Iowa has met the goals it established with the federal government two years ago to improve enforcement of manure management on livestock farms, the state Department of Natural Resources told environmental regulators in a recent report.
The environmental activist group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, however, challenged that assertion Friday, saying increased water pollution in rivers and lakes shows significant problems remain with manure spills and runoff from farms.
The DNR filed its required annual progress report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Aug. 1. The report is mandated under a work plan negotiated with the EPA and signed on Sept. 11, 2013.
"All major objectives and requirements of the Work Plan have been completed on time and as agreed," the DNR said in the report.
The EPA investigated Iowa's environmental regulation of livestock farms after Iowa CCI and other environmental groups filed a 2007 petition seeking to revoke the DNR's authority to enforce the federal Clean Water Act in Iowa and have the EPA step in.
The EPA negotiated with the state on the work plan that required the Iowa DNR to enact stricter rules for manure management, improve the construction permit process and create an inspection regimen that ensured livestock farms were reviewed regularly.
The DNR said it has evaluated 41 percent of the 8,582 livestock farms in Iowa requiring oversight in two years, exceeding the promised 20 percent inspection rate per year.
The DNR has documented 99 manure spills in Iowa, mostly from hog farms, since the work plan was signed in 2013 but the agency still hasn't required any hog farms to get a permit.
"DNR hasn't shown that it takes permitting seriously, and EPA should step in and conduct independent investigations of Iowa manure spills," said Jess Mazour, farm and environment organizer for Iowa CCI.
Permits would require farmers to maintain equipment to prevent accidents and impose increased fines and other penalties when spills occur.
Iowa CCI has long pushed the DNR to issue Clean Water Act permits for hog farms but the state agency's spokesman, Kevin Baskins, said EPA rules say the state cannot require permits for farms that make permanent repairs to fix manure leaks.
"We can understand the frustration people may have but they have to understand what our legal limitations are," Baskins said. "A lot of times we're being asked do things above and beyond what law allows us to do."
He said there have been 17 manure leaks so far this year, which is a small percentage considering the total number of livestock farms.
Iowa's 20 million hogs produce an estimated 10 billion gallons of manure a year, and millions of chickens and cows add even more. The state's 13 million acres of corn requires abundant commercial fertilizer or manure spread on fields to get needed nitrogen for full development. Yet, the nutrients can dissolve into rivers, causing high nitrate levels. It also can end up in lakes, contributing to toxic algae blooms.
The state currently has more than 725 waterways listed by the EPA as impaired, a 15 percent increase in two years.
The DNR posted a record number of beach advisories this summer urging people to stay out of the water because of toxic algae, and some rivers have recently posted their highest-ever nitrate levels. Both conditions are caused in large part by excess farm nutrient runoff.