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.

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