Is Iowa short-changing its own environmental initiatives?

Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Past and present leaders of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources say politicians have historically short-changed the agency, making it impossible to adequately protect the state's environment.

The agency's former top official, Pete Hamlin, said lawmakers often create programs that require huge resources, but fail to provide the money and staffing to follow through.

"It takes some kind of crisis to get any kind of action," Hamlin said. It's almost like: 'Well, it's something we have to do, but it's not worth much effort.'"

Iowans are paying more attention to environmental problems because often the problems are in their backyards.

Millions of fish have died from ammonia spills into streams and creeks. Thousands of people have packed town meeting halls to fight huge livestock confinements projects. Lawsuits have been filed over hog confinement odors.

Though the state has ranked last nationally in spending on environmental protection, lawmakers seem reluctant to give the DNR more money.

Paul Johnson, director of the DNR or the first 16 months of Gov. Tom Vilsack's administration, developed a report in 2000 concluding that the agency needed 293 more people to adequately do its job _ a 27 percent increase.

The new jobs would have cost taxpayers $40 million, with another $18 million coming from fees and other sources, the report said.

Johnson saw the proposal go nowhere.

Vilsack couldn't find the money and Republicans wanted less government not more.

Johnson, a former state lawmaker, ended up leaving state government in frustration, retiring back to his Decorah farm.

"We have to be willing to pay for these things if we care about our environment, and I think many Iowans do," Johnson said. "It's amazing we do as well as we do, given the little bit that we invest in this."

Vilsack has proposed increases in spending for environmental programs every year, but Republicans have blocked them, said Joe Shannahan, the governor's spokesman.

Johnson is convinced Vilsack would have pushed even more for new spending on environmental issues if the economy had been healthier.

Senate Majority Leader Stewart Iverson, a Republican from Dows, said last year of DNR officials: "I think they should do their jobs and quit whining about money."

A new law passed in 1998 is a good example of how political and environmental interests can clash.

Lawmakers created new regulations on large livestock facilities, requiring DNR inspections of manure pits every year. The DNR was given eight inspectors to oversee the 850 manure lagoons that fell under the law.

Darrell McAllister, a former top water official who began working for the state in 1974 and left after Vilsack was elected in 1998, blames lawmakers.

"They wanted people to believe it was being regulated, but they didn't follow with the resources. How can it ever be regulated without resources?

"DNR just can't possibly do what's expected of it," he said. "I think that's by design."

Rick Dove of Waterkeepers Alliance, a national group that encourages legal action to force states to clean up waterways, said state governments don't want the political baggage that goes with strong enforcement. As a result, they keep the number of workers low.

"The legislatures of the country have done that on purpose," he said.

House Speaker Brent Siegrist, a Republican from Council Bluffs, has supported park improvements and expanded water testing.

"Clearly they have been given more attention," Siegrist said of the DNR. "There has been a lot more thinking on quality of life in economic development. They've gotten a pretty reasonable shake."

Iverson has said he's interested in making sure the department has the clear authority to deny hog-confinement permits under some circumstances.

Vilsack successfully pushed for better water testing and private-land conservation, and he wants tighter controls on where hog confinements are built, Shannahan said.

The DNR has 911 full-time and 152 part-time employees charged with hundreds of duties. The department has an annual budget of $128 million. Almost all of that money comes from non-tax sources such as federal grants, lease payments and fees on things like hunting licenses.

The state contributes less that 1 percent of its general fund _ the money from sales and income taxes _ to natural resources and agriculture departments combined. The DNR receives about $16 million a year.

Legislative leaders acknowledge that the department's budget is unhealthy. "They have been hit, and it's hard for them to get all the things done that we ask them to do," said House Speaker Siegrist. "Overall, I'm sure they are underfunded and understaffed. That's typical of many departments."

Lawmakers say they've offered what they can in a cash-strapped state government that has to protect children, pave roads, run prisons, support schools and regulate nursing homes, too.

Independent voices in government have called for a reprieve.

Every year since 1994, State Auditor Richard Johnson, a Republican, has released an audit pointing out that the DNR is breaking the law by not performing dozens of required tasks. Those range from inspecting hundreds of sites polluted with health-threatening chemicals to a decades-old requirement that the state install a comprehensive testing system for groundwater.

Deputy State Auditor Andrew Nielsen agreed that legislators might want to consider eliminating some of those requirements.

"They've been given an awful lot of tasks, maybe more than they can do with excellence," Nielsen said when last year's audit came out.


On the Net: Iowa Department of Natural Resources

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