On master matrix, Webster County supervisors still hope for change
By JOE SUTTER
Webster County Supervisor Keith Dencklau has an idea to deal with the approval process for animal confinement sites.
“Let’s let the state legislators do the reviews on the master matrix instead of us,” Dencklau said at a recent Board of Supervisers meeting. “Instead of the county supervisors having to do these master matrixes, doing the background checks and going out and looking at them, let’s let the legislators go out and look, because we don’t have any say in the end anyway.”
Webster County still hopes the state legislation will re-examine the master matrix, which guides construction of large confined animal feeding operations, but did not take part in a petition brought by environmental groups which was rejected by the Iowa Environmental Protection Comission on Monday.
Two activist groups, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch, had petitioned the EPC seeking stricter standards for proposed animal feeding operations. The EPC, which oversees the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, rejected the petition Sept. 18.
Webster wasn’t one of the counties that had signed the petition. Instead, Webster County sent its own letter to the Iowa Legislature back in March, and supervisors have been in contact with local representatives.
“The issue’s not dead,” Dencklau said. “We are still pressing our legislators to look at it. … Every time I see them I ask them. I’m a burr in their saddle.”
The county has done its own thing, rather than join another group so it has more control over the message it sends, Supervisor Merrill Leffler said.
“Why rely on an outside group? We’d have no control over their agenda,” Leffler said.
When a confinement is to be built, the developer has to fulfill a minimum number of points on the matrix. The supervisors of the county in question can review the scoring and make a recommendation for or against, but it’s the DNR which has the final say.
The matrix was created by the Legislature.
“If they’re the ones with the authority, they should be the ones looking at the master matrix, not us,” Dencklau said.
“Let them start scoring them,” Supervisor Mark Campbell said. “All we can do is agree or disagree.”
“If we disagree, it doesn’t count,” Leffler added.
“This place is full sometimes, with people around these sites who don’t want them. They’re yelling at us, and we have no control,” Dencklau said. “Let the legislators hold these master matrix meetings, and let all the questions from the public be directed to them.”
In March the supervisors approved a resolution asking the governor and state Legislature to “address the failings” of the master matrix.
State Rep. Mike Sexton, R-Rockwell City, said he tried to introduce a bill last year that would have increased water quality incentives within the matrix.
“I think I had probably the only matrix bill out there that was submitted last year. What it did was give producers more points for water quality projects,” Sexton said. “So if you put in bio-reactors, or filter strips, if you did some of those kinds of things you could get points in the matrix.
“The DNR went to the ag chair and said we don’t want you to bring that bill up. The DNR killed my matrix bill last year.”
Sexton said lawmakers hesitate to open the matrix up for major changes because they don’t know what might happen.
“Supervisor Dencklau and I have had a lot of conversations,” he said. “The biggest problem is, when it comes to changing this, I think we could all agree maybe this part needs changing or that part needs changing, but when you open up the matrix any legislator could bring an amendment.
“One legislator could bring an amendment to make the distance greater between buildings, but another could bring an amendment to cut the separation distance in two.”
State Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink, R-Fort Dodge, agreed.
“Part of the reason is, if you open it up, you might end up with something that is not as friendly as what it was to begin with,” Kraayenbrink said.
The senator said he tends to go to Sexton for advice on farming matters, while Sexton sometimes comes to him for advice on financial issues. Sexton farms and his wife owns a consulting company which helps producers pass the master matrix. Kraayenbrink is a financial advisor.
Asked if there were a large number of lawmakers who would take the matrix in a less strict direction, Sexton said, “I can’t answer that.”
“I couldn’t say that,” Kraayenbrink said. “I can see both sides of the issues, and I’m just one of 150 (senators).”
Sexton said the EPC made the correct decision Monday, and agreed with the commission that changes should come from the Legislature, not the DNR.
“I was in the senate when we wrote the matrix,” Sexton said. “It was a bill written by the Legislature. I think the EPC was right in their ruling saying it’s up to the legislation to change the matrix.”
Kraayenbrink said he doesn’t think there’s enough support in the Legislature to make changes right now.
“If two of us say we have to open it, and 148 say no, it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Leffler said he’s skeptical of the warning that it could get worse.
“I think it can’t get any worse than it is today,” he said.
He also believes there’s support growing for a change, and he wonders if it would become a larger issue next election season.
“I do believe over the last year there has been a grassroots groundswell,” Leffler said. “Realtor groups are looking at it now. A lot more people are paying attention to it as an issue.”
A call to State Rep. Helen Miller, D-Fort Dodge, was not returned as of press time.
Kraayenbrink and Sexton sat down with Campbell, Dencklau and the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors earlier this month to discuss the matrix. Sexton said several ideas came out of that meeting that might be implimented without changing the matrix itself.
Supervisors from other counties, including Calhoun, have also voiced their concerns, Dencklau said.
Pocahontas County sent a letter to the Legislature in December 2016, seeking a moratorium on new confinements until concerns had been addressed.
The CCI petition was rejected and the following changes to the matrix are:
– A higher minimum passing score, requiring applicants to earn more points to obtain a permit;
– A one-time enrollment for counties, rather than the current requirement for counties to readopt the master matrix every year;
– Revisions to the point structure to incentivize practices that prevent or mitigate pollution;
– New criteria that consider more environmental factors, such as unique topography and existing water pollution impairments;
– Elimination of criteria that do not provide meaningful environmental or community benefits;
– Increased separation distances from things like schools, homes, public use areas and wells.
Commissioners turned down the petition, saying the proposed rules were so strict that the result would be a halt in approving any new operations.
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