116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about continuing efforts to scrap a state rule requiring builders with required stormwater handling permits to put four inches of topsoil back on finished sites, if those sites had topsoil removed before construction.
I've written about this a few times. Maybe you noticed. Maybe you wish I'd get a hobby.
I said the Environmental Protection Commission will be taking up the issue on July 15 in Davenport. But it turns out that meeting has been moved to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources office at 7900 Hickman Road in Des Moines. The meeting starts at 10 a.m.
This is good news for Des Moines-area homebuilders and their allies, who have been pushing hard to have the rule tossed. They'll have a short drive, just like they did in May to the only open meeting of a closed-door stakeholder group appointed by the Branstad administration to revisit the 2012 rule.
Even that short trip was probably unnecessary. The seven-member stakeholder group already had a majority of members from the homebuilding, earth-moving and realty industries. Slam dunk.
So, surprise, surprise, the stakeholders want the rule tossed. Its recommendation to the EPC is labeled 'unanimous,” even though it's strongly opposed by two stakeholders, Pat Sauer of Iowa Storm Water Education Project, and Lucy Hershberger, of Forever Green nursery in Coralville.
In a nutshell, the 4-inch rule would be switched out for vague language directing builders to replace topsoil 'unless infeasible.” They get to decide what's infeasible. And even if it is feasible, builders can put topsoil anywhere in a development they see fit.
Maybe you get some soil on your yard. Maybe you get cement-like compacted clay. Good luck. All talk of a compromise that gives builders some of what they want, but still requires topsoil replacement, has been rejected by the industry.
The intent of the original rule was to aid in the absorption of runoff, improving water quality and mitigating the potential for flooding. Topsoil soaks up water. Water runs off compacted clay like pavement, even with sod perched on top.
With the entire EPC also appointed by Gov. Terry Branstad, it's another slam dunk, right?
Well, it certainly is an interesting moment for the state's environmental protectors to consider erasing a rule intended to reduce runoff. A lot of Iowans are thinking about water right now.
In May, builders, who say the topsoil rule costs too much money, scoffed at worries about runoff. In June, Iowans across the state watched rushing runoff from heavy rains turn streams into raging torrents, streets into streams and basements into indoor pools.
I'm not suggesting that the topsoil rule ends flash flooding as we know it. Not even close. But seeing the destructive power of runoff in recent days has got to make a sensible person question the wisdom of rolling back rules that at least attempt to slow its flow.
Is it wise to use our regulatory structure to encourage practices that make runoff worse? Was it penny wise and punt foolish for the governor to veto millions of dollars for soil and water conservation projects that would have been matched by dollars from farmers and communities? After seeing the repeated tragedies of river flooding and flash flooding in recent years, is the issue of how we handle runoff and manage watersheds really just a fight for so-callled tree-huggers?
Homebuilders say putting topsoil back adds to the cost of homes. I thought of that this past week as some of my neighbors in our compacted clay subdivision bailed water out of their basements, water that ran from yards on higher ground, down slopes and into their homes.
Dozens of builders and allies have filed comments in opposition to the 4-inch rule, but dozens of homeowners have also weighed in, describing their struggles with yards scrapped of topsoil.
Again, the topsoil rule doesn't solve all our water woes. But it's one step among many that could help us make some progress on runoff problems that affect thousands and thousands of Iowans. The commission has to decide whether that should be the objective of our state's regulatory system, or whether it should become a sieve to please one industry with connections.
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