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.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Iowans Suffering From Dirty Water

 [The following commentary is full of data that clearly illustrate the impact of polluted water on all Iowans and places the problem source, the many public financial benefits given to farmers,  and the required regulation and financial reparation required to improve water quality strongly on Iowa agriculture.  Bold italics on article content are mine.  Kinseth]

Craig Cox, Lawsuit's real losers: Iowans suffering from dirty water, Des Moines Register, 3/23/2017:

Friday, March 17, was a bad day for Iowans’ health, quality of life and belief in fairness. That day U.S. District Judge Leonard Strand dismissed the lawsuit the Des Moines Water Works brought to protect city residents’ drinking water from pollution carried by underground pipes from farm fields in upstream counties. Legal technicalities arising from outdated state drainage law and loopholes in the federal Clean Water Act did the suit in.

Agricultural interests and their political patrons are celebrating the Water Works' loss. But the real losers are all Iowans suffering from dirty water.

The state Department of Natural Resources lists 253 community water systems as highly susceptible to the same nitrate pollution that threatens the Water Works’ 500,000 customers. Sixty-two systems draw water from the same watersheds that supply Des Moines. Thirty-nine systems are targeted for immediate action because their drinking water is already contaminated with nitrate at levels half or more of the legal limit.

Private wells are even more likely to be polluted. Between 2006 and 2008, the University of Iowa tested 473 private drinking water wells and found nitrates in almost half, with about one in eight higher than the legal limit. New science suggests that long-term ingestion of drinking water with nitrate levels that high is linked to increased risk of bladder and thyroid cancer and birth defects.

The Water Works has been accused of waging war on rural Iowa. But the water of many rural Iowans is likely just as polluted with nitrates, or more so, than in Des Moines, and they don’t see the lawsuit as an attack. A Register poll found that more people living in small towns and rural areas support the lawsuit than oppose it. The same is true for Democrats, independents and Republicans.

Nitrates get all the attention, but algal blooms caused in large part by fertilizer and manure running off or drained from farm fields set off a cascade of problems. When utilities disinfect water overloaded with algae, a suite of chemical byproducts are formed that elevate the risk of cancer. Utilities then try to remove the dangerous chemicals, but sometimes they can’t. In the last five years, 163 Iowa systems reported that their treated water exceeded the legal limit for disinfection byproducts at least once.

Toxic algal blooms and bacteria already ruin vacations and sicken people. Since 2006, state beaches reported 185 instances of unsafe levels of algal toxins. A record 32 warnings were issued in 2015 and 37 last year. The Department of Natural Resources’ Water Quality Index classifies water quality as good in only one of 58 streams monitored in 2015. Water quality was listed as poor or very poor in 53 streams. In much of the state, the primary culprits are polluted runoff and drainage from farm fields.

Even as their health is threatened and costs to treat dirty water rise, Iowans are also supposed to pay farmers to stop their activities that pollute the water. How fair is that?

Agriculture interests and their government patrons dither over ways to find more money to pay farmers to cut pollution by making often simple changes to how they farm. But U.S. taxpayers already send billions of dollars to farmers and landowners every year.

In 2015, Iowa farmers and landowners got $660 million in income subsidies through the federal farm bill and an additional $378 million in subsidies for insurance premiums. A study by the Iowa Department of Revenue reported that in 2010 alone agriculture enjoyed $278 million in state tax credits and another $32 million in property tax benefits.

Diverting a small slice of this largesse to pay farmers to stop polluting would jump-start the agonizingly slow progress seen today. But maybe farmers should do something to cut pollution in return for the support they already get. In the 1985 farm bill, farmers agreed to cut soil erosion in return for farm subsidies. Thirty-two years later, surely farmers would agree to do more to cut pollution in return for more billions in federal and state support.

Iowans have waited too long for clean water. In 1979, the Register won a Pulitzer Prize for James Risser’s reporting on the environmental crisis on Iowa farms. It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to focus the state’s leaders on a problem that’s been right in front their eyes for decades.

Iowans should be grateful to the Water Works leadership and staff who took financial, political and personal risks to put water quality front and center.

Progress in cleaning up Iowa’s water is moving at a snail’s pace at best. Agricultural interests constantly complained the lawsuit was distracting from their efforts to clean up Iowa’s abysmal water quality. They are out of excuses now.

Judge Strand has put the ball firmly back in agriculture’s court. Let's see how they play it.

Craig Cox is senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources, based in the Ames office of the Environmental Working Group. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Ahhhh..Fresh Spring Water Pollution On It’s Way...

[It’s the first astronomical day of Spring in 2017, and warehouses in Iowa are filling up with ag chemicals being readied to be splayed out across the 23 million acres of Iowa’s corn and soybeans.  Regulation to prevent nutrient losses? Sorry, nope.  Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides too.  Regulation(?) translates to either loss of personal rights or protection of public health.  Likelihood of improvement in water quality: None.  

Iowa Department of Ag reports 12 new urban urban-rural water project that will join work in 22 watersheds, and there is a state legislative push for a statewide 3/8th cent tax [public tax, with no ag tax] to improve Iowa’s natural resources, including water quality.  So, that’s a good thing, right?  Sorry, nope.

Remember, 23 million crop acres, no regulation and a drainage system that encourages rapid release of water from cropland that would only be effective every field had a water retainment system (really, a personal wetland is about the only chance), and a chemical application fee, and regulations that would limit application and measure both use to assess compliance and effectiveness to improve chemical retention,  and a less intensive crop rotation--not going to happen.

What is also going to realistically happen is a deep restoration of he federal EPA recommendations and even the ability to talk about it.  When functioning at its best, the EPA was aspiring in 2013 to seek a 45% reduction in nitrogen and phosphorous levels, and the scale of change to improve water quality would cost billions for decades.] 

No more DMWW lawsuit, no more independent DMWW likely, so best of luck holding up those protest signs to reverse Ag $$$ grip on government changes.]

Your 2 Cents’ Worth excerpts, Part 8 [various readers submissions/ Des Moines Register]:

When I first moved to Iowa after growing up in a large urban area, I was surprised when I found out some Iowans didn’t like farmers.  Wow, do I understand it now.
--The most self-promoting entitled polluters in the state

[Kinseth: Iowa Ag has used the state legislature to prevent legal recourse to rural community damage, abuse and nuisance concerns with factory farming.  Whistle-blowing of animal abuse can be prosecuted.  A current bill in progress would limit the rewards possible in lawsuits.  The ability of rural communities to prevent large factory farms from being constructed has been made nearly impossible to oppose.  Beyond mass animal-farming, any regulation to reduce water pollution or soil loss has been shot down in the Iowa legislature for decades.  Modern farming as changed and become industrial but there is no industrial regulation. 
Never as much as a peep from farmers saying these protections go to far, in fact there is a sense that these protections do not go far enough.  So not liking farmers is a realistic response.]

I own a restaurant.  I got tax breaks to open it.  I pay no taxes for any basic supplies to run my business.

I throw my garbage in to the street and expect the public to pay for its cleanup.  I make two basic meals to the point that there are not enough customers to keep me in business but have insurance paid for by the public to make sure that I stay in  business.

I get paid by the government a percentage of each meal to continue making as many as I can even though there is no market to support it. Sound familiar?

Just a parallel scenario of farming.


Saturday, March 4, 2017

Coming Federal Disaster: Say One Thing, Do The Opposite

New, abrupt and broad federal changes in environmental policy will degrade air and water that mock Trump’s stated intent to promote clean air and water. Changes in the departments of Energy, Interior and Environmental Protection ill broadly de-regulate  limits on use and open access to natural resources as well as sell public land.  The following is the complete March 3, 2017 DSM Register that focuses on coming wide-scale water and air degradation.

Editorial: President's speech spread fog and smog
The Register's Editorials 5:30 p.m. CT March 3, 2017

President Trump is 'promoting' deregulation, not clean air and water

On the surface, at least, there was much to admire about President Trump’s speech to Congress this week.

Unfortunately, many of the president’s words, while deserving of praise, don’t square with his actions. In that context, his address before a joint session of Congress should be considered an elaborately staged piece of performance art, not a speech.

It must have been easy, for example, for the president to tell Congress he intends to “promote clean air and clean water.” But to applaud the president’s words, you’d first have to ignore all of the actions he is taking that pose a direct threat to clean air and clean water.

Within hours of addressing Congress, Trump signed an executive order that initiates a rollback of one of the federal government’s most significant water-protection regulations: the Waters of the United States rule, which is intended to impose federal pollution limits not just on major bodies of water, but on the streams and wetlands that drain into those larger waters.

The president is also preparing to cut by 30 percent the Environmental Protection Agency’s funding for state grants and its federally administered air-and-water programs.

He is also poised to sign an executive order instructing the EPA to initiate the process of withdrawing climate-change regulations that would curb greenhouse gases emitted by coal-fired power plants.

And, of course, there’s the president’s campaign pledge to dismantle the EPA “in almost every form,” so that only “little tidbits” remain. Toward that end, Trump has appointed former Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt, who has sued the EPA more than a dozen times, to lead — well, “destroy” is the more accurate word — the federal agency.

Scott Pruitt, President Donald Trump's controversial appointment to head the EPA, spelled out his vision for the agency at a key gathering of conservatives outside Washington, D.C. on Saturday. (Feb. 25) AP

Pruitt is dutifully complying, denouncing “regulations that in the near term need to be rolled back in a very aggressive way” and pursuing a plan to quickly eliminate one out of every five jobs in the agency.

Remember the president’s inaugural-address denunciation of the “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation?” Well, his preliminary budget for the EPA would eliminate grants to clean up contaminated brownfields and abandoned industrial sites, so you can expect to see even more of those tombstones.

As reported by the Washington Post, the EPA budget, which is still subject to revision, also calls on states to assume a far greater role in protecting air and water, but it does so while simultaneously cutting the federal grants that typically pay for such efforts.

Trump’s goal is to make U.S. manufacturing more competitive with nations like China, where the air quality contributes to 4,000 deaths per day and 80 percent of the underground wells contain water that’s unsafe to drink.

So why did the president tell Congress he is determined to “promote clean air and clean water”?

Probably because no politician in his right mind — yes, we're counting the president among that select group — would promote polluted air and toxic water. On top of that, polls show a majority of Americans believe environmental protection should be one of the president’s top priorities.

So, rather than tell Congress and a nationally audience of TV viewers that he is in the process of gutting the EPA and rolling back decades of regulations that protect the public health, Trump simply claimed he was doing just the opposite.

And with that, Congress stood and applauded.