State senator contacted DNR about his son-in-law’s controversial cattle operation near trout stream

Bloody Run Creek in Clayton County is a trout stream with special protection from the state. (Photo courtesy of Larry Stone)

An Iowa state senator contacted state environmental officials on behalf of his son-in-law’s controversial plan to raise cattle near a Clayton County trout stream.

Sen. Dan Zumbach, R-Ryan, contacted the Iowa Department of Natural Resources on behalf of Supreme Beef, email records show. The company on April 5 won state approval of its plan to spread manure from 11,600 animals on fields near Bloody Run Creek in the Monona area. 

One of the company’s principals, Jared Walz, is married to Zumbach’s daughter, Chelsea.

Iowa Sen. Dan Zumbach is a Republican from Ryan. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

Supreme Beef has been building cattle buildings in an area that is prone to groundwater pollution. Environmentalists across the state have fought the plan. Many have questioned DNR’s calculations on how much manure can be spread on farm fields in the area without contaminating waterways.

After deliberations that started as early as 2017, DNR now has approved two different versions of the operation. The same agency since 2018 twice has fined Supreme Beef $10,000 for construction-related water pollution that included high levels of ammonia that can kill fish.

The state stocks rainbow and brook trout in Bloody Run, and the stream has wild brown trout. 

Zumbach, a farmer, is a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee. He also is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

In an interview, Zumbach said he helped his son-in-law in the same way he helps other constituents, by helping them work through the state bureaucracy.

“Jared was having trouble navigating,” Zumbach said. “A lot of people do. It’s complicated. As legislators, we often get calls from constituents asking for help navigating.”

Zumbach said he didn’t pressure DNR to take any specific action.

“The results are always between the DNR and the client,” Zumbach said. “I am just helping my constituents navigate DNR. It doesn’t matter what their name is. I just make the connections. DNR wants people in compliance, and I appreciate that.”

DNR records refer to preparations for a meeting with Zumbach in July 2017. On Oct. 2, 2020, after DNR staffers told Supreme Beef it could limit its operation to 2,750 animals or withdraw the application, company consultant Becky Sexton of Twin Lakes Environmental Services wrote to DNR field office staffer Brian Jergenson on behalf of Supreme Beef.

Sexton is another connection to the Iowa Legislature for the company. She and her husband, Rep. Mike Sexton, R-Rockwell City, founded Twin Lakes. Rep. Sexton is on the House environmental protection and agriculture committees, and served on the Iowa Cattlemen’s Association board.

“After your phone call earlier today to advise we had two options, either withdraw our application or be denied by the DNR, Jared Walz and I have had many lengthy discussions,” Becky Sexton wrote in an email. “He ultimately spoke with his state senator, Dan Zumbach, who made a call to Kayla Lyons (sic) about this site. She said he could apply for 2750 head at this time and apply for the remaining number in the future. How long must we wait to apply for the remaining 8,900 head?” 

Kayla Lyon is DNR director.

Supreme Beef won approval for a smaller operation last year. The company applied to increase the number of animals and the manure volume this year. That plan was approved after DNR received dozens of communications in opposition to the development, which the Walz family has said will help the local economy.

Trout stream has special state protection

DNR has classified Bloody Run as an Outstanding Iowa Water, which means it must be protected under Iowa law. Agricultural operations are generally not allowed to discharge to Iowa waterways. 

DNR spokesman Alex Murphy said Zumbach asked agency representatives general questions about rules and procedures, and the application was handled normally.

“The discussion between Sen. Zumbach and Director Lyon was a general inquiry about the (nutrient management plan) and DNR’s review process,” Murphy said. “DNR staff worked closely with Twin Lakes Environmental Services on the nuances of the (plan), the same as the DNR does with every other entity that submits a plan,” he added.

Murphy said the nutrient management plan submitted last year was approved after the number of animals and the area where manure would be spread both were reduced. DNR approved 2,700 cattle instead of the 11,600-animal capacity requested. At full capacity, the facility is expected to produce 34 million gallons of manure per year.

When Supreme Beef submitted a new plan in February asking for a sharp increase in the size of the cattle herd and the area where manure would be spread, the new plan also was approved after field staff review, Murphy said. DNR declared a couple of fields off limits due to their proximity to the trout streams.

Environmental groups consider new actions

Michael Schmidt, staff attorney for the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council, said his organization continues to mull its next move. 

“We’ve heard from some of our members, including several near the facility, who are frustrated with the outcome and the limited review allowed under the law,” Schmidt said. 

Sierra Club lawyer Wallace Taylor said his organization “will consider all possibilities for future action.”

Jess Mazour, Sierra Club’s conservation program coordinator, accused the state of protecting farm interests more than the environment. 

“This was a done deal the minute the application was submitted.,” Mazour said. “We’re sick and tired of our state elected and appointed officials colluding with the factory farm industry to make sure they get what they want, when they want it, how they want it, despite existing rules and regulations. The DNR should work for the people of Iowa and the environment — not the factory farm industry” she added.