Thursday, January 9, 2020

I spoke with a colleague this morning who had returned from a holiday break spent at her rural Iowa childhood home. While we were each cooking up the usual post-holiday small talk, she related to me some of her recent conversations with farmer relatives that included this idea:

There is not a problem with Iowa’s water quality.

I don't know how widespread this opinion is, but I do know from personal experience it’s not that uncommon. Many Iowans feel this way.

I disagree.

I do wonder how folks come to believe this.  I think part of it is that few living Iowans know what our streams should or could look like. I can recall during my youth wondering why the Skunk River was straight. It never occurred to me that people had the capacity to un-meander a pretty good-sized river, or why they would even try.

I’m also of a mind that people see brown rivers and green lakes and think that is the natural order of things. People ask me all the time what the “natural” level of nitrate or phosphorus or sediment is in our water (it’s about 1/100 to 1/10th of what it is now). Without a significant investment of time and energy, how would the average person know what adequate stream and lake water quality would be for Iowa? This ignorance fertilizes opposition to standards for our lakes and streams, which would provide easy indicators of current quality.

Lastly, I have no recourse but to believe that our collective environmental ethic does not include good water quality. I want to, but I just can’t see any way around that. The public continues to grant social license for the impairment of our water. This conservation or land or water ethic, or whatever you want to call it, deserves to be explored.

I doubt anybody has ever met a farmer who didn’t consider themselves to be a “conservation” farmer, or a “good steward” of the land. A veritable parade of them receives awards every year at the state fair, and I’m convinced that these are sincerely held beliefs. So why doesn’t our water get better? One reason certainly is the environmental vulnerabilities inherent to our production system.

But there is another factor here and I think it relates to our concept of conservation. For many in agriculture, “conservation” means maintaining the productive capacity of the farm for future generations. Historically, it has not meant producing environmental outcomes beneficial to the public. Are these things mutually exclusive?—No. But neither are they synonymous.

The best example of this is a terrace. There can be no doubt that terraces on cropped land help maintain the productive capacity of the farm. Do they improve water quality? Well, to answer that question requires a lot of nuance and the truth is that in many cases, the answer is a flat-out no. I don’t want to dive too far down this surface intake today (sorry if you don’t get the metaphor, I don’t have time to explain), but terraces can effectively degrade stream water quality.


One benefit of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is that it has at least begun to unify these two concepts of conservation.

Many have written about these concepts of conservation and land ethic, but for a lot of people, the unchallenged intellectual Godfather of this topic is Burlington-born Aldo Leopold. Long ago, Aldo returned from a mountaintop carrying some stone tablets upon which was etched a land ethic. But alas, 80 years later we're still worshiping the golden calf. Also the golden hog and the golden bushel. And the golden egg.

The River of the Mother of God

Like many, I thought the tablets still existed as A Sand County Almanac, Aldo’s feel-good collection of wistful land ethic and conservation essays. I was wrong.

Iowa’s most likely entry in the next Mark-Twain-look-alike-contest, if there ever is such a thing, told me about another Aldo book: The River of the Mother of God. These essays are the tablets.

Warning: if you think I’m too sardonic, then this book is not for you, especially the final 1/3 of it.

I’ve thought for a long time about how I could talk about the book in this space. There’s no way I can out-Aldo Aldo, and I hope I never get so presumptuous as to think I could interpret it for anybody.

But I have a lot of photos. I take some and people send me some. The idea came to me that I should select some of these photos and attach Aldo excerpts to them. That effort is what follows. The photos are all of Iowa. When reading Aldo's words, bear in mind that they were all written prior to 1948.


Headwaters of the Iowa River
"Even the Agricultural College fell for the idea of making land by wasting water."


Raccoon River with corn
"The farmers must have their corn; their only recourse is the marshy creek bottoms. These, however, are subject to flashy floods. To raise corn on the bottoms the floods will have to be prodded downstream by straightening, which in turn will aggravate the flashy runoff and augment erosion. Thus the cycle of misuse."
"I will not tire you with all the red herrings, subterfuges, evasions, and expedients which these people have used to befog this simple issue."
Photo credit: R. Harden.



Suburban erosion
"We of the machine age admire ourselves for our mechanical ingenuity; we harness cars to the solar energy impounded in carboniferous forests; we fly in mechanical birds; we make the ether carry our words and even our pictures. But are these not in one sense mere parlor tricks compared with our utter ineptitude in keeping land fit to live upon?"


pothole wetland with ducks
"Migratory game has lost heavily through drainage and over-shooting; its future is black because motives of self-interest do not apply to the private cropping of birds so mobile that they 'belong' to everyone , and hence to nobody."
"It cannot be right, in the ecological sense, for a farmer to drain the last marsh, graze the last woods, or slash the last grove in his community, because in doing so he evicts a fauna, or flora, and a landscape whose membership in the community is older than his own, and is equally entitled to respect."



cover crops in corn
"Take Weaver's discovery that the composition of the plant community determines the ability of soils to retain their granulation, and hence their stability. If finally verified, this new principle may necessitate the revision of our entire system of thought on flood control and erosion control."
My comment: I can't read this excerpt and not get angry about the fact that this was written 81 YEARS AGO (1938).
Photo credit: Continuum Ag.



gully erosion
"We have built a beautiful piece of social machinery--the Soil Conservation District--which is coughing along on two cylinders because we have been too timid, and too anxious for quick success, to tell the farmer the true magnitude of his obligations."



constructed wetland
"The engineer believes, and has taught the public to believe, that a constructed mechanism is inherently preferable to a natural one. The conservationist believes the contrary."
Photo credit: A. Kiel.


Raccoon River with falling soybeans
"If we grant the premise that the ecological conscience is possible and needed, then its first tenet must be this: economic provocation is no longer a satisfactory excuse for unsocial land use (or, to use somewhat stronger words, for ecological atrocities)."
Photo credit: R. Harden.



steam shovel creating drainage ditch
"We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam shovel, and we are proud of our yardage."



Raccoon River riprap
"I point out merely the seeming assumption that skillful structures can solve our water problems, and by implication exempt us from the penalties of bungling land use."
Photo credit: R. Harden.



Iowa River boat launch
"No prudent man is a fisherman."


Soil eroding onto sidewalk
"We asked the farmer to do what he conveniently could to save his soil, and he has done just that."



Iowa River at Burlington Street dam
"Rain which spatters upon vegetated soil stays clear and sinks, while rain which spatters upon devegetated soil seals its interstices with colloidal mud and hence must run away as floods, cutting out the heart of the country as it goes."



Raccoon River riprap and bare dirt
"Despite nearly a century of propaganda, conservation still proceeds at a snail's pace, progress still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory."
Photo credit: R. Harden.



Water running from tile outlet
"You can't hurry water down the creek without hurting the creek, the neighbors, and yourself."


manure on snow
"As a man thinketh, so is he."



drainage ditch
"In farm country, the plover has only two real enemies: the gully and the drainage ditch. Perhaps we shall one day find these are our enemies, too."



straightened stream
"I mention last what seems to me the least discussed but most regrettable instance of short-sighted engineering--the wholesale straightening of small rivers and creeks. This is done to hasten the runoff of local flood waters, and its face, pushing trouble downstream, of seeking benefit for the locality at the expense of the community. In justice the stream-straightener should indemnify the public for the damage; in practice I fear the public may at times subsidize him."
Image credit: B. Beck.



"We speak glibly of conservation education, but what do we mean by it? If we mean indoctrination, then let us be reminded that it is just as easy to indoctrinate with fallacies as with facts. If we mean to teach the capacity for independent judgment, then I am appalled by the magnitude of the facts. The task is large mainly because of this refusal of adults to learn anything new."
Photo credit: M. Liebman.



Aldo Leopold
"The direction is clear, and the first step is to throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land-use. Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays. That philosophy is dead in human relations, and its funeral in land-relations is overdue."
Photo credit: University of Wisconsin