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Stop Saying We All Want Clean Water

Posted on April 14th, 2019

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard or read the phrase “we all want clean water”. If so, in all likelihood it came from someone of stature or someone knowledgeable about water quality issues. Today I had the idea to shake the Google tree and see what fruit fell to the ground when I entered the phrase “we all want clean water.” It turns out one of our politicians has been quoted saying this so many times that I had a hard time figuring out who else had said it, so I started plucking names out of my head and attaching them to the phrase. What resulted was an impressive list, a veritable who’s who of Iowa politics and agriculture. I did my own name as well, on the off-chance I had been recorded saying it (I didn’t find anything). Two events in particular seemed to unleash a deluge of weallwantclean water, the first being the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, the second being the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule. I began to wonder, if all these important people genuinely believed their own words, why don’t we have the water quality that we want?

Clearly we do not all want clean water, at least not in any meaningful way. Yeah, I get that nobody wants to drink poisonous water. But is that what we are talking about here? When it comes to our lakes and streams, we may all agree that the concept of clean water is a good one, but a critical mass of someones or somethings is holding us back from getting it. Either the sacrifice to get it is thought to be too large, or the idea that our water quality is substandard is considered to be incorrect.

This critical mass has managed to successfully thwart the will of the public. In 2010, 62.6% of voting Iowans voted yes for the Iowa Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund Amendment. If funded, the resulting revenue would pay for lake restoration and watershed protection, among other things. The legislature continues to decline our invitation. In 2016, 74%(!!) of Linn County residents voted for a $40 million conservation bond that will help address water quality. The Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) lawsuit targeting 13 Northwest Iowa drainage districts for elevated nitrate concentrations in the Raccoon River was considered to be highly controversial. Even so, 63% of Iowans were found to support the position of the Waterworks. And yet our government and many other of our institutions, at least in my view, lack a collective urgency to address the public’s wishes, especially when it comes to nutrient pollution. How do we explain this?

While researching some things for this essay, I came across an article about the DMWW lawsuit written by Mark Muller of the McKnight Foundation in 2013. In the article he states “Iowa farmers are feeling unfairly persecuted for following well-established farming practices. Most of the corn and soybean farmers of northwest Iowa are adhering to agronomic guidance and business advice provided by bankers, crop advisors, and university professionals.” Ok! I think we might be getting somewhere!

Let’s look at statewide nitrogen loss. In my last post, I pegged this at 626 million pounds in 2018, with a 20-year average of 580 million pounds. That average loss (580M pounds) is worth about $232M to the fertilizer manufacturers and retailers. There are people that toss out the red herring that a lot of this lost nitrogen is from the soil. But in landscapes where this is true, farmers will replace it with their own inputs so I wish people would just give this duplicitous argument a rest.

Farmers can and do survive the loss of nitrogen quite nicely, which is one of our obstacles to improved water quality. But let’s just say they were able to reduce their nitrogen loss to zero. By my calculations that would reduce nitrogen fertilizer sales 23% over the last 20 years. Hmm. I’m no economist but I tend to believe that would result in some industry contraction at both the production and retail level. One perverse response to this has been the emergence of inhibitors, chemicals co-applied with the fertilizer to help keep the fertilizer in place until the corn needs it. Of course these don’t come free and the farmer must buy them from a retailer, and in fact farmers have been able to get public money to help defray the cost. While these products make some sense intuitively, the evidence that they’ve improved water quality is sketchy at best. But they do seem to increase corn yields, at least in some situations, so everybody’s happy with this taxpayer contribution to the machine. I oftentimes wonder how many wetlands we could’ve built with the money that’s been spent on these products. At least a few. But then again, you can’t grow corn in a wetland.

Fall tillage. Image credit: Iowa State University.

Back to the Muller piece. We arrived at this place through an evolution of agronomic science and the resulting economic infrastructure created around it. Rome was built while most people still had not realized that nitrogen pollution was a bad thing, and a whole lot of people still don’t think it’s all that bad. And the people that built Rome are definitely not Nero; they are not going to burn it down and start over. There’s too much at stake for them, regardless of what the public wants for water quality.

Iowa’s dysfunction when it comes to water quality, and the inability of policy to connect with what the public wants, are two consequences of this evolution. Wealth, careers and reputations (both individually and institutionally) have been built in lock-step with The Evolution, across all sectors of our economy—public, private, NGO, and academia. There’s no grand conspiracy here, just a bunch of people, a lot of them smart and powerful, acting in their own self-interest. This was not done with any ill will, but degraded water quality, at least in terms of nutrient pollution, has been the result.

A symptom of the dysfunction is the maddening paralysis associated with our institutions’ inability to stigmatize bad practices. Year after year, things continue to happen that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt degrade the environment and are not necessary in the current production system. It seems that many of our institutions think if they criticize a missed layup or free throw, the homecoming king will get them thrown off the cheerleading squad. Some of these things include continued tile installation, fall tillage (especially after soybean), corn and soybean production in the 2-year floodplain, and, my personal un-favorite, manure application to snow. An example of what I am talking about is Iowa State University guidance on this last issue. To condense that one for you: heroin is dangerous, so at least use a clean needle.

Manure applied to snow-covered hillslope in Iowa.

If I hope to accomplish anything in what remains of my career, that thing would be that we start talking about this water quality issue honestly. A lot of people aren’t, or can’t. I’m reminded of that whenever I hear “we all want clean water.” More than enough! And spare me any other meaningless platitudes. Please just stop.

In the public lands debate in this year’s legislature, I saw where a legislator was quoted as saying “I’m not opposed to clean water.” Although that was likely a spontaneous comment, I do think it is a much more accurate description of where our politics resides on this issue, and I can at least respect the candor.

Wolfgang Pauli, 1900-1958. Image credit: Bettina Katzenstein / ETH Zürich [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

I love reading about the famous physicists of a century ago, Einstein, Bohr, Curie and others. Anybody that can put a metaphorical cat in a metaphorical box (Schrodinger) and become famous for it—that’s true genius! One of these people was Wolfgang Pauli, he of the famous exclusion principle. Reportedly he told a graduate student that the student’s paper was so bad, it didn’t even rise to the level of being wrong. That’s where I feel like Iowa is with nitrogen pollution. It’s not like we haven’t given it an effort—we have. But thus far the effort has been so feeble and futile that it doesn’t even rise to a level where we can at least say that we’ve failed.

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15 Responses

  1. Ed Anderson says:

    Chris, I’m responding so you’ll know that I’m still out here striving to accomplish something small in “what remains of my career” too. That is, helping farmers and others to accelerate moving the needle on soil health, soil conservation, improved management of nutrients and other inputs, water quality, and the production of healthy and reliable food, feed, fuel and fiber in ways that are both affordable and sustainable for consumers and society, while helping farmers to continuously improve in areas of productivity, profitability and sustainability for themselves and their children. Perhaps more importantly, and on a daily basis, I strive to help others (like you) with developing and communicating issues, problems and opportunities through novel ideas for improvement, vs complaining and accusing. I review a lot of articles, manuscripts and dissertations. When I receive written material like yours, my consistent coaching centers on, “OK, you’ve presented the problem from you perspective with some data and history. Now, what do you offer up as a solution? What are some innovative, practical and economically viable ways to correct or improve the problem?” As we’ve corresponded before, if all you do is complain and poke people in the eye, you have no credibility (and sadly, Chris, you have no credibility). The teams at ISA, with some very good collaborations, are constantly developing innovative, realistic and economically viable solutions for the future – some with short-term success opportunities and some longer-term. We acknowledge and champion continuous improvement practices and those who innovate and adopt. We then strive to develop and drive broader and deeper innovation and improvement. There are many good examples and success stories across the state, many in progress and many more that we view as great opportunities. I’m proud to be part of this team. Good luck with any efforts you make to climb off your very small-audience, one-bar soap box and join in efforts to develop and drive meaningful solutions over simple criticisms.

    • cjones says:

      Thank you for this perspective and for reading the essay.

    • Michael Henning says:

      Chris – Your April 14 post is accurate and right on target based on my many years of farm related experience and study! I have attended several ISA events and appreciate the work they are doing in the environmental area. Ed’s comment that “The teams at ISA, with some very good collaborations, are constantly developing innovative, realistic and economically viable solutions for the future – some with short-term success opportunities and some longer-term.” is accurate from my perspective too. However, his comment also fits your comments “It’s not like we haven’t given it an effort—we have. But thus far the effort has been so feeble and futile that it doesn’t even rise to a level where we can at least say that we’ve failed.” Facts presented by the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force in their recent report and even Mike Haig’s more recent IDALS NRS report clearly show that despite efforts by ISA and a few other organizations, Iowa has moved and is moving further from the Goals set a decade ago. We do need an Honest Conversation and “SMART” goals to generate adequate aligned actions to at least match progress being made in the other States contributing to the National Hypoxia problem and to stop the decay in Iowa. Thanks again for Keeping the Issues front and center!

      • cjones says:

        Thank you for this comment Mr. Henning. Please come and introduce yourself if you are ever in IC of if we should cross paths. I would enjoy talking to you.

    • Claire Celsi says:

      Mr. Anderson – clearly you are missing the point. Without a larger statewide strategy and agreement on the scope of the problem, we are not moving fast enough. There are no measurement standards, no requirements, no laws to regulate tiling, herbicide and pesticide use and discharge. Farmers are stewards of the land – working on the honor system. It’s not working. We need to rethink this.

    • Barb Havens says:

      When large donations from corporate ag go to universities and lobbyists hover around state legislatures, I question any progress going towards conservation and water and air quality. Voluntary practices are spitting in the wind practices. We can’t swim in our local state lake and it’s due to excessive fertilizer runoff, which includes CAFO manure. Too much phosphorous = too much phosphorous. Feeding the world will become a problem when the once rich topsoil has completely been flushed to the Gulf of Mexico. Will anyone do something meaningful to right a Titanic problem before we hit the proverbial iceberg? I have no faith in policies that are driven by billion dollar machines.

  2. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    I am an Iowa senior, a rural resident and landowner, and a former volunteer Statehouse conservation lobbyist. I could say plenty about Iowa’s water quality policies over the past forty years and about what I’ve personally witnessed during those four decades, both on Iowa’s rural landscape and in various meeting rooms on the state and local levels, and occasionally on the federal level too. I could add some thoughts about some of what I read these days in agricultural media online. Instead, I will just say this. Chris Jones, thank you.

  3. Bob Watson says:

    There is a sense in which the Green Revolution, having morphed into modern industrial row crop (corn and beans) and CAFO (confinements and feedlots) agriculture, can be viewed as one of the most serious and ongoing human-caused pollution events in the earth’s history. Chris’s blog posts have shown the truth behind the myths of this “we feed the world” propaganda that industrial ag apologists put forth.

    After World War II agriculture changed from 10,000 years of a relatively biologically benign system of growing food to an agriculture that is inherently toxic for the environment and people; it must pollute. The use of chemicals and a toxic form of manure coming from the use of CAFOs have created polluted waters, polluted air, and soil that is so depleted that even earthworms don’t live in much of it anymore. This recent model of agriculture has turned Iowa into a sacrifice area where many people in closest proximity to these practices, if they are able, have left the rural countryside.

    Understanding the extremely debilitating affects on human health from this agriculture, and from eating the highly processed foods that this industrial agriculture produces: obesity, heart problems, diabetes, asthma, to name just a few, have led many people to point out the problems and to push for a different model of agriculture.

    There have been many alternatives to this toxic model of agriculture put forth. Larry Stone and I have one such model we call “5 Pillars of a Sponge-Like Agriculture” and you can read it by going to this link: . Alternative models such as ours, Land Grant University (ISU) solutions such as STRIPS – 10% of all row crop fields planted in native prairie would stop 90% of erosion and around 85-90% of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, are usually discounted and discredited by apologists of this modern polluting model.

    If you work in, or with, an organization that is tinkering with an inherently polluting system, trying to get it not quite so polluting, you are wasting your, and our, time. It will always pollute and we don’t need it to feed ourselves.

    This recent industrial model has only been around since the end of WWII. We did fine for 10,000 years before this corporate industrial model of agriculture turned Iowa, and other midwestern states, into sacrifice zones. I appreciate Chris’s clear, simple, and precise discussion of where we are as a state in relation to this modern ag model which has to pollute as it goes about its business.

    The Green Revolution’s father Norman Borlaug’s admonition that no food revolution will help unless we deal with the problem of population is seldom remarked upon. It should be. This is a finite planet.

    Bob Watson


  4. Mike Bergman says:

    OK, I get it, being politically partisan is not generally the best path to success for a Government employee. However, we are averting our eyes from the rhinoceros head on the table by believing this is not a partisan issue. The science denying, regulation averse right end of the political spectrum has held sway in Iowa for most of the last 20 years. There simply is no hope for any water quality progress until democrats are in the majority under the golden dome and Terrace Hill.
    Bill Stowe’s (RIP) lawsuit at least got the Repubs/Big Ag to talk about it. But the only reason anybody really cared was that there were several hundred thousand Des Moines residents paying higher water bills. There will need to be more stakeholders with a financial interest in the outcome to ever move the needle. There simply aren’t enough kayakers and fisherman that truly care about clean water to convince the current legislative power brokers to do anything. A Federal suit brought by the Gulf states impacted by the hypoxic dead zone would be a welcomed follow on the Stowe’s valiant effort.
    The best thing that can happen for Iowa water quality will be to elect majorities of Dems to he Iowa House and Senate and governor’s office next year. Anything else is self delusion.

  5. Mike Burkart says:

    Thanks for a clear, accurate, and polite statement of the condition of water policy in Iowa.

  6. […] (IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering) at the University of Iowa. An earlier version of this piece was first published on the author’s blog. -promoted by Laura […]

  7. Great share. I have been looking to read up this policy.

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