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 Legal technicalities arising from outdated state drainage law and loopholes in the federal Clean Water Act did the suit in.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. 

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