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.”

 

Iowa Supreme Court hears Des Moines Water Works lawsuit oral arguments


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A drainage tile flowing into a waterway in Sac Country, Iowa. (iprimages/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 16, 2016

Five Iowa Supreme Court Justices heard arguments on Wednesday in a legal suit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against three northwest Iowa counties for the pollution of 500,000 residents’ drinking water.

A Des Moines Water Works attorney asked the court to reconsider the legal immunity that drainage districts have been granted for nearly a century and to determine whether the water utility could seek monetary damages. Removing nitrates that flowed into the Raccoon and Skunk rivers cost Water Works $1.5 million last year alone. The utility said that the water has exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit of 10 milligrams per liter several times in recent years.

Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe said that monetary damages for past contamination and increased federal oversight of drainage districts are both important. As nitrate levels in waterways increased throughout the 1990’s, Des Moines Water Works built the largest ion exchange nitrate removal facility in the world, with a $4.1 million dollar price tag. The utility said that a larger facility will be necessary by 2020, claiming the project would cost up to $183.5 million dollars. Farming communities in Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties are concerned that farmers will be responsible for payment should the damages be awarded. Typically, if county officials decide to lay new drainage tiles or repair old ones, farmers have footed the bill.

Michael Reck, a lawyer representing the three counties, presented several examples in which Iowa courts honored the legal immunity of drainage districts. Des Moines Water Works attorney John Lande said that this is the first time public health has been at stake in such court proceedings. He argued that drainage districts were established to protect the public health of  Iowa communities. He said that they have repeatedly failed to do so when nitrate levels were found to be four times the EPA’s limit downstream.

Whether or not damages are awarded, the Iowa Legislature has been moved to consider water quality protection measures. A reallocation of tax money from public schools to water quality projects failed to pass last year, as did a 3/8-cent water quality sales tax bill. Some say that they are hopeful the sales tax proposal will be reintroduced this year. The policy would generate $150 million dollars a year for built water quality management projects.

On The Radio – Iowa Department of Natural Resources proposes turtle trapping restrictions


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Under the proposed regulations, trappers would be limited to catching three painted turtles per day. (Chrysemys picta/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | August 15, 2016

This Monday’s On The Radio segment discusses new turtle trapping restrictions introduced by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources earlier this month.

Transcript: Iowa Department of Natural Resources proposes turtle trapping restrictions

Turtles will get new protections under newly proposed state trapping regulations.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Earlier this year, the Iowa legislature successfully passed a bill that required the Iowa DNR to set daily catch limits and seasons, citing that foreign demand for turtle meat and unlimited harvest has threatened local populations. The proposal follows a failed attempt to completely ban for-profit turtle trapping in the state in 2009.

Biologists note that turtles, unlike other animals, do not reproduce until much later in life, making adult turtles that are removed from the population especially difficult to replace. In 2014, trappers caught 17,504 turtles according to the Iowa DNR. The DNR’s proposed restrictions limit the number of turtles caught per day to 14 snapping turtles, one softshell turtle, and three painted turtles. A trapping season that begins July 1st and ends December 31st included in the document would protect turtles during their nesting season. The proposal also bans trapping within 100 yards of waterways between July 1st and July 15th in order to protect nesting softshell turtles.

The proposal must be approved by the governor before it is reviewed by the legislative rules committee.

For more information about the new turtle trapping regulations in Iowa, visit Iowa-Environmental-Focus-dot-org.

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

 

 

Iowa Sierra Club aims to restore turtle populations


Painted turtles bask in the sun on this log near Pasadena, Maryland. ()
Painted turtles bask in the sun on a log near Pasadena, Maryland. (Matthew Beziat/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 5, 2016

Officials with Iowa’s Sierra Club  want the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to consider new limits on harvesting turtles as a way to restore populations in the Hawkeye State.

Current regulations allow Iowa anglers with a valid fishing license “to take and possess a maximum of 100 pounds of live turtles or 50 pounds of dressed turtles.” A special license is required to sell live or dressed turtles.

The Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club is calling for the Iowa DNR to close turtle season from January 1st to July 15th to allow the animals more time to nest and repopulate. The environmental advocacy group is also calling for catch limits on certain species including the common snapping turtle, spiny softshell turtle, smooth softshell turtle, and painted turtle.

In March, the Iowa Legislature approved a bill that reestablishes turtle harvesting season in Iowa and calls for a study of turtle populations in the state by 2021. House File 2357 was signed by Governor Terry Branstad on March 23.

Documentation of commercial turtle harvesting in Iowa dates back to 1987. A 2013 report by the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club points out that just under 30,000 pounds of turtles were harvested in 1987 compared to more than 200,000 pounds annually in recent years. The increase in annual turtle harvesting has been attributed to greater demand for turtle meat in Asian countries where turtle populations have dwindled, particularly China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Iowa legislators to consider solar incentives in 2016 session


The Iowa state capitol in Des Moines. (Ashton B Crew/Wikimedia Commons)
The Iowa state capitol in Des Moines. (Ashton B Crew/Wikimedia Commons)
Nick Fetty | January 12, 2016

Policymakers returned to the statehouse this week to kick off the legislative session for the 86th Iowa General Assembly and solar energy policy is one of the many issues likely to be addressed.

Legislators will decide whether to increase two popular solar project tax credits in 2016,  as reported by Midwest Energy News. The two credits – one for utilities and one for customers – gained bipartisan support in 2015 by expanding “the state’s renewable energy production tax credit” and “creating a 10 megawatt set-aside for solar investments only.” The production tax credit pays 1.5 cents per kilowatt hour to utilities generating or purchasing solar power.

Nathaniel Baer, energy program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, said that he expects the 10-megawatt allotment to increase as interest in solar energy in Iowa continues to grow.

While the legislators will handle the policy side, researchers from Iowa State University are busy studying the science behind solar energy.

Steve Martin, an engineering professor at ISU, is currently studying ways “to create safer, low-cost batteries that can store large amounts of wind and solar energy.” Specifically, Martin is trying to find a way to remove flammable organic liquids in lithium-ion and sodium batteries currently on the market. Martin and his team recently received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to continue their study.

In 2014 Iowa ranked 16th nationally for solar energy potential but was 31st for installed systems with just over 20 MW, according to data from Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association.