How much pork can Iowa reasonably produce?

That debate can’t come soon enough.

A record number of hogs and pigs were on Iowa farms as of Sept. 1: 22.9 million, up 3 percent from a year ago, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released Thursday. That’s about 7.3 times more pigs than people in the state.

No other state is even close to Iowa, which has more hogs than second-place North Carolina and third-place Minnesota combined.

More hogs are coming. In September, Seaboard Triumph Foods opened a plant in Sioux City, where it can slaughter 10,500 hogs per day and, by adding a second shift next year, up to 21,000 a day. Prestage Foods plans to open its plant near Eagle Grove in November 2018 and process 10,000 hogs a day. Iowa farms could expand to fulfill the demand.

More hogs and processing plants bring more jobs and income. But they also bring noxious odors that can make people sick. They threaten water bodies and groundwater — and more than half of the state’s lakes, rivers and streams are already considered polluted.

Instead of debating the right approach to pork production, we have pitched battles at meetings of county supervisors, who are largely powerless to restrict confinement sitings. Instead of finding balance between growth and regulation, our federal and state officials fail us.

All of this leaves Iowa totally unprepared for an influx of more hogs.

Let’s be clear: The economy of many Iowa cities and rural areas depends on livestock production. Confinements are here to stay, and many pork producers have improved their operations to lessen the chances for spills and emissions. And Iowa can help fulfill demand for meat among growing middle classes in developing nations.

But the scales have tipped too far in favor of the pork industry. As quickly as Iowa is adding hogs, state, federal and industry officials are resisting protections. Consider recent events:

Little local control: The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission denied a petition in September that would have given counties more ability to stop confinements. Supporters sought to strengthen the state’s master matrix, a scoring system that is far too easy for proposed facilities to pass. Members of the commission agreed that the 15-year-old master matrix needs to be revised, but they kicked that to the state Legislature. Lawmakers, however, have avoided the issue for years.

Dickinson County leaders are asking for a temporary moratorium on new animal-confinement operations....

Pitiful regulation of air pollutants: Large animal confinements are largely exempt from federal air emission rules, due to a “lack of expertise and resources” at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. An inspector general’s report released in September said the EPA has failed to develop a way to measure whether large animal-feeding operations are exceeding air pollution standards — 11 years after the EPA started an effort to do so. If you are a neighbor of a confinement, you could be breathing ammonia and hydrogen sulfide. But you may be dead before you know for sure. ...

Less strict bacteria rules: The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has proposed changes to its water-quality monitoring rules that could endanger Iowans who swim in Iowa lakes and rivers. The change would affect standards for E. coli bacteria, which can come from livestock operations and other sources. The largest cause of impairments for Iowa streams and rivers in 2016? Bacteria....

Stealth confinements: The DNR has missed hundreds of livestock operations that require some level of oversight. More than 5,000 hog confinements and cattle lots across the state — or about half — were simply off the state’s radar, the DNR admitted to the federal government in August. The DNR discovered the facilities only through satellite imagery and only after the EPA required a survey. Most of the operations are too small to require regulation, but the state says nearly 1,300 could require some oversight. Of course, most “inspections” are never done on site. And with budget cuts, who will do the on-site inspections that are required?...

State worker cuts: Gene Tinker, the DNR’s animal feeding operations coordinator, saw his job eliminated this summer. The DNR said it was due to budget cuts. Tinker told the Storm Lake Times it was because the pork industry complained he was educating county supervisors on their rights to object to confinements. Whatever the reason, local residents have lost another resource.

Legal loopholes: A new animal confinement with 2,500 or more pigs must face state oversight and other rules. Facilities between 1,250 and 2,499 face some, but less stringent regulation. Those with 1,249 or fewer hogs can be as close as they like to neighbors and don’t have to have a manure management plan. So some producers are building confinements just one hog under the minimums, and they’re exploiting another loophole that lets corporations with different owners — even if those owners are connected — locate next to each other. The result is that producers can stack confinements next to each other, and neighbors and the DNR can do nothing about it. The stench from these bad actors taints the entire industry and harms small, honest pork producers.

Lawsuit limits: It’s not as if Iowa lawmakers are doing nothing on this issue. They’re tipping the scales farther in favor of the industry. In the last session, lawmakers limited lawsuit damages in cases filed by neighbors against livestock producers. The law allows more latitude for defendants when an animal feeding operation is alleged to be a public or private nuisance or otherwise interferes with a person’s enjoyment of life or property....

So what can lawmakers do about this? A lot. The next session, instead of simply giving lip service to the idea of local control, legislators can follow through. They can strengthen the master matrix to give local communities more ability to reject confinement proposals.

They can give the DNR more latitude to close loopholes.

They can finally fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust. Iowans voted to create the fund in 2010, and lawmakers have refused to approve the accompanying 3/8-cent sales tax increase. The fund can improve water quality, among other benefits.

They can strengthen Iowa’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which calls for a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus discharges but contains no timeline or other enforcement.

They can look toward other states that have stronger manure-management laws.

Lawmakers, led by Gov. Kim Reynolds, can demand a full accounting of the costs of pork production. And they can find the courage to have a debate over how we divide up paying for those costs.

If they can’t do these things, then perhaps lawmakers should do what county supervisor boards, rural residents, environmental groups and others have asked. If lawmakers can’t provide more local control, then they should pass a moratorium on new confinements. That may not be an ideal solution. But pressing pause may be the only way Iowa can catch up to this fast-growing industry.

Outbrain