The humble Iowa City Goosetown neighborhood is the location of my even humbler house, a three-room castle (three rooms, not three bedrooms) that can be seen in the background of the 1941 Grant Wood painting, Spring in Town. Wood taught painting at the University of Iowa from 1934-1941 before dying young in Iowa City of pancreatic cancer in 1942. Spring in Town was one of his last three works.
The abstract for my house shows 1900 as the year of construction, 1900 being a euphemism the city uses for “unknown,” which means it was built long before that. It’s a cabin, basically. I’m not sure what the city does for houses actually built in 1900. There are several pre-Civil War houses in Iowa City.
The 462 ft2 house sits on a 6750 ft2 lot; for the purposes of what I am writing here, I’m going to add 400 ft2 for my side of the street that runs in front of the house, so 7150 ft2, or about 1/6th of an acre (0.16 ac).
The property taxes on this palace are $2434 per year, which give-or-take is about what the property taxes are on 80 acres of earth’s best farmland here in Iowa, an amount of land that can be worth more than $1,000,000 in some Iowa counties.
My house receives treated drinking water from the Iowa City water utility, my sanitary sewer waste is treated at the city’s wastewater treatment plant, and of course there are monthly charges for both these things above and beyond the property tax bill.
I also pay $5 per month for a monthly stormwater utility charge. This is because Iowa City is an MS4 community (1), meaning it has a Municipal Separated Storm Sewer System, ‘separated’ because it uses a different conveyance system than the sanitary sewer. Not all communities have separated sewers, but many larger cities do. Milwaukee is one exception that comes to mind; Des Moines has been in the process of separating its stormwater from its sanitary sewer for a while now.
As an MS4 community, Iowa City is required by EPA and Iowa DNR to conduct certain activities that (a) reduce pollution in stormwater runoff, (b) protect water quality and (c) satisfy water quality requirements of the Clean Water Act, and all this is governed by a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. Thus, the stormwater running off heaven’s (and my) half of a third of an acre is regulated. My lot is part of the 4% of the USA covered by the stormwater regulation, an area that is home to 80% of the country’s population. Iowa City and other similarly-sized communities have been regulated under Phase II of the stormwater regulation since 1999.
Since 1995, $35 Billion taxpayer dollars have supported Iowa’s agricultural production system, about $1200 in total for every acre of farm ground in the state (2). This includes public subsidies for crop insurance, disaster payments, commodity programs, and conservation programs. Conservation payments, much of which is focused on improving water quality, exceed $6 Billion during that time, or about $210/acre.
Contrast that to my place. I pay $375 per acre every year to mitigate the stormwater coming off my property ($5 per month multiplied by 12 months divided by 0.16 acres), water that is far less polluted than water draining off most farm ground.
Yes, I do know that farmers spend their own money on conservation practices, but as I have stated before, these are very often targeted to things like terraces and grass waterways that are primarily designed to conserve the productive capacity of the farm, and not to deliver environmental outcomes beneficial to public. In the case of terraces, they can actually degrade stream water quality. But Iowa farmers (and their landlords, since more than 50% of Iowa land is rented) would have to spend nearly $11 Billion per year in total on stormwater mitigation to equal the amount I pay on a per acre basis.
In the 2018 Iowa State University Rural Life Survey (3), 41% of farm landlords stated THEY HAD SPENT NOTHING ON CONSERVATION over the PAST 10 YEARS COMBINED, and 78% of these folks had spent less than $5000. And this is not per acre, it’s TOTAL. And folks, these are not poor people polluting our water.
Why does this perversion exist? Mainly because the Clean Water Act, passed by congress over Nixon’s veto in an era (1972) when cities were seriously degrading water resources, let agriculture off the hook. The cities were forced to man-up and clean-up, which they largely did, first with wastewater treatment and now stormwater. Water quality in places like Iowa, where unregulated agriculture dominates land use, lags far behind other (regulated) places in the U.S.
But this perversion exists for another reason: as citizens, we permit it to exist. We give license to agriculture to pollute and we pay for their half-hearted attempts to mitigate it. Some might say this is a provocative or inflammatory statement, but it is the stone-cold truth. We have 71,000 miles of streams and a couple of hundred lakes, and the latest Iowa DNR impaired waters list shows only 16 waterbody segments meet the standards for all of their designated uses (4).
If you’re eager to hear about clean beaches and clear streams, well, you better just learn to make do with the success stories that the Ag Family of advocacy organizations lathers on like a teenage boy with a bottle of Axe cologne before a date with the homecoming queen. These stories often feature some publicly-supported built project on private land that include catch phrases like ‘stewardship’, ‘one size doesn’t fit all’, and ‘we all want clean water’, and they are very infrequently supported by any sort of water monitoring. Ag communication shops also like to pump out stories that imply some sort of false equivalence between urban and agricultural water pollution. A recent one inspired this piece. These fairytales usually talk about how the cities need to partner up with somebody, because finger pointing, unlike somebody polluting your water, is impolite. I can tell you where there is equivalence: partnering = get out your checkbook, at least if you live in town.
To be fair, our agencies and environmental organizations that purport to protect our water also like success stories, and their yarns bear an eerie resemblance to those written by the ag industry. They have their own set of catchwords: soil health, resilience, sustainability. But these folks are like the nerdy science kid—no amount of Axe is ever going to help them get lucky. They get snubbed year after year, hoping in vain for a blown kiss from the ag cheerleaders or their booster club in the capital. Take it from me, about all they get from the bullies and the cool kids is snickering. Want proof? Look at or smell your water.
Iowa’s water quality situation frequently reminds me of that old joke about France. Q: How many Frenchmen does it take to defend Paris? A: Nobody knows, because it’s never been tried before. Honestly, at this point I can only applaud the industry: they had the will to triumph, and triumph they have. Your water and your pocketbook are the collateral damage.