Topsoil changes get first round of approval

By Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register
January 21, 2015

(photo: The Register)

The debate over how much topsoil should be in Iowans’ yards continued Wednesday as a state commission moved closer to giving homebuilders more discretion over the amount of dirt they must return.

State rules require builders to provide four inches of topsoil distributed across the yard of a new home.

But the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission agreed Wednesday to move forward with a new rule that would require a lot’s existing topsoil to be replaced, unless it’s not feasible.

Pat Sauer, who was part of a stakeholders group that examined the issue, said the wording gives homebuilders a big loophole they can use to avoid replacing topsoil.

Homeowners need topsoil to grow grass, flowers and gardens, as well as to slow and clean water that runs from lawns. And too little topsoil also can result in cities struggling with runoff, opponents have said.

“Anything can be determined indefensible. There are no limits in the current language,” said Sauer, director of the Iowa Storm Water Education Program. She disagreed with recommendations supported by leaders in the home building and earth-moving industry.

Sauer suggested homebuilders would be able to strip off topsoil and sell it, under the proposed rule. It was an allegation that homebuilders at the meeting strongly denied.

Builders contend the existing rule is costly and difficult to meet. They estimate the rule costs developers about $4,500 per home, and builders about $1,500.

Opponents have said homeowners run into expenses as well when they’re forced to add soil to yards.

The state said it will hold public hearings in Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Davenport. The rule must then undergo legislative review before returning to the commission for consideration.

Several members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement pointed to a lawsuit the Des Moines Water Works leaders have threatened over high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River as evidence the commission needs to do more to regulate large animal confinements.

The Des Moines utility has notified three northwest Iowa counties it intends to file a lawsuit against them over high nitrate levels in drainage districts that serve area farmers. The utility plans to file the suit within 60 days.

CCI member Brenda Brink of Huxley said Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties, the areas targeted for litigation, have about 500 hog confinement operations. “It’s a significant part of the problem,” Brink said.

The group has pushed the state to require most livestock operations be permitted, believing it will lead to fewer manure spills and cleaner waterways.

The commission passed new rules last year that step up inspections of cattle and pig operations. But the state has sought to work with livestock producers to correct operations when spills occur instead of assessing large fines.

Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said Wednesday the state’s approach of “coaching for compliance” helps to avoid big environmental problems before they occur.

A Des Moines lawsuit, he said, continues “finger pointing” between rural and urban sources of nitrogen and phosphorous.

The state has adopted a voluntary plan to reduce by 45 percent both the nitrogen and phosphorous entering waterways and contributing to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. It’s an area the size of Connecticut that’s unable to support aquatic life during the summer.

“We’re getting a whole lot of rhetoric, yelling and screaming, and eventually, people are just going to” give up adopting conservation and other practices to reduce nutrient