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Posted on June 9th, 2021

“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 Dreams, Drain 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.”

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.

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29 Responses

  1. Marie DeVries says:

    Again, thank you Chris. As you write–if only our state legislators had the courage. Mine are Sen. Dan Zumbach and Rep. Charlie McClintock…don’t think so but I’ll keep trying!

  2. Martin Smith says:

    I know it is a long shot, but maybe after reapportionment of the legislature, with growing urban representation, we could start to regulate manure.

    One spill gets a CAFO on probation, second spill makes it a point source. If a farm accepts manure, total nitrogen application gets limited to 110 percent of guidelines published by ISU.

    It would help to have support from small municipalities an rural residents whose water supplies are threatened and who don’t have room in their budgets for a nitrate removal system.

  3. mark edwards says:

    Once again you have eloquently told a potent story of where we are still caught in a loop of looking for politics to address water quality. So far they have addressed it with increasing disregard if not criminal conspiracy. After 30 years of working for the DNR it is clear they have become a political piece of the problem. Wonderful people caught in a web of fear. Please keep writing but it is quite clear every time I go paddling that the world of wonder I knew is dying. Less frogs, turtles and wildlife exchanges to share. That is my story. Love your stories.

  4. Allen Bonini says:

    Chris – once again you peeled back the curtain to expose the root problem and, sadly, the environmental community’s complicit acquiescence, in large part to keep the fundraising energy at a fever pitch and be able to claim hollow victories that are tossed to them like rotten bones to a starving dog. When I interviewed for the Iowa Environmental Council Executive Director position a few years ago I called out the Board for their meekness and reminded them that the most consequential advancements in environmental protection over the last 50 years was usually a byproduct of lawsuits that forced the kinds of structural changes you are pleading for. Given the stranglehold the ag industry has on political power in Iowa, that kind of aggressive strategy is the only serious weapon that we have in our quiver if we are serious about forcing the structural changes we need to clean up this mess. Like Mark Edwards, and as implied in your remarks, the current leadership at my old workplace, DNR, has no spine or courage to do what is needed or is right to protect and preserve our natural resources. While my tenure there as a manager was half as long as Mark’s, I am in total agreement with him. From the Director on down through the Water Quality Bureau Chief and over to the so-called Water Quality Coordinator, they are all about maintaining the status quo and are like frightened children fearful of the evil Farm Bureau bully or, in some cases, only concerned about advancing their own status and careers. There was once a time when the Environmental Services Division at DNR was called the Environmental PROTECTION Division, but now they are more interested in serving the needs of the regulated community than the citizens of Iowa. So much for the concept of being PUBLIC servants. The people of Iowa have former Governor Brandstadt to blame for a lot of the spinelessness since he and his henchmen rewrote the civil service rules to make Bureau Chiefs at-will employees, subject to the political whims of the administration. So instead of Bureau Chiefs being empowered to be a firewall against political interference in sound environmentally protective decisions, they are all forced to bow to the whims of the politically powerful and connected. This, in turn has made it difficult for the hard working, serious, caring environmental professionals in the trenches from being able to do what is right by the environment. Too often they are ignored or overruled.

  5. dmf says:

    “They needed three things basically. They needed government regulators to get out of the way; give them the freedom to act as they wanted to. Secondly, they needed to be able to be given regulation, a certain kind of regulation, intellectual property rights over life, over plants and livestock so that they would own it. And so no bad regulations but the regulations they wanted which give them more corporate power. And then thirdly, they needed to turn the public sector researchers in agriculture into basically servants for the private sector. ”

  6. Steve Roe says:

    Chris, Thanks for the “shout out” analogy. A bulldozer would remove the snow from my sidewalk, but the cost would be prohibitive. Saturated buffers have a similar cost proponent. As you stated, there are steps to be taken before the “edge” solution.

  7. […] Ifyoucantbeatemjoinemitis Chris Jones, IIHR Research Engineer. Very interesting on EOF (Edge of Field) practice to capture nitrates: […]

  8. John Norwood says:

    We can choose to always be glass half empty nay-sayers, or we can drive forward with a new vision.

    As a Soil & Water Commissioner representing 400,000 resident of Polk County, I choose the latter. Landowners are not the enemy. They want to make a reasonable return on their investment.

    First job is to recognize that and identify a new vision that encompasses our water quality, water management and soil health needs and ties that back to profitability.

    The biggest bogie man is our Congress which perpetuate a farm bill structure that locks producers into doing only a few things including growing corn and soybeans on some 2.5 million acres of “marginal” ground where growing corn and beans where it shouldn’t be grown and mother nature had better uses in mind, wetlands, pasture, etc.

    We have better uses for that land which we need to identify and then support to transition to new uses via programs like the farm bill. With incentives, it can be structured so the choice is voluntary. But if you want to do something that doesn’t align with the public funds, then you don’t get the funds.

    I object to your canard that we have to take money away from schools to do water quality infrastructure at scale. We are debating $1.7 trillion in infrastructure money in Congress, some of which is BS, other pet coastal projects, so there’s plenty of opportunity for the Midwest to get several billion for starters to fix the ag plumbing to add missing public benefit functions, water quality filtering, erosion and flood control and mitigation, and aquifer protection and recharge.

    As you’ve pointed out in your excellent work, Chris, half the states drain to the Mississippi-Missouri river so let’s fix the ag plumbing as one part of a three-legged stool. The second leg has to do with soil health. We can also scale cover crops using systems approaches and it’s in our political and economic interest to do so.

    Just go ask any county supervisor about what the sediment loading is doing to roads and bridges. Moreover, the Army Corp should be concerned about all the sediment going into our multi-billion dollar reservoirs like Saylorville and Redrock. I bet several million dollars of lost storage every year, at least. Those reservoirs have lost a good percentage of their original design storage which means in future floods they don’t work so well.

    In my vision for the future of Iowa and Iowa agriculture, we have a real time water quality management and monitoring system (WQM2S) that is the envy of the world. We start by setting up the system to monitor loads coming in and out of Polk County. We drain 20 upstream Counties.

    You’ve done the analysis for me that Polk County is actually a nitrogen and phosphorus sink. Why? Because Saylorville is a giant petri dish in the summer growing algae that then produces toxins so we can’t use the DSM river water for drinking because we don’t have technology to remove the toxins. Moreover, all the recreational users who chose to get in the water with the toxins are putting themselves at risk.

    So, the answer isn’t a lawsuit. The answer starts with a new vision for regenerative agriculture, that is diversified, resilient, and we have a modern ag plumbing system that conserves and manages the precious water that mother nature still drops on us. That may not always be true. And if we keep losing soil at 10X the rate we make it, not only will our public infrastructure be a mess, we will have squandered one of the most important food production areas of the world.

    Thank you.

    • A.M. says:

      What is the third leg of the stool? Thanks.

      • John Norwood says:

        Third leg of the stool is about land use and rebalancing so that we’re not subsidizing the growing of corn and beans in places where it’s not profitable and there are better uses for that land whether it’s wetlands, buffer, pasture, etc. About 2.5 million acres of our 23 million acres fits into that category. An important way to shift that use is to write a new farm bill that helps drive new outcomes that support sustainability, regeneration, clean water, etc.

        • A.M. says:

          Thank you. At some point, we may have to address the very tricky question of to what extent we should be subsidizing the growing of corn and beans, period.

    • Eliot Protsch says:

      Keep up the excellent work of raising awareness and aiming the spotlight where it belongs! If the Federal Government is to be the solution for Iowa’s water quality problems as advocated by some vs the State doing what it can do to responsibly regulate farm practices and related pollution, watch out!
      While farm bills are often crafted with well intentioned policies, these bills often suffer from other biases and unintended consequences. For example income means testing to qualify for CRP and other environmental incentives in order to save the family farm. Is it interesting that if a well to do citizen might want to buy some marginal farm land and rent it the the US Government for conservation purposes such individual or even a conservation organization who might have reached the limit of their CRP holdings, is not able to participate in the CRP program as they are not entitled to the incentive payment by virtue of their Income level. Thus in our wisdom and quest for equity of results we deny society of the benefits from these edge of society environmentalists/conservationists who might wish to do their part to help the planet by taking marginal farm land out of production, watch wild flowers go or simply self actualize on their land. Could it be that those who wish to plow everything simply don’t want competition for the land. To apply means testing to environmental stewardship does not compute for me, although an interesting question might be how much of Bill Gate’s farmland might be enrolled in CRP, irrespective of the means tested payment application. If we can have non means tested ethanol incentives and farm program insurance etc why do we have means tested conservation incentives? Questions beyond the scope of your post Chris, but relevant nevertheless to the potential solutions, but who would win an election advocating for less means testing in today’s society or advocating against ethanol in IA! Following the money always leads somewhere……

    • cjones says:

      should farmers be allowed to apply as much nutrient as they want?

    • A.M. says:

      I like the vision of taking marginal cropland out of crops, restoring wetlands and pastures, improving our dubious farm drainage systems, and some other thinking above. My pause came at “Landowners are not the enemy.  They want to make a reasonable return on their investment.”

      I would argue that some landowners and operators are behaving in ways that are a little more enemy-like than others.  And having watched rural Iowa for decades, I have strong feelings about Landowner and/or Operator Abel, who keeps planting long rows that require few turnarounds, rather than put in grassed waterways that are very obviously needed. 

      Abel also rowcrops eroding hills where only light-colored subsoil is left, allows ephemeral gullies to form on slopes every year, and manages to pay for more drainage tile but not conservation. He also puts on extra nutrients as crop insurance. And one reason Abel doesn’t look so good is because of the existence, though not common, of Landowner and/or Operator Barb, whose land shows serious concern for soil, water, biota, and our future.

      I’ve heard some rural Iowans, including some operators and landowners, talk with outrage about the more extreme versions of landowners and operators like Abel.  And I think it’s legitimate to ask, when the environment is treated as so expendable, what level of return on investment is “reasonable.”

      And to a large extent, certain farm groups started the public-perception war.  Whenever even the most modest regulation of farming has been proposed in Iowa, and I’ve seen proposals for forty years, we Iowans have been assured that no regulation is needed because Iowa farms are family farms, owned and/or operated by noble stewards of Iowa’s land and water who are doing the right things because they are noble.  No wonder there is some public backlash now.

    • Zach in WI says:

      Did Chris pay you to post this comment? You have provided here a textbook example of the 4D strategy in action. There is no serious engagement with Chris’ argument. You’ve provided very strong evidence for readers of this blog that Chris’ argument is correct.

      Landowners who are using the power of their wealth to prevent necessary structural changes are ABSOLUTELY THE ENEMY. Very few people in Iowa and America and the world are large scale landowners. Shilling for landowners is inherently undemocratic.

    • A.M. says:

      I apologize for taking up space with one more short comment, this one about “ag plumbing.” That term needs to be used very carefully, or it can imply that Iowa creeks, rivers, wetlands, lakes, and other natural and semi-natural bodies of water are fundamentally infrastructure for the Iowa ag industry, with the primary purpose of serving that industry. It is certainly true that some Iowa ag interests do see water that way. That needs to change.

      • John Norwood says:

        To me, ag plumbing, is simply raising awareness that we have a series of connected infrastructure under 14 million acres of our 23 million acres that takes water off the field and moves it into ditches and streams, some times directly. This system, which has tens of billions of investment, needs to be modernized to do all the things it was never designed to do, many having to do with managing water. That includes filtration, recharge, perhaps irrigation depending on the location, help provide habitat for pollinators, etc. It’s a big lift to modernize the infrastructure. But this drought is one more reason why we need drainage districts to do more than just drain water and send it down river. Water sovereignty will be more important with climate change.

        • A.M. says:

          Thank you for clarifying, I think, that the term “ag plumbing” is only intended to refer to systems of underground drainage tile.

          As a long-time watcher of Iowa drainage policy, I’ve seen that the difference between a “drainage ditch” and a “creek” can be iffy, and that the latter can be officially reclassified as the former. A “creek,” which is the traditional Iowa name for small natural waterways, sounds like it matters. A “ditch” sounds like it doesn’t matter, and is therefore a suitable place for dredging and/or channeling polluted water.

          Language matters. The sooner “drainage districts” become “watershed districts” or “water quality protection districts,” which is what they should be, the better.

  9. […] Ifyoucantbeatemjoinemitis Chris Jones, IIHR Analysis Engineer. Very attention-grabbing on EOF (Fringe of Subject) observe to seize nitrates: […]

  10. Robin says:

    This is very true.

  11. Francis Thicke says:

    A friend of mine aptly calls the edge-of-field constructions “conservation diapers,” needed for incontinent fields.

  12. very informative post thanks for sharing such a valuable post. waiting for more post.

  13. Lee Gross says:

    Thanks Chris for your work, depressing as it is.

    Most disappointing to me is that the voters of Iowa are ok with the status quo – judging from their election choices over the years. One of my soils professors at ISU told our class: “You can’t help people who don’t want help.”.

    So mandatory federal policies it is – we don’t have a choice. We’ve given the farming community billions of dollars and decades of time to do the right thing, and they’ve failed to protect our nation’s resources.

    • dmf says:

      “So mandatory federal policies it is – we don’t have a choice” that’s what it would take but we don’t have a federal political party that will do the job….

  14. Karen Joost says:

    Lately I’ve watched devastating flooding in my neck of the woods (NZ) with sadness and concern for the people and the animals who had to endure it. And also with an understanding and belief that there are farming methods that could have mitigated some of the damage. There are some very specific technologies within the area of regenerative farming that I think would have held much more of the soil in place even despite the torrential rains. The water holding capacity of any type of soil can be doubled, tripled or more if beneficial aerobic micro organisms are applied and allowed to thrive on agricultural land, including pasture, orchards and row crops.

    The microorganisms have a symbiotic relationship with plant roots. They build soil structure which creates pathways for water to infiltrate and they keep water in place through spells of drought without drowning the plants. They feed the plants the minerals that they require, and in exchange plants feed them exudates, which are mainly made of carbon from the atmosphere that plants take in through photosynthesis. The Microorganisms build soil structure by aggregating particles of sand, silt or clay using glue like enzymes which they produce. This helps the plant’s roots break through deeper compacted layers of soil which they wouldn’t be able to break through without the help of these microorganisms. This holds the soil in place and reduces runoff. It also sequesters a tremendous amount of carbon into the ground where it should be, and out of the atmosphere. It’s an excellent way to address climate change.

    Here are three short videos that demonstrate what I’m talking about.

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