In late summer, I would swim and stream-walk a small section of the Raccoon River. While sedimented for decades now, the water was clear in the shallows. For a few years now, the water is pea-green from edge-to-edge. For decades and worse now, this water has strongly contributed to a vast hypoxia zone in the Gulf.

In the 1980s, I wrote about the wisdom of the river, focusing on the Des Moines River as a living, very open metaphor for the essential streaming dynamic of the universe that is within us as well in the streaming of our body metabolism and thought.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

A Diminished Landscape = Iowa

MORE THAN SIXTY-FIVE years ago, Aldo Leopold conceived of a land ethic which “enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.” 

For a “land ethic” to be honestly ethical, that is to say,  “[enlarging] the boundaries of the community to include dimensions of landscape,” involves increasing the quality of the landscape.  While agriculture touts Aldo Leopold as providing a modern sense of stewardship, agriculture is now massive and industrialized even on most small farmlands (if those are to be competitive and economically sustainable).  

Iowa is at the heart of some of the richest landscape in the biosphere.  However, it’s agriculture lives off the millenia-old banking of the soil rather than increases the quality of the landscape. 

U.S. Dept. Of Agriculture, World Soil Resources, 1998

[Green areas are Class 1 soils, having the best soil characteristics for
potential productivity including characteristics such as fertility and
water-holding capacity.  Note global rarity, and when abused, “native 
or virgin soils can easily deteriorate into lower categories if they are 
abused or poorly farmed.” [after Howard G. Buffet Foundation, special to 
Des Moines Register, 10/16/15]

As Aldo’s son, hydrologist Luna Leopold, recognized, “The health of our waters is the best measure of how we live on the land.” [Hitch, Greg. Luna Leopold: A Visionary in Water Resource Management.]


Kamyar Enshayan, director of University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy and Environmental Education, writing about the “chronic emergency” of flood damage in Iowa, notes that “over the last 60 years we have dramatically altered the capacity of the land to handle extreme rainfall events, leading to massive, devastating floods.” [“How this has become a chronic emergency,” Des Moines Register, Iowa View, 9/27,16]

He writes, “A changing climate and a diminished landscape are the primary causes...” [bold, Kinseth]

For Enshayan, factors that diminish the landscape involve
“state and federal policies that systematically incentivize 
loss of crop rotation,
loss of wetlands, 
increased tile drainage,
loss of biodiversity, 
loss of deep-rooting perennial cover,
loss of riparian habitat, and
loss of soil quality.” [bullets, Kinseth]

He offers possible upstream solutions involving
devoting 10 percent of a watershed into native prairie, to see as much as a 60 percent reductin in run-off volume,
three- and four-year crop rotation,
improve soil water-absorbing properties,
require 90 percent less herbicides, 
require 80 percent less synthetic fertilizer,
use 50 percent less fossil fuel energy,
integration of crop and livestock, 
grass-based farming,
organic farming,
strengthen Iowa’s floodplain laws from 100-year level to 500-year level,
reduce building in floodplains, and 
increased shift to renewable energy and out of a “dirty fossil energy infrastructure.”

Still not “land ethic” changes that optimize the landscape, they offer a significant reduction in degradation of both land and Luna Leopold’s “canary in the coal mine”--the health of the water.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Beginning To Listen To Water

Lance Kinseth, Radiance II: The Speech Of The Flower

WE COME TO WATER with a set of concepts, and this is writing is a discussion of bypassing our thinking/conceptualizing to see "water" as water, and how varying concepts ultimately meet on common ground  Then, having stepped outside our concepts as much as we can, perhaps we begin to re-imagine water and human life.  What we may begin to see is the way in which water is inside modern human life and both are changing.

WE DO NOT REALLY “see” or experience water.  Like most experiences we come to “water” armed with some concept of water.  For some, water is an external economic commodity/material resource, while for others, dynamic nature that includes us.  To then act with regard to a water issue, we tend to create dialectic [that is, really, a “battle”] between the needs of culture and the needs of nature.

Perceiving “water” as either culture or nature is muddled by other concepts that come into play.  From one spiritual perspective, we might sense human life coming into the Earth and leaving it again at death so that we either steward external resources such as water or we do not.  From another spiritual perspective, we might image human life as an expression of Earth and even as continuing to be wild and needing to integrate with the larger ecosystem.  From a strictly practical sense, we might being coming from either a sense of exploitation or integration.   

Paradoxically, yet hopefully,  there is a common ground or a core shared interest where seemingly disparate concepts of water and human life can meet.  If we were to view water and an inseparable nature wherein human life is even wild, integration with the larger Earth ecosystem, paradoxically, comes a fundamental economic issue of sustainability and survival and optimal health.  And yet, a seemingly opposite to concept of water as a commodity with human life “separate and above” water/nature shares a sense of economy at the core.  

Increasingly, there is recognition that the “interests of water” are inseparable from human interests--especially in the long run--for optimal health of both water and human life.

Now instead of using water, there is interest in sustaining water for its economic and health benefits.  Sustaining water becomes a primary rather than secondary objective in our economic designs.

Beyond a concept of water

SINCE WE REFERENCE WATER with a set of concepts, perhaps a strong strategy should prioritize listening--to be less conceptual and, in the end, more reasonable in responding to what we are experiencing before our hands. 

First, perhaps, In your home, If you have a glass of clean water to drink, you have peace.  How much clean water do you find?  Where do you find clean water?  What did it take to get it clean?

Then, perhaps presence by water landscape, a change in self identity provoked by the experience:

I, who came back from the depths laughing too loudly,
Become another thing;
My eyes extend beyond the farthest bloom of the waves;
I lose my self and find myself in the long water; 
I am gathered together once more;
I embrace the world.

Theodore Roethke, from “The Long Waters,” 
The Collected Poems Of Theodore Reothke should know that when water descends to the earth it makes rivers and streams.  The spirit of rivers and streams becomes wise people.

Dogen Kigen, from “Mountains and Waters Sutra”

This expansive change in self may begin to provoke  small actions that, in turn, might outspread into other actions:

If you go to Japan and visit Eiheiji monastery, just before you enter you will see a small bridge called Hanshaku-kyo, which means “half-dipper bridge.”  Whenever Dogen-zenji dipped water  from the river, he used only a half a dipperful, returning the rest to the river again, without throwing it away.  That is why we call the bridge Hanshaku-kyo, “Half-Dipper Bridge.”  At Eiheiji when we wash our face, we fill the basin to just seventy percent of its capacity.  And after we wash, we empty the water towards, rather than away from, our body.  This expresses respect for the water.  This kind of practice is not based on any idea of being economical.  It may be difficult to understand why Dogen returned half the water he dipped to the river.  This kind of practice is beyond our thinking.  When we feel the beauty of the river, we intuitively do it Dogen’s way.  It is our true nature to do so.  But if your true nature is covered by ideas of economy or efficiency, Dogen’s way makes no sense.

Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

When we slow down and listen, that which seems insignificant and local flowers to worlds
Stilling by a river, by returns, sooner or later,

There is the fluid sweep of the heron and the crane and the fast, rolling curves of the cliff swallows, all flying low over the matt of the river.  There are diamonds in the water and the fine-stitching flight of dragonflies and black damselflies in the rushes of the river’s brim.  There is the shrill of killdeers and the buzz of both wetland blackbirds and tall-grass katydid.  Far overhead one star, meager by cosmic standards, blasts this chamber by day.  And by night the valley is revealed to be woven to a thousand other suns.

Lance Kinseth, River Eternal

Listening to water in modern life, it soon becomes apparent that both water and human life is changing.  Water quality is now a public health issue, either because it is contaminated or because it is in shorter supply.   Water is contaminated on a global scale.  It is both dirty and imbalanced.  And to meet the needs of the current global population, water is increasingly rare.

Having peopled the Earth, economic strategies the use material resources to the point of needing to move on no longer work.  And so, our economic strategies have begun to change, moving toward sustainability.  Sustainability has costs BUT sustainability also reduces costs.

Post-modern, cybernetic culture that seemed to be even more separate from nature are now being re-imagined as still deep inside nature (and inside a cosmic system that is essentially a wilderness ecosystem).  Degrading environmental feedback is a primary driving reality demonstrating that our activities are not separate and, in fact, come back upon ourselves.

More Than $$$ Needs To be Thrown At Iowa Water Pollution

If it were possible to channel even endless piles of money toward water quality improvement, the real question arises as to what will be done to actually improve water quality.  Many of the suggested strategies are gentle mitigation techniques that do not correct a inherently dysfunctional agricultural design.  Drainage still runs under field and stream edges and rapidly transports materials such as nitrates.  Fields are industrialized tile layouts more than stewarded natural soil, and that won’t change.  Additionally, none of these mitigation techniques really gives back significant land for wetlands that would process nutrients and reduce soil loss, and that won’t change due to the loss of tillable acreage.    And so, if we are really trying to clean water, one might expect that piles of money would not really meet the challenge to really modernize agricultural land in a way that builds rich soil and deeply mitigates water pollution.

And so, taxpayer money and/or ag producer money would likely be ineffective. 

Excerpts from Your 2 Cents Worth + plus Letters To Editor, Part Three [selected readers’ submissions to Des Moines Register]:

In Iowa, “collaboration,” when it comes to water quality now means “tossing large amounts of public money at farmers without any standard, deadlines, requirements, or any other accountability whatsoever. [bold, Kinseth]

To have clean water in Iowa require every farmer who wants subsidized crop insurance to have an approved clean-water plan for every insured field, and make sure those plans are enforced. Still voluntary, but state-wide conservation would actually happen.


Farmers in Iowa don't put food on your table.  They do pollute your streams, lakes and rivers.  they also want you to pay them to help clean up their mess.  I guess their farm subsidies aren't enough.


Des Moines Register, Letters To Editor, 9/24/16:
Kirk Tofte, “Why should average Iowans pay for cleanup?,” excerpt:

As the Register pointed out in its Sept. 18 editorial [Joining the struggle for clean water],  Republicans have been slow to lead on the issue of water quality in Iowa.  But it looks as though it will take no time at all for the GOP to come up with a solution for funding water quality projects--make the little guy pay for them through sales tax increases.

The vast majority of Iowans have had nothing to do with creating water quality problems in our state.  Why should the average Iowan pay for all the cleanup?  The Iowa Farm Bureau has fought water quality initiatives for decades.  Might this be because farmers and farm chemical companies have been those most responsible for creating water quality problems in Iowa?....


Des Moines Register, Letter To Editor, 9/25/16:
Richard Seibert, “Taxpayers shouldn’t foot water cleanup alone,” excerpt:

Finally, “Big Agriculture” and its supporters (Farm Bureau, Soybean Association, Corn Growers, etc.) seem to be acknowledging that there is growing concern and a realization that the people of Iowa are going to demand that something be done to improve the water quality of Iowa’s lakes and streams. ...  Now they are looking for a funding source.  Of course, their solution is to add the cost for this cleanup to the Iowa taxpayers.

Here’s a novel idea: Let’s have the producers who are fouling our waters with the chemical help pay for the clean up.  The Register recently reported sources estimating that Iowa’s corn and soybean harvest is projected to exceed 3.2 billion bushels this year.  If producers would pay 1 cent per bushel of grain harvested (with the help of all those chemicals), the much discussed Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund would collect $32 million toward funding the cleanup efforts (insert 2 cents or 3 cents if more money is needed).

I would then gladly support my legislative representatives voting to add 3/8 of one cent to the regressive sales tax to assist with water quality improvement, recreation, etc.  It feels better when both producers and taxpayers are contributing to the solution.


Des Moines Register, Letter To Editor:
Erich Riesenberg, "How exactly will sales tax improve water quality," excerpt:

...everyone seems to be lobbying for the new sales tax, but no one is willing to estimate what it will accomplish....A 15 percent reduction in nutrient runoff? Or 25 percent?

What is the next step, a decade and a couple of more billion dollars later, when Iowa's water remains polluted?

If Iowa's secretary of agriculture wants a revenue-neutral solution, require Iowa's rich farmland owners to implement Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy to receive existing state and federal subsidies.  Per the strategy, this would reduce runoff by around two-thirds, at no additional cost to the taxpayers.

[Kinseth: Two-thirds reduction is a fantasy.  The existing industrial tiled fields are not going to reduce nutrient flow, and farmland owners are not going to permanently take land now in production out of production for mitigating strips and wetlands on a permanent basis.  Nor are they going to rotate crops differently, and to an unknown extent even cooperate with changes that are either irrelevant to them or cutting into profits in an ongoing variable $$ per bushel market.

While it likely is essential to have crop insurance in an industry where weather is unpredictable (to assure simple getting upfront loan $$$ to plant and produce a crop, crop insurance in Iowa can be a 3.4 billion $$$$ subsidy in Iowa (Cedar Rapids Gazette figure--1995-2011).  While crop insurance can be a necessary subsidy, it does encourage more crop production with few demands such as a certain sustainable quality to land, without nutrient reduction, and without conservation strategies such as cover crops to protect soil. Thoughts here after Letter To Editor, Des Moines Register: John Norwood, "Crop insurance is a powerful economic tool."]


Des Moines Register, Letter To Editor:
Kurt Johnson, "Don't give farmers more credit than other producers," 10/13/16:

In a recent editorial, you warn against the unintended consequences of expecting Iowa's farmers to "feed the world" [Oct.10].  As you wrote, "...the most effective way to reduce world hunger is to help small farmers in Africa, Asia and elsewhere increase their productivity and income."

Some farmers and their supporters have a vested interest in making sure fellow citizens hold them in a special position because they produce the food we eat.  They perpetuate that meme in order to get special treatment by our government, for example, by not having to either stop or pay for polluting our waters, and by receiving a 60 percent subsidy on their crop/revenue insurance premiums.

Every week, most of us buy food from all over the world at our local grocery stores.  It may be wonderful to be able to buy local fresh food, but it is not a necessity.  International voluntary free trade is what has allowed us, and much of the rest of the world, toad starvation when local producers fail for any reason.

Farmers should be given no more credit than other producers of all kinds of products.  As Adam Smith wrote in 1776 in "The Wealth of Nations," "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker than we expect our dinner but form their regard to their own interest."


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Urban Water Pollution

Urban water pollution is not the primary water pollution in Iowa.  However, mediating urban water pollution will be as difficult as mediating rural water pollution.  In fact, they will be so difficult to really clean up that even a reasonable clean up will not occur without a serious revaluing of water and life in Iowa.

I MOVED INTO MY home on the West side of Des Moines twenty years ago.  it is situated on the ancient upper sandy banks of a washout of the ice-aged Des Moines Lobe.  There was likely a succession of pines chasing the retreat of the ice sheets north.  In more recent centuries, the sandy bank became a white oak savannah.  Today a remnant channel of the ice-aged stream continues to flow, and it is named Walnut Creek.  

Lance Kinseth, Walnut Creek, photo

Walnut Creek runs 97 miles north, draining 62,643 acres that remain perhaps sixty percent rural but hat are gradually becoming more urban.  A few miles south of my house, Walnut Creek empties into the Raccoon River.  One mile downstream on the Raccoon River from where the creek drains into the river is a source of water for the Des Moines Water Works.

Just down the street in front of my house, to the East, a short-length feeder stream (at least visibly above ground) runs into Walnut Creek.  This stream has an slow active flow throughout the year and it is edged by trees and some parkland on both sides.

Both Walnut Creek and this unnamed feeder stream are impacted by pollution.  Walnut Creek has both rural and urban runoff, while the feeder stream is entirely urban pollution.

The emphasis of this blog is upon urban water pollution.  Both these streams gather storm water, and urban hard surface generates 9x more storm runoff than woodland.  

While much emphasis in mediating rural water problems is placed on creating buffer strips, it is quickly apparent that on my little feeder stream even rather dense woodland buffer strips do little to mediate water problems.  [This will also become evident when taking a look at the pond in Greenwood Park a little later in this post.]

What are the urban water pollution elements?

Lawn fertilizers, automobile oil, grease, rubber, heavy metals, break pad dust, sediment from construction, de-icers/road salt, bacteria from animal [pet] waste and from leaking household and city sewage lines, littering, industrial waste/chemical storage, synthetic detergents, fuel storage tanks, poorly discarded hazardous waste, airborne pollutants (acid rain, nitrate and ammonium deposition), fertilizer and pesticides.  Construction sites are estimated to contribute 25 percent of the sediment load in the Walnut Creek watershed.   Construction takes rural land that may absorb pollutants and can affect natural drainage. These pollutants are intensified in rainfall, especially coming off hard surfaces. 

Sanitary sewers, both household and business/industrial and city lines, leak as they age, reflecting infrastructure issues that are not easily addressed in stormwater rules that might apply to construction projects.  And when there are rules, there may not be regular inspection or even application for construction with subsequent violations.  Further, rules and inspection or lack thereof vary across the collection of city boundaries that are superimposed on the watershed.

Buffer strips and bank stabilization and collection areas to reduce flooding are some possibilities, but largely ineffective.  First, they are few and far between, and second, they do not do much.  And they are more costly than one would imagine so that the many other more “squeaky wheel” projects vie for available funding.

How much cost and how effective?

An example of the problems with high cost and limited  effect is illustrated by strong efforts to have a clean pond at Greenwood Park behind the Des Moines Art Center.

The 2-3 acre pond has been plagued for years by silt runoff, invasive plants and nutrient pollution in particular.  
2013:construction of 2 detention ponds above the major pond, $275,000
2014/2015: drained [2014] then dredged from 5 to 15 foot depth [2015], $381,000

Lee Rood, Greenwood Park Pond 2016, Des Moines Register

This pond  was again experiencing significant algal growth.  The hope is that the pond will improve as elements come into balance.  The detention ponds are in a woodland section where one might expect a little more silt retention as well as a wetland effect on reducing pollutants.

In 2016, Greenwood Park pond, clean? 


A similar project is currently in  process in Easter Lake and is anticipated to be underway in the future for a pond in MacRae Park.  While it may be beneficial for future recreation it is not a long-range solution.  Most artificial ponds and lakes in Iowa require dredging in a rather short number of years, and all silt in quite rapidly, even much larger water bodies such as Saylorville Reservoir just to the north of Des Moines and Lake Red Rock to the southeast.

Your 2 Cents Worth [Reader’s submission to Des Moines Register]:

Regarding the algae problems in Greenwood Park Pond, 
it should be a concern for all the residents nearby from 
airborn-causing health problems.  It must be controlled by
aeration.  Use park profits from the golf courses to 

install fountains to circulate the water during the hot season.

The Iowa Landscape As A Commodity, Not A Homeland

Why not an Iowa national park--Mid-section Des Moines River Valley?  Education does not really touch on the Iowa landscape--its bioregional essence, its rare soil fertility in the biosphere, and our commodity approach to landscape causing its rapid en masse exploitation/decimation/absence of protection.  Education for a homeland would be quite different.

Excerpts from Your 2 Cents Worth, Part 2 [selected reader’s submissions/Des Moines Register]:

Have you ever noticed the water tastes different in other states?  Do what I do.  Bring along a small salt shaker of nitrates!  Just a sprinkle in that glass of water, and you will have the taste of home.


Why doesn’t Iowa have a national park? Oh, that’s right, were not about conserving natural resources.

Of course, some Iowa farmers are doing what is needed to protect water.  The problem is that they are a small percentage of Iowa’s 86,000 farmers.  Good conservation by less than 3 percent of Iowa’s farmers doesn’t even begin to be enough.


In my area, some children learn more about rainforests in distant countries than they learn about the prairies, waters, and woodlands right here in Iowa.  There’s a direct connection between that and Iowa’s dirty water, and conservationists understand it all too well.

Friday, September 16, 2016

A Praise Of Water

Lance Kinseth, January 26, 2014, photo

QUALITY WATER IN IOWA will require an appreciation of water rather than only a technical solution.  If water tastes bad or we imagine it to have something scary-toxic in it like lead, we will likely bring a little more activism to making a change.  But even then, something else will rise to the top as a priority of the moment and then something else, and then something else ad infinitum.  

Do we appreciate water, especially with regard to how miraculous and inseparably precious, and even how rare, it is?

IN A VERY REAL WAY, as we begin to understand it, a praise of water outspreads to is a praise of Earth and Sun and more.  Seemingly so ordinary and simple, water is eloquent and miraculous--especially on the surface of the Earth.  The sun provides energy and Earth exists in that “just-right” distance from the sun--the Goldilocks Zone--that  allows for an atmosphere, the right gases, and the survival and development of macromolecules.  

From space, Earth appears to be  the “water planet,” so that water seems over-abundant.  But examine the U.S Geologic Survey imagery to the right of this post.  And note how thin a coat it is on the surface of the Earth.  A guesstimate:  350 million cubic miles of water, with 324 million cubic miles in “oceans.”  1.5 million cubic miles in ground water and 3 million in ice [but not now] due to global warming.  Just 55,000 cubic miles in lakes and rivers.  

We imagine that we know what water is, and what it is is plain, ordinary, neutral, not dynamic. 

Water is magical stuff.  It can come out of a volcano.  Strike a match and water pops out  fire, out of thin air.  Water seems so “juicy” and liquid, but water is atomic, molecular.  It is billions-years-old well-travelled electronic silicon ash having been in many life forms and events before sliding down our throats. 

And  unless highly filtered, water is not pure H2O.   The 104 degree angle between hydrogen atoms attached to the oxygen atom keeps H2O slightly off-balance electrically.  This makes water “sticky” or “everyday” “wet” rather than neutral.  This off-balance makes life possible.  In terms of complexity, it makes water is full of both an attractor of damn-near everything, and the mixer that makes possible exotic chemical teas (many of which are being made in our bodies in the brain and in digestion that occur with a complexity beyond us while we walk about unknowingly and completely dependent upon these chemistries to exist).

Being just the “right distance from the sun” retains an atmosphere and allow much water to be present in a liquid state.  Water is life providing both the original tea for macromolecules evolving into life and the ongoing life of all Earth flora and fauna.  Water is everywhere, in oceans and lakes and streams, in atmosphere and massed in ice, underground, and in all flora and fauna.  But it is more than a physical resource “out there.”

We are predominantly water: 60+ percent body weight with the brain being perhaps 80+ percent water.  And there are perhaps 280 trillion gallons of water in the biomass of the Earth. Biologic life that is comprised far more of water than Earth.  Water is perhaps 1/4000th of the weight of the Earth.  Human life is perhaps 60+ percent water, with the brain being perhaps 80+ percent water.

 Water is obvious hydraulics in the body, but it is also thinking. Looking like a fluid, water is electronic. That is why the brain is predominantly water.  Biology and electronics are not mutually exclusive.

Water seems secondary, but when human life is more conscious, health requires prioritizing landscape as self-interest rather than as terrains and processes apart from the most immediate self-interest.

When a drought is longstanding, our wisdom kicks in a little, and that which is most valued shifts, perhaps making the first rain a blessed appearance. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Iowa Will NEVER Have Clean Water

CLEAN WATER IN IOWA is an illusion.  We will never have clean water except in a bottle.  At best, we will have LESS DIRTIER WATER.  

Clean water in Iowa is not feasible.  Because clean water in Iowa is impossible, we will have to accept that the gold standard will be less dirty water.  And getting less dirtier water will not progress very far without an attitudinal rather than technical change.  

Bioreactors, saturated buffers, terrace and grassed waterways, cover crops, wetlands and series of retention ponds will help mitigate rather than eliminate the chemical and soil-disruptive dirtiness of an industrialized, massive agriculture.  We may get forty percent here and twenty percent there, and nothing over there where the “practices are not right for them” or an attitude of status quo practices are felt to be enough continue to exist.  If we believe too strongly in technical “solutions,” we will get what we deserve far more than what we need, or we will simply continue to refute that there is a problem by assuming that technology will eventually make it go away.   

It has been estimated that to reduce by 45 percent the levels of nitrogen and phosphorous that leave the state and contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico would take several decades and would cost between $750 million to $1.2 billion.  

Fifty-five percent dirty water after several decades, and that is if all of the pieces came together in a perfect world.

Even if we were to Federally regulate actions by modifying the Clean Water Act, the very nature of agriculture--now industrialized for any participant farmer--is not collaborative and seeks a profit in an economic component that is subject to shifts in weather, trade, and secondary businesses that challenge profit.  And so, independence  to deal with shifts in the wind will drive more action than collaboration to clean water.  Agriculture doesn’t gain much from collaborating with water treatment, and doesn’t have its own core appreciation of water beyond too much rain or drought.

Rather than technology, appreciation of water and landscape and true words--less dirty water vs. clean water--will make or break the actions.  Water quality as a priority has a long way to go.  In 1970, Earthrise over moonscape provoked a mental shift that outspread an appreciation of ecology and the idea of being in an environment rather than looking out at it and being somehow separate from nature.  Water is still too much of a commodity to be balanced against other commodities such as grain and meat and oil.  It is still approached as something “out there” rather than as inseparable.  

Still, as water becomes dirtier and scarce, there is an appreciation for rarer “clean water” as a public health concern.  And as a “health concern,” we are looking at what level an element such as nitrates is deadly vs. not a health concern at all.  Again, less dirty water: You still are not getting “clean water” just less dirtier water, and if we could get less dirtier water that would be acceptable both in Iowa and downstream in the Gulf.

If water appreciation ever kicks in to drive more assertive conservation and add not only health improvements but also a deeper affection for the landscape, the best that we can anticipate will be less dirtier water in Iowa.  Iowa economy is strongly industrial agriculture.  “Rural” is not really rural anymore, it is a suburb of urbanization, and urbanization is a non-stop global dynamic.  “Farming” that sustains is not an isolated farmer, but technology, university and corporate bio-research, supporting industries of machinery and chemistry that are essentially urban.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A Muted Voice

Chris Adkins, Dallas County Conservation naturalist
Mike Kilen/Des Moines Register

text excerpt: Mike Kilen, A muted voice in water quality debate is finally heard, Des Moines Register, 8/29,2016

They sat on a panel together on a sunny Saturday morning in Redfield near the banks of the Raccoon River, which is at the heart of the dispute.

Economics and scientific data filled the air more than bird song — millions of dollars to clean up, milligrams per liter of nitrates to worry over. You may have heard some of this before. It’s how we talk about nature.

Then a voice rose in the summer breeze from a big, bearded man making the introductions — Chris Adkins, a Dallas County Conservation naturalist. He speaks as if the ancients are calling from the cliffs of nearby Hanging Rock. It is this soulful deep voice that has been missing from the debate, a man with enough science between his ears to make you dizzy with facts, but one who chooses to settle you instead with the story of the river, spoken from the heart instead of the head.

Adkins told the 50 assembled here that if there is magic in this world it is in the water, which makes up 70 percent of our bodies. We are the magic waters.

Adkins held up a gift to the crowd, a jug of water, straight from the Middle Raccoon.
“Who would like the first swig?” he asked. “You’re all looking at me like I’m crazy. ‘You can’t drink this water. Chris, we’re a little beyond that in this debate.’ But why are we? Why is this an acceptable notion?”

His great-great grandfather rode on horseback across Iowa in 1858 to settle and wrote about it in a journal. When he got thirsty, he didn’t wait for the next hamlet to stop at a Casey’s, Adkins continued. He drank the water. When steamboats came through Des Moines they knew how deep the river was because they could see the bottom.

On this day, the water was so muddy with sediment that your hand disappeared just under the surface.

“Two years ago I was telling this story to a bunch of fifth-graders. One was a special-needs kid … and when he heard it, he said, “No! No! Chris, that’s a bad story!’ And he took off running,” Adkins said.

He told the teacher he would chase the boy down. When Adkins caught him, he thanked him.

You are the first person in my 30-year career that I have put that out to who has responded in a sane fashion.”

“It’s the tragedy of the historic present,” Adkins continued. “That what we are experiencing now has always been so.”

The panelists would go on to make their remarks later, of course. Stowe is convinced that agriculture producers, like any industry, should be responsible for what comes from the drainage pipes of their fields.  Wolf said each piece of land is so varied and complex and the weather so changing that universal regulations are difficult. It will take dogged voluntary conservation efforts and public money to finance them.

Moderator Mary Skopec, who is a water expert as a research geologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said that excess nitrate readings from farm field drainage have recently become a year-round problem, not just in high-flow months. But while we focus on nitrates, we also can’t forget the dangerous bacteria and blue-green algae increasingly popping up in our rivers that are even more a danger to public health.

But Adkins’ stories, minus the numbers, were just as real.

He talked of taking youth to field trips to the deep wilderness on the Selway River in Idaho, diving down 7 feet into the clear waters so transparent that he could see the bottom far below and the surface high above.

“For the only time in this old German’s life, I could fly. So I have this dream. I’m going to drink in the Raccoon River, and I’m going to fly in it. That’s what motivates me to bring these people together today. I want to be magic again.”

The words of writer Wendell Berry came to mind. He urged people to not reduce nature to economic units and surrender to the idea that new technology will fix it. “And the voices bitterest to hear,” he wrote, “are those saying that all this destructive work of mindless genius, money, and power is regrettable but cannot be helped.”

The group listened to Adkins conclude the panel discussion by beckoning them to the river ramp, telling them that they can’t float down a river and not be changed, as the current takes you at times out of your control.

“It’s not half as important to know as to feel,” he said. “And the only way we are going to solve this is by people falling in love with these wild places.”
Twenty-one canoes and kayaks took to the water to float the river that day, continuing to talk, but not Stowe and Wolf.

The armada stopped at a sandbar, and Adkins gathered the paddlers around him.
The people were quiet, and Adkins looked up to the towering cottonwoods on the far bank, light green leaves fluttering in the breeze. The Lakota called it the “tree that talks,” he said, “so cup your ears and listen to them.”
There is a special bravery talking this way today, when so much is reduced to bottom lines and brass tacks. He’s been called delusional. But the leaves were chattering that day, and everyone was quiet to hear the trees.

“Maybe that’s who we should listen to,” he said.

Clean Water: Somebody Else's Cost

THE IOWA FARM BUREAU Federation has recently made a shift calling for a 3/8ths of one cent cent Iowa state sales tax increase to primarily fund water quality improvement ( creating $180 million; 60% to Iowa’s polluted waters and soil conservation, with 40% going to wildlife and outdoor recreation.  This is not a completely new idea as in the past they had called for such a fund to be covered by existing state resources.  This new approach to Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy has engendered support from many groups, launching the Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Coalition, including “The Greater Des Moines Partnership, Iowa State Association of Counties, Iowa Environmental Council, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Iowa Ducks Unlimited, and about 17 other groups. [William Petroski, “Coalition to push tax hike for water quality,” DSM Register, 9/13/16]. Politically, it has generated resistance as both an additional tax on Iowans and a regressive tax that externalizes industrial “costs onto Iowans, while operating business-as-usual with no accountability.” [Wm. Petroski quoting Erica Blair, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement]

Current primary “water cleaners” are the urban water and sewage treatment facilities.  They are not listed as approaches that will be funded.  They are funded currently by water users who will continue to see increases and be subject to proposed sales tax increase.

“Clean water” is increasingly seen broadly as not only a good thing but as a priority.  Reasonably, what would farm water quality improvement mean?  Changes would likely result in reduced area of cultivation.  Any sensible primary approach to addressing rivers and streams involves mitigation of field runoff with something equivalent to European hedgerows, and wetlands, and redirection of tiles to not bypass field parameters.  

Driving around rural areas now, reveals much cultivation out to the road ditch, often without even fences to maximize the area for cultivation.  Would agriculture take actions that would reduce the size cultivation areas, and do this for the for the long run?  Best of luck with this concept!

Given the vastness of the problem of dirty rivers and streams, funding that come from beyond the financial capacity of farmers is realistic.  But the absence of major financial contribution and accountability by by the primary cause-source--agriculture--distorts the problem source and diminishes the actions that are likely to be taken, and makes it somebody else’s problem and responsibility, and that is wrong.