Thursday, November 18, 2021

Note: I've had several people ask me to post a text of my remarks to yesterday's SOILs meeting at Drake University Law School. They are below. 

Thank you for the invitation to speak here at SOILs. I’m honored to participate in this meeting and I thank Neil Hamilton, who has done so much for Iowa by articulating the challenges we have.

I didn’t bring slides today but have hundreds, maybe thousands of slides on my website and if you want to look at them, by all means, I encourage you to go there and take a look.

I didn’t bring slides because I have come to realize these past few years that the presentation of graphs, and tables of data, and conceptual models about soil health and edge of field treatments and cover crops and so forth, won’t affect change here in Iowa when it comes to water quality.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, and I quote: "Take Weaver's discovery that the composition of the plant community determines the ability of soils to retain their granulation, and hence their stability. This new principle may necessitate the revision of our entire system of thought on flood control and erosion control." Aldo Leopold said that about cover crops in 1938. Before I was born, and even before my mother was born. And we have what, 5%, 7% of our land in cover crops.

The statewide stream load of nitrogen has approximately doubled since 2003. Phosphorus loading, while not increasing nearly as much as nitrogen, is indeed still increasing when we evaluate actual water quality data—27% when compared to a pre-1996 baseline. If you listen to the artfully-named Iowa Nutrient Research and Education Council, housed within the Agribusiness Association of Iowa and funded by the Iowa legislature to track progress for the Iowa nutrient strategy, phosphorus loads are down 22% and they tell us, and I quote, “Iowa Agriculture has nearly met the 29% non-point source reduction goal”. Not one shred of water quality data went into this mendacious claim. Not one shred. It’s pretty clear that establishment agriculture is itching to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the Wallace Building, regardless of what our water looks and smells like.

Something Mary [Skopec, who was on the panel with me] knows about—the Iowa Water Quality Index, a single-metric indicator of the condition of Iowa streams, was dumped several years ago. That index credibly illustrated the sorry condition of the vast majority of Iowa streams. I was funded a while later to create a new index, which I did, which uses the Iowa DNR ambient water monitoring database of turbidity, nitrogen, phosphorus, E. coli, and dissolved oxygen to assign a single number to the water quality condition of Iowa streams. Evaluating data going back 22 years to the year 2000, I find that overall water quality has improved on only three out of 44 Iowa stream sites, is declining at 25, and constant at the other 16.  Curiously, the watershed of our most improved stream, the North River at Norwalk, has undergone extensive urbanization during that time. Most alarmingly, our best streams, all of which are located in northeast Iowa, streams like the Upper Iowa, Turkey, and Yellow Rivers, have degraded more than the others.

You may have heard Bloody Run Creek in Clayton County described as “pristine” in the news media in recent months. Here’s what qualifies as pristine in Iowa over the last five years: average E. coli levels of 1400 colonies per 100 ml, 6 times the recreational standard, and average nitrate concentrations of 7 mg/L, higher than even the Raccoon River. Yet our friends in agriculture stand by silent as one their own tries to squeeze 11,000 cattle into the headwaters of this 6-mile-long stream. Freedom to farm trumps your “privilege”, they say, to have clean water.

We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that drainage tile is the nitrate delivery mechanism from farmed fields to the stream network. Yet our research at UI finds thousands of miles of new drainage tile being installed every year in Iowa. In only the middle Cedar Watershed, one of 56 watersheds of its size in Iowa, we estimate 1200 miles of new tile are installed every year. Just to account for the new nitrogen load associated with new tile, we would need 136 new woodchip bioreactors, every year, year after year, just to maintain the water quality status quo in the middle Cedar. If you don’t know, we have less than 100 woodchip bioreactors statewide.  

We also know beyond a shadow of a doubt that, as a whole, Iowa farmers are overapplying nitrogen—by a lot. In some areas, inputs are twice that of ISU recommendations. Statewide, we are very likely applying 20-30% more nitrogen than what our crops need. Why? Because the taxpayer shoulders the burden for the environmental consequences caused by the excess. Yet we’re forced to swallow the ag rhetoric that no farmer wants to lose his nitrogen, all the while 600 million pounds of it leaves Iowa in its rivers in an average year.

Iowa State faculty travel the countryside this fall imploring farmers to test their soil nitrogen and refrain from fall application in this post drought condition.  Yet here’s Iowa farmer Kelly Garrett in Successful Farming just this week, and I quote: “we need to push anhydrous applications harder than usual this fall, and we are pushing out plant food at a record rate.”

Here’s a quote from an Iowa State researcher in a paper published in the Journal of Environmental Quality: “The large leaching losses of nitrate measured from Iowa farm fields are of environmental, economic, and energy concern. The quality of tile drainage water is important because this water can be a significant portion of total stream flow.

The year that was published, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female Supreme Court Justice, Muhammad Ali fought his last fight, Lech Walesa met with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, and Bobby Knight and Isaiah Thomas led the Indiana Hoosiers to the NCAA basketball title. 1981.

We know beyond a shadow of a doubt we over apply phosphorus. We know that nearly every county in Iowa has excess soil phosphorus. We also know that availability of manure nutrients has little to no impact on commercial fertilizer sales. Farmers in livestock dense watersheds apply almost as much commercial fertilizer as those where livestock is sparse, and sometimes more. Why? Because farmer peace of mind is more important than our children having clean water.

We know that our manure management plans, governed by the master matrix laws, endorse an overapplication of manure nutrients based on a theory of fertilization discredited decades ago—the yield goal. Why? Well, because the industry and their advocates in the legislature know that if we made farmers adhere to crop needs, we would constrict the expansion of the livestock industry by increasing the amount of land area necessary to apply manure. Quite likely this artificially inflates land prices, favoring millionaire farmers and limiting opportunities for young people that would like to farm.

Why do we give farmers license to apply however much nutrient they want, and then expect the taxpayer to pay to capture the surplus with edge of field treatments and cover crops? The taxpayer has even helped pay for nitrogen inhibitors, products that have been shown to do little or nothing for water quality. But they do provide a few more bushels for farmers and a few more dollars for Dow Chemical, courtesy of the Iowa taxpayer.

We often hear that the way to cleaner water here in Iowa is “partnerships”. We even have an organization called Iowa Partnership for Clean Water. Their home page says they “work to inform all stakeholders – both rural and urban – about the consequences of frivolous legal action against farmers and the agriculture industry.”  I don’t think they’ve done much since the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit was dropped.

We also have alliances—Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance, Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance, the Dickinson County Clean Water Alliance, the Rathbun Land and Water Alliance, and so on and so on. Our quantity of partnerships and alliances has become one more output we measure as we search for success, like hands shaken and money spent. At any rate, partnerships are a key component of what science calls the Watershed Approach, something we’ve been closely involved with at the University of Iowa with the Iowa Watershed Approach Project--$94 million dollars from HUD to improve several Iowa watersheds, and now winding down.

We billed it as a “flood first” approach, at least in part so as not to offend the sensibility of farmers by talking about water quality. The Watershed Approach is a widely accepted, methodical strategy to achieve water quality objectives. But what happens when your partners aren’t operating in good faith? What happens when they’re not willing to sacrifice even one bushel for the common good? Are we to throw up our hands in exasperation? Where’s the backstop when the public is dodging beanballs thrown by agriculture?

Let me read you five quotes from a publication I found in the Iowa State University Digital Repository:

  1. Agricultural practices which contribute to nutrient-related water quality problems include: excessive soil erosion; use of fertilizers in excess of crop needs; failure to account for nutrient contributions of legumes and animal manures; and failure to coordinate timing of fertilizer applications according to crop needs. 
  2. Will farmers, agribusiness, and other groups in the agricultural community support and work to implement these voluntary water protection initiatives? Past history suggests they may not.
  3. Recent sociological research suggests that the voluntary approach may not be highly successful. A recent survey of Iowa farmers characterized Iowa agriculture as "highly dependent on external inputs, and one where strong motivations toward changes are not pre-existing."
  4. While it is likely that the ongoing voluntary programs will be given a reasonable period to work before a more regulatory approach is adopted, this period will certainly be far shorter than the 50-year period given for voluntary soil conservation programs to work. 
  5. At this point, the challenge is clear. Will the agricultural community voluntarily take the actions necessary to protect and improve Iowa's water quality? There are many who say this will not happen.

Those lines are from a publication submitted and accepted to the Proceedings of the Crop Production and Protection Conference at Iowa State University in 1990, almost 32 years ago, by 3 staff members at, believe or not, Iowa DNR—Ubbo Agena, Bill Bryant and Tom Oswald. Try to imagine a DNR staff person saying such things today—you can’t. Today DNR seems preoccupied with helping agriculture skirt what weak regulations we have. It’s hard to make the case that the agency works for all Iowans, rather than just agriculture.  

Agriculture has been telling us they would fix our water quality problems for the last 40 years, maybe more. Yet the most significant thing that has happened during that time was a regulation, Conservation Compliance, that was part of the 1985 Farm Bill. Conservation Compliance required farmers on Highly Erodible Ground to follow various soil conservation measures if they wanted to participate in federal farm programs. It worked. We saw almost instantaneous improvement in the clarity of Iowa streams, documented by researchers at both ISU and UI.

Yet agriculture gaslights us about how regulation won’t work, it can’t work. We’re told 40,000 full time farmers, all growing the same two crops and a subset of them raising the same three animals, all within a mere 3 degrees of latitude and 6 degrees of longitude, are too diverse and too different for regulation to ever work. If you want better water, says establishment agriculture, you’re just going to have to wait until we’re good and ready to give it to you. In the meantime, keep sending us money and we’ll keep giving lip service to water quality and crumbs to the Iowa taxpayer, if we feel like it.

If you read anything that I write, you may know that for me, this has become an issue of justice. How is it just that the Iowa taxpayer, with an average yearly income of about $49,000 per year, is told that he or she must pay the Iowa farmer, with an average yearly income of $134,000 per year and a net worth upwards of $2 million, if we are to have clean water? What reasonable person accepts this calculus? I for one do not. I was here a couple of years ago, and heard an Iowa farmer say that if we wanted less nitrogen pollution, we needed to “show him the money”. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t say it again today! I can’t go there anymore. I won’t go there anymore. That approach is not morally defensible in my view and if your head is still in that place, I really don’t know what to say to you. I’m tired of being played as a fool.

The public has invested heavily in this current production system—last year, nearly 40% of farm income came from the federal government, 40%. So a reasonable person might say that the taxpayer has a stake in the system. I would. And as such, I say, we should have a say, in how the system is operated. So here are my five things I think the public should ask for before we hand over even one more dime of our money to millionaire farmers.

  1. Ban fall tillage. Iowa State has been putting out guidance on this since the 1980s and it all says one thing: don’t do it. Increases erosion, increases nutrient loss. Convenience is the only rational explanation for doing it, and I’m sorry, farmer convenience is not my or the public’s problem.
  2. Ban manure to snow and frozen ground. Yes, there are rules on this, but they are so weak and ineffectual that if there is snow on the ground on February 28, you will see manure on it on March 1. Again, farmer convenience trumps the common good.
  3. Stop farming in the 2-year flood plain, and mandate buffers for the banks of perennial streams. We have 400,000 acres that are cropped in the two-year flood plain. Why? Why do we indemnify this activity? If we cannot shore up the riparian corridors, there truly is no hope for what is left of our streams.
  4. Make farmers adhere to the ISU recommendations for nitrogen application. Virtually everybody in my world knows farmers look at nitrogen as cheap insurance. Why? Because the taxpayer is forced to shoulder the burden for the environmental consequences. This is immoral in my view.
  5. Rewrite the Master Matrix livestock rules such that the manure management plans are digitized for effective enforcement and require nutrient application at rates commensurate with crop needs.

People tell me these are just small things, they won’t solve the problem. I say they are “just” things, as in justice. And, I think you could get close to the nutrient strategy objective of 45% with “just” those five things.

When I first got hired at the Des Moines Water Works, my immediate supervisor was Ted Corrigan, who now of course is the General Manager. Ted was fond of telling me that the best indicator of future behavior is past behavior. Folks—the jury is in, and it has been for a while. Agriculture is not going to fix this, and I think it is foolhardy and irresponsible to cling to that fantasy. And yes, I know that making laws is probably impossible in the short term, and tortuous in the long term. But it is what the public deserves, and especially, it is what agriculture deserves.