OPINION

Speak out on topsoil next week

Runoff from a construction site pours into Prairie Creek in southwest Cedar Rapids. (Photo submitted/Stacie Johnson)
Runoff from a construction site pours into Prairie Creek in southwest Cedar Rapids. (Photo submitted/Stacie Johnson)

The risk of escaping for a spring break is that I might miss some big moment or development in a news saga I’m following. It’s happened before.

This year, it’s the topsoil issue. I’ve written about it a few times. Maybe you noticed.

Next week, on March 18, there’s a public hearing in Cedar Rapids on a proposal by the Environmental Protection Commission to scrap a rule requiring builders to restore four inches of topsoil on finished sites. The hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the Five Seasons Conference Room at the City Services Center, 500 15th Ave. SW.

I’ll be out of town, unfortunately. But if you care about this issue, and have the time, I hope you attend and speak out.

My own question for the EPC is simple. Why has it abandoned all sense of balance and fairness on this issue?

The four-inch rule was adopted in 2012, in consultation with builders, and was intended to help control stormwater runoff. In too many suburban developments across Iowa, topsoil has been scraped away, leaving a thin layer of sod sitting on compacted clay subsoil. Water soaks into topsoil, but runs off clay a lot like it runs off pavement.

Soaking up runoff has all sorts of benefits, from cleaner water to reduced flash flooding risk. But a group of central Iowa homebuilders and their allies claim abiding by the rule is too expensive. It sounds like an ideal chance for folks on both sides to sit down and work something out.

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Instead, the Branstad Administration packed a so-called stakeholder group with homebuilding interests. After a series of closed-door meetings, and one Des Moines public hearing filled with contractors, the group voted 5-2 to scrap the rule and replace it with vague new language.

The new rule would require builders to replace topsoil “unless infeasible.” Builders would decide what that means, with no measurable standard. Basically, it’s a get-out-of-topsoil-restoration-free card.

If Iowa homeowners get a dysfunctional yard that grows only if it’s drenched with water and fertilizer, that’s their problem. If somebody downstream has to deal with the consequences of dirty water and flashy stream flows, too bad.

What the EPC should be doing, instead of endorsing a sham regulatory end around, is putting together a real, balanced stakeholder group to come up with a regulation that has a positive effect on runoff while seeking to mitigate the concerns of builders. It’s entirely possible, and good proposals already have been offered.

Branstad’s administration is adamant that it cares about water quality, and that cooperation and collaboration are the best ways to get it done. And yet, it’s created a process in this case that allowed no give and take. Instead, it’s been all take for the governor’s homebuilding friends.

If the EPC fails to solve a manageable issue where good solutions are well within its grasp, how can we ever expect it to do the right thing on much larger, more difficult issues? The answer, if the commission rubber-stamps this rule change, is that we can’t.

I think public outcry can still make a difference. For one thing, state lawmakers with the power to derail this train are listening. It’s not over yet.

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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