Clean and Abundant Water for Iowans
Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining
Industry Presents Water, Tourism Issues in NE Iowa
By Aaron Kline and David Osterberg

January 30, 2014
IPP Policy Brief (27 pages, PDF)
News Release
Iowa Policy Points blog post by Aaron Kline

The frac sand mining industry swept through Wisconsin like a wildfire starting in 2009. An offshoot of the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” industry, this mining produces sand that is used to hold open fractures in rock formations that permit the release of oil and gas. Rapid growth of fracking — and thus frac sand mining — has sparked environmental and aesthetic concerns. Some communities now question the long-term benefits of frac sand mining in their regions. The same concerns now alarm residents of southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa who see the industry coming. Many citizens have organized to advocate for increased scrutiny of industrial frac sand facility siting. Many residents fear the potential harmful effects on air quality, water quality and quantity, transportation, tourism, and general aesthetics. Their voices will be heard not just locally, but likely in state legislative chambers as well. To inform this emerging debate, this paper describes the potential water quantity and quality impacts of frac sand mining in northeast Iowa.

Frac Sand

Natural geologic processes make frac sand highly prized by the hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” —industry. The sand is well rounded, well sorted, and consists of nearly pure quartz, which has a high crush resistance. Sands that contain these characteristics and located near the surface (i.e. easily mined) are found in the St. Peter Sandstone, Jordan Sandstone, and Wonewoc formations found in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. The St. Peter formation along the Mississippi River in Northeast Iowa can be seen in the many rock outcroppings and bluffs in the region. Those bluffs, touted in tourism literature, are threatened by mining.

Frac sand mining consists of several different phases to achieve a marketable product. A mining operation may be a centralized system where mining occurs at multiple locations with the sand shipped to a central processing location. Trans-shipment and storage locations can also be parts of an operation. In contrast, a mining operation, processing plant, and shipping and storage operations (i.e. industrial frac sand facilities) may be at the same location. The type of setup employed will determine the impacts on the local environment, transportation infrastructure, and water quality and quantity.

Geology and Hydrogeology of Northeast Iowa

The geology of Northeast Iowa is unique compared to the remainder of the state. This so-called Driftless Area is distinct due to the virtual absence of glacial deposits. It also has unusual karst formations. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) states that karst exists when “easily dissolved bedrock” is found near the surface leading to sinkholes, springs, and streams that lose water to local groundwater sources rather than remaining on the surface. Characteristics of karst topography may enable surface water to bypass the natural filtration provided by soil percolation before it contacts and contaminates groundwater.

Frac Sand Mining’s Impact on Water Resources

Water Quantity

Industrial frac sand facilities have the potential to affect local water quantity due to onsite water usage for washing and processing sand or through mining beneath the water table. The water quantity effects of frac sand mining depend on the nature of each facility's location. Several potential problems are common: changing groundwater flows, effects on nearby wells and streams, rising water temperatures of concern for cold-water trout streams, and cumulative impacts of multiple mines in a small geographic area.

Water Quality

Industrial frac sand facilities can affect the quality of water resources in the region if adequate protection of the natural environment is not incorporated into site development and maintenance, and adequately enforced. Potential water quality concerns include pond overflow, site runoff, the use of chemicals in water recycling efforts, and inadequate groundwater filtration due to the facility's activity.

Frac Sand Mining vs. Tourism

The water resources in Northeast Iowa play a vital role in the local economy drawing tourists for recreational activities such as angling and boating. The water quality and quantity concerns previously outlined could directly affect the tourist economy of the region. The U.S. Travel Association has reported that Allamakee and Winneshiek counties generated approximately $68 million in domestic travel expenditures leading to over 500 travel-related jobs in 2012. This economic activity depends on local waterways. Specifically, in 2010, the Upper Iowa River generated approximately $10.3 million and 128 jobs while the Yellow River generated $2.2 million and 27 jobs to the local economy. A degradation of either water quality or quantity from industrial frac sand facilities would reverse the gains made over the past several decades and might adversely influence the livelihood of local residents who depend on tourism associated with local waterways and natural amenities. The natural environment is vital in supporting the tourism industry in the area with the region marketed as “Iowa’s Bluff Country” — yet frac-sand mining companies propose to remove those same scenic bluffs during the sand extraction process.

In contrast to the longstanding benefit of these natural assets to the region, frac sand mining offers only a short-term promise accompanied by the potential long-term damage. A report on the economic benefits and costs of frac sand mining in Wisconsin found that mining promises wealth generation for the community but rarely leads to continued prosperity, due to boom and bust cycles associated with mining and the limited connections between mining and local economies. Moreover, the report states that the mining “can discourage or displace other economic activities” leading to potential economic losses in the region. Frac sand mining has the potential to alter or remove local amenity resources, which may ultimately affect the vitality of the region.

Public Policy Options

Regulation of sand mining generally falls under two distinct categories: land use regulations and environmental regulations. Land use regulations generally reside with the local municipality, township or county in the form of zoning ordinances or police powers used to protect the health, safety and welfare of residents. Environmental regulations are generally administered by the state, but local governments may implement environmental regulations. Regulations at the local and state level play a critical role in the expansion and location of industrial frac sand facilities, as experience shows in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Local governments in each state have led the charge for increased scrutiny of the industry. Wisconsin local governments granted industrial frac sand licenses before knowing the full range of externalities associated with industrial frac sand operations. Local governments can address industrial frac sand facilities through zoning ordinances. However, many townships in Wisconsin do not have zoning ordinances, and if they do, they must work with the county to receive approval for any changes. This lack of local zoning ordinances led to one municipality using its police powers (i.e. government authority to regulate by protecting the "health, safety, and welfare" of its citizens) to prevent siting of a frac sand mine. The State Supreme Court ultimately ruled the municipality’s action legal in 2012 deciding "a town my exercise its police power authority to regulate activities involving land use, such as non-metallic mining (i.e. frac sand mining)."

Local governments in Wisconsin and Minnesota have responded to the sand surge by enacting moratoria or preventing the siting of industrial frac sand facilities, using police powers to regulate health, safety and welfare. Local ordinances limit transportation, hours of activity and air and water discharges.

State government approaches vary. Wisconsin has been favorable to the frac sand industry since its explosion in 2009; Minnesota state government has been more conservative. In 2013, the state Legislature passed a frac sand mine setback requirement of one mile from trout streams without a permit, in addition to asking the state’s Environmental Quality Board (EQB) to develop draft standards to assist local governments in regulating sand mining. The EQB disseminated a draft report containing tools for local governments to use while regulating the frac sand industry. Where Minnesota’s Governor “has suggested the fragile, interconnected groundwater systems in southeastern Minnesota should be off-limits to frac sand mines,” Wisconsin’s executive branch has fully supported frac sand facility growth within the state.

Iowa Action

Supervisors in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in Iowa have established moratoria on new frac sand mine operations in order to study the issue and decide on a set of ordinances to properly regulate these operations. These actions could be in vain if the state were to take local decision-making away — and Iowa lawmakers have a history of preempting local government from regulating in some areas. While it is common for higher levels of government to try to to keep laws consistent, the lower level government is often allowed to adopt more stringent regulations. This is not true in several high profile areas.

In Iowa, perhaps the closest to the issue of industrial frac sand facilities is preemption of local government powers to regulate the location and emissions to air and water from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). A series of Iowa Supreme Court cases have established that the Iowa Legislature can limit any local government action governing locations of CAFOs or placing limits on their discharges to water or air. The Iowa Supreme Court held that all agriculture, including an animal feeding operation, is exempt from any county zoning. (Kuehl v. Cass County 1996) Humboldt County later attempted to put controls on CAFOs as a proper application of “home rule” authority but lost in the Iowa Supreme Court. (Goodell v. Humboldt County, 1998) In the face of this state preemption, a Worth County ordinance sought to regulate CAFO operators based not on home rule, but on the county’s ability to protect public health. This ordinance was struck down as void and unenforceable because it was contrary to state law. The court found: “Our legislature intended livestock production in Iowa to be governed by statewide regulation, not local regulation. It has left no room for county regulation.” (Worth County Friends of Agriculture v Worth County, 2004)

Iowa county government should be concerned that frac sand operations might be treated the same as CAFOs and local regulation eviscerated. Preemption of local regulation of frac sand operations is already under discussion in Wisconsin. Several Wisconsin state legislators introduced legislation in October 2013 that would limit local governments’ ability to enact restrictions on the sand mining industry. While the bill has been delayed until the spring 2014 session of the Legislature, it is a very real threat to local control.

Ordinance Recommendations

The Minnesota EQB draft toolkit for local governments offers a starting point for ordinances now being considered in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in Iowa. The toolkit provides detailed ordinance recommendations for a range of topics including water resource issues. Northeast Iowa local governments also should consider the following general water-related items when drafting ordinances.

Hydrologic Mapping
A comprehensive hydrologic analysis of the industrial frac sand facility site and the surrounding area should be completed to determine groundwater flow patterns and the facility’s impact on the area.

Local Well Monitoring
Monitoring of local wells should begin prior to a facility’s activation to determine a baseline level for well quality and quantity; monitoring should continue at least quarterly after a facility has become operational.

Sinkhole Setbacks
Where applicable, a setback from sinkholes and other karst features should be required. For example, Minnesota requires a mine site to identify all karst features within 500 feet of the site and then requires a hydrologic analysis to determine a facility’s impact.

Trout Stream Setbacks
Trout streams represent a valuable component of the local economy and natural environment and need to be protected from significant impacts of frac sand mining. Minnesota requires a one-mile setback from trout streams without a permit from the DNR. Iowa local governments should consider a similar rule.

Cumulative Impact
The placement of multiple facilities in a close geographic area may exacerbate water quality and quantity concerns. For example, if several industrial frac sand facilities were located in a close area, the withdrawal of water could be significant leading to a cone of depression over a wide geographic area.


As with any form of resource extraction, environmental concerns are associated with industrial frac sand facilities. The frac sand industry’s potential foray into Iowa has raised concerns from local residents regarding the potential environmental impacts as illustrated by Wisconsin’s experience. Impacts that degrade the quality and quality of water resources could potentially alter the nature of the Northeast Iowa economy and residents’ quality of life.

When drafting ordinances for frac sand mining, local governments need to be aware of the potential costs the industry — such as losses of tourism and general aesthetics that can never be recovered — along with the benefits that can be expected to last only over a short time. The cumulative effects of multiple industrial frac sand facilities operating in a small geographic area need to be understood prior to permitting any single mine.

Finally, state leaders in Iowa should recognize the responsibility, expertise and concerns of local officials in determining what is best for their area. Further, state leaders should provide technical assistance to local officials for determining frac sand mining's impact at the local and regional level.

Aaron Kline is an intern at the Iowa Policy Project and a graduate student in the School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa. His focus is land use and environmental planning.

David Osterberg is Founding Director of the Iowa Policy Project. He is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa, and holds masters degrees in economics, water resources management and agricultural economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Fred and Charlotte Hubbell Foundation, which made the preparation of this report possible. While these funders support the research that went into this report, they may not necessarily agree with policy recommendations that are included. Policy recommendations are solely the perspective of the authors and the Iowa Policy Project.