Shoot the Messenger (Even When the News Is Positive)

The people of Iowa are about to get a new governor. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will be sworn in as soon as Terry Branstad wins confirmation to his new post of U.S. ambassador to China and he resigns his position as governor. President Trump nominated him because of the business ties he has cultivated between Iowa and China, a state that makes ample use of Iowa agricultural products. Branstad faces little controversy in his nomination hearings in the U.S. Senate, so his confirmation is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, the people of Iowa who retain some common sense are hoping that he completes his long legacy as governor by vetoing a particularly asinine piece of legislation that recently passed both houses of the General Assembly. Senate File 510 defunds the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and mandates its closure by July 1.

Branstad, a Republican, was first governor from 1983 to 1999, when he stepped down and Tom Vilsack, later to become President Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, won the office. Branstad returned when he defeated one-term Governor Chet Culver. But he was governor in 1987 when the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, which used fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides to fund the creation of the Leopold Center. That act was passed because of widespread concerns about pollution from agriculture and industry that diminished the quality of the state’s groundwater. Branstad signed that act into law. A subsequent campaign by the chemical industry against the bill’s supporters backfired in the 1988 elections, a result I wrote about the following year in The Nation (“Farmers and Environmentalists: The Attraction Is Chemical, October 16, 1989).

Apparently, the current Republican-dominated legislature fears no such backlash because Senate File 510 directly targets the Leopold Center, whose total annual budget is only $1.3 million, yet somehow is unaffordable according to the legislature. What Iowa loses is much greater:

  • It loses the status of a national leader in practical research on sustainable agriculture. Bryce Oates, writing for the Daily Yonder, described the center as “sustainable agriculture loyalty,” and “a hub for information.”
  • Last summer I wrote here about Iowa State’s crucial research on the value of filter and buffer strips in reducing runoff in waterways and mitigating flooding in the process. That kind of research would likely not be happening without the Leopold Center. The filter strips also play a role in reducing nitrate pollution.
  • The center has supported research and cost-benefit analysis of hoop house and deep-bedding livestock production methods used by meat companies that supply natural food stores and restaurants like Chipotle, Whole Foods, and many independent outlets. The center also helped launch “Agriculture of the Middle,” connecting family farmers with value chains that provide better prices for farming operations.

 

The entire focus on more sustainable, less environmentally damaging agriculture must have been too much for the commodity groups and agricultural giants and their water carriers in the legislature. They apparently see this modestly funded program as too great a threat to agricultural business as usual, which says a great deal about their own their own sense of vulnerability. So there is but one effective solution: Even when the messenger is producing good news about alternative, less polluting forms of agricultural production, shoot the messenger. It is a message that is all too common in the current political climate.

Jim Schwab

Making Natural Infrastructure Solutions Happen

From time to time, I contribute to the APA Blog, which consists of a variety of news and perspectives the American Planning Association provides to its members on its own website. Recently, I composed an article about an effort APA undertook in concert with several organizational partners to explore issues related to permitting of wetlands restoration projects and some of the obstacles such projects may face. For those interested, just follow the link: https://www.planning.org/blog/blogpost/9118459/.

Jim Schwab

Subdivide and Conquer the Flood

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Floods generally result from regional storm systems producing intense precipitation, from fast melting of winter snows, and occasionally from the failure of protective infrastructure such as dams and levees, often as a result of pressure from such events. We tend to think of the resulting flood damages as the inevitable consequences of these events, but they are not. Flood damages are the result of development decisions that place the built environment—and humans—in harm’s way. Most of those decisions, at least in the U.S., are made at the local level. In city halls and in planning commission and city council meetings across the nation, we have met the enemy of flood hazard reduction. It is usually us.

Tucked away from most public attention, the little decisions a community makes in approving new subdivisions are among those with the biggest influence in exacerbating or minimizing flood hazards to residential development. Cities, towns, and counties often assume that, if they simply comply with the fundamental requirements of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), they are home free. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which runs the program, while it can establish minimum requirements for local participation in the program, will never be in a position to substitute for local judgment on flood risk. There are too many important decisions that local government alone can make that FEMA cannot.

Less well understood by many is that there are significant practical limitations to the capabilities of the NFIP. NFIP regulations apply to mapped floodplains, but mapping floodplains for insurance rating purposes costs money, and that means higher priorities for mapping urbanized and developed areas where flood insurance will be sold. With more than 3.5 million miles of coast and river and stream frontage in the U.S., the NFIP has mapped about 1.2 million miles for Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs). Much of the rest is in rural and undeveloped areas, along smaller tributaries, such as streams and creeks, where development has yet to occur. Subdivision, of course, is a process of dividing and developing plots of land precisely where development has not yet happened. The possibility of a new subdivision proposal including land with unmapped floodplains is a constant reality. The stream corridors involved may seem small, but when flooding occurs they can often pose serious problems. Moreover, their floodplains may well expand as a result of the creation of new impervious surface in small watersheds—that is, hard surfaces such as building footprints, driveways, and roads. These impacts expand the floodplain because such hard surfaces do not absorb stormwater, unlike open space with trees and grass, thus increasing the volume of storm runoff.

pas-report-584-cover-revised

Cover of report reprinted with permission from APA.

To address these sorts of issues, the American Planning Association in 2014 FEMA to fund the production of a report for planners that has just been released: Subdivision Design and Flood Hazard Areas (Planning Advisory Service Report 584). It actually builds on prior work by APA two decades ago in a similar report, Subdivision Design in Flood Hazard Areas; both are being made available online as free PDF downloads and companion documents. The new report, however, goes far in bringing the subject forward and addressing contemporary realities, including the need to get ahead of climate change by anticipating potentially more extreme events and, in coastal areas, sea level rise. To amplify the outreach of the report, APA is scheduling its next Planning Information Exchange webinar in early December to address this topic.

The panel will include California attorney Tyler Berding, of the Walnut Creek law firm Berding & Weil, which has specialized in working with homeowner associations and developed an acute awareness of the problems raised when these associations inherit responsibilities for funding and maintaining flood protection infrastructure such as levees and small dams. As Berding notes, developers often sell local planners and elected officials on the idea that such arrangements, approved during plat reviews, free the municipality or county of the burden of such infrastructure. The problem arises many years later, when it becomes clear that these volunteer-managed organizations lack the expertise and also suffer from predictable downward pressure from property owners on maintenance fees, resulting in steadily deteriorating flood infrastructure that can result in disaster. Also on the panel will be Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers and a major contributor to the report, for which I served as general editor, and Jerry Brems, now a retired planning director of Licking County, Ohio, who lent his experience in advising the project, who has dealt with these issues. I will moderate.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

Photo by Chad Berginnis. Used with permission.

The overall point of the report is to highlight the fact that there is typically much more a local government can do to exercise vigilance in this respect than typically happens. The report outlines a number of standards communities can adopt with regard to the protection of natural and man-made features on a subdivision site, the layout and design of the site, its infrastructure, platting requirements, and watershed management. It also discusses how all this can be integrated effectively into the larger planning process of the jurisdiction. For instance, it discusses and provides a case study on the use of conservation subdivision design, which allows the clustering of structures on a site to locate them on higher, safer ground while maintaining more vulnerable, low-lying sections in common open space, which in turn allows the creation of such amenities as riverside walking paths, habitat protection for wildlife, and preservation of forested buffer areas along stream corridors. These and many other steps help reduce flood losses while creating a more resilient, safer, and environmentally sustainable community.

In short, the entire project invites communities to explore ways to become more forward-looking and creative in their approaches to flood hazards. The world is improved more often incrementally than radically. We hope we’ve brought planners’ and public officials’ attention to one more such increment.

 

Jim Schwab

Hold That Soil, Please

Photo by Suzan Erem

Photo by Suzan Erem

 

Ours has often been a profligate society in using the vast natural resources with which it was originally endowed. We’ve improved our attitudes about conservation, but we have a long way to go. Among those resources we have been prone to waste in the interest of short-term gain has been the deep topsoil that made the Midwest superbly productive. Less than 200 years ago, according to Rick Cruse, an Iowa State University researcher, Iowa had an average of 14 inches of topsoil in which grew thousands of square miles of prairie. Now that soil is about six inches deep, less than half what we inherited—or more accurately, mostly took—from the Native Americans who first lived here.

Those estimates come from an August 12 article in the Chicago Tribune that I shall credit as the inspiration for my addressing this topic. However, those familiar with my first book, Raising Less Corn and More Hell, will be well aware that the topic is not new to me. In 1985, farmer Gary Lamb and I wrote an op-ed for the Des Moines Register decrying the lack of conservation and what it might do in the long term to the fabled productivity of Iowa farmland. In essence, we were saying, nothing lasts forever if we insist on killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

Farmers mostly tore up the prairie to plant the corn, soybeans, wheat, and other agricultural products that now grow on the vast majority of the land in states like Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas. Prairie plants had deep roots that held topsoil in place and nurtured it. With prairie grasses removed, loose soil began to erode, clogging streams and rivers that feed the Mississippi River, which dumps its overload into the Gulf of Mexico, producing what has become known as a “dead zone.” This is an area suffering from hypoxia—a shortage of oxygen in the sea that chokes out life. This comes at the additional cost of stripping Midwestern farms of much of the topsoil with which they were originally blessed. We have unhinged that layer of topsoil by depriving it of the prairie root systems that once anchored it. In fact, we continue to do so.

But the problem is more serious and immediate than simply undermining the long-term productivity of the soil. Current practices also threaten the public health and welfare of people in states like Iowa. Not long ago, the Des Moines Water Works filed suit against three upstream counties for failing to control the nonpoint source runoff that is contaminating the capital city’s water supply. That suit is being met with a good deal of anger and skepticism, but it is symptomatic of a larger conflict. That conflict pits the priorities of agriculture versus public welfare, a dispute playing out in other forms in even larger venues like California. But there the issue often has more to do with drought and the protection of adequate water supplies than with polluted runoff. In Iowa, floods have been a more persistent danger in recent memory.

Lawsuits, however, are not the only rational response to such a major public policy problem. It is critical that public universities support research aimed at viable solutions, and at least some research at Iowa State University is pointing to an answer that should seem remarkably obvious: restore the prairie. The imperatives of modern food production may make it clear that we are not going to restore all the farmland in the Midwest to pre-modern conditions. But the prairie provides demonstrable ecological benefits that we can ignore only at the cost of prolonging current problems with flooding and water quality. In a sense, what we are learning about the value of restoring some prairie for the purpose of reducing runoff and improving downstream water quality is similar to what we are learning in more urban contexts about the value of green infrastructure—the urban forest, the green roofs, the living shorelines, and other nature-based features that enhance the environmental quality of our communities.

But green infrastructure is not a concept that need be limited to our urban areas. Nature provides vast ecological functions for human benefit in all sorts of settings if we are wise enough to investigate them and learn to use them.

In that sense, I think that Iowa State University is on to something. Researchers there have been demonstrating the value of prairie restoration with a project called Science-based Trials of Rowcrops Integrated with Prairie Strips (STRIPS). Test sites have shown not only that these prairie strips can capture much of the polluted runoff from farms and enrich the soil, but that they provide valuable habitat for birds and other wildlife, restoring some of the richness of the land in the process. For instance, one research project by Lisa Schulte and others showed that such treatments doubled or tripled the presence of bird species, both in overall abundance and variety. Other research has found that wider strips of prairie serve to trap greater levels of sediment that would otherwise clog streams and reduce water quality. It is as if, having been blind to the free benefits of natural systems for so long, we have at last begun to learn to sing nature’s tune anew.

But it will take time to change attitudes and perspectives in a farm sector that has often been rather conservative about adopting such techniques. There is still likely to be a lively debate between environmentalists and dominant sectors of the agricultural industry, with varying levels of resonance in different states, but results speak volumes and gradually help to change minds. There may be more lawsuits like the one that originated in Des Moines, and there may ultimately be some meaningful legislative debates about incentives and regulations. We can at least hope that the steady infusion of research-based information on the benefits of prairie restoration will make a difference soon enough to matter. There is certainly a great deal at stake.

Jim Schwab