a long-term problem that we need to address, and by having a growing source of funding, we think we can speed up the progress that’s being made.”

The water quality demonstration projects will include improved stormwater management, permeable pavement systems, native seeding, lake restoration, and the installation of bioretention cells, among other measures. The cities selected include: Slater, Windsor Heights, Readlyn, Urbandale, Clive, Des Moines, Emmetsburg, Denison, Spencer, Cedar Rapids, Burlington, Waterloo and Ankeny. Upwards of 150 organizations from participating cities have also contributed funds to support the projects. In the last year, $340 million dollars have been spent to improve water quality in Iowa, including both state and federal money.

Meanwhile, a bi-partisan water quality improvement bill is making its way through the Iowa legislature. The plan, called “Water, Infrastructure, Soil for our Economy,” proposes a sales tax increase of three-eighths of a percent over the next three years while also “zeroing out the lowest [income] tax bracket” to offset the sales tax increase. The bill would finally provide funding for the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Fund, which was supported overwhelmingly by Iowa voters in 2010.

Representative Bobby Kaufmann is a Republican supporter of the bill. Kaufman said, “This is a sensible, balanced approach to finally combat Iowa’s pervasive water quality issues while not raising the overall tax pie for Iowans.” A minimum of 60 percent of the trust fund dollars would support proven water quality measures as provided by Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Kaufmann said, “The need is there. The desire to fix water quality exists. This provides the funding to get the job done.”