A new Iowa clean water rule designed to increase inspections of livestock farms and provide stricter enforcement when manure spills pollute waterways is now in effect, after more than a year of hearings and deliberations by government agencies.
The new rule, supported by farm groups, took effect Wednesday. It establishes new inspection and permit processes for livestock farms but does not impose mandatory permits for farms that repeatedly spill manure, a measure some environmental groups wanted.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources signed a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September 2013 to develop the new rule. They struck the deal after the EPA threatened to take over federal Clean Water Act enforcement if the state didn't toughen its enforcement.
The EPA investigated Iowa's practices after three environmental groups — Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Environmental Integrity Project and the Sierra Club Iowa Chapter — petitioned the EPA in September 2007 to revoke Iowa's authority to manage livestock farms and their impact on water.
The EPA determined Iowa DNR was failing to adequately inspect farms, wasn't levying fines for violators and wasn't issuing permits to polluters.
The federal agency signed off on the state's new rule, which went through public hearings, approval of the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission and a legislative rules committee.
Environmental groups said the new rule gives the DNR too much latitude in deciding when to issue permits, which would impose stricter guidelines on livestock operations and could force them to close if they repeatedly spill.
"We're finding that DNR is still failing at these things today," said Barbara Lang, a retired teacher from Des Moines and member of Iowa CCI, a citizen action environmental group.
Lang said the number of impaired lakes, rivers and streams in Iowa is increasing.
"Something is wrong here," she said. "We now have over 20 million hogs and there's only so much you can do with the billions of gallons of manure they produce. It's getting into our water."
The DNR said its new rule largely adopts a federal rule because the Legislature bars the agency from approving anything more stringent than federal law.
More than 60 manure spills have been reported in the past year, including 11 since Sept. 1. One from a Guthrie County cattle feedlot dumped more than 200,000 gallons of liquid manure onto fields and possibly into a ditch. Another dairy farm spill in northwest Iowa killed more than 860,000 fish when manure flowed into Mill Creek. The farm has been ordered to pay more than $160,000.
Fines and other actions have been taken against some farms with recent spills, said DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins.
"Others are still under investigation and we haven't gotten to the stage yet to determine the appropriate enforcement actions," Baskins said. "There's a process that has to work here to be fair to everybody."
He said the new rule could lead to additional clean water permits but it depends on individual cases. If farm operators make repairs that prevent further manure discharges, a permit usually isn't required.
"It's not as simple as just requiring every facility to get a permit," he said.
Iowa, the nation's leading corn, pork and egg producer, struggles with managing the waste generated by 60 million chickens, 20 million pigs, 9 million turkeys and 4 million cows.
Three members of Iowa CCI including Lang filed a lawsuit in August in Polk County District Court against the state environmental commission, seeking to overturn the new rule. The state filed a motion to dismiss last month but a judge hasn't ruled on it.