The Battle Over Bloody Run Creek
Steve Veysey is a retired Iowa State University chemist and is among a group of environmentalists trying to stop Supreme Beef LLC from moving forward with an 11,600 head open feedlot near the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek in northeast Iowa.
Environmentalists and others who oppose the feedlot say Supreme Beef’s nutrient management plans contain inaccuracies that would result in over-application of manure used as fertilizer on crops. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the two components of manure that cause the most water quality concerns. Manure has a very high organic content and is a great fertilizer when used correctly, Veysey said.
“But that large organic content, if when they spread manure, it rains and the manure makes its way into the stream. All that organic material that's in manure will start to decay,” Veysey said. “That uses up oxygen that's in these clear, cool spring-fed creeks that support trout and other sensitive, cool water species.”
Bloody Run creek is among 34 waterways designated as outstanding Iowa Waters by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“If we can't protect one of our outstanding Iowa waters, the very best that we have, then we all have to take a step back and say we really can't protect anything in Iowa if we can't protect Bloody Run,” Veysey said.
The Sierra Club Iowa Chapter is currently considering a court appeal to stop this open feedlot from being built near one of Iowa’s outstanding waters.
What Sets The Driftless Region Apart
Bloody Run Creek is in a part of northeast Iowa known as the Driftless Region. It wasn’t glaciated in the last ice age and includes parts of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. This region is known for its karst topography, sinkholes and cool-water streams. Laura Peterson is an associate professor of environmental studies at Luther College in Decorah, which is the Driftless Region. She says water moves beneath the surface completely different here.
“The water coming out of that spring might look pure and beautiful, but it's actually water that was on the surface, sometimes hours ago, sometimes days ago,” Peterson said. "It's going to pick up whatever's on that surface. If it's chemicals, any kind of contaminants.”
Thousands of Cattle Near The Headwaters
This highly erodible land is one of the reasons critics are putting up a fight. The Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter, Iowa Environmental Council, several state lawmakers and others wrote DNR Director Kayla Lyon in May and asked her to order a departmental review under an administrative code rule that gives the director discretion to evaluate animal feeding operations in environmentally sensitive areas. But Lyon said she lacks the authority to review the project.
Larry Stone lives in Clayton County, not too far from Supreme Beef, where Stone's neighbors are also concerned about its construction. Stone said he’s watched the owners try to get a cattle operation going on their land near Monona off Highway 18 since 2017 when the original plan was to install a anaerobic digester.
The site currently has six large unused cattle structures and a lagoon where feedlot waste would be stored.
“How far down to the bedrock with a fractured limestone karst? Good question,” Stone said as he stood looking at site from a neighboring field. “The potential for water getting into the end of that karst into that fractured limestone and eventually into the groundwater... It's scary frankly, to me.”
The groups are also concerned of a catastrophic event happening since there are already sink holes on the property.
Critics also say emails show the DNR approved the application after collusion between the company, DNR Director Lyon and State Senator Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan. Zumbach, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, does not represent this district, but has said in media reports that he didn’t pressure the DNR. Zumbach is the father-in-law of one of Supreme Beef’s co-owners, Jared Walz.
Walz declined an interview request for this story, and the Iowa DNR would not comment on this feedlot.
Iowa DNR Environmental Specialist Brian Jergenson is in the Manchester office, which oversees 15 counties in northeast Iowa. He says his agency routinely inspects feedlots, and he has seen farmers’ practices change a lot in recent years.
“They're very precise in their farming methods,” Jergenson said. “So I would say today that, more than ever, farmers are very in tune with the exact amount of manure as a resource, they're utilizing it to grow their crops.”
‘It’s Very Difficult to Stop’
But, Chris Jones, a research engineer with the University of Iowa’s Hydroscience and Engineering Department says laws in the state allow over-application of manure nutrients to farm fields. He thinks the approval of this project looks inevitable.
“It’s really difficult to stop these things,” Jones said.
Jones said everyone knows it’s proposed in an environmentally sensitive area, and one cow excretes as much waste as 10 to 15 humans. He says it speaks to bigger water quality problems in the state.
“We might expect the industry to restrain itself from expanding into that area and putting these streams at risk,” Jones said. “It’s clear they’re not going to restrain themselves.”