State senator: Water trails should wait for livestock confinement moratorium

Iowa Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, tells a Statehouse rally that new construction of livestock confinements should be halted while the state sorts out public health issues. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa State Sen. Claire Celsi, D-West Des Moines, on Thursday said a proposed moratorium on construction of animal confinements in Iowa should be in place before Des Moines and other communities install whitewater courses and other recreational attractions in the state’s heavily polluted rivers.

Celsi appeared at a rally in the Statehouse rotunda organized by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement,  Food & Water Action, and Iowa Alliance for Responsible Agriculture. More than 100 were on hand, carrying signs, chanting “enough is enough” and singing. 

“Des Moines civic leaders are promoting an ambitious water trails plan that would encourage Iowans to use the bountiful waterways of our state and would entice recreational activities along rivers and streams in our state,” Celsi said. She was referring to a $100 million-plus plan in central Iowa, and plans in other parts of the state, to create whitewater kayaking courses, swimming areas, and canoeing and fishing spots. 

“In concept, I’m in favor of those long-term plans to better utilize our bodies of water, she added.

State Sen. Claire Celsi is a Democrat from West Des Moines. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Legislature)

But Celsi said many waterways need to be cleaned before thousands of people take a dip. And a moratorium on expansions and construction of new livestock confinements would be a good place to start, she said. 

“Today, I stand with like-minded individuals and groups in our state to (call for a ban on) new animal confinements in our state until serious issues can be worked out. We must figure out a way to impress upon our business and civic leaders that none of their water trail plans make sense without first fixing the problem of our dirty, polluted water,” Celsi said. 

“This is the first logical step in improving quality of life of all Iowa communities, cleaning up our water and paving the way for future recreational development of our waterways,” she added.

Celsi said she sees growing support for a moratorium, which her House colleague, Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City, introduced as a companion bill, House File 203, last year. 

“I sponsored along with others a moratorium bill in the Senate (Senate File 518),” which she plans to push again, Celsi said. “Since then, I feel our momentum has gained, both in the level of support around the state and the number of lawmakers speaking out. And, most importantly, in the scientists who are sounding the alarm on the ag runoff and bacteria that are fouling our water.” 

Steckman, speaking at the rally, noted that last year, the American Public Health Association called for a nationwide moratorium on concentrated animal feeding operations.

State Rep. Sharon Steckman, D-Mason City. Photo courtesy of Iowa Legislature

Steckman said the confinements pose a threat to drinking water, air quality and to human health.

CCI has long fought to limit construction, especially of large-scale hog confinements, contending the operations are a threat to neighbors’ health and a nuisance. The nonprofit has an active lawsuit against the state of Iowa that calls for the moratorium, and new regulation of farm-related pollution. The state’s motion to dismiss, denied by Polk County District Court, is now pending at the Iowa Supreme Court.  

Republican leaders who control the House and Senate have long resisted even a debate on a moratorium, stressing what they see as the need to support one of Iowa’s economically important industries. They also have turned aside years of attempts to strengthen local control of confinement siting, relying on a controversial system that lets local county officials comment on applications for permits, but leaves the final decision entirely to state officials.

Eldon McAfee, lawyer for the Iowa Pork Producers Association, said his organization is opposed to a moratorium. Pork producers consider a moratorium unnecessary and a potential blow to the economy, McAfee said.

“IPPA is obviously and absolutely opposed to any moratorium on building new or expanding confinement operations,” McAfee said in an interview. “We have had extensive regulations in place since 1995 that properly regulate siting and construction,” he added.

McAfee said state rules set standards for concrete used in the manure storage facilities, govern how far animal buildings are from neighbors’ homes, and control how manure is spread on land.

“Those regulations have been followed and a moratorium would be devastating to agriculture and to Iowa’s economy,” McAfee said. He added that the pork association regularly finances research to study potential air and water quality issues related to livestock operations.