CAFO regulations - Details make a difference when it comes to siting

posted on Monday, September 26, 2022 in Water and Land News

IEC Staff Attorney Michael Schmidt presents to the DNR on CAFO petitionsIEC petitioned for revisions to animal feeding operation (AFO) rules last year, but the Environmental Protection Commission denied the request in part because DNR promised to initiate a more comprehensive rulemaking in 2022. IEC later petitioned again to make the DNR adopt a floodplain map to restrict AFO siting, which the legislature directed it to do twenty years ago.

DNR has released proposed updates to the state’s AFO rules. The proposed changes consolidate different sections, rearrange pieces, and make some tweaks. Unfortunately, Iowa’s dismal water quality needs more than tweaks. 

CAFOs in Iowa 

Cows in an open feedlotIowa has more than 9,000 AFOs, according to DNR’s records. Iowa’s feedlots house more than 100 million animals with the manure production of about 168 million people – half the population of the United States. What we do with all that manure makes a big difference for our water. 

Many of the AFOs were built to avoid having to tell DNR how they handle that manure. Large AFOs with 1,000 or more animal units (1 beef cow, 2.5 hogs, or 100-400 chickens, depending on the size) must submit a management plan for DNR approval. Smaller facilities don’t. The thresholds for DNR regulation are set by statute: state law requires manure plans from large AFOs, not small ones. Not coincidentally, the most common facility size is just below the threshold for getting DNR approval. 

Number of AFO facilities by Size

Even without a DNR-approved plan, the AFOs need crop land on which to spread manure. As Iowa has shifted production toward corn and soybeans, AFOs have shifted. Areas like northeast Iowa that have historically been less conducive to row crop production – and large-scale manure application – now see more AFOs.  

EWG CAFO growth since 1990

IEC Takes Action 

Supreme Beef Facility The AFO expansion is where the Supreme Beef facility comes in. Its owners proposed to build a facility to hold 11,600 head of cattle – large enough to be on the far right end of the table  graph above. The 36 million gallon manure basin sits on karst terrain, in the watershed of a DNR-designated Outstanding Iowa Water. Supreme Beef is an example of why we have private wells contaminated with nitrate and bacteria, hundreds of agriculture-driven impairments to surface water, constant beach closings due to algae and bacteria, and a “strategy” resulting in a decade without provable progress

In addition to working on Supreme Beef as a site of particular concern, IEC sought to change practices statewide. We petitioned for three things:

  1. to increase protections for karst terrain,
  2. to require monitoring at earthen basins,
  3. and to strengthen DNR’s ability to stop projects that present serious risks to water quality.

These changes represent the bare minimum Iowa could do to protect water quality: common sense steps to prevent catastrophic risks. Unfortunately, the EPC denied IEC’s petition while DNR promised to address the issues in rulemaking. IEC’s second petition seeking the adoption of a floodplain map is still pending. 

DNR’s Proposed Rules 

As laid out in IEC’s fact sheet, DNR’s proposed rules do not make enough changes. DNR is proposing slight improvements for karst, but not the level of protection sought by IEC. Instead of adding monitoring requirements, it reduced some types of monitoring. And instead of strengthening DNR’s power to evaluate and stop the highest-risk projects, DNR proposes to delete the section of rule that grants that power entirely. While the proposed rules would adopt a floodplain map – another issue IEC petitioned about – they do not fix provisions allowing over-application of manure. They do not improve transparency. They retain loopholes that allow facilities to avoid regulation. 

Read the comments IEC and partners submitted to the DNR in October 2022. 

Read Part 2 of story - Diving Into Manure Management

  1. cafos
  2. clean water
  3. dnr
  4. drinking water
  5. karst
  6. nitrate pollution
  7. nutrient reduction strategy