Photo credit for header photo: Travel Iowa.
In recent news (1), Iowa DNR announced they were fining Three Rivers Coop of Elkader $6000 for a release of anhydrous ammonia into Roberts Creek that flows into the Turkey River in Clayton County. Nitrogen fertilizer is commonly applied in Iowa in the ammonia form (NH3) and in a process controlled by temperature and other factors, is converted to nitrate (NO3) over time in the soil profile. When ammonia enters a stream or lake with warm water, as was the case in this incident (July 2020), this conversion is rapid. Immobile species are toasted in this process as they always are, but in this case and many others, dissolved oxygen levels in the stream crashed so rapidly that the aquatic life that otherwise could flee the contamination also perished. It’s really too bad that the release wasn’t into a tributary of Roberts Creek, then we could call it Killed Three Rivers Coop instead of, you know, the much less colorful real name.
Although this isn’t saying much, the Turkey River is one of our better streams. This is mainly because only about ½ of the land in the watershed is suitable for the stuff Three Rivers and the other area ag retailers sell to farmers, compared to about 75% statewide. Alas, if only an acre of trees (of which there are quite a few up there) needed 200 pounds of nitrogen and all that other junk like fungicide, glyphosate, dicamba, super triple phosphate, diammonium phosphate, monoammonium phosphate, urea, urea ammonium nitrate, neonicotinoids, nitrogen stabilizers, insecticides and on and on, the Turkey watershed could perform up to the standards set by the rest of its Iowa brethren like the Boyer and Floyd and Soldier River watersheds, where nobody need care about fish kills because you can’t kill what ain’t there. Ammonia release into the Boyer River? Pfft. Fart in a hurricane.
In the Turkey River incident, an Iowa angler, all of whom should probably be deputized when they buy their fishing license, “noticed dead fish where the creek meets the river near Elkader on July 18, 2020.” This was DNR’s description (2) of the incident a year ago: “DNR field staff investigated the site on July 21, finding elevated ammonia levels in a drainage ditch below the Three Rivers FS, an agricultural cooperative. Coop staff indicated they emptied a secondary containment structure around a fertilizer tank on July 20. DNR field tests show water emptied from the structure had high levels of ammonia.”
This is DNR’s Onionized description of the incident now (1), a year later: [“An unknown quantity of the fertilizer — which is highly attracted to water — might have leaked from storage tanks there, possibly during transfer to other containers, said Jessica Ragsdale, an environmental specialist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “The ammonia just finds water and goes into it,” Ragsdale said. “They thought they were testing it properly and thought it was clean and good to go.” Three Rivers employees routinely pumped rainwater and snow melt from the anhydrous storage area onto a gravel-covered area, according to a DNR administrative order dated Sept. 28. From there, the water flowed to a culvert, a drainage ditch, a creek and, finally, the river. The state stocks the Turkey River with trout.]
I mean seriously, folks, ammonia just finds water and goes into it? It’s like beer just finds my body and goes into it. It’s not my fault that I’m overweight.
How can anybody take this stuff seriously?
Clearly, we must have communications people, all seemingly graduates of the Josef Goebbels School of Journalism, planted in damn near every one of the state’s institutions and organizations, assigned to absolve those working in agriculture of any responsibility for the pollution we see and smell day after maddening day so they can make a buck or a million bucks or many millions of bucks without regard for the tiny slice of Iowa nature that they haven’t already used for their toilet. And the fine, $6000, I just don’t know how to do anything other than assign the morbid humor to this process that it richly deserves. Six grand is just a sick joke. I’ll have to check my latest data, but one of my daughters may have run up that much in traffic tickets. Speed just finds its way into her car. There’s no figuring it out.
But wait, this story gets worse.
The ag retailers want to sell more anhydrous ammonia and other nitrogen fertilizers (3). Since, as they say, God isn’t making any more Iowa land, and since pretty much all of it that can grow corn, is growing corn, the only way for these outfits to sell more product is to sell more on the land that already receives it. To that end, it would sure help more cash find its way into the pockets of Iowa agribusiness if those agronomists at Iowa State University could discover the courage needed to tell farmers they should apply MOAR NITROGEN. “What some of them want, especially those interested in selling fertilizer, is for recommended rates to be higher. If we recommend higher rates, some farmers may be happy, but they will get less profits and we’ll contaminate the water even more (3).” Oh really. Knock me over with a feather.
And yet, it still gets worse.
The legislature has tasked the Iowa Agribusiness Association (yeah the guys that sell stuff to farmers) with helping us dumb scientists track progress toward Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals (4).
That's it for now. Lunch just finds my stomach and goes into it around this time of day.