Wednesday, June 9, 2021
Pope John Paul II

“The dramatic threat of ecological breakdown is teaching us the extent to which greed and selfishness, both individual and collective, are contrary to the order of creation.”  Pope John Paul II.

Polk County is one out of 99 in Iowa, but one in six Iowans live there, and about one in four are there on any given day. The biggest city, Des Moines, has had a high-profile nitrate impairment of its drinking water since Watergate (the real Watergate) and the agriculture establishment would’ve liked to have impeached Des Moines Water Works’ CEO Bill Stowe for leading a failed lawsuit that sought remedy for it.

The Des Moines Register recently ran a lengthy article (June 3 internet, June 6 print edition) about the implementation of farm conservation in Polk County. Much of the article focused on what we call “edge of field” (EOF) practices designed to capture nitrate from underground drainage pipes (tiles) that lower the water table in perhaps half of farmed Iowa and all of northern Polk County. If you are a regular reader here, you know these tile systems are the main pathway for nitrate to enter the stream network. If you’re not a regular reader, here are three essays: Pipe DreamsDrain Baby Drain , and Drain Brain. There is no longer any doubt that these EOF practices, namely, woodchip bioreactors, constructed wetlands, and saturated (wet) buffers, work.

At their core, they all function in the same way, namely, by detaining water just long enough in a carbon-rich environment for non-crop organisms to consume the lost and wasted nitrogen. The reason they exist is because the Ag industry has been mostly unable and unwilling to control nitrogen “in” the field and so they’ve asked the public to help them pay to capture it at the “edge” of the field. The Polk County plan would ultimately install 200 of these practices at a cost well north of $1 million in one of Iowa’s least-farmed counties. Polk County Soil and Water Commissioner John Norwood stated in the article that “we need to be building 100 (of these practices) at a time, not one or two.

Installing a bioreactor on Bogard Farm near Des Moines Photo by Lynn Betts (SWCSIDALS )
One of two bioreactors being installed by the city of Des Moines on the Bogard Family Farm in Polk County, Iowa a mile south of Easter Lake. The next step is to place wood chips in the pit. Photo credit: SWCS/IDALS Photo by Lynn Betts

The Register rhetorically asked if this aggressive plan would work for all of Iowa. But that isn’t really the right question here. These practices will work about anywhere there’s adequate space to situate them and a tile effluent that can be captured. But the expense of construction and need for land (for wetlands especially) prevent this from being a landscape scale solution, at least as long as we still want stuff like public schools, roads, libraries and such. It’s like this: you can treat a stain on your shirt with Shout, but it’s impractical to do the whole load of laundry with it.


Studying and implementing EOF practices have been important components of many careers over the last 20 years, including mine. I authored a journal paper on woodchip bioreactors and was co-author on a couple of wetland papers. And we are currently monitoring a saturated buffer site in SW Iowa. But in recent years I have become increasingly cynical about this sort of thing, and I’m going to tell you why.

EOF practices fit nicely into a 4D strategy the Ag industry has been implementing for 50 years now on water quality: deny, distract, deflect and finally delay. First, deny there is a problem at all. We started moving past that in the late ‘80s with the groundwater pesticide scare best illustrated by water quality monitoring data from the Karst areas of NE Iowa, including the Big Spring fish hatchery in Elkader. At that time ag drainage wells, which captured tile water and sent it down to the aquifer, dotted the landscape across northern Iowa, and people realized that we were poisoning our own rural drinking water. We started (and still are) closing them, rerouting the water to the stream network and letting rich downstream city folks deal with removing the chemicals from their drinking water.

Next, distract. The opening of the world’s largest nitrate removal plant in Des Moines in 1992 was a stain that couldn’t be “Shouted” out, but the nitrate problem could still be cynically blamed on wastewater treatment plants, combined sewer overflows, septic tanks, lawns, golf courses, rotting leaves, geese, deer, raccoons and Uncle Bob pissing off his deck after a night of beer drinking. Any time spent thinking about these phony distractions would cause a reasonable person to chuckle, and so on to the next level—deflect. “Feeding the World” is the best example, and it goes like this: pollution, no matter how severe, is better than millions of people starving to death. Two problems with this: 60% of our corn is used to make ethanol, and most of our meat is eaten by wealthy people, wealthy at least relative to the world as a whole. Not many Africans have ever sat down to a meal of Iowa Chops.

So now we’re on to the delay portion of this scheme, which by that I mean delay implementation of structural change that needs to occur at the landscape scale, structural change that will end or at least substantially reduce the water pollution coming from agriculture. Good first steps would be policy changes that would end or alter practices and subsidies that keep fertilizer prices low, stimulate over application of nutrients, and promote high stakes farming on marginal land. Build in accountability for taxpayer money spent on conservation. Ban or restrict environmentally-destructive practices. Manage livestock populations and nutrient inputs at the watershed scale. This approach is not anti-corn/soybean, pro-organic, anti-GMO, or anti-CAFO. It’s pro-society and pro-Iowa and pro-America. And pro-environment.

Unfortunately, Iowa’s political and economic establishment is pro establishment and pro status quo and would prefer you focus on things like a bioreactor treating 40 acres, rather than the structural change we need. These projects help maintain the status quo. If they happen to improve water quality, well that’s ok, but that’s not the objective. The farmer or landowner objective may indeed be to improve water quality, but the establishment’s real interest in these projects is that they support their objective to forestall regulation and structural change. And these folks can be surprisingly candid about this at times. They’re “not opposed to clean water” as a certain legislator has stated, it’s just that it’s no big deal to them beyond the threat of regulation that dirty water presents.

The Ag advocacy organizations form a wagon circle around the idea that the industry needs a license to pollute. There are so many of these groups that they form coalitions of groups just to keep it all straight. It’s not all one big happy Family (I capitalize family here intentionally because they call themselves The Family) but they are laser-focused on keeping Iowa farming unregulated. It’s the sine qua non of Iowa ag and politics. Take your eye off that ball and you’ll get beaned by the big right-hander. Making the public think the industry is dedicated to an Iowa with clean water is integral to maintaining an unregulated countryside.


If you observe this stuff as I do, you can see that on the environmental side, there is no cohesive message and no unifying objective. The environmental groups are the F Troop compared to Ag’s Prussian soldiers. Like the F Troop, the enviros are stationed at Fort Courage where they are busy adopting their adversary’s tactic of promoting soil health for carbon sequestration and improved water quality. We had a soil health bill in the legislature this last session, and USDA secretary Tom Vilsak is promoting this concept as a water quality and climate change solution, and many of the environmental groups are all in with this stuff.

One minor problem here: POOR SOIL HEALTH IS NOT WHY WE HAVE BAD WATER QUALITY IN IOWA. But sure, create another publicly-funded revenue stream for farmers because that has worked so well to improve water quality.

Just to restate: I’m for soil health. And I’m for a bioreactor or a saturated buffer or a wetland if the farmer wants to do that. And I will give some qualified support for using public money for these sorts of things. But these approaches will never meaningfully improve our water quality unless they are accompanied by the needed structural changes in our production system.

  • We can’t achieve our water quality objectives by grossly overapplying nutrients to crops.
  • We can’t achieve our water quality objectives with state-endorsed over application of manure to fields.
  • We can’t achieve our water quality objectives by mindlessly cramming livestock into the state.
  • We can’t achieve our water quality objectives by mindlessly farming floodplains and sensitive lands like NE Iowa.
  • We can’t achieve our water quality objectives by giving farmers license do whatever they want on the field and then asking the taxpayer to pay for the collateral damage.

But alas, it seems everybody in this game cares about being relevant and I guess you can’t be relevant if you lose all the time. People crave victories, even the Pyrrhic kind, apparently, if it means staying relevant. So what we have here is a contagion burning through the Iowa Water Quality Community. The resulting disease: Ifyoucantbeatemjoinemitis. Symptoms: malaise, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness. The cure: the Matrix’s blue pill.

Now you might say, what’s the harm. A little bridge building, that sort of the thing. Here’s the harm: you enable the delay tactic, in spades. However long it will take to clean up our water, add 25 years to that (at least) if you’re going to hang your hat on soil health to deliver. After a half a century of 4D and bad water, we deserve better than this! We deserve courage.


Some might ask, where do I get off, pontificating from a university. What has academia done to solve these problems? You would be right to ask that. The currency here is grant money, and PhD graduates, and publications. And relevancy. Oh my yes, relevancy. There ain’t nothin’ more pathetic than an academic that’s lost their relevance. (And believe me when I tell you that The Family is keenly aware of this.)  And when relevance sneaks out the back door, that other stuff marches out the front. Only the crazy throw caution to the wind on relevancy. Joan of Arc is not exactly our role model. The Ivory Tower has no more courage than the F Troop’s Fort Courage when it comes to water quality. But if you’d like to get a PhD while learning about bad water, we’re here for you. We’re also ready to pour soil health gravy all over the existing research programs that have been so successful at cleaning up your water.

It’s apparent that to solve this thing, it will take courage from the highest levels. And we just don’t have that kind of courage right now in Iowa, or nationally for that matter. It’s so painfully obvious. You have a hard time finding issues that have bipartisan support these days, but dirty water is one of them. To paraphrase Republican political guru Kevin Phillips, the Democratic Party is history’s second-most enthusiastic dirty water party. Addressing the structural framework that produces the polluted water that we have is the third rail of Iowa politics. To end this, I guess I would invite you to examine for yourself why.