Clean Sweep for the Iowa Environmental Council— Back to back Iowa Supreme Court Victories

Victory #1 — Clean Water regulation and Citizen Participation in State Government  

The Iowa Supreme Court today ruled today in favor of clean water by upholding Iowa’s Clean Water Anti-Degradation Standards. In a well-reasoned, and thoughtful decision, the Court   upheld the rulemaking process that established the state’s clean water anti-degradation standards, keeping rules in place that are designed to protect some of Iowa’s most important lakes and waterways.

 The ruling ends the Farm Bureau’s lawsuit effort to delay or overturn the rules –which were enacted in an open and fair rulemaking process. As required by the federal Clean Water Act, Iowa’s common-sense anti-degradation standards will remain in place. Iowans are impatient on cleaning up impaired waters and preventing future pollution. Iowans can now focus on successfully implementing the rules and the ongoing work that will achieve clean water goals.

 “We are grateful to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, the Department of Natural Resources and our environmental partners for standing up to the Farm Bureau’s efforts to throw out the rules,” said Ralph Rosenberg, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council. “This issue is greater than clean water protection. This was an effort to shut out citizen participation in government by a powerful business interest like the Farm Bureau.”

 Four years ago, Iowa adopted strong “anti-degradation” standards – an important but often ignored part of the Clean Water Act designed to keep unnecessary pollution out of clean waterways. However, the Farm Bureau   challenged these important standards and even issued intrusive subpoenas to intimidate local environmentalists and challenge the Environmental Protection Commission by trying to disqualify one of its members, Susan Heathcote, water program director of the Iowa Environmental Council. Lower courts have since thrown out the Farm Bureau’s legal challenges.

 “This is a clear win for clean water and for open and fair government,” said Environmental Law & Policy Center Senior Attorney Brad Klein, who argued the case before the Supreme Court. “We’re grateful that the Court rejected the Farm Bureau’s attempts to harass and intimidate the Council and Susan Heathcote. This important ruling means that we can put the Farm Bureau’s attempts to delay and distract behind us and move on to protect some of Iowa’s most important lakes, rivers and streams.


 

Victory #2 Protecting Solar Energy Choice and Supporting Small Scale Renewable Energy

In the second of two victories for the Environmental Council, the Court ruled that Iowans can offer their roof space to solar energy developers and buy the power created from those panels. The Council, according to Ralph Rosenberg, “welcomes the decision which held that third party payer arrangements are an important option for expanding renewable energy, along with tax incentives, grants, loans and other financing mechanisms.”

“Today’s decision is a win for Iowans because it gives everyone the option to go solar affordably,” said Brad Klein, senior attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC), who argued the case last spring on behalf of a large coalition of solar energy and environmental advocates. “Across the country, families, businesses and communities have gone solar with third-party ownership. Now, that opportunity can come to Iowa, too.”

In 2011, Alliant Energy argued that an agreement between Dubuque-based Eagle Point Solar and the City of Dubuque violated the utility’s monopoly territory. Under the agreement, Eagle Point agreed to install and maintain solar panels on the Dubuque City Council building, the City would then pay Eagle Point for the energy created by those panels. The utility argued that the agreement, known as a third-party power purchase agreement (PPA) amounted to the creation of a utility. This claim was rejected by the court.

In his majority opinion, Justice Appel wrote that “Third-party PPAs like the one proposed by Eagle Point actually further one of the goals of regulated electric companies, namely, the use of energy efficient and renewable energy sources.”   

 Rosenberg, the Council director, noted that like the Farm Bureau case, this decision was thoughtful, well-reasoned and supported Iowa values and priorities of the Council—in this case, increasing the use of energy efficiency and renewable energy, while decreasing reliance on carbon based fuels.

 A recent report by the Iowa Environmental Council, Real Potential, Ready Today: Solar Energy in Iowa highlighted the significant potential for solar energy in Iowa. Iowa is already starting to see the rapid growth of solar–highlighted by the bi-partisan support for tripling of funding available for state tax credits for solar energy installation.

 “The fact that the court agrees with our analysis of the law means good things for the future of solar in Iowa,”   Josh Mandelbaum, staff attorney with ELPC’s Des Moines office added.

 

 The Iowa Supreme Court‘s full opinions are available on the Iowa Judicial Branch website.

 http://www.iowacourts.gov/About_the_Courts/Supreme_Court/Supreme_Court_Opinions/Recent_Opinions/20140711/index.asp

 

Public support for a strong Clean Water Act is needed to ensure Iowa’s clean water future

By Susan Heathcote, Water Program Director, Iowa Environmental Council

Iowans value clean water. From the small creeks, ponds and wetlands on the farm and the edge of town where our children play and explore nature to the larger rivers and lakes where our families head on the weekends to fish, swim and boat – clean water is important to our quality of life and a healthier Iowa.

In response to our members’ concerns, improving the quality of Iowa’s rivers, streams, lakes and wetlands has been a top priority for the Iowa Environmental Council since the Council was founded nearly 20 years ago. One of our most important tools for cleaning up polluted waters and preventing new pollution is the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) that was passed by Congress in 1972.

The purpose of the CWA is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters. Over the past 40 years, the CWA has resulted in dramatic improvements in the Nation’s water quality through the construction of modern wastewater treatment facilities to reduce sewage and industrial waste that had previously been discharged directly to waterways.

Over the past 10 years, the Iowa Environmental Council and our partners, working with state agencies and the legislature, have further strengthened Iowa’s implementation and enforcement of the CWA. Two examples are rules adopted in 2006 that significantly increase protection of rivers and streams for recreation and aquatic life; and rules adopted in 2010 to protect high quality waters from new pollution.

The result has been significant new investment in cleaner water that benefits our communities, businesses, public health and quality of life.

While Iowa has made progress, we still have much work to do to meet the clean water expectations of the public.
Last year, for example, nitrate pollution coming mostly from fertilizer applied to farm fields in the watersheds of the Cedar, Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers made its way from small headwater streams in Northern Iowa and Southern Minnesota downstream to the Cities of Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. The result was record high nitrate levels that threatened the safety of the drinking water supply in Iowa’s two largest cities.

In addition, Iowans traveling to their local lakes for a weekend retreat too often find a sign warning them to stay out of the water due to the presence of cyano-toxins from algae blooms or dangerous bacteria that make the water unsafe for swimming. Last summer, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources posted 106 warnings for dangerous levels of bacteria and 24 warnings of cyano-toxins at public beaches in Iowa.

Many of the pollutants that affect the quality of our drinking water and swimming beaches come from far upstream, in some cases even crossing state borders. Therefore a strong CWA that protects the quality of small headwater streams that feed downstream rivers and lakes is needed for us to continue to make progress toward our clean water goals.

Prior to 2001, virtually all streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands were considered “Waters of the U.S.” and were therefore covered under the Clean Water Act. However, in recent years, two U. S. Supreme Court rulings have resulted in confusion over whether some intermittent headwater streams and certain wetlands should be protected.
To end this confusion, and restore CWA protections to these critical water bodies, the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers have proposed new rules that clarify existing law and ensure the “Waters of the U.S.” designation extends to headwater streams that flow into larger rivers and to wetlands within the floodplain adjacent to these rivers.
The proposed rules also clarify which waters are not considered “Waters of the U.S.”, including streams that do not contribute flow to downstream waters, agricultural drainage tiles, irrigation ditches, waste treatment lagoons, groundwater, and agricultural stormwater discharges.
Prior to releasing the proposed rule, EPA and the Army Corps worked closely with the agricultural community and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to understand and address farmer concerns. The proposed rules leave in place the current exemptions from CWA permits for normal farming, ranching and forestry practices; including plowing, seeding, cultivation, minor drainage, harvesting, drainage ditch maintenance and upland soil and water conservation practices.

Further, in response to agriculture’s concern about the regulatory burden when permits are needed for some conservation practices, EPA is specifying 56 agricultural conservation practices that will be specifically exempted from CWA permitting requirements.

Iowans who drink from or swim in Iowa waters; parents whose children play in the local creek; sportsmen and anglers who hunt and fish; and nature lovers who paddle, hike and bike along or in Iowa waters need to publically support these new rules. Iowans who care about clean water can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and let some interest groups misstate the purpose and effect of this rule and determine which waters are protected and which waters can be destroyed or polluted.

With strong public support and action, the proposed rule will strengthen the Clean Water Act’s legal and scientific foundation and protect the quality and integrity of the critically important streams and wetlands that feed into our rivers and lakes – thus helping to ensure a clean water future for Iowa.

Additional information on the Waters of the US Rule can be found on the EPA webpage: http://www.epa.gov/uswaters
Comments on the Waters of the US Proposed Rule can be submitted at the Federal Register via the e-Rulemaking Portal: http://www.regulations.gov. The direct link to the comment page for this rule is http://www.regulations.gov/#!docketDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OW-2011-0880. Comments must be submitted by Oct. 20, 2014. (note: today the website still has the July 21st deadline, but EPA has announced a 91 day extension till Oct. 20th.)

Governor Branstad Signs Key Solar Tax Incentive Bill

Governor Branstad today signed Senate File 2340, a key tax incentive bill for solar energy. The law triples the size of Iowa’s successful solar tax incentive program and makes additional improvements to the program. The legislation received wide bipartisan support at the statehouse, with the Iowa Senate passing it with a unanimous vote of 46-0 and the Iowa House passing it with a vote of 88-4. The Iowa solar tax incentive matches a portion of an existing federal tax incentive for solar thermal and solar photovoltaic (PV) energy.

Senate File 2340 increases the annual cap available for solar tax credits from $1.5M to $4.5M. As solar energy grows in Iowa, demand for the tax credits exceeded the cap in 2013 by almost $1M, according to the latest information available from the Iowa Department of Revenue. Increasing the cap to $4.5M will help ensure that any Iowa taxpayer that installs solar can benefit from the Iowa solar tax incentive.

The  legislation also does the following to improve the solar tax incentive program:

  • Allows taxpayers to claim multiple credits in a single year for multiple solar installations. This is already allowed under the federal program and will, for example, help businesses install solar at multiple business locations in a single year.
  • Increases the cap for residential tax credits from $3,000 to $5,000 and for business tax credits from $15,000 to $20,000.
  • Increases the Iowa credit from 50% of the federal credit to 60% of the federal credit.
  • Reserves a portion of the annual cap for residential tax credits.
  • Allows any unclaimed credits in a given year to roll over and be available in subsequent years.

The legislation promises to boost solar installations across Iowa. The current tax credit cap of $1.5M supported approximately 2-3 megawatts (MW) of solar PV in a given year and supported installations in 59 Iowa counties. Increasing the cap to $4.5M could boost that to 8 MW – or more – annually.

In addition to SF 2340, Gov. Branstad also signed an important bill, SF 2343, to extend production tax credits for wind and improve a pilot tax credit for combined heat and power.

More information about solar energy in Iowa is available here.

 

You can protect butterflies by providing habitat in your own back yard

PrintBlank Park Zoo has recently announced an exciting new conservation initiative called Plant.Grow.Fly. This project has been launched as an effort to protect one of the most important parts of our ecosystem: the pollinator. Although many of us only appreciate butterflies for their beautiful colors, more than one third of our global food supply depends on pollinators like the butterfly and bee. This means that it is in everyone’s interest to become aware of pollinator issues and take action to preserve them, and that is exactly what Plant.Grow.Fly. sets out to do.

Through the Plant.Grow.Fly website you can find easy to use garden recipes that will help you create the right habitat for our native butterflies and bees to thrive. Once your garden is planted, you can register it with Plant.Grow.Fly., and even show off your support for our pollinators by sending in a picture of your garden to be recognized on the Plant.Grow.Fly. website. Whether you are on a budget, or willing to spare no expense, Plant.Grow.Fly provides all the resources you will need to create a healthy habitat for pollinators at you home, school, or even workplace, and the time to act is now!

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Severe erosion and lack of conservation progress cause for alarm among Iowa experts

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Former Iowa Environmental Council executive director Linda Appelgate captured this image of a corn field eroding into the Nishnabotna river in 2010. According to the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, nearly 80% of Iowa farmers agree they need to do more to “reduce nutrient and sediment runoff into streams and lakes.”

Last week was Soil and Water Conservation Week in Iowa, a time to reflect on how well we are protecting one of Iowa’s most precious natural resources.  Unfortunately, soil erosion remains a serious problem in our state. Recently several top experts on Iowa soil conservation weighed in and expressed alarm about the state of our soil.

The Iowa Daily Erosion Project can create estimates of soil erosion the morning after a rainfall event occurs.  Here, estimates are shown for a 2-day precipitation event on April 12-13, 2014.  Still, without advances in modeling, project manager Rick Cruse says these models do not tell the whole story of Iowa soil erosion.

The Iowa Daily Erosion Project can create estimates of soil erosion the morning after a rainfall event occurs. Here, estimates are shown for a 2-day precipitation event on April 12-13, 2014.   Still, without advances in modeling, project manager Rick Cruse says these estimates do not tell the whole story of Iowa soil erosion.

Most unsettling was a reminder from Iowa State University agronomist Rick Cruse that our present methods of estimating soil erosion are badly flawed and may be missing between 20 and 90% of the erosion in the state.  In total, Cruse estimates the economic harm to agricultural yields Iowa suffers from historic soil erosion may be as great as $1 billion each year–harm that will grow as erosion continues.

Cruse, who manages the Iowa Daily Erosion Project, said current models only account erosion that occurs evenly across the soil’s surface and fail to account for ephemeral gullies that form when heavy rainwater forms channels and washes out a trench along a slope.  He answered questions about soil erosion recently in the Des Moines Register and spoke about his research at length in an Iowa Learning Farms webinar, which is available free online.

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