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.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Pending Trifecta of Disaster for Iowa Water Quality



November 2016:  New federal Renewable Fuel Standard mandate for 2017:  A 19.28 billion gallon mandate for U.S. for 2017, a 6.4% increase over 2016 and higher than EPA proposals suggested in Spring 2016

This will encourage increased production of corn as the 2017 mandate allows production of 15 billion gallons of “conventional biofuel," which is basically corn-based ethanol.  This means more fertilizer that will result in more nitrogen being released into the water.  The United States became the largest ethanol producer in 2005, driven by federal legislation.


Agricultural field tiles:  This is not new but installation is continuing to increase.  

Agricultural tiling which is the primary delivery mechanism for nitrate into streams. In mitigation of water pollution, there is no mention of reducing tiling and, in fact, it continues to increase.  Tiling has virtually eradicated a natural mitigation system of wetlands that occurred naturally as an aspect of the vast northern midwestern prairie pothole bioregion.  Mitigation to reestablish wetlands or much smaller bio-reactors into which tiles might drain will have a very limited impact on both current and anticipated increases in nitrate release into streams.  Wetlands would have to be many and vast which would be costly and take decades if we were so motivated, and would also have to take land out of production since land is farmed to the property edges.

3/8th PENNY 

3/8 penny sales tax directed toward mitigation techniques to improve Iowa water quality

There is a strong drive by farm advocacy groups and even supported by conservation groups to legislate funds to be used for construction of mitigation strategies to improve water quality.   Funds would go to agricultural efforts, with farm advocacy groups favoring counting the number of conservation practices that are implemented rather than measuring the actual water quality to see if it is improved.  The farm advocacy argument for not measuring actual water quality is that it will take time, even decades, to see quality improvement.  But without measures, there is no assurance that any mitigation efforts really have a positive effect.  Approximately 4.4 billion dollars have been spent in Iowa in the pst 20 years, and yet, water quality has deteriorated further to the point of being a public health problem. 

There is not only an absence of measures required, but also a harsh resistance to any regulation, such as regulation of the quantity of fertilizer used. Further, there is likely to be no taxation on fertilizer or anything that requires a financial cost from the producers of water pollution.  There is also no cost assistance for water treatment  to remove nitrates and phosphates which are required to address risks to public health.

Under pressure to not pollute, agricultural advocacy groups favor legislation without “teeth,” and a public cost rather than a personal cost, to measure and regulate anything will create a sense of addressing the problem.


Increased corn production, no standard control on tiling or massive counter-measure, and toothless legislation will result in talk and not action.  This will occur at a time when the problem is not lessening or even stabilizing, but rather, is increasing. 

The pending disaster for Iowa water quality is really not even limited to the above trifecta of factors.  

Increased animal factory farms, an anticipated increasingly wetter Iowa climate that may have more extreme precipitation patterns, addition of other chemicals such as fungicides to current fertilizers and herbicides/pesticides, processes such as the Bakkan pipeline, and consistent, dependable resistance to change as demonstrated over decades are other immediate factors that will contribute to an even more multi-faceted disaster than a good-sized trifecta.

Forget measures for a moment, what about basic goals.  The EPA goal to improve the Mississippi drainage basin water quality asks Iowa for a 45% improvement, not clean water.  And EPA recognizes that even with amazing cooperation, it would take decades to reach this goal.  So for decades of amazing agricultural cooperation and effort, water quality would be very poor at best.  This means cost dumped on water users to continue to clean basically “farm water.”  This cost does not take into account increasing problems with outright water toxicity in lakes, nor doe sit begin to touch on soil depletion costs and major costs to dredge myriad water bodies due to unusually rapid silting.

Resources are being extracted industrially rather than being stewarded.    

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