Iowa’s dirty water is getting worse

A bird’s eye view of the Iowa River, 2018. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

For five years, Sarah Prineas has been getting up before dawn and heading to the Beckwith Boathouse at the University of Iowa to meet other members of Hawkeye Community Rowing for practice. The rowing team practices four to five times a week on the Iowa River.

“It’s always beautiful in the morning,” Prineas said. “The river is calm, and the sun is coming up. On the banks of the river we see deer, all kinds of waterfowl and eagles. It’s really very peaceful and beautiful.”

But there is a problem: the water.

“Currently, it is foul,” Prineas said. “We notice when we go down to the dock in the morning these blobs of brownish foam that are coming down the river. And the river is murky and brown.”

After practice, the rowers have to use detergent to clean the slimy residue off the boats and oars. It’s not a new practice, but as drought conditions in Iowa lower the water level in rivers and slow their flow, the underlying pollution problems are aggravated and become more obvious.

“We have always washed the boats, but it’s just gotten really disgusting this year,” Prineas said.

Dennis Keitel up to his elbows in Iowa River scum from the bottom of a boat. — Ute Brandenburg

Up until 2015, it would have been fairly easy to compare the quality of water in the Iowa River as it passes through Iowa City with that of other rivers and streams in eastern Iowa by checking the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Water Quality Index. DNR had published the index since 2000, but discontinued after deciding it was no longer reliable because the state cut funding for monitoring pesticides in rivers and streams.

In 2016, DNR contracted with Chris Jones to create a new index. Jones, a research engineer at UI’s IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering lab and a leading expert on water quality in Iowa, worked with Rick Langel of the Iowa Geological Survey to devise an index that measures the quality of streams and rivers according to levels of dissolved oxygen, E. coli, total nitrogen, total phosphorus and water clarity.

“We actually do a fairly good job of monitoring water quality here in Iowa,” Jones told Little Village. In addition to the DNR’s ambient water monitoring program, UI collects its own water quality data.

DNR hasn’t started utilizing the new index yet, but Jones used it to create a list of the state’s 45 best stream sites in terms of water quality, which he published on his website. The Iowa River makes the list, which used data from 2016 to 2020, three times — at Wapello (No. 22), downstream of Marshalltown (No. 26) and at Lone Tree (No. 31) — but the Iowa City segment didn’t crack the top 45.

Western Iowa waterways are largely absent from the list, as engineering projects, such as the straightening of rivers and streams, and pollution from large-scale agriculture have heavily degraded their quality.

Pollution from agriculture — fertilizer runoff from fields, feces from livestock — is common throughout the Midwest, but nowhere is the problem worse than Iowa.

“What separates Iowa is so much of our land is in production,” Jones said. “More than 80 percent of our land is in agricultural production and no state compares with that. Thus we have no natural lands to really buffer the effects of these agricultural activities.”

The perennial plants that existed in Iowa before most of the land was cleared to make way for crops would have absorbed excess nutrients and helped prevent runoff.

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“We whisk the water off the landscape as fast as we can to make it suitable for crop production and in doing that, we end up polluting our streams,” Jones said.

While the amount of phosphorus in Iowa’s waterways seems to have leveled off, the problem with nitrates has gotten much worse.

“Statewide, we’ve probably doubled the amounts in our streams since around 2003,” Jones said. The elevated levels of nitrogen in the water can cause explosive algae blooms.

E. coli is also significant in stream impairment. The bacteria, which is present in feces, is an indicator that other, more dangerous bacteria may be present.

Fecal contamination isn’t surprising, since Iowa has allowed CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) to remain largely unregulated.

Pigs in a CAFO (confined animal feed operation). — via the United States Geological Survey

When CAFOs were first introduced in Iowa in the 1990s, the state ranked number two in the number of pigs, behind North Carolina. That changed as North Carolina and other states began to phase in some regulations on CAFOs, in response to citizen complaints about the massive industrial pig facilities and increasing evidence that CAFOs have negative impacts on the environment and public health.

According to the most recent USDA data, Iowa, which has a human population of 3.16 million, had 23.9 million pigs as of March. Its closest competitor was Minnesota, with 9 million. North Carolina had dropped to third with 8.5 million pigs.

All those pigs produce a tremendous amount of waste. In 2019 — when Iowa had 23.6 million pigs — Jones estimated the fecal output of the state’s hogs and pigs as the equivalent of Iowa having additional 83.9 million people living and shitting within its borders.

Minimal regulation also made Iowa the country’s top egg-producing state, with approximately 56 million laying hens jammed into cages at industrial-style farms. They produce the same fecal load as 15 million people, according to Jones.

Humans living in Iowa have been pushing back against CAFOs since Iowa Select set up its first massive hog facility in the early ’90s, and residents have consistently opposed expansion of CAFOs and demanded more regulation of them to limit pollution. A 2019 survey by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found 63 percent of Iowans favored a ban on new CAFOs and 75 percent favored increasing the environmental standards CAFOs must follow.

None of that has mattered. The state government has stripped local governments of their ability to regulate CAFOs, and rolled back many standards Iowa had to protect the environment from agricultural pollution.

Iowa farm runoff — Tim McCabe/USDA

It’s been a bipartisan effort.

Following the farm crisis of the ’80s, the governor — who was usually Terry Branstad — and lawmakers of both parties decided the best way to secure Iowa’s future was to give big agribusinesses almost everything they could want in the way of lax regulations.

And not just for CAFOs. Large-scale crop farming grew during the same period, even as the diversity of crops declined. Thirty million of the state’s total 36 million acres are devoted to agriculture. Of that 30 million, 25 million acres are planted with either corn or soybeans.

“What’s happened in Iowa is we don’t have any rural development policies except ‘grow more corn and beans,’” Professor Silvia Secchi, a natural resource economist in the UI Department of Geographical and Sustainability Sciences, said. And much of that corn and soybeans are in turn fed to the animals in the state’s CAFOs.

Only ethanol production consumes more of the corn grown in Iowa than animals do. Just 1 percent of the corn produced in the state is sweet corn for people to eat.

The industrial farming practices involved in the state’s CAFOs and its large-scale corn and soybean production are “woven together,” Secchi noted. Lax state regulation, and failure to develop any alternatives to provide jobs, has allowed both to grow and dominate rural areas.

The conventional agricultural approach to corn and soybeans used on big farms in Iowa requires heavy application of fertilizer, and the state relies on voluntary measures to control runoff from the fields.

“There is an incredible excess of application of nutrients on the landscape,” Secchi said. “And on top of that, when we grow corn we use pesticides, when we raise hogs we use antibiotics. So there’s all sorts of other chemicals that end up both in our surface water and in our groundwater.”

But it’s not just state regulations, or the lack of regulations, that have created the situation in Iowa. Federal government policies have also made it possible, and federal farm subsidies have made it profitable.

“Historically, the support for conventional ag, which has the unintended consequence of pollution, has been very bipartisan,” Secchi said. That support at the federal level has in part been driven by politicians with presidential ambitions competing to be as generous as possible to first-in-the-nation Iowa.

Pollution seeps into an Iowa stream from a nearby farm. — Lynn Betts/USDA

The federal government does very little to control the pollution it is subsidizing. The Clean Water Act specifically exempts agricultural runoff from its regulations. The federal government will, however, offer more subsidies to adopt practices that will limit runoff.

“We’re subsidizing farmers to produce more corn and soybeans, and therefore pollute more, and then we’re subsidizing farmers to clean up the pollution,” Secchi said. “The real goal of all these policies is to subsidize farmers. It’s not to feed the world, it’s not to clean up our water, it’s not to sequester carbon.”

Those policies aren’t increasing the number of farmers, either. According to USDA figures, only 3 percent of Iowans are classified as farmers. But even as the number of farmers declines, federal subsidies drive up the cost of farmland, putting the profession out of reach of people interested in becoming farmers and concentrating more of the land in fewer hands.

As the dominance of big agriculture persists in rural Iowa, the number of people living there continues to decline. Recently, Gov. Kim Reynolds has touted the state’s new funding for broadband internet in rural areas as a way of attracting people who work remotely to Iowa’s small towns. Reynolds claims the “quality of life” available in those towns will draw in people from around the country once reliable internet connections are available.

But will it? Promoting fishing, canoeing or even walking along the rivers and streams in much of the state as part of the quality of life available in Iowa would be a hard sell right now. Other states make an effort to treat water as a resource for the whole state in ways that Iowa hasn’t. Not just for drinking quality, but also for recreational purposes.

It’s possible Iowa may change decades of policies to address its water quality problem, but there are no signs of that at the moment. In April, DNR approved a new cattle CAFO near Bloody Run Creek in the northeast corner of the state.

Bloody Run got its unappealing name in the 19th century from the abundance of game in the area, as boastful hunters claimed they could shoot so many animals in a single day the creek’s clear water would run red. Now it’s known for its fishing and beautiful cold, clear water. The creek ranks number two on Jones’ water quality list. The state has certified it as one of Iowa’s Outstanding Waters and promotes Bloody Run as a prime trout-fishing location. Most trout in Iowa waterways are there because DNR restocks them every year, but Bloody Run has a self-sustaining population of brown trout.

The official “Outstanding” designation is supposed to entitle a waterway to enhanced protection, but it didn’t stop DNR from approving plans for 11,600 head of cattle at the new CAFO, and granting the owners permission to spread manure on fields within a 30-mile radius. As environmental groups that opposed the plan pointed out, almost everything about the new CAFO suggests it will pollute Bloody Run.

Bloody Run Creek in Clayton County, known for its cold, clear water and trout fishing, is in the watershed of a new DNR-approved cattle CAFO that is currently under construction.

Top soil is very thin in the area, and the bedrock is near the surface. That bedrock is porous limestone, which pollutants can move through quickly to reach waterways. Forty-two of the 45 fields where the company plans to spread manure are considered Highly Erodible Land, according to the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club.

And the record of the company behind the CAFO is also troubling.

In 2017, when the facility was under construction, DNR found that water quality in Bloody Run was damaged, because the company failed to control silt from the site reaching the stream. DNR staff issued a $10,000 fine — the most the agency can levy — and recommended turning the case over to the Iowa Attorney General’s Office for further enforcement action. But such an action would have required approval by the Natural Resources Commission, which refused to even bring the recommendation up for a vote.

DNR’s “refusal to disapprove the plan submitted” for the CAFO “shows the sad state of affairs in Iowa when it comes to animal feeding operations,” Michael Schmidt, an attorney for the Iowa Environmental Council, said in a statement after DNR approved the plan in April. “State laws and the DNR both prioritize new concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) over protecting our streams, rivers, and lakes.”

Unfortunately for Iowa, that’s the way the system has been designed to operate.

But a change is coming. In 2022, a new law in California takes effect and all out-of-state farms will have to meet its standards for humane animal treatment in order to sell products in the state. Iowa CAFOs will have to give hogs and cattle more room if they want to sell meat in California, and hens must be cage-free or their eggs won’t go on sale in the country’s most populous and richest state.

A meat-industry trade group sued California over the law, with support from Iowa and other industrial-farm-friendly states. California won in the courts, and on June 28, the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed that win.

It’s unclear what this change might mean for water quality, but it is the biggest challenge to agribusiness as usual in Iowa in decades.

Beached on the Cedar River. — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

Paul Brennan is Little Village’s news director. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 296.