Scaling back even a voluntary effort on clean water

Clean water requires compulsory and measurable conservation mandates that are enforced and well-funded. The time for voluntary action is over.

Since 1998 the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has led a volunteer program known as IOWATER to monitor local water quality around the state. Recent state budget cuts have forced the DNR to transfer administration of the program to a patchwork of willing nonprofits and local government agencies.

As reported by Iowa Public Radio, DNR will provide initial training and resources, but local government and nonprofit entities will be responsible for continued funding and administration of any volunteer water quality monitoring efforts.

The outsourcing of IOWATER to local entities is just another example of the Iowa Legislature depending on voluntary action to deal with the statewide water-quality crisis. The state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), which was introduced in 2013, also relies heavily on voluntary conservation measures to address the environmental and health effects of nutrient pollution from both point and nonpoint sources. However, the NRS falls woefully short of reaching its funding targets and desired outcomes.

Our state has failed to appropriately and adequately address the largest source of water quality degradation — agricultural practices that continue pumping nitrogen and phosphorous into our watersheds. More than 90 percent of nitrogen and two-thirds of the phosphorus come from nonpoint sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

As we reported at the Iowa Policy Project in late 2016, “Iowa’s efforts in response to the NRS have had minimal, if any, positive impact on the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico — or for the most part on Iowa’s lakes, streams, rivers and drinking water supplies. At best, the state of Iowa has managed to not increase levels of nutrients in streams. There remains a widespread lack of understanding and acceptance of the connection between producers’ business practices and the nutrient concentrations in waters of Iowa and the nation.”

Further highlighting the lack of a clear mandate to clean up our waters is the last legislative session, when the Legislature continued to demand little or nothing of industrial agriculture in cleaning up the mess it has left in our waters. Lawmakers tried to dismantle the Des Moines Water Works board, limited neighbors’ right to complain in court about pollution from animal facilities, and eliminated scientific research at the Leopold Center. They passed little in new water quality funding, and what funding there was merely diverted resources from other priorities, such as education and public safety. (See our end-of-session statement).

We need to start treating clean water as the valuable public commodity that it is. Water feeds our crops, our pets, our livestock, our sports fish, our children, and our employers and employees. “Water is Life” became a popular mantra for a reason: There is no life without clean water. Clean water requires compulsory and measurable conservation mandates that are enforced and well-funded. The time for voluntary action is over.

Posted by Sarah Garvin, Research Associate for the Iowa Policy Project

sgarvin@iowapolicyproject.org

Toxic blooms for Iowa waters

Iowa’s water-quality issues are likely to become more severe without well-funded mandates that are enacted and enforced.

The Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) recently reported on the first toxic algal blooms of the summer beach season in Iowa. Two state park beaches posted swimming advisories warning people to stay out of the water because of the presence of high levels of microcystin. Microcystin is a toxin produced by blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, that can cause health issues, particularly in children and pets.

As summer water temperatures climb, these closures and warnings will become more commonplace. The Iowa Policy Project first published a report on cyanobacteria in 2009 — a year with only one swimming advisory. The advisories have increased each year since and last year there were 37. (IEC has compiled a history of warnings.)

Cyanobacteria quickly multiply into high-density blooms in the presence of excess nutrients in the water. Several research reports by the Iowa Policy Project (links below) concluded that the most significant contributing factor of nutrients in the Mississippi River Basin is from agricultural runoff. Algal blooms have the potential to not only restrict recreational activities in our waterways, but to obstruct access to clean drinking water. This happened most notably in 2014 when a water treatment plant in Toledo, Ohio, warned its 500,000 customers not to use water from the tap because algae blooms surrounded water intakes at its Lake Erie source. The catastrophic algal bloom prompted the mayor to declare a state of emergency, as the city was forced to find alternative sources of drinking water.

Clean drinking water in Iowa is already threatened because of high nutrient concentrations in our waterways. The recent Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) lawsuit against three counties in north central Iowa highlighted this very problem. The DMWW must spend increasing sums to remove nutrients from the water obtained from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers — so much it will now build a new nitrate removal facility. The nitrate present in these source rivers is primarily from agricultural runoff coming from the three counties named in the suit.

The magnitude of Iowa’s water quality issues cannot be overstated and the data we have show that these issues are only likely to deepen in severity without well-funded mandates for water quality that not only are enacted, but enforced. Voluntary conservation measures will not clean up our lakes, beaches, rivers and drinking water sources. If Iowa legislators are serious about luring businesses, jobs and families to this state, then it is time to make sure state revenues can support the protection of the very resource that supports our quality of life.

Sarah Garvin, research associate for the Iowa Policy Project
sgarvin@iowapolicyproject.org

 

 

Related IPP Reports:

Scum in Iowa’s Water: Dealing with the Impact of Excess Nutrients,” December 2009, Andrea Heffernan and Teresa Galluzzo

Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm,” September 2010, Andrea Heffernan, Teresa Galluzzo and Will Hoyer

A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution,” July 2014, David Osterberg and Aaron Kline

Saving Resources: Manure and Water,” May 2016, David Osterberg, Nick Fetty and Nathan Wong

 

To fund water solutions, why not the obvious? Tax pollutants

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

Note: A version of this piece ran as a guest opinion in the Sunday, March 6, 2016, Cedar Rapids Gazette.

———

One answer to the issue of funding water-quality solutions is right in front of us: Tax the pollutants.

The pollutants are Nitrogen (N) and Phosphorus (P). This is well established by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) that Governor Terry Branstad and the farm industry support. The NRS blames N and P for the pollution that harms Iowa waters and causes the hypoxic or dead zone at the bottom of the Mississippi River.

More than 90 percent of N and two-thirds of the P come from non-point sources, almost all agriculture, according to Iowa State University.

And there is a lot of it. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest Census of Agriculture, for 2012, shows about $2.6 billion was spent on “commercial fertilizer, lime and soil conditioners” in that year in Iowa.

Yet, while debate proceeds on how to deal with the pollution caused by those chemicals, it is worth noting that normal Iowa sales tax does not apply to the N or P used in agriculture.

I stopped by my local hardware store to ask if I, a non-farmer, would pay tax on the standard Scotts 10-10-10 garden fertilizer they sell. I would. But farmers do not pay sales tax for theirs. (There is a small fee on chemicals, including N and P for groundwater protection programs, but no general sales tax.)

Since the debate about how to pay for cleaning our waters is in full swing it is time to propose the obvious. Since N and P are the culprits, let’s tax them at the same rate as, say, pickup trucks.

Farmers pay a 5 percent tax on the pickups they use on the farm and off, to pay for their impact on the roads we all use. Since their fertilizer is used on the farm but also flows into the rivers and streams and lakes we all use, costing us all, a similar tax on fertilizer makes sense.

A 5 percent tax on the $2.6 billion in annual farm fertilizer sales in Iowa would bring in roughly $129 million a year, close to the numbers being thrown about to address water quality in the state. It is roughly comparable to what would come from three-eighths of a cent on the general sales tax for the Natural Resource and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund that Iowa taxpayers approved — but which legislators have refused to fund. Over the next 30 years the fertilizer fee would bring in something close to what the Governor wants to take from a tax designed for school infrastructure.

Why not the obvious solution? Tax the chemicals that pollute Iowa waters.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg

David Osterberg co-founded the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and was director of the organization for 12 years. He continues to lead IPP research on environmental and energy policy for IPP and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. He served six terms as a member of the Iowa House of Representatives, and served as chair of the House Agriculture Committee. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.

Reading, ’Rithmetic & Politics

Of course it’s a diversion. May future debate focus on whether the Governor’s proposed diversion is a good idea, not the fact that he has proposed it.

First, Governor Branstad challenged the bounds of basic math — miscounting jobs — and now it’s language arts.

The Governor reportedly got a little testy last week at a Des Moines Register editorial board meeting. Among his complaints: references to a “diversion” of revenue from a state sales tax for school infrastructure to support water-quality improvements. From the Register:

Branstad, in particular, took issue with the idea that his proposal diverts money away from schools.

“I can’t see how you can possibly call it a diversion when schools are going to get at least $10 million more guaranteed every year, plus a 20-year extension,” he said. “They’re sharing a small portion of the growth.”

Well, here’s how you call it a diversion:

diversion
[dih-vur-zhuh n, -shuh n, dahy-]
noun
1. the act of diverting or turning aside, as from a course or purpose: a diversion of industry into the war effort.
dictionary.com

Under the Governor’s plan, there is a “diverting or turning aside” a share of sales-tax revenues from their currently authorized “course or purpose,” school infrastructure, from FY2017 beginning July 1 this year, to FY2029. This is illustrated by Governor’s own handout on the plan. See the one-page document his office provided the media on Jan. 5.  The graph at the bottom of that page (reproduced below), shows the diversion shaded in blue, beginning with the black vertical line and running to the red dotted line.

160105-water-school-graph
Of course it’s a diversion. In fact, the diversion continues if the tax — which would not exist before or after FY2029 without voters’ intent for its use in funding school infrastructure — is extended to FY2049.

May future debate focus on whether the Governor’s proposed diversion is a good idea, not the fact that he has proposed it.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

 

 

On big issues, Iowa leaders emerging locally

In the absence of state-level leadership, it’s inevitable, perhaps, that local officials will find a way to help their constituents.

If state leaders won’t lead, local leaders in Iowa are showing they will take up the job.

On three big issues in the last several months, we have seen this:

I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to see a trend.

Public policy matters in Iowans’ lives, in critical ways. We elect people who can take care of it in a way that works for all Iowans, but not enough who will. In the absence of state-level leadership, it’s inevitable, perhaps, that local officials who also are hired to work for their constituents will find a way to help them.

Owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining

As this industry becomes more active in Iowa, local officials and community members need to be aware of the potential effects it could bring to their lives and the local economy.

Frac sand mining is an emerging concern for people in Northeast Iowa. This concern has prompted questions regarding potential impacts on water quantity, water quality, recreation and tourism amongst others.

In a new Iowa Policy Project report, “Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining,” we examined potential impacts of this industry on the environmental, economic and aesthetic assets of Northeast Iowa. Particularly with regard to water resources, we identify unique features of the region that warrant extra precaution such as trout streams and the prevalent karst geology.

frac sand deposits map
Well-rounded, crush-resistant sand prized by the fracking industry is found in several areas of three Northeast Iowa counties.

The potential impacts of frac sand mining on water quality and water quantity include changing local groundwater flow patterns and increased sedimentation of waterways through overflow and runoff events.

The exceptional waters and pristine environments found in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties contribute to the local economy drawing anglers and boaters. This led to $68 million in domestic travel expenditures and over 500 travel-related jobs in 2012 within these two counties. Frac sand mining in the region has the potential to affect this tourism-based economy in unforeseen ways. In fact, several economic studies from Wisconsin have shown that the costs associated with frac sand mining may exceed the benefits when comparing other economic activities in the region.

State regulations and local ordinances have an impact on the growth of this industry within a region as shown in this report’s comparison of Minnesota and Wisconsin activities. Wisconsin is shown to have less restrictive regulations than Minnesota, which has assisted the explosion of frac sand mining in Wisconsin.

These comparisons should inform local officials of different strategies and outcomes when drafting frac sand mining ordinances. They do have options, including hydrologic mapping, local well monitoring, and setbacks from trout streams and sinkholes.

As this industry becomes more active in Iowa, local officials and community members need to be aware of the potential effects it could bring to their lives and the local economy.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAPosted by Aaron Kline, IPP research intern

Click here to find the executive summary and full report, Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining, by Aaron Kline and David Osterberg

This research was produced with the generous support of the Fred and Charlotte Hubbell Foundation.

How about that timing of worker pay report?

The same day public workers were rescuing hurricane victims out East, and Iowa police officers were being shot in a bank robbery, the Branstad administration chose to release a study on state workers’ pay.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

Timing is everything.

Consider the announcement Tuesday by the Branstad administration of a new report produced by an outside company to examine whether Iowa state workers are paid too much.

Paid too much?

As the Department of Administrative Services was releasing the report, emergency rescue workers across the Eastern seaboard were putting themselves in harm’s way to help their neighbors in the path of the deadly Hurricane Sandy. And right here in Iowa, within a couple hours of the DAS news conference, bank robbers shot two law enforcement officers — critically wounding the Sumner police chief and injuring a state trooper.

We count on public servants every day, sometimes when lives are at stake, sometimes in enriching life with education, sometimes in just keeping life orderly enough that we can enjoy it without worrying whether the water or food will poison us, or that our job will not put us in danger we did not sign up for.

Oh, and the report? It found that pay scales for Iowa state workers are generally competitive. Where the report cited potential problems, the information provided was too sketchy to delve in and really go through it. And, being produced by a private company that copyrighted the report, we might just never know what our tax dollars produced. This is what happens with privatization, folks. But if you want a quick look at the holes in the report, see the review Tuesday by IPP’s Peter Fisher.

So, for those less inclined toward knee-jerk appeals against public workers, the timing of this report, you might say, wasn’t too bad.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director