Thursday, September 3, 2020

Acknowledgement: Professors Silvia Secchi and Dave Cwiertny provided some information and inspiration for this essay.

In the electricity-free aftermath of the derecho, somebody at the Ankeny Hy-Vee grocery store dumped 800 gallons of milk down the storm sewer. No amount of helpful smiles were able to keep this milk from entering Fourmile Creek, which runs along the north and east sides of my hometown.

4MileCreek watershed

Ah yes, Fourmile. Way back before Gerald Ford was president, and long before today’s suburban Little League infields looked like Wrigley on a Memorial Day afternoon, Ankeny boys like me played Little League baseball on dirt fields in the Fourmile floodplain east of town. There was none of today’s pretentious “sports complex” naming associated with those four diamonds, as the only thing that was “complex” was the strange goo that coated the outfield after the crick’s frequent wildcat floods.  The place was not entirely without charm; I do recall a concession stand with orange crush and snow cones and such, which were your reward for a victory.  Losers got cold rice topped with milk and cinnamon after they got back home. At least that’s what you got at my house.

So enough of that reminiscing.

Storm sewers are meant (usually) to convey storm and snowmelt water directly to a receiving stream. But as you probably know, storm water can carry a lot of other stuff into the sewer including dirt, trash, pet waste and who knows what else. And doofuses do deliberately dump stuff into storm sewers despite (or maybe in spite of?, IDK) our efforts to label them with stenciled images of dead fish, ducks, and frogs.

The day after the Ankeny storm sewer became Milky Way, a bunch of Fourmile fish died because as bacteria break down milk, they consume dissolved oxygen and the fish suffocate. Milk has what we call in the biz a high Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), which is a quantifiable water quality parameter and a mainstay of wastewater treatment plant operation, monitoring and regulation. The grocery store guffaw was intensified by the drought-driven low flow in Fourmile. To Hy-Vee’s credit, they didn’t blame the weather for their water pollution, like some others I could name.

4 Mile Creek with milk

As any kid knows, spilt 2% is hard to hide and our government agency charged with regulating and punishing such behavior (DNR) was on it like stink on sour milk.  If you don’t know, a regulatory agency looks at events such as this much like Mickey Mantle looked at hanging curve balls. Let’s just say this one had “upper deck” written all over it from the start.

And the outrage directed toward Hy-Vee on social media. Oh, the outrage. It made me wonder how our water got so degraded in the first place, and if any of these people had actually seen or smelled Fourmile Creek even once in the last 50 years.

Mickey Mantle

Now, don’t get me wrong here. Hy-Vee needs to be creamed by DNR. But part of me has to wonder why we Iowans are so callous about our water resources, why one of us would thoughtlessly dump 800 gallons of anything down a storm sewer. It’s not like we don’t enjoy, or don’t want to enjoy, recreating in our lakes and streams. Heck, I was at Saylorville Reservoir outside of Des Moines last weekend, and the boats were too numerous to count. Folks were even awake for wake-boarding at 6:30 Sunday morning, but apparently not woke to the hazards of body contact with toxic algae in the green soup.

As it turns out, there is research that has examined this callous mentality. The economist Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012) was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for her work analyzing economic governance of “the commons”. In this context, the commons is/are the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including things like lakes and streams that are not owned privately and (presumably) managed for both individual and collective benefit.

In her 1999 paper Revisiting the Commons: Local Lessons, Global Challenges (1), Ostrom stated that For users (of the resource) to see major benefits, resource conditions must not have deteriorated to such an extent that the resource is useless, nor can the resource be so little used that few advantages result from organizing.”

Fourmile Creek does have potential as a recreational water body for paddlers, anglers and wildlife observers. It’s part of the Polk County Water Trails project, which aims to enhance water recreation opportunities in the Des Moines metropolitan area. People have invested, both with their time and their money, in improving its condition.

But Fourmile has never really been more than a conduit for agricultural and urban runoff from northern and eastern Polk county, and northeast Des Moines proper has suffered devastating floods because of its altered hydrology. You can see small changes happening here and there with attempts at streambank restoration, but the water quality is not distinguishable from when I was getting eaten alive by mosquitos while playing right field in its floodplain.

Elinor Ostrem with caption

Water quality in our big rivers like the Iowa, Cedar, Raccoon and the Des Moines (which receives water from Fourmile) will never get better until we fix the Fourmiles. How do we do it? Ostrom said that “in all cases, individuals must overcome their tendency to evaluate their own benefits and costs more intensely than the total benefits and costs for a group.”

In other words, we need to quit thinking selfishly about the almighty dollar, and give some thought to what is best for the common good.

  1. Ostrom, E., Burger, J., Field, C.B., Norgaard, R.B. and Policansky, D., 1999. Revisiting the commons: local lessons, global challenges. science284(5412), pp.278-282.