On The Radio – Proposal would use school funding to improve water quality


Iowa governor Terry Branstad during a state budget hearing in Des Moines on December 15, 2015 (John Pemble/Flickr)
Iowa governor Terry Branstad during a state budget hearing in Des Moines on December 15, 2015 (John Pemble/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | January 25, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at a recent proposal by Iowa governor Terry Branstad that would use funding dedicated for schools to improve water quality across the state.

Transcript: Proposal would use school funding to improve water quality

A proposal by Iowa governor Terry Branstad would use funding dedicated for school building and technology projects to improve water quality in the state.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus

Earlier this month, Governor Branstad announced a proposal that would extend Iowa’s 1-percent sales tax 20 years – to 2049 – while diverting a portion of future sales tax growth for water quality improvement projects. The extension is expected to generate an additional 20-point-7 billion dollars for schools and 4-point-6 billion dollars to improve water quality.

This announcement comes on the heels of a lawsuit between the Des Moines Water Works and three northern Iowa counties. The water utility claims that the counties are not doing enough to prevent nitrate runoff from their fields which eventually enter the Raccoon River, which has forced the Des Moines Water Works to operate additional machinery to remove nitrates from drinking water.

The legislature will likely be looking at this proposal as well as others to address the need for future water quality funding.

For more information about the governor’s proposal visit Iowa-Environmental-Focus-dot-org

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Proposal would use school funding to improve water quality


Iowa governor Terry Branstad during a state budget hearing in Des Moines on December 15, 2015 (John Pemble/Flickr)
Iowa governor Terry Branstad during a state budget hearing in Des Moines on December 15, 2015 (John Pemble/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | January 6, 2016

A recent proposal by Iowa governor Terry Branstad would use funding from Iowa’s 1-percent school building sales tax to improve water quality in the state.

The proposal would extend the sales tax – set to expire in 2029 – to 2049. The extension is expected to provide $20.7 billion for schools and $4.6 billion to improve water quality. The proposal by the Republican governor has been backed by former Iowa governor and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, a Democrat.

“It’s so important to every, single Iowan,” Vilsack said during a press conference. “If this doesn’t get resolved, these farmers wont know what to do, they’re bankers wont know what to lend, they wont be interested in buying equipment…the local schools obviously wont benefit. I mean, there’s a tremendous need for immediate action here.”

The 1-percent sales tax – which was approved in 2008 – brings in about $400 million each year to be used for school infrastructure projects. The governor’s proposal comes by on the heels of a lawsuit between Iowa’s largest water utility and three counties north of Des Moines. Representatives with the Des Moines Water Works claim that authorities in the northern Iowa counties of Buena Vista, Calhoun, and Sac are not doing enough to prevent nitrate runoff from farm fields which is forcing the water utility to operate costly equipment to remove additional nitrates from drinking water.

Opponents of the governor’s proposal feel that it will not do enough to reduce farm chemical runoff. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs has also expressed concerns about the measure.

The funding proposal must be approved by the Iowa legislative before going into effect. Iowa’s 2016 legislate session begins January 11.

Report: STEM scores lower for minority, low-income students in Iowa


Students get hands on experience learning about science at Chicago's Argonne National Laboratory. (Argonne National Laboratory)
Students get hands-on experience learning about science at Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Nick Fetty | August 5, 2015

A report released Monday finds that math and science proficiency rates for Iowa students from low-income and minority families lags below their peers.

The third annual report – which was compiled by researchers from Iowa’s three public universities – points out that while overall student achievement in math and science has improved since Governor Terry Branstad launched his Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Advisory Council in 2011, there is still room for improvement.

“Amidst plenty of good news, there’s also reminders that our work is not done and there’s more to do,” Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds told the Mason City Globe Gazette. “So while we have made progress, and that’s something that we can celebrate, we know that we still have work to do.”

The report also found that interest in STEM careers was higher for elementary-school students compared to those in middle and high school, that 90 percent of students who participated in a STEM “Scale-Up” program in 2014-2015 had a greater interest in at least one STEM subject or career, and that more than 60 percent of Iowans surveyed said they were familiar with efforts to improve STEM education in the Hawkeye State. Earlier this summer, Iowa State University hosted a workshop for grade school teachers to better implement STEM programs into their classrooms.

Despite the lower rates for minority students at the K-12 level, the report also concluded that completion of community college STEM-related degrees for minorities has improved 69 percent since 2010. Overall, STEM degrees at Iowa’s public universities have increased 12 percent and  11 percent at private colleges since 2010.

Branstad awards UI for sustainability efforts


Energy conservation measures save the University of Iowa roughly $5.1 million annually, according to UI Facilities Management. (University of Iowa)

Nick Fetty | July 10, 2015

The University of Iowa’s use of miscanthus as a fuel source has gained the attention of Governor Branstad.

On Thursday, the four-term Iowa governor announced that his office was awarding UI Facilities Management the “Governor’s Iowa Environmental Excellence Award” with emphasis on energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Governor’s Iowa Environmental Excellence Award is given annually to a handful of Iowa businesses and governmental institutions for efforts made to adopt environmentally sustainable strategies and preserve the state’s natural resources.

The UI was recognized because of its Biomass Fuel Project which utilizes miscanthus and other renewable fuel sources for the UI’s power plant which provides electricity and steam for the campus. The first miscanthus fields were planted in 2013 and today the UI maintains more than 350 acres of the Asian perennial tall grass. Through the use of miscanthus and other methods, university officials hope to achieve 40 percent renewable energy consumption by 2020.

Other award recipients include the Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines and the National Wild Turkey Federation in Edgefield as well as school districts in Cedar Rapids and Guthrie Center.

Branstad will formally present the awards during a ceremony in Des Moines on August 4.

New Iowa solar bill looks to benefit municipal utilities, rural electric cooperatives


The sun sets over a field in Mount Vernon. (Rich Herrmann/Flickr)
The sun sets over a field in Mount Vernon. (Rich Herrmann/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | July 1, 2015

Last week Iowa governor Terry Branstad signed a bill that will likely create more opportunities for solar energy in the Hawkeye State.

House File 645 will allow for increased solar energy tax credits in the state and also add production tax credits for utility solar projects. The bill was passed by the Iowa House 88-4 before being approved 49-1 by the Senate. Branstad signed the bill on June 26.

The credit applies to solar arrays of less than 1.5 MW of capacity, meaning it is more likely to benefit municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives as opposed to investor-owned utility companies. The bill also increases the pool of tax credit funds from $4.5 million to $5 million.

“That’s good for the environment and our economy. Solar energy is already working for thousands of businesses, farmers and homeowners across our state,” Iowa Senator Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids) said in a statement. In a recent guest column in the Iowa Daily Democrat, Hogg outlined the need for more emphasis on clean energy in Iowa and abroad.

Along with the solar energy bill, Branstad signed four others. The governor currently has 14 bills from the 2015 legislative session awaiting his approval. The deadline for signing these bills is July 15.

Branstad questions EPA’s new Renewable Fuel Standard


Iowa governor Terry Branstad at a 2011 event in Des Moines. (Flickr)
Iowa governor Terry Branstad at a 2011 event in Des Moines. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | June 26, 2015

During a public hearing of EPA’s new Renewable Fuel Standard in Kansas City on Thursday, Iowa governor Terry Branstad questioned the new policy and the economic impact it will have on the Hawkeye State.

Nearly 300 people made statements during the public event which will be the only one EPA plans to host before a final decision is made in November. Brandstad and other supporters of the current fuel standard feel that it is necessary “to force oil companies to improve infrastructure at gas pumps to deliver ethanol fuel blends above the current 10 percent mix.”

“The EPA has a choice: protect the deep pockets of Big Oil and their monopolistic practices or nurture consumer choice, renewable energy growth and a healthy rural economy,” Branstad said.

The proposed plan, which was set by congress, calls for a reduction of 4 billion gallons this year and an additional 5 billion gallons in 2016. Branstad cited the financial impacts the proposal would have on Iowa’s economy pointing out that corn has gone from $6 per bushel in August 2013 to $3.45 per bushel currently. He said this has caused uncertainty in the market and has led to fewer investments in biofuel technologies.

Proponents of the new standard say that it would increase overall biofuel production and use over time. Officials from the oil industry also argue that retailers are not equipped to sell gasoline with ethanol levels greater than 10 percent and that customer demand has not warranted an investment in new infrastructure.

Other have questioned the feasibility of biofuels altogether, citing that production requires large amounts of water and other resources.

Iowa leads the nation biofuel production with 42 ethanol plants and 13 biodiesel plants.

$1.4 million towards water quality improvement


Skunk River east of Cambridge, IA.  Photo by Carl Wycoff; Flickr
Skunk River east of Cambridge, IA.
Photo by Carl Wycoff; Flickr

Last week, the state of Iowa made $1.4 million available to farmers in an effort to improve water quality through nutrient reduction practices. Farmers have now claimed all of these funds and will match the amount, bringing the total to $2.8 million.

The 597 farmers who received funds plan to either plant cover crops, utilize no-till or strip-till cultivation, or apply a nitrification inhibitor.

Earlier this year, the Legislature appropriated $11.2 million for environmental conservation, but the amount was vetoed by Gov. Terry Branstad.

According to a report by the Iowa Policy Project, the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy needs more funding in order to succeed.