Posted tagged ‘environment’

Earth Day: Making policy matter

April 22, 2014

It’s good to see public officials looking for sensible policy solutions. When it is Earth Day and the policy is designed to protect the environment, it is especially rewarding.

As Iowa Policy Project research has described, frac sand mining poses environmental, aesthetic and economic threats to one of Iowa’s most picturesque regions. Local officials in Allamakee County are attempting to respond. See this Cedar Rapids Gazette/KCRG-TV story.

Basic RGBThe Allamakee County Planning and Zoning Commission has proposed a very restrictive ordinance to govern any frac sand mining in the county. The county passed a moratorium on any new mining 14 months ago and the P&Z has used the time to gather data to write a new ordinance. A first look at the P&Z proposal includes ideas also found in the IPP report issued in January, Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining. The IPP report suggested local governments in Iowa could use a Minnesota Environmental Quality Board toolkit to consider appropriate local ordinances.

The proposed Allamakee ordinance, among other restrictions, features two important ideas from that resource: setbacks from sinkholes and careful analysis of potential impact of mining given the geology of the area. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette/KCRG story, the ordinance would:

  •    forbid mining within 1,000 feet of a sinkhole;
  •    forbid mining within a mile of a stream or river; and
  •    require that a mining firm must survey the impact of its operations on the geology of the area before any mining can begin.

Citizen involvement brought this proposal to its current stage, a step closer to adoption, with approval still required by the county Board of Supervisors.

With good information, local citizens and policy makers can do a better job evaluating a new industry and preparing for its impacts. These efforts will enable the county to protect itself and the tourism industry that Allamakee County residents have nurtured over the years.

Policy makers have not jumped into a new economic endeavor without making sure the new will not hurt the old.

 

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, Founding Director

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Click here for an executive summary and a link to the full IPP report, Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining, by Aaron Kline and David Osterberg. Kline is an IPP intern from the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Osterberg, IPP’s environmental director, is co-founder and former executive director of IPP.

Hear interview with David Osterberg by KVFD’s Michael Devine on The Devine Intervention, April 24, 2014.

Sound budgeting doesn’t include blanket tax credit

January 28, 2013
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

This session of the Iowa Legislature offers a tremendous opportunity to move the state forward with a balanced approach — including responsible, fair tax reform and investments in critical needs that have gone unmet, in education at all levels, in environmental quality and public safety.

The proposal for a blanket $750 tax credit to couples, regardless of need and blind to the opportunity cost of even more lost investments, does not fit that approach. To compound a penchant to spend money on tax breaks is fiscally irresponsible to the needs of Iowa taxpayers, who will benefit from better services, and to the promise that we would return to proper investments when the economy turned up, as it has. Furthermore, to give away Iowa’s surplus when uncertainty remains about the impact of federal budget decisions on our state’s tax system and services is tremendously short-sighted.

As the Iowa Fiscal Partnership has established, cutbacks in higher education funding have caused costs and debt to rise for students and their families, not only at the Regents institutions but community colleges as well. While Iowa voters, through a statewide referendum, have expressly called for new revenues to go toward better environmental stewardship, lawmakers have not taken action. The surplus we now see should be used responsibly for the future of Iowans, who patiently endured budget austerity for the day when we could once again see support for critical services. This is no time to be forgetting our responsibilities.

Iowa can do better by returning to the basics of good budgeting, crafting budget and tax choices that keep a long-term focus on the needs of young and future generations, whose lives will be shaped by the foundations we leave them.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Talk is cheap

November 20, 2012
David Osterberg

David Osterberg

There are three principal problems with the Governor’s proposed Nutrient Reduction Strategy, and they can be summed up in three words: Talk is cheap.

Solutions to this problem start with enforcement, and that takes money. The state of Iowa shortchanges water quality, underfunding it even compared to what we did a decade ago. Our March 2012 report, Drops in the Bucket: The Erosion of Iowa Water Quality Funding, found that this water-quality funding decline came despite greater needs for water protection and public willingness to fund it.

Second, inadequate enforcement of environmental rules for Iowa’s livestock industry has resulted in the state’s censure by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and this threatens our ability to write permits and otherwise enforce our obligations under the Clean Water Act. The strategy bases enforcement on voluntary acceptance of state rules. This has not worked.

Finally, it says much about Iowa’s commitment to water quality — or lack of commitment — when the state proposes a major nutrient reduction strategy and offers no new money to get the job done. The strategy proposes nothing to make sure Iowa does better in assuring clean water for its residents, for states downstream, and the future.

In short, we need a strategy that recognizes the serious water quality problem we have and offers a realistic approach to addressing it. This must be more than a goal — but a guarantee to all Iowans.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Policy and pollution: We have options

July 19, 2012

Iowa’s deteriorating water quality is a lingering problem that never seems to make it to the front burner of political campaigns or elected leaders’ agendas in the State Capitol. The Des Moines Register’s editorial today asks — and answers — the fundamental questions:

Why is our water so dirty? The state’s agricultural businesses, including 7,000 animal feeding operations, is a significant reason. Why do they do so much damage to the environment? Elected officials let them.

David Osterberg

David Osterberg

It’s not like we don’t have options. We do. Public policy can make a difference in protecting the environment, through tough and effective regulations that recognize the air and water belong to all of us, and by helping folks do a better job with targeted incentives.

Unfortunately, as the Register suggests, elected officials in Iowa have passed up opportunities in both the regulatory and incentive arenas to enhance Iowa’s water quality. The Iowa Policy Project through the years has noted many of the issues and presented constructive policy options. Here is a selection of those reports:

IPP also showed this year how environmental protection funding has waned in Iowa — even when voters specifically told lawmakers with a referendum in 2010 that environmental protection is an area where they want to see funding directed. As we found:

While legislators and other elected officials will always proclaim their commitment to clean water, they have not over the past decade demonstrated that commitment through the state budget. In fact, once inflation is taken into account, funding for many programs the state relies upon to monitor, protect and improve waterways has dropped by 25 percent or more. …

Over time, this slow erosion in the purchasing power of these programs is likely to contribute to deteriorating Iowa water quality, if it has not already done so. When funding is scaled to FY13 appropriations, the slow decline in spending on water programs becomes more evident.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Tax-cutters’ unbalanced focus undermines self-government

March 20, 2012
David Osterberg

David Osterberg

Cut taxes, starve schools. Cut taxes, starve environmental protection. Cut taxes, … well, I think you’re getting the idea.

“The-tax-cuts-are-my-only-priority” legislators now have enough power to keep eroding our ability to meet our needs.

As I pointed out Sunday in a guest opinion in The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, this drive to underfund education is the root of recent decisions to close Polk Elementary School in Cedar Rapids and the Price Lab School at the University of Northern Iowa.

What we have in Des Moines is a leadership problem and a governing problem. Leaders find a way of matching revenues to our needs. The rejection of this kind of responsibility by a large enough number of our elected officials is the problem.

And the facts — as we have demonstrated in Iowa Policy Project reports — are clear. Most recently, we showed Iowa’s decline in support for the regents’ universities over the last 10 years. For the University of Iowa alone, it meant 40 percent less in actual spending power than the state provided in 2000, and a shift of costs to tuition-paying students and their parents.

A week before, we showed similar results with water-quality funding.

Even now, there is no greater cry than to cut commercial property taxes — even when most of the cuts would go to firms like WalMart and McDonald’s. It doesn’t matter. It’s a tax cut, period.

Ironically, even those who some elected officials are attempting to appeal to need the services they are cutting. Rockwell Collins needs trained engineers, and can better retain employees when rivers are clean and people have places to recreate.

Voters who want their kids educated and their rivers clean need to recognize that it doesn’t happen without state funding. More tax cuts don’t get us there.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Will Iowa ever put taxpayers’ dollars where their voices are?

March 6, 2012
Mike Owen

Mike Owen

The Des Moines Register editorial staff has produced some excellent perspectives about budgets in recent days, about budget cutting run amok, and budget cuts affecting the courts and human services (including accountability and oversight). Noted The Register:

It’s unlikely you will hear a politician say state government is too small. But at some point, it is.

You could certainly make the same case about environmental quality programs, particularly in water quality, as we showed in a report last week. In Drops in the Bucket: The Erosion of Iowa Water Quality Funding, IPP’s Will Hoyer, Brian McDonough and David Osterberg noted:

In a state with almost 90 percent of its land worked for agriculture, it should be of stark concern to Iowa policy makers that the water running through both our agricultural lands and urban landscapes contains excess nutrients, toxic chemicals, and sediments. These pollutants end up in Iowa’s rivers and streams. The impacts upon public health, fishing and other recreational activities, and cleanup and water treatment costs show up not just in Iowa, but all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. There, the nutrients from cornbelt farm fields are creating the area of hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions known as the “Dead Zone,” where sea life cannot live. …
 
Iowa voters demonstrated strongly that they favor additional efforts to protect Iowa waterways when 63 percent voted in 2010 to approve the Water and Land Legacy amendment, so one might expect the state to increase its commitment to protecting its water. While funding by itself is not an indicator of performance, it is a necessary ingredient in the fight to protect and improve Iowa’s water resources. This report looks at funding for several key state water programs over the last decade and finds that, from a fiscal perspective, the state’s commitment to water protection programs is woefully lacking. (emphasis added)

Among the IPP analysts’ findings is that for most of the period from FY2002-12, inflation-adjusted totals for 10 critical water programs hovered at just over $20 million, and that there were significant drops from those funding levels in FY03 and FY11, with little rebound from the latter in FY12. See the figure below (Figure 3 in our report).

Recent Drop in Water Quality Funding in Critical Programs
Figures in thousands
Table1

At the same time of these funding trends, we have learned that more and more waters in Iowa were impaired. One might expect greater awareness to produce greater attention to remediation, but clearly we are not seeing it. In fact, the Legislature would have to restore $5 million in state water-quality funding just to move to what it had been during the previous decade — as if those earlier levels were enough, something that is not self-evident.

The only thing that is self-evident is that Iowa lawmakers are not putting taxpayers’ money where their voices are: toward more and better water-quality initiatives.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Budgeting in context

February 8, 2012
Andrew Cannon

Andrew Cannon

Following last year’s prolonged legislative session, legislators and the governor congratulated themselves for a budget that fully funded programs and reduced reliance on what they called “one-time funds.”

It is true that state services, systems and structures were funded to a large degree through a stable source, the General Fund (where income and sales taxes are pooled). And funding levels increased generally, especially in comparison to the recession-affected budgets of FY10 and FY11, when many state services and programs took severe cuts.

But the budgeting decisions of last year ought to be viewed in context, as we do in a new report.

First, the use of “one-time funds” proved to be the right choice at the time. Because of the recession, state revenues declined precipitously, which led to a 10 percent across-the-board budget cut. One-time funds now derided by some were used precisely as intended. State “rainy day” funds, reserved for economic emergencies, and the federal Recovery Act (ARRA) combined to fill budget gaps and save services. ARRA provided billions of dollars to Iowa to finance K-12 education, higher education, and health care programs for children, the elderly, Iowans with disabilities and low-income Iowans who had no other access to health insurance.

Second, consider how funding for state services and programs compares to pre-recession funding levels. Even as revenues have bounced back, and funding for many services has stabilized, it is unclear if present levels are adequate to met needs. For instance, state funding for community colleges in FY12 will reach about $164 million, up from FY10 and FY11 levels, but still remain below pre-recession levels. At the same time, community colleges are serving more Iowans than ever, with enrollment reaching 106,000 in FY11, up from 88,000 students in FY08.

Iowa’s other public higher education system, the Board of Regents, this year is working under a 3 percent reduction in funding from FY11. Even with the governor’s proposed FY13 increase, Regents funding would still be below recession levels, to say nothing of pre-recession levels. Students pay the price, with continually increasing tuition costs.

Other programs, such as the Early Childhood Iowa initiative, which provides preschool tuition subsidies and parental education; Child Care Assistance, which helps low-income working parents cover the cost of child care; and the Family Investment Program, which helps the lowest-income families meet basic needs and prepare for employment, all have seen large cuts in funding since before the recession. Even into economic recovery, some programs are still being reduced.

Improving upon last year or the year before is good, but the long-term question asks if we are adequately funding programs to meet Iowans’ needs and to adequately invest in Iowa’s future. Judicious use of public funds is not as simple as cutting services to bring down expenses, but taking a balanced approach that assures adequate funding for services that position Iowa for the future.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Quality of life — the path to good jobs and schools

January 11, 2012
Will Hoyer

Will Hoyer


Governor Branstad wants Iowans to focus “like a laser beam” on jobs and education. If we are to do so, he must get us to examine how we’re managing our precious land and water. He cannot expect to achieve his job goals without those important parts of the picture.

What happens when people don’t want the jobs that are available because the air is so dirty that people get sick? What happens when well-educated, highly qualified job candidates pass up Iowa for another state that demonstrates a commitment to clean water and air? A variety of aspects make Iowa a desirable place to bring a business or a family. Most focus on quality of life.

If our children are educated in world-class schools they will have job opportunities everywhere. Companies across the country and across the world will be clamoring to hire hard-working, well-educated Iowa kids and those kids will have choices. Will they want to live in a state that demonstrates a commitment to clean air and clean water? Will they want a place that invests in parks and recreational opportunities? Absolutely.

As The Des Moines Register has pointed out, Iowa consistently ranks near the bottom in per-capita spending on recreation and conservation.

Politicians often talk of a “mandate” when they win an election with 52 or 53 percent of the vote. Why, then, can they not look back on the November 2010 election and recognize that a whopping 63 percent of Iowans voted for an amendment that would dedicate funding to improve Iowa’s waters and land? Now, that is a mandate.

Nobody will argue against creating jobs or improving education. It is a mistake to assume we can do either without other things that attract new people to Iowa and keep them here.

We educate smart people. If a smart Iowa-educated college grad can choose between a job in an Iowa town where the smell of a large hog confinement or industrial grain processor pollutes the air, or where nobody feels safe getting in the river water that runs through downtown, and a comparable job outside Iowa where clean air and water are the norm, we know what the choice will be.

We must invest in children’s education here in this state but we also must invest in protecting the environment so those children grow up healthy. We must invest in creating good jobs where people can work eight hours a day but we must also invest in protecting the environment where those workers live 24 hours a day.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Stewardship, community and freedom

September 21, 2011

Today America faces a daunting task: finding a way to reduce deficits and debt while not crashing the economy and still maintaining the critical services that are only, or best, provided by the public sector.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we have the opportunity to work with many similar state and national organizations — nonpartisan, nonprofit, issue-focused and fact-based analysis at the heart of their missions and their work. One of these colleagues, Michael Lipsky, distinguished senior fellow at Demos, recently wrote a column in The New York Times about a hiking trip in the Pasayten Wilderness in Washington state, near the Canadian border.

In his excellent piece, “A Well-Regulated Wilderness,” Lipsky wrote that, even there, he found himself thinking about government. “Not that there was much of it in sight,” he remarked. He continued:

There were no rangers to check our reservations, no posted rules telling us where and how to set up camp.

Michael Lipsky, distinguished senior fellow, Demos

Michael Lipsky, Demos

If anything, the Pasayten seemed to prove that we don’t need government, that humans can be self-regulating: per the unofficial rules of backpacking, most of our campsites had been reused repeatedly, to minimize damage to the environment, and litter was rare.

On reflection, however, this nursery of freedom spoke directly to the role of government in shaping our world. It was thanks to decades of effective lawmaking that we could enjoy four days in the open country, fixing meals, hiking and spending family time together. … Americans once feared the wilderness and sought to tame it. Now we seek it out as redemptive. …

In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which set aside 9.1 million acres of public land as places where people would be visitors but not leave any marks; today some 108 million acres are protected under the act.

Mike Owen

Mike Owen

Michael Lipsky’s perspective is spot-on. Let’s look at it another way: Would Exxon have done this? Or Microsoft? Or Wal-mart? Would it even make sense for them, or their stockholders, to do so? To whose mission, then, do such responsibilities fall? Does it not make sense that this would fall to the federal government? Would you not say the same about basic economic safety-net programs? Infrastructure such as roads and bridges? Workplace safety? Clean water and clean air protection? Civil rights and education? National security?

The assault on our public structures by convenient, slick, political messages of the day not only disregards, but defies, what in our hearts and minds we know are the American values of stewardship and community that are the thrust of what government does.

We’re all concerned about deficits and debt and the impact on our children and grandchildren, but we also must be challenged to address the impact on those future generations of a failure to accept the mantle of responsibility of maintaining and nurturing the structures that have sustained us, when “self-regulation” is not enough. For if we do fail on that score, it will be every bit as much a debt as one of dollars.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

More drainage and water quality benefits, too? Maybe

June 22, 2011
Will Hoyer

Will Hoyer

We’ve all heard about the area of hypoxia, or the so-called “Dead Zone,” in the Gulf of Mexico. As a result of all the rain and flooding this year and the amount of water flowing down the Mississippi, scientists are expecting the Dead Zone to be the largest ever recorded.

It’s starting to appear that these rain events are becoming the “new normal” just as climate modelers have predicted. Therefore it is becoming even more imperative that we take steps to reduce the amount of nutrients that are leaving Iowa fields and keep them from flowing downstream. The Wetland and Drainage Initiative that we write about in our latest report is an attempt by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) to study one potential way for doing just that.

At the heart of it the concept behind the Initiative, which some know as “the Iowa Plan,” is the idea that enlarging the subsurface drainage(or “tile”) capacity will allow fields to dry faster thus increasing crop yields. The additional profits from the higher yields could then pay for the construction of nitrate removal wetlands that would be built at the outlets of the tiles. The larger tile capacity would mean more nitrate leaving the fields but the nitrates would be removed by the wetlands. That’s the theory — but it needs to be tested. That’s what IDALS is doing, in partnership with other agencies and groups, at several sites in north central Iowa.

map showing Des Moines Lobe

The Des Moines Lobe is the focus of the IDALS initiative.

We really don’t know for sure if this Initiative will work as touted and there are lots of questions, questions that hopefully will be answered with rigorous, transparent monitoring of the pilot sites. Rightly or wrongly there is a lot of skepticism among some groups regarding anything IDALS does and so the onus is on IDALS to demonstrate that these pilot projects, were they to be expanded across the tile-drained parts of the state, would actually have water quality and crop yield benefits and would not have unintended negative consequences.

A lot of research underlies the Initiative, and with thorough monitoring of the pilot sites scientists will probably know a lot more in five years. It’s possible that these treatment wetlands will be playing a much bigger role in the next few decades in Iowa, Illinois and other tile drained parts of the country, but in five years the data may also show that the concept just does not work. We’ll see.

  • We should avoid a situation where farmers are putting in larger tiles with no way of removing the extra nitrogen and therefore contributing even more to downstream water problems.
  • We should avoid subsidizing farmers’ installations of larger tiles.
  • We should avoid draining the few remaining wetlands we have left.
  • We should avoid putting scarce public dollars into programs that may not have benefits.
  • We also should avoid putting all of our eggs in one basket. It’s going to take more than just these nitrate removal wetlands to get Iowa water quality to where it needs to be and there are lots of other steps that can be taken and existing programs that could use more resources in the meantime.

In short, this is a message to catch our breath and let the research tell us what’s happening. This Initiative combining enhanced drainage and nitrate-removal wetlands shows promise to benefit both farmers and water quality but until we see the numbers in a few years we will withhold judgment.

By Will Hoyer, Research Associate


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