A Water Quality Success Story

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, the Iowa Environmental Council is taking a look back at our work to successfully implement that important law–work that continues even today.  The article below originally appeared in the Council’s newsletter in 2010.

After 11 years of meetings, letters, delays, legal work, and public hearings, clean water advocates gathered in room 116, of the statehouse in Des Moines, on Monday, February 8, 2010, to witness what they hoped was the final step in adopting clean water “anti-degradation” rules for Iowa.

Heavy snowfall and travel warnings kept some supporters away, but most, who had invested years in the effort, were there, including Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council; Brad Klein, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center; Neila Seaman, Director of the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club; and Wally Taylor a lawyer for the Sierra Club.

Richard Leopold, once director of the Iowa Environmental Council, now sat with legislators at a massive wood table that took up most of the space in the room. As Director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Rich was there to ensure that legislators knew of all the countless hours and all the ways in which the public—environmentalists and the regulated community included—had worked with the DNR to shape the new rules that were meant to help stem the trend of declining water quality in Iowa.

The Friday before, Governor Chet Culver had sent a letter to the Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review Committee expressing his “strong support” of the new rules.  Now his representative, Jim Larew, sat at the table with Rich and the legislators on the Committee, listening to comments—both for and against the rules—from legislators and the public.

Given enough time, water can wear away just about anything, even stone

With the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, states were required to enact Antidegradation rules by 1985, in order to prevent the further pollution of lakes, rivers and streams in the nation. Iowa adopted rules, but in 1997 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency informed Iowa that its rules were weak and violated federal law. Repeated delays in rewriting the rules led a coalition of environmental organizations – Iowa Environmental Council, Hawkeye Fly Fishing Association, the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Environmental Law & Policy Center – to file a Petition for Rulemaking with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in 2007. This compelled the State to act immediately to initiate the rule-making process. Over a period of two years, a dozen meetings  were held around the state to gather public comments, rule revisions were made in reaction to the comments, and a hearing before the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission was held.

From the beginning of the rulemaking process in 2007, Iowa Environmental Council staff traveled to various parts of the state, educating Iowans about Antidegradation rules and encouraging them to attend public comment meetings and mail written comments to the DNR. Members of lake protective associations in northwestern Iowa, river advocates from central and northeastern Iowa and people from around the state who care about water quality sent hundreds of letters and attended local meetings in support of the rules. In the end, over 900 Iowans provided the DNR with feedback about the rules.

At the December 2009 meeting of the state’s Environmental Protection Commission, the revised rules were approved. One step remained: a review of the rules before the Administrative Rules Review Committee, a committee of the Iowa Legislature.

The opposition

At public and private meetings the regulated community—businesses and wastewater treatment facilities that are required by law to obtain a permit to discharge into rivers and streams—made their concerns heard. The League of Cities, Rural Water Association, and Iowa Limestone Producers Association were the primary objectors. Their fear: increased costs of doing business.

In response, the DNR made modifications to the rules and at meetings and in correspondence repeatedly explained that the rules only applied to permits for new or increased levels of pollution. They also explained that the rules provided permit applicants with opportunities to work with the DNR and community members to consider reasonable, less degrading alternatives to discharging pollution directly into streams or to determine if social and economic considerations might “justify the degradation” to the stream.

On the morning of February 8, 2010, all members of the Administrative Rules Review Committee (ARRC) were present: 10 legislators including Democrats and Republicans, Senators and Representatives. The Committee heard testimony from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), associations opposing the rules, and environmental advocates supporting the rules. Approval was not needed from the Committee—but the Committee could delay or stop the rules if they judged them to be “capricious, unreasonable or beyond the jurisdiction of the DNR authority.”

After public testimony and soon after the Committee began to discuss the rules it became clear that fear, incited by misinformation, had many ARRC members concerned. Representative Linda Upmeyer, from Garner, had received a phone call the previous evening from someone who feared the rules would prevent him from being able to sell his home. Senator Wally Horn, from Cedar Rapids, had received a call from someone who claimed the DNR was just trying to “go after” limestone producers to “run them out of the state.” Senator Merlin Bartz, from Grafton, expressed his concerns and made a formal motion to object to the rules.

The vote

In the hour that followed Rich Leopold addressed legislators’ concerns.

“These rules allow us to give thoughtful consideration on future impacts to water quality in Iowa and to how we can work more closely with citizens to identify ways that allow our economy to thrive while, at the same time, protecting and enhancing our environment,” said Leopold.

Jim Larew, chief legal counsel for the Governor’s office, provided remarks on behalf of the Governor. He noted that even the representative for the limestone producers had stated that morning that their experience of working on the rules with the DNR had been a positive one. Clearly, he told the Committee, the DNR was not trying to run anyone out of the state, be “capricious, unreasonable or go beyond the jurisdiction of their authority.”

Larew went on to express the Governor’s wish that “the Administrative Rules Review Committee not stand in the way of Iowa’s progress on this important front.”

“While the implementation of  these rules will not involve any additional cost to the State of Iowa, it will potentially yield enormous benefits—both to the assured enjoyment of our waterways, and also in terms of economic development to those areas of our state that host citizens who travel there for recreational purposes,” said Larew.

Needing six votes to carry the objection, Senator Bartz was given a last opportunity to persuade his colleagues to vote against the rules.

Ultimately, voting to “object to the rules were Senators Merlin Bartz, Linda Upmeyer and David Heaton and Representative James Seymore.

Senators Wally E. Horn, Thomas G. Courtney and John P. (Jack) Kibbie and Representatives Marcella R. Frevert, Tyler Olson and Nathan K. Reichert voted against the motion to “object.”

The motion had failed.

The final rules

Iowa now has Antidegradation rules that will help stem the trend of declining water quality in all lakes and streams. The rules allow for community growth and industrial expansion while controlling and treating wastewater to avoid unnecessary new pollution.

Included in the rules is the designation of Outstanding Iowa Waters for six lakes and 32 stream segments. This designation provides additional protections for these few remaining water gems. Examples include West Lake Okoboji in Northwest Iowa and South Pine Creek in Northeast Iowa—one of Iowa’s best cold water trout streams and home to the last surviving population of native Iowa Brook Trout.

Little time to celebrate

After the vote, advocates gathered outside room 116, quietly expressing joy for a positive decision and gratitude for colleagues and supporters who continued, like water on rock, to wear away at  the obstacles in their path.

But advocates had little time to celebrate before needing to roll up their sleeves again. That same morning, the House Agricultural Committee had unanimously passed a bill that was designed to gut Iowa DNR rules regarding the application of manure on frozen and snow-covered ground, a major cause of water pollution in Iowa.

“…and the water comes again.”

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