The Des Moines Register
April 22, 2021
The Register’s editorial
If a toddler’s diaper leaks at a public swimming pool, parents get their kids out of the water. Teenagers gag. Lifeguards recognize there’s a problem and respond by skimming, treating or even draining the water.
Contrast that with Iowa’s natural waterways, which are awash in animal manure, harmful chemicals from pesticides and other pollutants, mainly from farm field runoff. Visitors are apparently expected to just swim, fish, boat and recreate in them with a smile and a plugged nose. The contamination is even referred to as “nutrients,” a term that leaves the impression there is something healthful about it. And elected authorities do not take the problem seriously.
Iowa’s strategy has long been to trust farmers to do the right thing when it comes to reducing agricultural pollution of waterways. But the state’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2013, hasn’t changed things. There is no reason to think that the missing ingredient is more time.
The latest reminder is a report from American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy nonprofit, which each year identifies the 10 most endangered waterways in the nation. This year the Raccoon River, which serves as a drinking water supply for more than 500,000 people in Des Moines, landed in ninth place on the list.
The group says waste from about 750 animal feeding operations in the river’s watershed “is spread on fields, often at rates that exceed the soil’s ability to absorb it.” The remaining manure runs into our waterways.
The ground can soak up only so much excrement. The question now: When are Iowans going to get their fill of it and demand changes?
The people of this state do not have to accept fishing in stinky streams, rafting down polluted rivers and contributing to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where excessive algae blooms deplete underwater oxygen levels. We should not have to fork over loads of money to clean our drinking water of nitrates that may increase the risk of ovarian, thyroid, kidney and bladder cancers. And we should not tolerate the collective shrug we too often get from state leaders.
Iowa’s agriculture secretary, Mike Naig, called the American Rivers report “a bit of propaganda” during a recent recording of Iowa PBS’ “Iowa Press.”
Then he added that familiar, well, propaganda about water quality that many of us have heard from politicians for as long as we can remember: “We are moving in the right direction.”
That is false.
When it comes to nitrogen in waterways, things have continued to get worse statewide for the past two decades, said Chris Jones, a research engineer at the University of Iowa’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering, originally named the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research. “The situation with the Raccoon River would be similar.”
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For a voluntary nutrient reduction strategy to work, you need volunteers. Having only 4% of Iowa land in cover crops after eight years “is a kick in the crotch, let’s just be honest,” according to Jones.
An editorial writer asked him what Iowa should do. He outlined five ideas he said would be minimally disruptive to farmers and free to taxpayers:
- Ban row crops in the two-year flood plain where fertilizers and pesticides are washed into waterways every other year.
- Ban fall tillage, which increases soil erosion and nutrient loss and is not necessary for growing corn and soybeans.
- Ban manure on snow and frozen ground. Existing rules about this are too weak, and the practice is “great for smelly snowball fights, really bad for our rivers,” Jones said.
- Require farmers to adhere to Iowa State University’s fertilizer guidelines, which were put in place to prevent over-application but are not followed by many farmers.
- Reformulate regulations for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Hogs in confinements generate waste that must go somewhere.