Former head of DNR’s livestock program opposes cattle barns near trout stream

By: - June 29, 2021 9:18 pm

Environmental groups continue to fight a cattle operation planned near a trout stream in northeast Iowa. (Photo by Michael Yero via Unsplash)

The former director of Iowa’s livestock regulation program on Tuesday said a proposed 11,000-animal cattle operation near a northeast Iowa trout stream should have been built somewhere else.

Gene Tinker, who lost his job in what the Iowa Department of Natural Resources called budget cuts in 2017, said the state’s approval of the Supreme Beef cattle feedlot near Monona has illustrated widespread problems with siting and manure management regulations.

“It shows the vast hole we have in our regulations,” Tinker said. His criticism of the system was echoed by a University of Iowa professor, a UI research engineer and the president of Iowa’s Coldwater Conservancy.

Tinker was the state’s animal feeding operations coordinator from 2003 until 2017, when he was fired. He spoke at a webinar arranged by Iowa Environmental Council and Sierra Club, two nonprofit organizations that have opposed the cattle operation in an area known to be susceptible to groundwater pollution. They are trying to stop the operation before the cattle arrive.

Former DNR official: ‘I totally disagree …’

“We mistakenly think we have to accept every proposal put forward by ag to support the economy in our state,” Tinker said. “I am not opposed to an operation of this size, but I certainly feel the location is misplaced. We’ve got lots of good places in this state to grow the livestock industry, but people seem to think any place there’s an open spot is a good place for a barn. I totally disagree with that.”

Not your average environmental fight

This has not been a typical environmental fight in Iowa. Bloody Run Creek, the trout stream near the cattle operation, supports the natural reproduction of trout, which favor clean, cold waters.

The creek is clean enough that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the agency being criticized for approving the cattle operation, years ago declared Bloody Run an “outstanding Iowa water.” That designation, given to about 35 waterways in the state, is supposed to require extra protection. 

The case has gone far beyond the usual accusations from environmental groups that DNR, an agency designed to protect the environment, has taken actions that seemed to favor the needs of the regulated industry more than those of the landscape, in the view of critics. DNR is run by a political appointee of a Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, who counts among her biggest financial supporters executives of some of the state’s most prominent livestock and crop farming companies.

A prominent state lawmaker is related to one of the principals in the cattle operation at issue, and contacted Lyon about the case. Another legislator’s private company was working with DNR on the details of the plans for the feedlot, which some compare to confinement operations.

Critics have said the state miscalculated the amount of phosphorus that would be applied to farm fields, threatening to feed algae blooms that at times could harbor toxins that can make people sick and kill dogs.

Sierra Club has said it is considering a lawsuit after DNR turned aside several attempts to get the cattle farms’ approval reversed.

‘Discretionary rule’

Tinker worked for former DNR director Jeff Vonk, who asked for and got a new rule giving him the discretion to review approvals of some confinements. That’s the “discretionary rule” that current director Lyon declined to use to reconsider the Supreme Beef approval decision after environmentalists requested the review.

Lyon’s staff has maintained Supreme Beef worked to meet state rules. They note that the state declined to let the cattle operation spread manure on two of the fields closest to the trout stream.

Tinker said the state let Supreme Beef build the cattle facility, then considered the manure management plan. “Now we’re in a really bad spot because those barns have been built … Our law is backwards where it’s build it, and you will later be approved,” Tinker said.

Chris Jones, a water quality authority at the University of Iowa, said the terrain is so delicate in northeast Iowa, where fractured bedrock is common, that it would be best if no one raised livestock, corn or soybeans in the area.

“What we know with almost a certainty is that (nitrogen and phosphorus) pollution in these livestock-dense watersheds is higher than it is in other places,” Jones said.

Sylvia Secchi, an associate professor in UI’s Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences, said, “We need to restructure the system so we bring back animals together on the landscape,” rather than in feedlots or confinements.

Secchi supported local control of confinement locations, something state lawmakers have strongly opposed for years. In fact, state lawmakers have passed legislation to make it clear the state, not counties, will site the facilities. They have declined to debate changes in a system that allows counties to evaluate confinement proposals, but not block them.

Tom Murray, president of the Iowa Coldwater Conservancy, which protects Iowa’s coldwater trout streams, said the Supreme Beef case has driven home the point that Iowans’ rights are endangered.

“Clean water is a right for all Iowa citizens and that must be protected at all costs,” Murray said. “I think what it boils down to is we have to make some changes in our Legislature or the leadership of our state government.”

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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.