Alarmed by the seemingly unbridled development of large-scale livestock facilities across rural Iowa, John Norris is calling for a moratorium on new construction and more regulatory authority for county governments.
Norris, who believes the road to the 2018 Democratic nomination for governor runs through rural Iowa, said the growth of CAFOs — concentrated animal feeding operations — is one of the issues he hears on the campaign trail. Last week, in northeast Iowa the focus was on a 10,000-head cattle feeding and methane digester near Monona.
Construction on the facility that will feed as many as 20,000 cattle a year already has damaged a trout stream in the Bloody Run Creek watershed, he said.
“There’s probably no place in Iowa where you should have 10,000 cows in the same confinement center, but the fact that it’s in this fragile land in northeast Iowa that is so beautiful doesn’t seem right — and we’re doing nothing about it,” Norris said.
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Norris, who grew up on a southwest Iowa farm and was a small-business owner, is calling for a moratorium on CAFO construction until the state has regulations in place that will protect the environment and neighboring land owners.
In addition, he wants to empower counties to be able to set their own “unique” limits to protect tourism and fragile lands. And finally, he called for a master matrix that has teeth in helping regulate CAFOs.
“There’s no reason we can’t have a strong agriculture industry, but we shouldn’t have to degrade the environment and our natural resources to obtain it,” said Norris. “Economic development that degrades quality of life is not a positive path forward. That’s not sustainable.”
Norris also has been struck by voters’ concerns about mental health — the lack of services and level of care available in Iowa.
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“The fact that it is raised at every setting is indicative of serious problems and a little bit surprising that it has been so dominant when there are other issues that people are concerned about,” he said. “There’s just nowhere to turn for so many folks and nearly every family is affected by it.”
Norris, who was in Cedar Rapids for a fundraiser hosted by Linn County Supervisor Ben Rogers and City Council member Justin Shields, believes he’s best positioned among the Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls to bring rural Iowans who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 back to the Democratic fold.
He doesn’t want to see Democrats waste the opportunity that Republican control of the governor’s office and both legislative chambers presents.
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Norris isn’t ready to predict a Democratic wave in 2018 “because there’s a lot of mistrust for both parties.”
“We have to make a case for ourselves,” he said. “They’re not going to hand it to us, but they’ve certainly set the plate for us with the budget mess, the Medicaid fiasco, with not addressing the water quality issues. Collective bargaining (changes) have energized teachers like they’ve never been energized before and county government workers.
“There’s a hunger there for someone to step up and govern responsibly and now we have to make sure we step into that void with some ideas that motivate people to get behind us,” he said.