Wednesday, February 12, 2020

This morning I read for the second time in two years that our state’s agriculture department is “just getting started” on addressing Iowa’s problems with nutrient pollution (1,2). As my favorite 1960s TV star Jerry Mathers would say, “gee that’s swell”, since this pollution has been around since Leave it to Beaver was still a thing. You’ve probably noticed the problem if you’ve made more than a few trips to an Iowa river or lake over the past 60 years.

Jerry Mathers as the Beaver

This got me to thinking that maybe there’s hope that my 30-year old daughter will finally clean up her room. Better late than never. Keep trying, honey.

Maybe we should have grounded her when we had the chance.

Honestly there are days when I wish that the justgettingstarted people wouldn’t get me started. This is one of those days. Serious question: Am I crazy to wonder who is writing copy for Ag spokespeople?

Reading today’s (2/12/20) tweet (1) from the Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance, one-third of whom still denies contributing to the nutrient pollution problem (3) (I know, I know, you can’t make this stuff up), returned all sorts of memories to what’s left of my mind. Firstly, it made me think of this paper, Nitrate-Nitrogen in Tile Drainage as Affected by Fertilization (4), published in 1981 by Iowa State University Researchers using data from as far back as 1970. Here’s a quote:

“The large leaching losses of nitrate measured (from Iowa farm fields) are of environmental, economic, and energy concern. The quality of tile drainage water is important because this water can be a significant portion of total stream flow.

The tweet also made me think of my days spent in the bowels of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) Fleur Drive Treatment Plant. I know, who came up with that “bowels” thing? Any way if you don’t know, DMWW has been removing nitrate from Des Moines drinking water since 1992. Poking around Google Scholar generated this gem, published in the 1996 Journal of Soil and Water Conservation: Agriculture and Drinking Water Supplies: Removing nitrates from drinking water in Des Moines, Iowa. Here’s an excerpt:

L.D. McMullen, general manager of DMWW, says that nitrate removal concerns in Des Moines go back a long time. “Back in the early eighties (1980s, if you were wondering) we started to notice an upward trend in the nitrate levels found in the rivers,” he said. To improve both water quantity and quality, Des Moines decided to build a new intake in the Des Moines River to supplement the existing intakes from the Raccoon River and other sources. The dual-river system worked for a while, he said, because the rivers were “out of sync”, that is, when nitrate levels were high in one, they were low in the other—the treatment plant could flip-flop back and forth between them. That was only a temporary solution, said McMullen, because they soon realized there were going to be times where the levels were high in both rivers at the same time.

L.D. McMullen

Memories of a piece on ISU’s digital repository (5), Agriculture: environmental problems and directions (1990), also came to me today. I gotta tell you folks, the zingers in this thing have been preserved like a 40-year old Twinkie. Here are some of 1990's (the year, not the decade) greatest hits:

Agricultural practices which contribute to nutrient-related water quality problems include: excessive soil erosion; use of fertilizers in excess of crop needs; failure to account for nutrient contributions of legumes and animal manures; and failure to coordinate timing of fertilizer applications according to crop needs. (Yes basically the same stuff we’re talking about 30 years later).

The public has a right to expect that Iowa's surface and ground waters will be maintained at such a quality that they can be used as a source of drinking water, for recreation, and for other uses.

Iowa has established a number of programs designed to encourage voluntary adoption of farming practices…the state is likely to continue its support of this voluntary approach, including providing continued funding for the various programs now underway. However, it is important to recognize that success of this voluntary approach in developing, demonstrating, and adopting such "Best Management Practices" is by no means assured, and failure of this approach may well lead to increased regulation.

Will farmers, agribusiness, and other groups in the agricultural community support and work to implement these voluntary water protection initiatives? Past history suggests they may not. (You don't say, hmm.)

Recent sociological research also suggests that the voluntary approach may not be highly successful. A recent survey of Iowa farmers characterized Iowa agriculture as "highly dependent on external inputs, and one where strong motivations toward changes are not pre-existing."

While it is likely that the ongoing voluntary programs will be given a reasonable period to work before a more regulatory approach is adopted, this period will certainly be far shorter than the 50-year period given for voluntary soil conservation programs to work. (Reminder: as of this morning, they're just getting started).

At this point, the challenge is clear. Will the agricultural community voluntarily take the actions necessary to protect and improve Iowa's water quality? There are many who say this will not happen.

Ok, I’ve gone on long enough with that, if I haven’t made my point by now, I never will.

Do Iowans deserve better than to be told that this problem will take a long time yet to solve, even when known solutions are out there? That's for you to decide. It's your water. Although I think we deserve better than to be told by agency staff to not expect instant gratification, all available evidence shows that we should take them at their word on that.

Orwell said to never use a saying or a metaphor in your writing that you heard or read somewhere else. But right now, I can’t resist the temptation.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

  4. Baker, J.L. and Johnson, H.P., 1981. Nitrate‐nitrogen in tile drainage as affected by fertilization. Journal of Environmental Quality10(4), pp.519-522.
  5. Iowa State University Digital Repository. Agena, U., Bryant, B. and Oswald, T., 1990. Agriculture: environmental problems and directions.