State auditor alleges Department of Natural Resources is violating air and water laws

By: - April 22, 2022 1:30 pm

The state auditor says Iowa Department of Natural Resources has not complied with a legal requirement to inventory the wetlands and marshes of each county and then designate which of those lands constitutes a “protected” area. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa DNR)

The state auditor says Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources is violating laws intended to protect the state’s air and water.

In a report issued this week, the Office of Auditor of State noted three provisions of Iowa law the DNR appears to be violating.

For example, the auditor says the DNR has not complied with a state law requiring it to create, and make appointments to, a compliance advisory panel that is mandated by the federal Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

That panel is to consist of two people appointed by the governor, four people appointed by the leadership of the Iowa Legislature, and the director of the DNR or their designee.

In response, the DNR admits none of those appointments have been made and the panel doesn’t exist.

By way of explanation, the DNR says only that “the requirements were established in the 1990 federal Clean Air Act amendments,” adding that it will convene the panel once the appointments are made — although it provided no timeline for doing so.

State Auditor Rob Sand appears on Iowa PBS’ “Iowa Press” on April , 2021. (Screenshot via Iowa PBS)

Auditor of State Rob Sand said Friday the DNR’s response appears to suggest that a long record of noncompliance with the 1990 requirements may be viewed by some in the DNR as sufficient reason to continue along that same path. “It’s certainly not something that means we are going to change our findings,” he said.

The auditor’s report also notes that the DNR is required by law to develop and implement a program for the acquisition of wetlands that result from the closure of agricultural drainage wells. The DNR, the auditor says, has never implemented such a program.

In response, the DNR says it “is always interested in working with willing landowners to restore wetlands … However, acquiring highly productive farmland, either by easement or fee simple, is very expensive. Additional sources of funding would be necessary for the successful implementation of this program.”

In addition, the auditor’s report says the DNR has not complied with a legal requirement to inventory the wetlands and marshes of each county and then designate which of those lands constitutes a “protected” area.

In response, the DNR says this program was never established “because the current federal regulations exceed the protection” offered by this specific requirement. The DNR adds that this provision of the law speaks only to “pothole-type wetlands,” rather than forested wetlands and sedge meadows.

The auditor’s report also makes note of the fact that the DNR mistakenly understated “unearned revenue” – a phrase that typically refers to legislative appropriations, as opposed to fees and fines – while overstating, by $356,000, the revenue it had collected from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In addition, the report points out that the Iowa Legislature appropriates “a significant amount of money” each year for the DNR’s Lake Restoration Program, but the annual reports of the Natural Resources Commission are inconsistent in the reporting of how that money is used.

To enhance transparency and public accountability, the auditor says, the DNR and the commission should develop a consistent method of reporting both the number of contracts awarded for lake restoration and the total dollar amounts associated with each project. The DNR has agreed with that recommendation.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.