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 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.

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