Detrimental 4″ topsoil rule change proposed during International Year of Soils

This Tuesday, August 11, the Administrative Rules Review Committee will meet to consider a proposed change approved by the Environmental Protection Commission earlier this summer to Iowa’s Topsoil Preservation Rule. If adopted, the amendment would eliminate the current rule that mandates developers put a minimum of 4” of topsoil back onto construction sites, replacing it with vague, unenforceable language. If approved, this change could have negative repercussions for Iowa’s land and waterways. The Council has submitted comments opposing the change. The meeting will be held at 9 a.m. in Room 103 at the Iowa State Capitol and is open to the public.

It is easy to overlook the importance of soil health, however, to do so would be a mistake with far-reaching impacts. Beyond supporting Iowa’s widespread agricultural productivity and associated industries, healthy soil can have significant impacts on a variety of environmental and health issues.

In particular, healthy soil retains water better than degraded soils, helping to decrease the risk and severity of flooding. Healthy soil also supports a host of microorganisms and nutrient cycling processes that help keep nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil for longer, resulting in less synthetic application and runoff of fertilizers and other chemicals, which improves water quality. Healthy soil also results in less particulate matter in the air, improving the air quality for surrounding areas.

It is ironic that this proposal comes before the legislative Rules Review Committee during the International Year of Soils, an event that aims to celebrate soil and raise awareness of the importance of healthy soils for food systems, agriculture and the environment. In support, earlier this year state lawmakers adopted House Resolution 31, which recognizes the importance of managing Iowa’s precious soils.

Whether advocating for the importance of replacing topsoil on construction sites, or advocating for long-term, sustainable funding for the conservation programs that help keep Iowa’s soils healthy, protecting and preserving all of Iowa’s soils is important. Now is the time for Iowa to cement its commitment to healthy soil and protect this valuable resource that serves as the foundation for so much of our state’s productivity and prosperity.

Clean Power Plan: An Opportunity for Iowa

Turbine_1Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the finalization of the Clean Power Plan, a landmark standard that sets the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants.

By establishing state-specific carbon pollution reduction goals based on each state’s energy portfolio, the Clean Power Plan will cut 32% of carbon pollution from U.S. power plants by 2030 (from 2005 levels), and improve Iowa’s economy, protect our communities, safeguard our working lands and strengthen our energy independence.

The final Clean Power Plan calls for Iowa to reduce its carbon pollution rate to 1,283 lbs/MWh by 2030, a slight increase from the originally proposed 1,301 lbs/MWh. Both goals are based on reductions from 2012 carbon pollution levels. However, the baseline or starting point for those calculations has changed. Therefore, while the final Clean Power Plan calls for Iowa to cut carbon pollution from its power plants by 41%, this cannot be directly compared to the originally proposed 16% reduction.

As a national wind energy leader, Iowa is well-equipped to meet this modest goal, and could have achieved a significantly stronger goal. The final Clean Power Plan presents significant opportunities for Iowa’s wind sector to help reduce emissions in other states.

“We applaud the EPA and Administrator McCarthy’s leadership in finalizing the Clean Power Plan,” said Energy Program Director Nathaniel Baer, who was among leading clean energy advocates invited to join President Obama at the White House for a media event announcing the finalization of the plan. “However, Iowa’s carbon reduction goal remains one of the lowest in the country. While achievable, this modest reduction goal doesn’t begin to realize Iowa’s full clean energy potential.”

As a national leader in wind energy generation and manufacturing, Iowa is already on track to achieve and surpass its carbon reduction. Wind energy accounts for 28.5 % of Iowa’s electrical generation – the highest of any state. Recent studies show that Iowa’s wind energy potential is over 570,000 MW and 20,000 MW of this could be developed by 2030.

“Though the Council would have liked to see a stronger goal, we look forward to working with the state’s leaders over the next year to shape a strong implementation plan that maximizes Iowa’s potential for renewable energy growth and energy efficiency savings,” said Climate and Energy Policy Specialist Cindy Lane.

By increasing the regional and national demand for clean energy, the Clean Power Plan will expand opportunities for wind as well as solar energy development, strengthening Iowa’s economy and job market.

In addition to improving Iowa’s economy, the Clean Power Plan benefits the state’s communities, cultural heritage and environment. By cutting carbon pollution and encouraging a transition to clean energy, the Clean Power Plan will make Iowa a safer, healthier and more attractive place to live and work.

Read the final Clean Power Plan

Analysis shows Iowa well-prepared for Clean Power Plan

In anticipation of the expected August release of the final Clean Power Plan, which will establish the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants, the Council has been evaluating various options for Iowa to reduce carbon pollution to comply with the final standard.

Iowa’s leadership in wind energy has already cut carbon pollution and positioned the state to comply with its proposed 16% reduction goal. However, other actions resulting in carbon pollution reductions (including the retirement of older coal plants, the conversion of coal plants to natural gas, and the maintenance of modest energy efficiency programs) need to be evaluated, as well as Iowa’s potential to comply with a stronger reduction goal.

To conduct this analysis, Council staff used a publicly available modeling tool from Synapse Energy Economics to quantify the emissions reductions from five key actions that are already reducing carbon emissions in Iowa or will reduce emissions before 2020:

  • Construction of 1,964 MW of wind per three MidAmerican wind projects (Wind VIII, IX and X) and one Alliant wind project;
  • Retirement of 940 MW of old, inefficient coal plants (including CIPCO Fair Station, MidAmerican Neal North 1 & 2 and Walter Scott 1 & 2, Alliant Lansing 3, Dubuque 3 & 4, and Sutherland 1 & 3, and Pella);
  • Conversion of 497 MW of old coal plants to natural gas (including Ames 7 & 8, Alliant Kapp, MidAmerican Riverside, and Corn Belt Earl Wisdom);
  • Continuation of existing utility efficiency programs saving a modest 1% of retail sales annually;
  • Construction of a more efficient natural gas combined cycle power plant by Alliant Energy in Marshalltown
Impact of existing and planned changes on Iowa’s rate of carbon emissions Synapse CP3T v. 1.4 results, prepared by the Iowa Environmental Council, July 2015

Impact of existing and planned changes on Iowa’s rate of carbon emissions
Synapse CP3T v. 1.4 results, prepared by the Iowa Environmental Council, July 2015

Iowa’s baseline emissions rate in 2012 was 1,552 lbs/MWh. The EPA’s proposed 16% reduction is 1,301 lbs/MWh. The five actions analyzed above bring Iowa’s emissions to 1,105 lbs/MWh, well below the proposed EPA goal. This means that Iowa will likely be in compliance with the 2030 goal as early as 2020.

If the final goal is stronger, modest additional actions will allow Iowa to comply. To evaluate Iowa’s compliance potential using energy efficiency and wind energy alone, the Council used a publicly available modeling tool from MJ Bradley & Associates.

If Iowa’s reduction goal is approximately 29% rather than 16%, Iowa would need to reduce its emissions rate to 1,103 lbs/MWh by 2030. Iowa could reach this goal by adding 22 MW of wind per year and maintaining a 1% annual energy efficiency savings from 2020-2029. If Iowa’s goal is even stronger– a 42% reduction – Iowa would need to reduce its emissions rate to 906 lbs/MWh by 2030. Iowa could comply by adding 170 MW of wind per year and maintaining a 1% annual energy efficiency saving from 2020-2029. These actions are readily achievable: From 2008 through 2015, Iowa averaged over 635 MW in wind capacity additions annually and has seen over 1,000 MW of wind constructed in a single year.

Per these evaluations, as well as those of several other clean energy experts, Iowa is well-equipped to meet its proposed 16% carbon reduction goal or a significantly stronger goal. Regardless of the final goal, we look forward to working with the state’s leaders to shape a strong implementation plan that maximizes Iowa’s potential for renewable energy growth and energy efficiency savings.

Meet our member organizations: Windward Iowa

Here at the Iowa Environmental Council, we rely on the partnerships we form and the relationships we build. As a coalition-based organization, we firmly believe that when we work together, we will achieve greater success, and our member organizations and individual members are essential. This is the third installment of our new series: meet our member organizations.

logo-leaf-150x151Each entry, we will introduce you to one of our member organizations and share some information about how they are helping create a safe, healthy environment and a sustainable future for Iowa. This time, we would like to introduce you to Windward Iowa.

Windward Iowa is a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting wind energy and infrastructure projects in Iowa and across the Midwest. They achieve this by providing education about the benefits of wind energy, and promoting growth in wind energy usage.

“We were formed to provide an unbiased source of information about wind energy,” said President Craig Lang. “We speak at events and meetings, talking to people about the benefits of wind energy.”

Iowa ended 2014 with over 5,700 MW of installed wind energy that accounts for 28.5% of the state’s electrical generation – more than any other state, and hundreds of jobs have been created. Wind energy is clean and effective, and turbine blades can be turned in as little as five miles per hour wind.

“Even though wind energy is abundant in Iowa, we are still realizing its true potential,” Lang said. “Wind energy has legitimate, positive economic and environmental impacts in Iowa. We use less water, we pay less for energy, we reduce our pollutants and we efficiently capture easily available energy.”

Lang wants to see the use of wind energy increase in future generations.

“We need to build for the future, to keep future generations of wind energy workers here in Iowa,” Lang said. “If we don’t stay competitive, our energy prices will rise, and the next generation of clean energy workers will leave Iowa.”

Windward Iowa joined the Council as a member organization last year.

“Our partnership with the Council helps spread our message and gives it credibility,” Lang said. “We know the Council has had many years of experience protecting the environment, and they will help us bring more wind energy to the state of Iowa.”

Blue-green algae blooms: stay informed, stay safe

Swimming was not advised at Rock Creek Lake on August 10 due to the presence of a harmful algae bloom.

Swimming was not advised at Rock Creek Lake in August 2013 due to the presence of an algae bloom.

UPDATE: As of Thursday, August 6, DNR has posted 23 beach advisories warning Iowans to stay out of the water at Iowa State Park Beaches due to high levels of microcystin, just one warning shy of the 24 warnings posted in 2013 – the most since DNR began monitoring for the toxin at State Park beaches in 2006. Warnings have been posted at 13 beaches, including five beaches brand new to the list.

Summer is in full swing, and many Iowans are heading to the state’s lakes to swim, paddle, relax and cool off with family and friends. However, many Iowans are being greeted by an unwelcome sight at their favorite swimming spots: toxic blue-green algae blooms.

This type of algae, caused by a combination of high levels of phosphorus pollution and increased temperatures can produce harmful microcystin toxins that can make people sick and be deadly for dogs, livestock and other animals.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has posted more than a dozen swimming advisories cautioning Iowans to stay out of the water at State Park beaches throughout Iowa so far this summer due to high microcystin levels. Included on this summer’s list are Lake Darling, Pine Lake, Red Haw Lake and Twin Lake West beaches – all first time toxic blue-green algae offenders.*

“The threats posed by toxic blue-green algae blooms are serious,” said Water Program Director Susan Heathcote. “Iowans need to be aware of this problem, the health risks, and know how to recognize and respond to toxic blue-green algae blooms.”

Toxic blue-green algae blooms create green, murky water, visible surface scum and a foul odor. The blooms can spread across the water but tend to accumulate in shoreline areas. Beach warnings are posted by the DNR when microcystin levels exceed 20 ug/liter, a guideline established by the World Health Organization. Contact with water at or above this level can result in breathing problems, upset stomach, skin reactions, and even liver damage. Inhaling water droplets containing toxic blue-green algae can cause runny eyes and nose, cough, sore throat, chest pain, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions.

After tracking microcystin poisoning cases in Iowa as part of a national pilot project, Iowa’s public health leaders recently announced plans to add “microcystin-toxin poisoning” to the list of conditions doctors must report to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

“To rid Iowa of toxic blue-green algae blooms and ensure our lakes are safe and healthy for our families and pets, we must improve our water quality and reduce phosphorus pollution caused by agricultural and urban runoff and wastewater treatment systems,” Heathcote said. “This pollution not only puts our health at risk, but also has negative economic impacts on communities that depend on lake tourism, as well as our environment.”

The DNR monitors 39 State Park beaches for microcystin on a weekly basis between Memorial Day and Labor Day, issues advisories and posts warning signs when conditions are unsafe for swimming. The weekly beach advisories can be found on their website. Last summer, the DNR posted 22 beach warnings for high levels of microcystin during the recreational season.

At this time, DNR only monitors State Park Beaches, so if you swim at other public or private beaches you need to be aware of the potential for toxic blue-green algae this time of year. Not all blue-green algae is toxic, but when in doubt, stay out of the water and call the DNR Beach Monitoring Hotline at 515-725-3434. If you think you or your pets may have been exposed to toxic blue-green algae, thoroughly wash it off with fresh water. If you or your pet are experiencing symptoms associated with high microcystin levels after suspected exposure, seek medical or veterinary care immediately.

Records showing State Park Beaches with documented Microcystin levels exceeding 20 ug/L dating back to 2006 are available on the Iowa Environmental Council’s website.