Iowa reacts to proposed EPA Clean Water Rule rollback


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Regulation over streams on farmland is in dispute (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 3rd, 2019

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 the Sioux 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.”

Iowa DNR fails to obey some state regulations


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A recent audit found Iowa DNR has failed to follow a state law related to the establishment of wetlands near close agricultural drainage wells. (Iowa DNR)
Jenna Ladd | September 8, 2017

A state audit released on Tuesday revealed that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has failed to follow state law related to identifying and safeguarding wetlands, monitoring public works projects on the local level and establishing a clean air advisory panel.

In its defense, Iowa DNR claims that state law pertaining to these issues are often duplicative or less stringent than federal requirements, according to a report from the Des Moines Register. Federal requirements for wetland protection specifically exceed regulation put forth by the state, Iowa DNR director Chuck Gipp told the Register. He said, “We recognize and understand the value of wetlands.” The Iowa law “is asking us to do something that would be even less stringent than the federal code.”

In response, Iowa Environmental Council’s water program coordinator Susan Heathcote noted that federal oversight related to water quality is questionable at present, considering that President Trump is expected to repeal and revise an Obama era water quality regulation soon.

More specifically, the audit found that the Iowa DNR has not established a program aimed at assisting in the development of wetlands around closed agricultural drainage areas, which would aid in the filtration of nutrient rich water flowing into municipal taps. The news that the state is failing to abide by existing water quality-related regulations comes after another legislative session during which state legislators failed to provide funding for more robust water quality measures Iowa voters approved more than seven years ago.

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.”

Water quality improvement, flood mitigation among perks of finished Charles City paving project


Charles City, the North Eastern Iowa town, is working to reduce flooding and improve water quality through permeable pavement and improve water quality.

Charles City is working to reduce future flooding in a big way.

The city just put the finishing touches on a $3.9 million permeable paving project that aims to reduce chances of flooding and improve water quality, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reports.

Rainwater can now infiltrate the ground through gaps between pavers that are not grouted together, reducing the need for storm structures.

The project, which spans 16 blocks of the city, is the largest of its kind in the state and possibly the nation, according to the report.

 

Iowa Environmental Council seeks action on Cedar Rapids Sewage Plant


The Iowa Environmental Council is concerned that a newly proposed wastewater discharge permit for the Cedar Rapids sewage plant does not adequately restrict mercury and ammonia levels in the waters.

It requests that Iowans with similar reservations share them with the DNR by writing a letter.

Here is a more detailed summary of the council’s concerns:

1. The Cedar River, at Palisades Kepler State Park and 2.3 miles downstream of the Cedar Rapids wastewater discharge, is listed as an impaired state water due to declining mussel populations. Ammonia is highly toxic to mussels. Yet, the proposed permitted ammonia limits are higher than allowed in the current permit and range from 3-13 times greater than what draft EPA guidance suggests to prevent harm to mussels.

2. The newly proposed mercury limits in the permit are above the water quality standard for a stream where fish are routinely caught for human consumption. Mercury is a toxin that can accumulate in the fatty tissues of fish. Elevated levels of mercury have been found in several species of fish near or below the Cedar Rapids Sewage Treatment Plant wastewater discharge.

Iowans who eschew indirect communication can speak at a public hearing on the permit at 7:00 p.m. on December 14.

For more information, check the council’s website.

On the Radio: Growing Trees, Cleaning Iowa


A view of a section of poplar trees that grow on Licht's land in North Liberty.

Listen to this week’s radio spot on Lou Licht, who uses trees to clean up the land, water and air. For more information on Licht, check out the Iowa Independent, or read this interview with him: The Accidental Capitalist.

Planting trees: A proven way to clean up Iowa’s land and water – and save money.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Iowa-native Lou Licht is the founder of Ecolotree, an engineering firm that uses trees to clean up toxic sites.

He’s the first person in the world to do so.

Ecolotree has cleaned up landfills, brown fields, and hazardous waste sites around the world.  The idea can also help curb farm runoff that pollutes Iowa’s rivers and streams.

Licht’s low-cost, quick-growing poplar trees could be a solution for many Iowa towns that need to upgrade their out-dated sewer systems.

It goes to show that sometimes you can save a little green by going green.

For more information, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

I’m Jerry Schnoor with the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

Thank you.