A citizens' action group filed a complaint Tuesday accusing Iowa environmental officials of failing to closely review waste-management reports about how farms spread manure as fertilizer, saying the operations are leaving out law-mandated information.
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement alleges that numerous farms haven't submitted reports, meaning millions of gallons of manure may be unaccounted for. The group said some reports have missing pages, while others indicate that multiple farmers are dumping manure on the same field in violation of state laws designed to prevent over-application that could lead to water pollution.
The reports are intended to outline how farms plan to handle manure, including operations that can produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of manure each year. Statewide, about 9,000 large-scale commercial livestock farms produce an estimated 10 billion gallons of liquid manure annually.
Department of Natural Resources officials questioned some of the group's allegations, including that so many reports haven't been submitted, but said they would fully review the complaint.
"Water quality is something that is very important to us and it's certainly important to Iowans and we regulate that based on our legal authority as best we can," DNR Director Chuck Gipp said.
Members of the Des Moines-based group met for an hour in a public meeting with top officials from the agency, which is responsible for regulating livestock manure and water quality.
"It's clear that the DNR is failing to monitor where livestock confinement manure is being spread," said Jess Mazour, a community organizer with Iowa CCI. "No one knows but the person turning the nozzle how much manure is actually going on some of these fields. They're just dumping it to get rid of it instead of tracking it as a benefit for the soil and crops."
Iowa is the nation's leading hog producer, with roughly 21 million hogs. The state also has millions of egg-laying chickens, in addition to cattle and sheep farms. The plentiful supply of manure, which is rich in nitrogen and phosphorous, also is a reason why Iowa leads the nation in corn production.
However, applying more manure than the plants can use results in those nutrients washing into lakes and streams, causing algae blooms that can be toxic to animals and humans, and nitrate levels exceeding safe levels for drinking water. Both problems have hit Iowa in record levels in the past few years.
Iowa CCI obtained manure management plans for five Iowa counties — Adair, Boone, Dallas, Guthrie and Sac — and reviewed the plans for accuracy and completeness.
The five counties have 325 farms large enough to require a manure management plan, but the group found no plans for 92 farms. That alone means the DNR has no way of knowing where up to 90 million gallons of manure went, the group said.
Ken Hessenius, a DNR field office supervisor, said he was confident that many plans were not missing and that the group's list may include farms not required to file a plan.
Iowa CCI also found multiple instances of fields listed as receiving manure from multiple livestock farmers. But Hessenius said he knew of no instances where farmers were double applying manure on the same field, which would be illegal. He acknowledged, however, that it was impossible to monitor every farmer in every field.
Barb Kalbach, an Iowa CCI member who farms with her husband about 40 miles west of Des Moines, is troubled by the lack of discussion about large hog farms and when Iowa soil would no longer be able to absorb the farms' manure. DNR records show permit applications for new or expanded facilities has exceeded 300 a year for the past five years.
"Doesn't anyone question where the lid is on this?"Kalbach said. "There has to be a point where this is too much."