Positive options for the 2020s

The failures of the 2010s spotlight how we can use public policy to make Iowa more equitable, inclusive and sustainable in the 2020s.

iowacapitol-rotundaWe would be remiss at the end of 2019 not to note the positive lessons of the last 10 years.

We have plenty of room to raise the minimum wage, now 12 years old at $7.25 an hour. Had the minimum simply kept up with inflation, it would be 22 percent higher, at $8.83 — but of course still short of a living wage. IPP research shows a single parent needs about $20 to $22 an hour working full time just to make a bare-bones household budget.

We can require polluters to stop ruining Iowa’s water, by putting some teeth in the so-called Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which is rendered meaningless by requiring nothing of polluters. Even the good actors in the ag community should be able to see their efforts are eroded like unprotected soil when neighbors’ farm practices contribute to nutrient pollution.

Without raising tax rates, we can raise significant revenue for education and other shortchanged services, by curtailing or ending research tax-credit checks for corporations that pay no income tax ($40 million), and by closing tax loopholes ($100 million). Instead, we have seen an average increase of less than 2 percent in permitted per-pupil K-12 spending in Iowa over 10 years. We see rising college tuition because of poor state support.

We can make our tax system more fair by shifting our increased reliance on sales taxes to revenue sources such as income tax. Our four-decade trend toward sales tax (and against income tax) may continue in 2020 with the push for environmental quality and recreation as directed by voters in 2010, but it can be paired with moves to make the overall system more fair. Note: That approach demands no new tax cuts for the wealthy.

That list is hardly exhaustive. Queue up child care assistance, wage theft enforcement, restoring and protecting collective bargaining rights, making pensions more commonplace instead of attacking workers who have them. We could even step up efforts to protect vulnerable communities in advance of the next flooding disaster,

The common theme: Since we’ve done nothing or virtually nothing meaningfully positive in 10 years in these areas, even small steps will look good in comparison. And, because of the pent-up frustration of those who would have been satisfied five years ago with small steps, visionary and dramatic steps might be possible.

But this is not a “woulda, coulda, shoulda” refrain like you would hear after a near-miss in a ballgame. For all their theme of decline, retrenchment and a “can’t-do” mindset, the failures of the 2010s really spotlight what we can do through public policy to work together for a stronger, more equitable, more inclusive, more sustainable Iowa in the 2020s.

This is a moment to start a rebound.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we have used solid information and years of perspective to spotlight challenges and ways to make life in Iowa better, next year, five years, even 10 years from now.

So, bring on 2020!

MMike Owen is executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project. mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

The Iowa Policy Project is a 501c3 nonprofit organization funded by individual donations, organizations and foundation grants. Tax-deductible contributions may be made online at this link.

Big state, big issues — an obligation for all

We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt. It is not a voluntary matter.

160104-osterberg-map-7x7I put up a new map at the IPP office this morning. It’s a big one — about 4 feet by 6 feet, and it’s impressive on a wall.

What makes it more impressive comes when you think of what that map represents, some 36 million acres of land, and to think of how those acres are used, and what we are doing to protect them.

Even though it’s mainly a road map, we see those roads plotted on a landscape that we know is mostly farmland — rivers, lakes and streams running through it, and dominated by it.

Each five years the United States Department of Agriculture puts out a census of agriculture. The last one from 2012 shows just how agriculture dominates our land. About 24 of the 36 million acres are in cropland nearly all corn and soybeans — though even more land is agricultural since activities like grazing push the total of ag land well beyond 30 million acres. Cropland, woodland and pasture make up so much of the landscape that the category house lots, ponds, roads, wasteland, etc. makes up only 1.4 million acres, or less than 5 percent of the total.

IPP pointed out in a 2010 report Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm that so little land in Iowa is devoted to urban uses (lawns or golf courses) that even if urban application rates of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizer were much higher than that on farms, only 2 percent of the pollution from land application of fertilizer comes from lawns and golf courses.

When sewage treatment plants are included in the urban share of nutrient pollution, agriculture still dominates.

So the take-away message — water pollution in Iowa comes from agricultural land. We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers, lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt — particularly the biggest one. It is not a voluntary matter.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project

Addressing water pollution no matter the source

We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers, lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt. It is not a voluntary matter.

The Iowa Policy Project keeps producing good reports about the causes of water pollution and how to address it.

Our report last week, Managing Water Pollution With Urban Wetlands: How Cities Reduce Contamination from Farms and Urban Development, was released on October 30. This IPP report, authored by J. Elizabeth Maas & E. Arthur Bettis, received a great deal of media attention. It was front page above the fold in both the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. It was also covered by the Des Moines Register, Iowa Public Radio and WHO Radio, and the subject of a talk show on KVFD-AM in Fort Dodge.

While our report dealt with urban wetlands, many of the questions from the media folks who participated in our call-in news conference were about agricultural wetlands. That is no surprise since so much of the water pollution problems in Iowa come from the farm.

IPP pointed out that reality in a 2010 report that can be found on our website: Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm by Andrea Heffernan, Teresa Galluzzo and Will Hoyer, released in September 2010. That report pointed out that so little land in Iowa is devoted to urban uses (lawns or golf courses) that even if urban application rates of Nitrate and Phosphorus fertilizer were much higher than that on farms, the fact that two-thirds of Iowa land is in corn or soybeans means that only 2 percent of the pollution from land application of fertilizer comes from lawns and golf courses.

Agriculture still dominates even if you include sewage treatment plants in the urban share of nutrient pollution (see graph below).

usgs

So the takeaway message — water pollution in Iowa comes from agriculture. We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers, lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt. It is not a voluntary matter.

David OsterbergBy David Osterberg, Founding Director

Talk is cheap

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.

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

IPP to EPA: Hold DNR Accountable on Water Quality

There is no question that if EPA simply accepts the agency’s agreement to try to do better, water quality will not improve in this state.

Tonight (October 18) in Des Moines, Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 Administrator Karl Brooks will meet with Iowans to hear comments and concerns about a new work plan by the state Department of Environmental Resources to bring Iowa into compliance with the Clean Water Act.

Below is a letter outlining remarks prepared by IPP Executive Director David Osterberg for tonight’s meeting.

The meeting is at the State Historical Building, 600 East Locust Street, Des Moines, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

——————————

Oct. 17, 2012

Stephen Pollard, Water Enforcement Branch
United States Environmental Protection Agency, Region 7
11201 Renner Blvd
Lenexa, KS 66219

RE: Public comments on Iowa DNR’s response to EPA’s Water Quality findings

Dear Mr. Pollard:

The Iowa Policy Project is a nonprofit research organization located in Iowa City. We wish to make the following comments about the response by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to your report of inadequacies in the state NPDES program. We limit our remarks to the question of staffing and funding the agency.

  1. The DNR acknowledged that it has given less attention to water quality problems caused by animal feeding operations — see quote below:

“Since 2007, the DNR has had a significant reduction in its animal feeding operations staff. To better meet our responsibilities, the DNR needs both an increase in staffing and to reprioritize workloads.”

While the DNR did not explain to you the extent of the deep reduction in agency field staff they have answered elsewhere.

From a DNR 2011 report on manure on frozen and snow covered ground:

“The scope and complexity of confinement program work increased disproportionately beginning with legislation in the late ’90s. With this, public awareness of environmental issues also grew, resulting in a significant increase in local demand for education, compliance assistance and compliance assurance. To address these needs, animal feeding operations field staffing gradually increased to a high of 23 by SFY 2004. In SFY 2008, four staff people were shifted into a newly established open feedlots program. Then in the fall of 2009, as General Fund expenditures declined, confinement staffing was reduced again. This reduced staff numbers from 19 to 11.5. Further reductions leave the total of field staff for confinement work at 8.75 full time equivalents. This reduction means that the DNR will not be able to maintain an adequate level of compliance and enforcement activity in confinements.”

Thus the 2011 DNR report demonstrates that the envisioned 13 staff-person increase would only bring numbers back to approximately the 2004 staffing levels — before the addition of many more confinement operations.

  1. Underfunding of water quality programs is not limited to animal agriculture. An IPP report from March 2012 demonstrated an overall decrease in water quality funding of $5 million over the decade. 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.
    http://www.iowapolicyproject.org/2012docs/120301-water.pdf
  1. Given this underfunding by the Iowa Legislature, there appears to be no basis for the agency’s belief that it will get approval for 13 more staff members. First, the request must be made in the Governor’s proposed budget that will be drawn up in January of next year. Second, the Legislature must agree to this increase without endangering other water quality programs.
  1. EPA should help the agency in bargaining with a legislature that has shown itself to be less concerned with water quality protection than tax cuts. EPA should tell the DNR that if it fails to get a proposed increase in staff in the Governor’s budget and also to have the request authorized by the General Assembly, there will be consequences. These must be severe consequences commensurate with the funding being sought — that is, EPA should establish a minimum number of staff additions that will be required. Absent that it should state that it will withdraw the authorized NPDES program from DNR. There is no question that if EPA simply accepts the agency’s agreement to try to do better, water quality will not improve in this state.

Thank you for your attention to improving the quality of water in our state.

Sincerely,

David Osterberg, Executive Director, The Iowa Policy Project

Policy and pollution: We have options

“It’s not like we don’t have options. We do. Public policy can make a difference in protecting the environment.”

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

Capitalizing on competition in Iowa

Competitions and “keeping up with the Joneses” can spur people to take advantage of the many energy-saving programs Iowa utilities already offer.

IPP last week released a report  that highlights how capitalizing on a better understanding of human psychology and behavior can drive energy efficiency and conservation in Iowa.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

We initially got interested in the idea after hearing about the extraordinary results from a competition in Kansas last fall. We would love to see something similar happen in Iowa and are working to make that happen.

Apparently the idea of using competitions to spur energy efficiency and other beneficial behaviors has others excited as well. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu spoke on NPR last week about an initiative to get kids excited about energy efficiency. Chu said:

“In my wildest dreams, what I’d love it to be is sometime in not-too-distant future there’ll be kind of a — like a March Madness, there’ll be a lot of schools challenging other schools in their local areas for who’s going to make the most improvement in saving money and saving energy.”

Schools shouldn’t just be the only competitors. Entire towns can compete against one another. College campuses can compete. Churches. Businesses. Next-door neighbors. The truth is, we all want to “keep up with the Joneses” and if we know that the Joneses next door have a similar house and are paying less every month for their electricity then we’ll want to make the changes the Joneses made. Over time these will add up to significant savings in money and reductions in pollution and reduced need for new baseload electricity plants — whether they be coal, gas or nuclear.

Competitions and “keeping up with the Joneses” can spur people to take advantage of the many energy-saving programs Iowa utilities already offer. Many monetary incentives are out there already to replace old appliances, insulate your attic, install solar panels or upgrade your HVAC equipment. Haven’t taken advantage of those programs yet? Contact your utility to find out more. If you have reaped the benefits call your utility and ask for more!

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Give thanks for what we do and do not have

Iowa does not have a reputation for having great water quality, but it could be worse.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

My job here at IPP requires me to think a lot about water. Iowa does not have a reputation for having great water quality, and there are certainly plenty of threats, but it could be worse. As Thanksgiving approaches here are a few things I’m thankful for:

1) We don’t have companies extracting natural gas using unknown chemicals and potentially fouling our groundwater like Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and other states do.

2) We have adequate water (for the most part). You don’t have to go too far to find areas where water quantity is a serious concern, like in Nebraska and Wisconsin. Travel further, to places like Florida and the American southwest and the issues get even more serious. Certainly increased chances of drought in the Midwest are recognized as a possibility with climate change, but to date we’ve avoided drought for a few decades.

3) We don’t (yet!) have major oil pipelines running across our state. It just so happens that they rupture occasionally like this one did in Michigan. A few years ago, Wisconsin had an oil pipeline break, too. And now there’s a pipeline proposed that would cross Nebraska.

4) While we’ve seen our fair share of flooding in parts of the state, we’re not going to see the problems that coastal cities will as sea levels rise.

5) We don’t have acutely toxic groundwater like this city in California does.

We in Iowa are plenty busy working on polluted runoff, CAFOs, emerging contaminants and seasonal flooding, among other things. That’s plenty for now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Farm fields or lawns? New report on water pollution

The quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers that are applied to corn and soybean fields dwarfs that of lawns and golf courses.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

How many of you have been in a conversation about Iowa’s water quality that went something like this?

  • Person 1:  Iowa’s waters really are filthy.
  • Person 2: They sure are. I know a lot of that is because of our state’s agriculture and all the fertilizers that farmers use.
  • Person 1: That’s probably true, but you know what is really a problem?  The fertilizers my neighbors are always putting on their grass. They put so much on all the time and sometimes even in the rain. Why? For a lawn that they never use?
  • Person 2: You’re probably right. I just drove across the river downtown and it was so gross. And I saw several lawn chemical companies out this morning.

If you’re anything like me you’ve probably heard people downplay the role of agriculture in degrading our waters and shift the focus to our urban areas. I recently had dinner with a small group of environmentally aware citizens and a conversation much like the above occurred.

I asked the group what percentage of the applied fertilizers in Iowa are put on farm fields and got responses ranging from 50 to 80 percent. It just so happened that I knew the real answer and it was way higher than the guesses I heard.

IPP’s latest report focuses only on the chemical fertilizers that are applied to the state’s farm fields, lawns and golf courses. It conclusively shows that the quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers that are applied to corn and soybean fields dwarfs that of lawns and golf courses. It isn’t even close. Roughly 98% of the nitrogen and phosphorus applied in fertilizers goes on the state’s farm fields.

On average the pounds applied per acre of these fertilizers are higher on lawns and golf courses but the total area that receives treatments is so miniscule relative to the acres of corn and beans in this state. In addition, these fertilizers are applied to areas that have plants that can immediately use the nutrients, whereas many fertilizers are applied to crop fields that do not.

This is not to say that lawn fertilizers in urban areas are blameless. Indeed, in some urban watersheds they may be a significant source of the nutrient pollution entering Iowa’s waters, but overall it’s safe to say that agriculture is where the vast majority of the nutrients that start as applied fertilizers originate. Throw in manure applications and the relative contribution of agriculture gets even larger.

Can that be changed? With cover crops, perennial crops, better cropping practices, and improved nutrient management plans among other things, that gap can be narrowed.  Narrowing that gap will bring with it improved water quality. That is something we can all celebrate.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

‘Loading the dice’ for the ‘new normal’

I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward extreme weather events. This means we must prepare for more frequent major floods — but also even larger floods.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Flooding is more and more a serious concern in Iowa. Some call it the “new normal.”

A book released earlier this year, A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008, edited by Iowa historian and environmentalist Connie Mutel, helps us understand the “new normal” phenomenon. We are likely to see more frequent and possibly larger floods as rainfall patterns change as a result of climate change.

Can we, with any scientific validity, directly attribute any flood, heat wave, snowfall, hurricane or drought to climate change? Not yet. But the fact remains that the sorts of rainfall patterns Iowa has seen recently, and many of the extreme weather events seen across the world are exactly what climate models predict, as noted by a recent report from Environment Iowa.

I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward making certain extreme weather events more likely to occur. What this means for Iowa is that we now have to prepare for more frequent major floods, but also be ready for even larger floods.

What can we do? There are no simple answers and clearly the solution is going to involve a combination of things. Iowa is taking the right steps by developing some excellent resources for municipal officials and local residents. But does the political will exist to make the difficult choices? Should we allow development in flood plains? (The Cedar Falls city council has decided to say no.) Should we build more levies around cities to protect them (but push flooding on to communities downstream)? Should we prohibit a net increase in runoff from any development site? Should we require or even pay farmers to reduce runoff from their fields?

In both rural and urban areas, healthy soil is the first line of defense against flooding as it can slow, store and clean prodigious amounts of rainfall and runoff. Unfortunately, as outgoing DNR Director Rich Leopold noted in an excellent and sobering editorial, our soils are not healthy. We’ve lost, and continue to lose, huge amounts of topsoil from our croplands and the soils in our urban developments aren’t really much better than concrete at holding onto water.

Healthy soil means cleaner water, less flooding, excellent crops and — quite possibly — dice that are a little less loaded. That’s a win-win-win-win for everyone.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate