Environmental, biofuels groups promise new work on issues after a mixed-bag legislative session

By: - May 21, 2021 5:43 pm

Emerson Bay beach, to the north of this area of West Okoboji Lake, has a swimming-not-recommended advisory this week due to bacteria levels. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The just-closed session of the Legislature brought a mixture of action and punting on agricultural and environmental issues ranging from water quality to the bottle bill.

Reactions were mixed.

Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig hailed the 10-year extension of a key water quality program that will mean more than $300 million in continued funding for conservation projects. But Reynolds’ far more ambitious spending plan in her sales-tax-based “Invest in Iowa Act” was shelved due to the pandemic’s disruption of businesses, a blow to environmental groups and others.

Lawmakers spent considerable time sloshing through potential changes to the decades-old bottle bill, then punted like so many before them. Grocers thought this might be the year they rid their stores of the grimy cans and bottles, but no. Redemption centers saw their hopes of their first pay raise since 1979 vanish.

Environmentalists pushed hard against proposals that would have forced many to drive miles to return the containers, and tried once again in vain to add the deposit to products that weren’t on the market when the bill passed.

“It is clear that there is desire for bottle bill reform from multiple sides, but a solution must uphold the importance of making it easy and appealing to recycle,” said Ingrid Gronstal, Iowa Environmental Council water program director. “Iowa became a national leader in recycling when the bottle bill was first passed, and it would be shameful to backpedal on that legacy.”

Reynolds attempted to appease a strong lobby, biofuels interests and farmers, by moving to establish biofuels standards that would have forced convenience stores and other outlets to sell a higher blend of biofuels. But that got her, and lawmakers, in a squabble with another strong lobby — the oil companies, convenience stores and truck stops

In the end, lawmakers put the nozzle back on the pump and went home without changing anything. 

Naig expects more debate next session. “Our country is at a critical juncture when it comes to low carbon, renewable energy,” the agriculture secretary said in a statement. “Iowa’s ethanol and biodiesel industries can be part of the solution and Iowa must continue leading those conversations. While I am disappointed that we weren’t able to see this bill cross the finish line, I am hopeful that we can continue these conversations in the interim and find a meaningful path forward next session.”

Early in the session, state Rep. Brent Siegrist, R-Council Bluffs, proposed tapping gambling revenues for $3 million in each of the next three years to help the Iowa Department of Natural Resources address an estimated $12 million in backlogged repairs and improvements.

That didn’t make it through, but lawmakers did give DNR an extra $1 million for parks, in addition to letting the agency use $1 million of the $12 million appropriation for the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program, (REAP) for the facilities. 

In an interview, Siegrist said he knew his proposal wouldn’t advance after the pandemic lowered casino revenues that would have helped pay for the work. But he said many lawmakers liked the proposal, similar to one in the 1990s that provided $4 million a year. 

“I will push this pretty hard next year,” Siegrist said in an interview Friday. “It’s the right thing to do.”

He added the parks have seen heavy use during the pandemic, as Iowans looked for ways to get out of the house for safe recreation.  

Here’s a look at some of the big issues:

Water quality

Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig noted the extension of a key state program will mean $320 million in added funding through 2039. Much of that will involve paying farmers for projects that conserve soil and reduce chemical runoff but also provide wildlife habitat and in some cases, recreation, Naig said. 

To put that figure into perspective, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the voluntary outline of recommendations adopted in 2013 that is the backbone of Iowa’s water quality efforts, was expected to cost $77 million to $1.2 billion a year. That included work on sewage treatment plants. 

Adjusted for inflation, that would be $89.3 million to $1.4 billion.

The Iowa Environmental Council has reported that of the $500 million spent in Iowa in some recent years on federal conservation programs and other work that might help water quality, just $17 million was directly focused on the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. 

Iowa is one of the top sources of farm-related pollution that the U.S. Geological Survey calls the main cause of a season dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana and Texas. That area includes one of the nation’s most lucrative shrimping areas, but it is largely lifeless when fertilizer-fed algae bloom, then consume most of the oxygen when they die.

State lawmakers this year also approved $9.6 million to restore lakes silted in and polluted by farm runoff and storm sewers — a status quo budget.

The nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council had hoped for more action on water quality. 

“We were frustrated that Invest in Iowa was tabled this year under the premise that the Legislature would be tackling more pressing COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, only to have the Legislature focus on divisive and destructive issues that appeal only to their base,”  said Gronstal, the water program director. 

The council will lobby during the off season for support for sustainable water quality funding. “It is embarrassing that Iowa has gone this long without stepping up to fund water quality and conservation efforts that a supermajority of Iowans support,” Gronstal added. 

Biofuels standards

Reynolds wanted to force a phase-in of higher blends of biodiesel and ethanol, and to change a state grant program to promote the shift. Stations would have only been able to sell lower blends at one pump per site after Jan. 1, 2025. 

Agriculture and biofuels interests supported the move as a boon for Iowa, the top producer of corn and ethanol in the country. They noted that biofuels sales are higher as a percentage in other states, which import much of Iowa’s ethanol. 

Critics, including convenience store chains and the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said switch would be expensive, push sales to other states, and interfere with businesses’ ability to make their own decisions. 

Ronald Langston, FUELIowa president and CEO, said the debate is likely to continue.

“Fuel retailers have never wavered in supporting the growth of renewable fuels,” Langston said. “We seek the opportunity to work collaboratively on a comprehensive approach that avoids picking winners and losers, and instead reaches a solution that supports our fuel infrastructure, the businesses that sell these fuels, and the consumers who depend on them every day.”

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said the pandemic kept many farmers and other ethanol supporters from lobbying in person at the Statehouse in a debate he said featured misinformation at times. He expects another lively discussion next year. 

“I expect another robust push,” Shaw said. “I like our chances.”

Kerri Johannsen, Iowa Environmental Council energy program director, said it’s time to plan the transition for fuel industries under pressure from President Joe Biden and others who want to switch to electric vehicles.

“There is a need for Iowa to start to focus on innovation in the biofuels sector and to think about what is next for our ag-energy industry,” Johannsen said. “Larger structural changes are happening in the auto industry. We can benefit from that shift but we have to stop letting the fossil fuel industry call the shots. We need to get to work to find Iowa’s next big idea to prosper from this transition on our own terms and invest in making it happen.”

Testing for PFAS

Though the Iowa Department of Natural Resources plans to test dozens of high-risk locations for toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in coming months, Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, proposed Senate File 22 to require the testing of major water supplies serving Iowa’s 25 most populous cities. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have a mandatory drinking water study for the chemicals, which have been used in a wide range of food-container coatings and fire retardants and are a growing environmental concern. The chemicals, associated with cancers and other illnesses, have been found in the Des Moines and Quad Cities water supplies and in wells near the Cedar Rapids airport

The bill stalled in a subcommittee. 

Local regulations on natural gas sales

Lawmakers passed House File 555, banning local governments from regulating national gas sales. The Iowa Environmental Council saw it as a slap at Iowa’s fast-growing renewable energy industry, and a mystery. Reynolds signed the bill.

“This bill was part of a national effort by the gas industry to protect their market and drive new investments in fossil fuel infrastructure that are expensive and will soon be outdated,” said Johannsen. “The easy passage of this bill was frankly confusing. Iowa is a clean energy state — we don’t have propane and gas resources here. Why offer them this type of protection?”

Forest tax credits

The Legislature considered several bills that would have made it harder to get tax credits for donating or preserving forest. All were shelved.

“Especially following last year’s derecho and the devastating loss of trees that resulted, there should be more incentives for tree planting, not fewer,” Gronstal said. “In 2020 alone, nearly 3,500 acres across Iowa were permanently protected through charitable donations of land or land value for conservation. This includes land that will become parks, trails, and wildlife areas as well as private land that is permanently protected for agricultural uses, wildlife habitat, and scenic beauty. Conservation land and Iowa’s forests are vital to protecting Iowa’s water and preserving soil health.”

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.