Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Note: this piece was co-written with Professors Silvia Secchi (University of Iowa) and Benjamin Maas (presently Buena Vista University but soon leaving for South Dakota) and was run in the Iowa City Press-Citizen on April 21. The Press-Citizen gave me permission to post it here. This isn’t the exact manuscript we submitted to the Press-Citizen, but we approved it and I did not alter their version here. 

Iowa’s 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks recently co-authored with Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) a letter to the Des Moines Register that focused on an issue ostensibly important to Iowa’s water: the Trump Administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule (NWPR), which replaced the Obama Administration’s hated (by agriculture concerns) Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule.

Photo of Ben Maas
Ben Maas.

Following the time-tested strategy of tossing red herrings into our polluted lakes and streams, Miller-Meeks would have us believe that the long arm of the federal government will only interfere with and complicate the good-faith efforts of Iowa agriculture to give Iowans the long-promised holy grail of clean water.

We say, wake up and smell the manure.

First, it’s crazy to think WOTUS would have either cleaned up our water or handcuffed Iowa agriculture. WOTUS exempted agriculture! It’s clear the industry and its spokespeople will never part ways with this phony boogeyman because it helps them achieve their real objective, which is maintaining the same agricultural status quo that has produced the pollution that plagues our state year after maddening year.

Yes, we need regulation to clean up Iowa’s water. WOTUS is not it. NWPR is not it. We have a massive, continental-scale problem here with nutrient pollution — one so large that the average person can barely get their head around it. Our rivers transport more than one-half of a billion pounds of nitrate-nitrogen in an average year. Some years, it’s double that. We send the equivalent of 13 rail cars of nitrate down our rivers every day. This is an insane (but profitable, for some) waste of natural resources that is maintained by Iowa’s political and economic establishment, and one that pollutes your water. The industry, though, continues to cram more and more livestock into the state as if our rivers, lakes and aquifers are fine.

Nothing to see here folks, the establishment would have you believe.

We know of no problem this large that has been solved with individual actions. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a solid attempt at improvement, but let’s face it: If a voluntary strategy is going to work, you need volunteers. Farmers are not volunteering in the numbers that we need. Not even close. Look at the North Raccoon watershed. The hated feds tried raining down $2.5 million on the watershed’s farmers to adopt water-cleansing practices, and almost all of them said, “No thanks.” The result: 80% of the money went unspent and a golden opportunity was lost to clean up one of our highest-profile rivers.

Our state government and the industry continue to dangle shiny objects in front of us to distract us from the beach closings and fish kills and algae blooms and contaminated drinking water that fill the news nearly every day. Agricultural mouthpieces respond to reports of bad water quality by saying it’s just “propaganda,” as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig did just last week.

As three people who study these problems, we’re here to tell you the propaganda is actually coming from the agricultural industry and its advocates, and our water quality troubles are unfortunately and painfully real. They want you to believe that, with a constructed wetland here and a terrace there, there is a flood of exciting momentum about to float your boat.

Sorry folks, the jury is in: These problems cannot be solved via individual actions. Look at the water with your own eyes. Smell it with your own nose.

We deserve better than feel-good commercials that focus on the few good actors and the paltry 4% of our crop acres with nutrient-saving cover crops, while neglecting the other side of the ledger — over-application of fertilizer, new tiled acres (which increase nitrate loss), unfettered Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation growth, lack of monitoring and enforcement of rules like manure on snow. Why would anyone expect our water to be getting better?

Solving Iowa’s water problem requires collective action, and taxpayers should have a say on what that is. We subsidize the pollution of our own water. Because we are contributing billions of our own money to the operation of the system, we deserve to have some expectations when it comes to water quality. If farmers want public money, they should meet some environmental expectations. We cannot count on the practitioners of agriculture to do the right thing. The fish kills and the siting of enormous CAFOs in environmentally sensitive areas is all the evidence we need of that.

We have some ideas for solutions. Since, as Miller-Meeks asserts, farmers are the “original conservationists,” these four things should be no problem for Iowa’s farmers:

  1. Ban farming in the two-year floodplain.
  2. Ban the application of manure and other fertilizer on snow and frozen ground.
  3. Require farmers to limit fertilizer applications to Iowa State University recommendations.
  4. Ban fall tillage.

And we have a fifth solution. It’s a bigger lift: Rewrite Iowa’s Master Matrix livestock regulation. Our current manure laws endorse the over-application of manure nutrients, polluting streams in livestock-dense watersheds far beyond the level of watersheds where animals are less numerous.

The industry and its apologists like Miller-Meeks have blown smoke in our face long enough. If they don’t have the desire or courage to fix our water pollution problems, then the public needs to force their hand.