In Iowa: In picturesque northeast Iowa, calls go out for more water quality protection

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County officials in northeast Iowa are urging additional water quality protection for the most beautiful and fragile part of the state.

Despite the karst region’s steep slopes and leaky subsoil, Iowa has no rules or standards governing the risks of applying millions of gallons of manure in a region underlain by shallow, fractured bedrock.

That risk is underscored by the Iowa Environmental Council’s recent findings that of 365 private wells tested last year in Allamakee County, 40 percent had unsafe levels of coliform bacteria and 35 percent had nitrate levels above the 10 parts per million drinking water standard.

In adjacent Winneshiek County, where 180 wells were tested last year, 52 percent had elevated bacteria levels and 7 percent had unsafe nitrate levels.

Supervisors in both those counties recently have asked the Department of Natural Resources to suspend issuance of livestock confinement construction permits until the Legislature adopts new rules governing their siting.

Winneshiek supervisors also asked the governor and the Legislature to address the failings of the loophole-riddled master matrix rules “to protect the air, water, health, quality of life and economic interests” of county residents.

Floyd County supervisors will act Tuesday on a resolution similar to that approved by Winneshiek County.

In addition to Winneshiek, Allamakee and Floyd, Iowa’s karst region underlays Clayton, Dubuque, Howard, Mitchell and parts of seven other counties. It is part of the so-called driftless area that extends into Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

Geologist Jean Prior, who described seven distinct landforms in her 1991 book, “Landforms of Iowa,” said that if the state’s landscape had to be classified in just two regions, they would be northeast Iowa and “everything else.”

The “rugged, deeply carved terrain of northeast Iowa,” she said, contrasts dramatically with the rest of the state.

Karst topography, characterized by sinkholes, springs and caves in landscapes underlain by shallow, porous bedrock, “is the reason behind the region’s interesting landforms and unusual biological habitats, as well as its high vulnerability to groundwater contamination,” she wrote.

Iowa’s growing list of impaired waters, now at 725, contrasts with the 35 lakes and streams the state has recognized as Outstanding Iowa Waterways. Of these, more than two-thirds lie within three karst counties: Allamakee with 13, Winneshiek with six and Clayton with five.

This of course is no coincidence. The same springs and rocky substrate that make karst vulnerable to pollution also support the cold-water trout streams that Iowans have spent millions to restore and protect.

County supervisors say the master matrix, which lists steps producers can take to reduce a confinement’s impact on neighbors and the environment, allows little local influence on siting of the facility or the management of manure.

“I am in favor of local control, but that’s not what we are talking about here,” said Floyd County Supervisor Mark Kuhn, a farmer, former legislator and one of the members of the committee that drafted the master matrix in 2002.

The board’s resolution, he said, asks state officials to fix the failings of the existing law.

Winneshiek County Supervisor John Beard said the limitations of the master matrix make it difficult to uphold his oath to protect the health and welfare of his constituents.

Beard said pork producers have contacted him, expressing concerns about the fairness of the matrix, which allows corporations to scale back proposals so they fall beneath the 2,500-hog threshold for requiring a construction permit and making up the difference through multiple proposals from associates.

In the wake of the recent bird flu epidemic that killed millions of chickens and turkeys, they are also worried about the biosecurity threats entailed in too many hogs too close together, Beard said.

Allamakee County Supervisor Larry Schellhammer said he often wonders “why we even have a master matrix.”

“It’s very easy for producers to meet its lax standards, and it applies to only about 25 percent of facilities being built,” he said.

Although the need for more stringent siting rules may be more urgent in the karst counties, Beard said supervisors across the state have expressed frustration and dissatisfaction with the master matrix.

“When enough of them speak up, maybe we will get some action,” he said.

Though dates have yet to be announced, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement will soon host a series of listening sessions to identify Iowans’ desired changes in the master matrix.

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