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Lawmakers, look at what you've done to rural Iowa

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David Johnson, guest columnist

Let’s take a trip through the Eastern Iowa countryside, shall we? Don’t forget the picnic basket! I’ll bring the road map and yeah, I’m a guy, but I’ll ask for directions if we get lost on the gravel roads.

We motor toward the rolling hills of southeast Iowa County, to the Century Farm where Gary Nester and his wife plan to retire. We can spread the checkered tablecloth right here in the shade of this flowering crab tree and within reach of blooming orange impatiens in their front yard.

But we don’t stay long enough to pass the potato salad. The east wind carries a discomforting odor. Flies, yes there are flies. What really prompts the packing away of our outdoor picnic plans are the neighbors.

Pigs, 2,400 squealing pigs split between two hog confinements, each housing about 1,200 head, each building about 750 feet away. “We can hear (the squeals) inside the house,” Gary says.

Earlier in the day, our trip started in Washington County. There was a rumor that reached us and we had to see it for ourselves. There stood another 1,200-head confinement squeezed into a hole just 174 feet from a house owned by another farm family.

Marjorie Van Winkle of nearby Brighton is a retired farmwife and unabashed rural activist. She is quick to note that Washington County is home to 22,000 residents and 1 million hogs. She wanted us to see the Big Squeeze. The pork producer, she muttered, lives a couple miles away.

“Who ever heard of putting one of these 174 feet from someone’s bedroom window?” she asked. “What are they thinking?”

What Van Winkle, the Nesters and so many other rural Iowans are learning is that it’s all legal. A minimum separation distance of 1,250 feet would apply with 1,250 or more animals. The larger the unit, the more separation distance required.

But a hog confinement of fewer than 1,250 head --- defined under state law as an animal feeding operation, or AFO --- can be built and operated without regard to its distance from another person’s home or business; from a church or school; or from a park, preserve or other public-use area.

There’s more. An AFO needs no manure management plan (MMP). No concrete standards when located in porous topography (for example, karst areas as found in northeast Iowa). No notice requirements in counties with zoning ordinances. And no notice of intent to build to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

On the other hand, an AFO must meet distance requirements from drinking water sources and wetlands. No manure can be discharged to a water of the state from an AFO, but that’s true of all livestock operations in Iowa, regardless of size.

There’s apparently a new industry standard for pork producers: Get under the regulations and rules. Do the least required. Build smaller, build more.

Hardin County is already Hog Heaven, yet our drive from Iowa County showed the smaller units are going up there, too. Barb and Bob Havens of Eldora had extended an invitation to drop by. We found their driveway, located directly across from a 1,200-head unit under construction, and marveled at their home surrounded by woodlands near Upper Pine Lake.

There was time to accept their suggestion to see the public beach at Pine Lake State Park. There’s sand. There’s algae, often related to high phosphorus levels tied to soil erosion. And there’s the “Water Quality Advisory” posted warning of recent high readings of E. coli bacteria. “Swim at own risk,” the sign states clearly.

A couple millennials in swimsuits sat in the shade nearby. Sarah Smith of Mason City came to swim while her husband competed in an Iowa Bowhunters Association event elsewhere in the park. She and her friend, Leah Peterson, didn’t go near the water.

“We have seen a dozen families with children come and turn around and go back,” Smith said.

“More than that,” Peterson chimed in.

“This is gross,” Smith added. “The last time we were here, it wasn’t that bad.”

Too many hogs, too much manure in the Pine Lake watershed? If not manure, farmers would use commercial fertilizer. Still, we left with many questions after also learning that a $2 million watershed project to clean up Pine Lake and the Iowa River is threatened by — you guessed it — a hog confinement one animal below a tougher set of state rules and regulations.

On the return trip home we were reminded of a similar “fact-finding,” “got to see it to believe it” visit to scenic Allamakee in June. Near Lansing, in a valley at the end of a dead-end gravel road, bulldozers, concrete mixers and backhoes will spring up as early as this week to build a confinement that state regulators say should not be placed there. Under current law, those regulators are powerless to stop it. The confinement falls in the category of being below the threshold of stricter rules and regs.

Neighbors and area residents, environmental experts and DNR director Chuck Gipp have publicly stated their opposition to the confinement location, which is upstream from naturally reproducing trout, a Bible camp and a $3.3 million visitor center to showcase the unique natural features of the area, including its geologic history.

Such as karst topography, a porous bedrock that underlies this area of Allamakee County. Think karst, think sinkholes — we saw two of them not far from the confinement site. Sinkholes can appear nearly anywhere at any time. Overnight last Tuesday, five inches of rain sent streams near the site out of their banks.

The confinement owner, who lives two counties away in Chickasaw County, has a stack of violations already for his more than 50 units in operation. They include manure spills and overflows, and not following MMPs filed with the DNR. It’s worth mentioning he serves on the 15-member National Pork Producers Council board of directors.

The NPPC mission statement states, in part: “Pig farmers know that business success requires doing the right things for animals, the environment and our communities. We are motivated to do what is right for our animals and the land, not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it’s good business.”

Only the owner can pull the plug, but will he? Will he do “what is right”?

And that’s what this senator does on his summer vacation. In 2002, with growing public demands to further regulate Iowa’s valuable livestock sector, a group of 12 lawmakers — six from each party — hammered out new laws governing livestock siting, manure use and other issues. Capitol wags dubbed them “The Twelve Apostles,” since the group mostly met behind closed doors. While not an apostle or a prophet, just a humble and retired dairy herdsman, I am the last of “The Twelve” still in the Iowa Legislature.

The five-county Senate district I serve in northwest Iowa is rich with livestock. Think Lyon County, eighth largest in the nation in hogs and pigs. And we are rich with natural resources and outdoor recreation. Think Okoboji, Iowa’s vacationland that draws more than 1 million visitors every summer.

While the home front always comes first, I believe in seeing the big picture as well. What I have seen in northwest Iowa and across the state this summer makes me believe the Iowans who are elected or re-elected in November must again tackle what is bound to be controversial, emotional, perhaps divisive: Further livestock regulation.

Separation distances for small units at the least. Extra consideration of environmentally sensitive areas, such as karst topography, too. Even special authority for the director of DNR that really carries great weight in extraordinary circumstances, like Allamakee County or the Iowa Great Lakes.

Fellow lawmakers: Get out and meet the Nesters, Van Winkles and the Havenses in your neighborhoods. And remember, seeing is believing.

Really, 174 feet from a neighbor’s bedroom window?

What are they thinking?

• State Sen. David Johnson, a West Branch native, is an Independent from Ocheyedan. He is past chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee and leads the effort to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust approved by voters in 2010.

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