Iowa DNR director says she lacks authority to review 11,600-head cattle feedlot near trout stream

Donnelle Eller
Des Moines Register

The state's top environmental leader rejected a request to review a controversial animal feeding project in northeast Iowa that critics say threatens one of Iowa's outstanding waterways.

Kayla Lyon, Iowa's Department of Natural Resources director, said she lacks the authority to review the Supreme Beef project, an 11,600-head cattle operation near Monona in Clayton County.

The open-lot feeding operation sits near the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, a cold- water trout stream that's among 34 waterways and lakes designated as Outstanding Iowa Waters.

Water flows from Beulah Falls in to Bloody Run Creek on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, at the Spook Cave campground in rural Clayton County. The creek is an important part of Spook Cave's business, essential to their cave tours, and owner Paul Rasmussen has concerns about what might happen to the creek after the construction of a 10,000-head cattle feedlot upstream.

The Sierra Club Iowa Chapter, representing nearly 50 individuals, state lawmakers and organizations, wrote to Lyon last week, asking her to order a departmental review of the Supreme Beef project under an administrative code rule that gives the director discretion to evaluate animal feeding operations in environmentally exceptional areas.

Lyon wrote to the Sierra Club that department attorneys and the Iowa attorney general's office advised her that the department would be "exceeding its authority" under state law to provide an "alternative evaluation" of the project's nutrient management plan.

Iowa DNR declined to comment further on Thursday.

The project's opponents have fought the feedlot for several months, saying its nutrient management plans contained inaccuracies that would result in overapplication of manure on nearby crops, resulting in polluted runoff.

In addition to their concerns about the nutrient management plan, opponents say the feedlot's location poses a grave threat to the stream, given the area's hilly topography, underlain with porous limestone. The area is dotted with thousands of sinkholes and crevices that provide direct conduits from the surface to the shallow, spring-fed aquifer below.

Opponents have asked the state to outline how it made the decision.

Two leaves float on the surface of Bloody Run Creek, one of Iowa's Outstanding Waters, a designation given by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017, in rural Clayton County.

"It is shameful that director Lyon won’t use the authority given to her," said Wally Taylor, an attorney who is the Sierra Club's legal chairman. "The rule is still valid and the director has the authority to use it, regardless of what she says." 

Alicia Vasto, associate director of the Iowa Environmental Council's water program, said the director's discretion rule "is a backstop to protect Iowa's most fragile natural resources.

"Refusal to use the rule to even initiate an evaluation demonstrates state leadership’s unwillingness to act on behalf of the majority of Iowans," she said in a statement.

Donnelle Eller covers agriculture, the environment and energy for the Register. Reach her at deller@registermedia.com or 515-284-8457.