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Iowa environmental groups say draft CAFO rules don't do enough to protect environment

Amy Mayer
IPR file

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has drafted some changes to the rules that regulate animal confinements and feedlots. But some environmentalists argue the state’s proposed changes — and the regulations — don’t do enough to protect the environment.

The DNR proposes revisions to the state’s animal feeding operations rules as part of a five-year review process. The state’s natural resources department regulates animal feeding operations to protect surface water and groundwater.

“The truth is that it’s almost literally putting lipstick on a pig,” said Alexis Huddleston, the farm coordinator for Sustainable Iowa Land Trust, during a Tuesday news conference. “Why do we tolerate farming that damages our health and risks our drinking water?”

Sustainable Iowa Land Trust is one of more than a dozen environmental groups, alongside the Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law & Policy Center that submitted comments on the draft rules. The groups held a news conference Tuesday, calling the DNR’s proposed changes “inadequate.”

The groups called on the DNR to better regulate manure from Iowa’s more than 9,000 animal feeding operations. Larger operations, called CAFOs, produce a lot of manure, which contains nitrogen, phosphorus and bacteria. Josh Mandelbaum, a senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, said manure can run off of fields and pollute waterways, drinking water and surface water.

“We see the consequences when our communities have to treat drinking water for nitrates,” Mandelbaum said. “We see the consequences when we have harmful algal blooms, we see the consequences when we cannot safely recreate in our water. We see the consequences over and over again. And we need to act. DNR needs to act.”

One of the changes in the DNR’s draft rule increases how much distance there must be from the bottom of a manure storage site to the top of a landscape called karst terrain. Existing rules require a 5 foot distance, but the proposal would change that separation to a minimum of 15 feet. Environmentalists say they want at least 25 feet of separation. Mandelbaum added the draft falls short on other things environmentalists have hoped for, such as more groundwater monitoring.

“None of this is addressed adequately in DNR’s rules,” Mandelbaum said. “It’s a missed opportunity and it’s not going to take us forward.”

One proposed change the groups are pleased with, Mandelbaum said, is a proposal for floodplain maps. The proposal says people can’t construct manure storage in the 100-year floodplain of a major water source.

Tammie Krausman, a spokeswoman for the DNR, declined to respond to the environmental groups’ remarks from the news conference. The DNR is taking informal comments about the proposed rule changes until Friday, Oct. 21. Krausman said there will also be a public comment period, likely with public meetings, before a final rule is approved.

“The DNR will then prepare a response to comments and the final rule. It will go before the [Environmental Protection Commission] with the Final Action for approval,” Krausman wrote.

But Krausman said it’s hard to estimate when new rules would take effect, because the formal rule process hasn’t started yet.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.