Thursday, April 18, 2019

My University of Iowa office is in Trowbridge Hall. The building is named for Charles Trowbridge, Iowa’s state geologist from 1934-1947, a position now occupied by my friend and colleague Keith Schilling. Trowbridge Hall was finished in 1916 and once housed the university’s dental school. Duct tape keeps my office ceiling from crumbling but the space is large and the view is outstanding. Trowbridge is filled with old stuff: rocks, fossils, early photos of Iowa, giant well-drilling drill bits, Iowa Geological Survey records, and books.

One book I came across was Water Resources of Iowa (1969). A while back I brought the book to my desk thinking I would read the whole thing, but in the interest of time I decided I would only scan it briefly to look for something interesting. Something interesting happened on p. 17 when I came to the name Sulo Wiitala. I stopped there because I love Finns, their names, and their Sisu (I’m going to make you look it up). Sisu enabled them to stand up to a powerful bully (Stalin) and kick his ass in 1939, something even Hitler failed to do. Not enough sisu.

Trowbridge Hall at the University of Iowa
Trowbridge Hall


Sulo’s contribution to Water Resources of Iowa was a chapter not-very-imaginatively-titled “Surface Water Resources of Iowa” (sorry Sulo). He stated that each Iowan was a custodian of 2.1 million gallons of surface water. It’s probably changed some since 1969 but in honor of Sulo and his Finnish brethren I’m sticking with that number. For reference, 2.1 million gallons is the volume of a box 65’ x 65’ x 65’.

In 2018, your 2.1 million gallons contained 56 pounds of nitrogen. Four of those pounds can be sourced back to biogeochemical processes that have been here since Iowa had rivers. Through conscious and unconscious decisions (probably the latter) you have given your government permission to allow, through the Clean Water Act, another six pounds to be added to your water. The other 46 pounds got there by means beyond the reach of the Clean Water Act.

Portrait of Sulo, black and white
Sulo Wiitala, 1918-2011.


Trying to figure out this 46 pounds has consumed entire careers, and if you are inclined to believe the rhetoric, created an urban-rural divide in Iowa. If such a divide exists, I think stupid rhetoric created it, but what do I know. At any rate, we try and try to figure out ways to reduce 46 to 25 (45% reduction).

If you peaked at the comments following my last post, you saw that I’ve been accused of not offering solutions for Mission 46-25. The content of these posts and my scientific papers show that accusation is objectively false. I do indeed offer solutions, many of them consistent with the conventional wisdom on nutrient loss. The solutions I’ve offered here recently in this space are not new and are completely in line with standard thinking on nutrient loss and BMPs:

  • Don’t apply manure to snow
  • Don’t crop in 2-year floodplains
  • Accurately account for manure nutrient content
  • Apply nitrogen at the ISU-recommended rates
  • Plant cover crops
  • Build wetlands

The genius (sarcasm) of several of my suggested solutions is that they produce an immediate beneficial effect and they COST THE TAXPAYER ZERO DOLLARS. Folks, some of this low hanging fruit is hanging so low that if it hung any lower, we’d step on it. If pointing that out feels like an eye-poking to somebody, which seems to be the case from the post comment, then about all I can say is that person is clearly not of Finnish descent.

Matt Liebman stands in a field
Matt Liebman


Another solution has been proposed by my friend Matt Liebman at Iowa State. Matt’s a smart and interesting guy who has built an outstanding career by studying alternatives to the 2-year corn-soybean rotation. His research, which has been discussed in the national media, notably the New York Times, has shown that extended crop rotations that incorporate oats, clovers and alfalfa into a corn/soy scheme can reduce losses of nitrogen, phosphorus, and soil 39, 30 and 60% respectively while maintaining farm productivity and profitability. Matt’s strategies also have the added benefit of reducing pesticide use and the necessity of crop insurance. One of his recent papers on this subject can be found here. Matt is also a great gardener and not an eye-poker.

Back to sisu. There’s a guy I met maybe 8-10 times and I don’t claim to have known him well, but I do know with a certainty he had sisu. That guy was William Gaylord Stowe. Stowe took the measure of that 46 pounds and had the temerity to say something ain’t right here. For that he was labeled an eye poker and a lot worse but he had the sisu of any 10 people. The name Stowe is one of English derivation, but I have to wonder if there weren’t some Finns on his mother’s side.

These past few days I’ve heard people say Stowe “fought the good fight”. I don’t buy that. “Fighting the good fight” is for people who know they are beaten. Stowe fought.




Postscript: A reader of the INPL provided this information: County roads make up the bulk of Iowa roadways (89,918 miles), and Chapter 306 of the Iowa Code states that 66 feet is the standard right-of-way of a secondary road. The quick and dirty process would be to apply the 66 ft Road Right of Ways (ROWs) across the board. On one hand it treats all roads like they are 2-lane gravel roads with modest ditches, but on the other hand it gives a very conservative estimate of the acres. Using these steps I come up with 788,352 acres. This would mean well over half our public land is in road ROWs.

Postscipt 2: This Finnish movie is great.