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It’s likely to be status quo for environmental policy

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It’s likely to be status quo for environmental policy

Some chance in Legislature for ‘moving smaller pieces forward’

For 12 years, Iowans have been waiting for the state Legislature to finance the Natural Resources & Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, a sales-tax supported fund for clean water, productive agricultural soil and thriving wildlife habitat.

Despite 63 percent approval from voters in a 2010 referendum, the Iowa Legislature has not yet voted to raise the sales tax by three-eighths of a cent to fill the trust fund. And it’s not likely to happen again when the next legislative session begins next week.

“Nobody is in favor of a sales tax,” said Rep. Robert Bacon, R-Slater, who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee.

However, one of goals of the Republican-led state Senate is to do away with state income tax. If that were to happen this year or in an upcoming session, the possibility of replacing the lost revenue through higher fees or an increase in the sales tax could be open for discussion.

“If we phase out income tax, my opinion is we’re going to have to raise the sales tax. If we do, three-eighths cent would go toward iWill,” Bacon said, referring to the Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, a coalition working toward filling the trust fund.

Bacon doesn’t want to raise the sales tax because it disproportionately harms low-income people, but he knows many Republicans want to end income tax and return some of the state’s $1.2 billion surplus to Iowans.

But there are other options for supporting Iowa’s environment, Bacon said.

Soil health

“I know we need to look at soil quality,” he said.

Healthy soil retains more water, which reduces the risks of flooding, has more microbes that “feed” plants and is less prone to erosion. Planting cover crops and reducing tillage can improve soil health and improve water quality.

The Iowa House considered legislation last year that would have added “soil health” to the list of projects that could get grants from soil and water conservation districts.

House File 646 originally also included a tax of 6.75 cents per $1,000 assessed value for water quality projects in line with Iowa’s goal of reducing nitrate and phosphorus flowing from farm fields into streams, lakes and groundwater, the Capitol Dispatch reported. That language was stripped and the bill stalled.

The 2022 Legislative session, which starts Monday in Des Moines, may revisit this bill or others related to soil health, said Ingrid Gronstal, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council.

“There are some opportunities for moving smaller pieces forward,” Gronstal said. “Soil health is something of bipartisan interest.”

There are some concerns among environmental interests soil health legislation could seek to route state or federal money to updating underground drainage tile, which can whisk polluted water to lakes and streams.

State parks

Despite a record 16.6 million visits to Iowa’s state parks in 2020, the state park system has lost park rangers and state funding remains flat, IowaWatch reported.

The ranger force — down to 35 from 55 in 1995 — is now one ranger for every 474,286 park visits, compared to the 1995 ratio of 1 to 217,700.

Park rangers lead hikes and help campers, but they also are sworn law enforcement officers who deal with hunting, fishing and trapping violations, as well as operation of boats, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles.

After the August 2020 derecho, Eastern Iowa park rangers helped clear debris to get parks reopened to the public.

Bacon said he will be lobbying for four or five more rangers.

“We need a lot more law enforcement officers in the parks,” Bacon said.

Enforcement

Gronstal said she’d like to see the Iowa Department of Natural Resources put more money toward enforcement, permitting and monitoring to make sure animal-feeding operations and other companies are not allowing manure and chemicals to get into lakes, streams and groundwater.

The Iowa DNR investigated eight fish kills through August this year and recently levied a $270,000 fine for a 2020 fertilizer spill that killed hundreds of fish and mussels in a creek near Dubuque.

“We really support the regulatory agency for the staff to have enough resources to ensure environment health and public safety,” Gronstal said.

Coal plants

Iowa has nine remaining coal plants, major contributors to greenhouse gases that cause climate change. The Environmental Council would like to see the Legislature require utility companies to have an integrated resource plan that shows how they plan to supply energy in the next 10, 20 or even 50 years.

“They really need to tell their customers, regulators and others what their plan is to deal with their remaining coal fleet,” said Kerri Johannsen, the Environmental Council’s energy program director

Bacon said utilities are welcome to make long-range plans, but he doesn’t think the Legislature will require it.

“Right now, the Legislature is not in favor of mandates,” he said. “And that would be a mandate.”

Renewable energy

Iowa generates 58 percent of its electricity from wind, the largest share of any state in the country. Some utility-scale solar projects also have been built in Iowa, but there has been conflict over other projects going forward.

The Linn County Planning & Zoning Commission recommended a veto on a 750-acre solar farm west of Coggon based, in part, on opposition from neighbors. The Linn County Board of Supervisors will consider the project in January.

The Environmental Council doesn’t want lawmakers to pass state rules for siting solar project. “We wouldn’t want to see any kind of blanket prohibitions that would make it a lot harder to build renewable energy in Iowa,” Johannsen said.

Bacon also favors local control on solar.

“Right next door to the funeral home I used to own, the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) just put in a big building with solar panels. It doesn’t interfere,” Bacon said. “Local control on that is fine.”

Digesters

The Legislature in May passed a bill allowing animal-feeding operations to exceed animal capacity if they install an anaerobic digester to process manure. Since then, nine Iowa dairies have applied for digester permits.

Both Gronstal and Johannsen expect more bills in 2022 to make it easier and more affordable for farmers to open digesters, multimillion dollar systems that convert manure and food waste into methane, which then can be changed into electricity and heat.

The leftover digestate, which doesn’t smell like manure, can be applied to farm fields.

“Digesters can potentially have some water quality benefits,” Gronstal said. “That’s not a technology that’s going to be widespread. Other technology can get better bang for your buck on water quality.”

Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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