DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — While Iowa environmental regulators hold public hearings on a new proposed rule designed to improve water quality through better enforcement of livestock farms, manure spills are occurring that highlight the problems with managing a growing livestock industry.
It’s a difficult balance Iowa must find between encouraging livestock production that generates more than $13 billion a year in sales and handling the waste generated by 60 million chickens, 20 million pigs, 9 million turkeys and 4 million cows.
The Department of Natural Resources is holding six hearings around the state over the next week on a proposed rule that “would bring Iowa’s requirements for concentrated animal feeding operations into compliance with federal regulations,” according to an agency statement. The first hearing was in Mason City on Tuesday night.
Iowa’s pigs alone generate an estimated 10 billion gallons of manure a year.
The animals often are kept in buildings designed to catch manure beneath the floor. It’s then pumped to large outdoor lagoons and stored until it can be spread onto fields as fertilizer.
Pump failures, clogged pipes or lagoon leaks leading to spills highlight the need for strict regulations that include the issuance of clean water permits to livestock confinement operations, said Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, a citizen action environmental group.
The DNR said the proposed rule would satisfy an agreement it signed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September 2013. The deal was struck after the EPA threated to take over federal Clean Water Act enforcement if Iowa officials didn’t step up livestock farm enforcement.
Iowa CCI and others say the new rule is too weak.
“The DNR must start issuing Clean Water Act permits to every factory farm in Iowa so the industry is forced to start playing by stronger environmental standards,” said Jim Yungclas, a retired agriculture extension officer who moved to Grinnell after hog confinement farms surrounded his family’s century farm in Wright County.
Iowa CCI also wants farms shut down after three violations and increased regulation of how manure is applied to fields to decrease the risk of over-application and runoff.
Another critic of the proposed DNR rule is Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Water Works, the drinking water supplier for 500,000 customers in central Iowa.
Stowe last spring had difficulty keeping nitrate levels under required EPA levels. Water Works draws some of its water from the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, which posted record nitrate levels last year caused by runoff from farm fields.
This year Stowe is working to control high levels of ammonia that he said comes from livestock manure. Stowe said the water is safe to consume and use, but he plans on telling the DNR at a hearing in Des Moines on Friday that it needs to control fertilizer and manure runoff problem.
The proposal as it stands now changes little, he said.
“In our view what that means is essentially unregulated smaller operations that with impunity can put manure into our waterways creating significant health risks and environmental degradation not only for our consumers but state residents,” Stowe said.
Recent spills illustrate the problem.
The Bear Creek Dairy Farm, which has 2,000 cows in confinement barns near Brooklyn, spilled an undetermined amount of manure into Big Bear Creek on Sunday when a pipe clogged. The DNR said it’s monitoring the cleanup and considering enforcement action. Similar clogged pipes have led to at least three other spills of thousands of gallons of manure in the last seven months at other farms.
The Oak Grove Cattle farm with about 1,000 cows near Riceville continues to leak manure into the Wapsipinicon River after an earthen berm failed in early April.
Neighbors Lee and Rita Dvorak said their ponds are so polluted that their sheep can’t drink the water.
“I think it’s to the point with as many incidents we have had that fines need to be put into place to change behavior,” Rita Dvorak said.
A number listed for Oak Grove Cattle rang unanswered Wednesday afternoon.
A spokesman for the DNR did not immediately respond to messages.
Additional DNR hearings on the new rule will be held in Spencer, Carroll, Des Moines, Calmar, and Ainsworth.