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Wake Up and Smell the Manure

Posted on May 5th, 2021

Note: this piece was co-written with Professors Silvia Secchi (University of Iowa) and Benjamin Maas (presently Buena Vista University but soon leaving for South Dakota) and was run in the Iowa City Press Citizen on April 21. The Press Citizen gave me permission to post it here. This isn’t the exact manuscript we submitted to the Press Citizen, but we approved it and I did not alter their version here. 

Iowa’s 2nd District U.S. Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks recently co-authored with Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.) a letter to the Des Moines Register that focused on an issue ostensibly important to Iowa’s water: the Trump Administration’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule (NWPR), which replaced the Obama Administration’s hated (by agriculture concerns) Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule.

Dr. Ben Maas

Following the time-tested strategy of tossing red herrings into our polluted lakes and streams, Miller-Meeks would have us believe that the long arm of the federal government will only interfere with and complicate the good-faith efforts of Iowa agriculture to give Iowans the long-promised holy grail of clean water.

We say, wake up and smell the manure.

First, it’s crazy to think WOTUS would have either cleaned up our water or handcuffed Iowa agriculture. WOTUS exempted agriculture! It’s clear the industry and its spokespeople will never part ways with this phony boogeyman because it helps them achieve their real objective, which is maintaining the same agricultural status quo that has produced the pollution that plagues our state year after maddening year.

Yes, we need regulation to clean up Iowa’s water. WOTUS is not it. NWPR is not it. We have a massive, continental-scale problem here with nutrient pollution — one so large that the average person can barely get their head around it. Our rivers transport more than one-half of a billion pounds of nitrate-nitrogen in an average year. Some years, it’s double that. We send the equivalent of 13 rail cars of nitrate down our rivers every day. This is an insane (but profitable, for some) waste of natural resources that is maintained by Iowa’s political and economic establishment, and one that pollutes your water. The industry, though, continues to cram more and more livestock into the state as if our rivers, lakes and aquifers are fine.

Nothing to see here folks, the establishment would have you believe.

We know of no problem this large that has been solved with individual actions. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a solid attempt at improvement, but let’s face it: If a voluntary strategy is going to work, you need volunteers. Farmers are not volunteering in the numbers that we need. Not even close. Look at the North Raccoon watershed. The hated feds tried raining down $2.5 million on the watershed’s farmers to adopt water-cleansing practices, and almost all of them said, “No thanks.” The result: 80% of the money went unspent and a golden opportunity was lost to clean up one of our highest-profile rivers.

Our state government and the industry continue to dangle shiny objects in front of us to distract us from the beach closings and fish kills and algae blooms and contaminated drinking water that fill the news nearly every day. Agricultural mouthpieces respond to reports of bad water quality by saying it’s just “propaganda,” as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig did just last week.

As three people who study these problems, we’re here to tell you the propaganda is actually coming from the agricultural industry and its advocates, and our water quality troubles are unfortunately and painfully real. They want you to believe that, with a constructed wetland here and a terrace there, there is a flood of exciting momentum about to float your boat.

Sorry folks, the jury is in: These problems cannot be solved via individual actions. Look at the water with your own eyes. Smell it with your own nose.

We deserve better than feel-good commercials that focus on the few good actors and the paltry 4% of our crop acres with nutrient-saving cover crops, while neglecting the other side of the ledger — over-application of fertilizer, new tiled acres (which increase nitrate loss), unfettered Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation growth, lack of monitoring and enforcement of rules like manure on snow. Why would anyone expect our water to be getting better?

Solving Iowa’s water problem requires collective action, and taxpayers should have a say on what that is. We subsidize the pollution of our own water. Because we are contributing billions of our own money to the operation of the system, we deserve to have some expectations when it comes to water quality. If farmers want public money, they should meet some environmental expectations. We cannot count on the practitioners of agriculture to do the right thing. The fish kills and the siting of enormous CAFOs in environmentally sensitive areas is all the evidence we need of that.

We have some ideas for solutions. Since, as Miller-Meeks asserts, farmers are the “original conservationists,” these four things should be no problem for Iowa’s farmers:

  1. Ban farming in the two-year floodplain.
  2. Ban the application of manure and other fertilizer on snow and frozen ground.
  3. Require farmers to limit fertilizer applications to Iowa State University recommendations.
  4. Ban fall tillage.

And we have a fifth solution. It’s a bigger lift: Rewrite Iowa’s Master Matrix livestock regulation. Our current manure laws endorse the over-application of manure nutrients, polluting streams in livestock-dense watersheds far beyond the level of watersheds where animals are less numerous.

The industry and its apologists like Miller-Meeks have blown smoke in our face long enough. If they don’t have the desire or courage to fix our water pollution problems, then the public needs to force their hand.

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11 Responses

  1. Scott Bean says:

    As a resident of Scott County several of the area State Senators and Representatives are crucial to the enabling of adverse practices. We also have two public lakes and of course the Mississippi in our watershed. Could you please submit this to the QCTimes as well as other area publications?
    Thank you for continuing the education.
    SBB

  2. dmf says:

    so grateful for all you folks are doing and risking along these lines, as you shared on twitter:
    @ProfSecchi
    : there can be no regenerative agriculture, more broadly—until the U.S. addresses its policy of systemic agricultural overproduction.”
    sadly one wouldn’t know this from the coverage on Iowa’s NPR or PBS, people who value lives (great&small) and the environs which support them need to demand better from our public press sources.

  3. Allen Bonini says:

    Silvia – thank you for continuing to speak truth to power on the perpetual propaganda flowing from the power centers in this state. However, I have to admit I was stunned to read the phrase “The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a solid attempt at improvement,”. That statement perpetuates one of the biggest lies of all that has been propagandize in the state since it’s arrival. The strategy is NOT even a strategy, let alone “a solid attempt at improvement.” It is nothing more than a con job that has been foisted onto the state by the Farm Bureau, IDALS and DNR. How do I know? Because my team and I were finally given an opportunity to review it when it was in near final draft form and prepared a scathing internal memo that blasted it for what it was and remains – a worthless con job. I encourage all your readers to search for my memo on the DSM Register’s archives, or get a copy of it from the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club. They also have an extensive record of documents they obtained at the time through a public records request that provides even more details about the scam known as the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, that has not, sadly, been manipulated by the ag industry into state law. Wake up Iowa! You have been and continue to be conned!
    P.S. It was disheartening to read EPA’s new administrator sing the praises of the strategy this week at the Dico site media event. Apparently even EPA has drank to cool aid.

    • Allen says:

      Oops. I had a critical typo in my comment. The original was: “…the scam known as the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, that has not, sadly, been manipulated by the ag industry into state law.” It should have read “… the scam known as the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, that has NOW, sadly, been manipulated by the ag industry into state law.”

  4. Steve Sodeman says:

    Mark Twain was right…”whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting”. Who or what can ever “win” in this battle of “science” in the political arena? There sure seems to be no middle-ground or reasonableness. Heck, maybe we just need a darn good ol’fashion Dictator!

    • Allen says:

      Steve – Sadly, it seems like we already have a dictator – it’s called the Farm Bureau.

  5. A.M. says:

    Unfortunately, it seems clear that both state and national Democrats will try to woo rural Iowa voters by catering to Big Ag, although most rural voters are not farmers. It is telling that when the new EPA director was in Iowa, he didn’t meet with any conservation groups, but spent time with farmers praising the so-called Strategy. If he thinks the Strategy is working, what does that say about the future?

    It really is possible for bad farm conservation policies to do serious harm, such as the awful policy of paying farmers to plant trees and shrubs on native prairie pastures, which destroyed prairies in the Upper Midwest. Reportedly Big Ag will be given a heavy hand on the steering wheel of new farm conservation policy development. To quote Scooby-Doo, RUH-roh.

  6. Tom O'Donnell says:

    Chris, Silvia and Ben: great account. Can you direct me to the section of the CRS document you linked to that specifically says agriculture is exempt from WOTUS? Thanks.

    • Silvia Secchi says:

      “Exclusions. Certain waters would be excluded from CWA jurisdiction. Some were restated exclusions under pre-2015 rules (e.g., prior converted cropland). Some have been excluded by practice and would be expressly excluded by rule for the first time (e.g., groundwater and some ditches). Some were new in the final rule (e.g., stormwater management systems). The 2015 Clean Water Rule did not affect existing statutory exclusions—that is, exemptions for existing “normal farming, silviculture, and ranching activities” and for maintenance of drainage ditches (CWA §404(f))16 as well as for agricultural stormwater discharges and irrigation return flows (CWA §402(l) and CWA §502(14)).”

      You may want to look into the ‘find’ function on your browser.

      WOTUS is an implementation rule emanating from the CWA. The CWA excludes agriculture. You can stop clutching your pearls, there is no mysterious conspiracy here!

      • Tom O'Donnell says:

        Thank you. I did use the find function, but this didn’t surface under the search terms I used.

        • Tom O'Donnell says:

          And no pearls to clutch! I wanted to find this section to specifically cite to Ernst, who is still going around saying WOTUS would force farmers to deal with every tractor rut and mud puddle. Thanks!

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