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 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.
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.