Iowa Water Quality: How Many Words Are There for Ick?

Back in late September, Iowa Policy Project came out with a new report showing that nearly all the nitrogen and phosphorus runoff contaminating Iowa’s waters comes from agriculture. Supportive editorials ran this week in Iowa’s biggest newspapers, including the Des Moines Register and Cedar Rapids Gazette. Iowa Farm Bureau also got around to posting a response on its blog about “scare tactics about Iowa’s water quality.” IFB laments that “environmental activists … play very fast and loose with the facts. They shout and scream that Iowa has some of the most polluted water in the country, and point their fingers accusingly at today’s farmers.”

I’ve read vast amounts of data on this subject in my work at Plains Justice, as a member of the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, and as background research for an article I published earlier this year arguing for a comprehensive Environmental Impact Statement for the U.S. Farm Bill. I’ve even gotten my boots dirty (okay, absolutely disgustingly vile) at a hog confinement.

The data is entirely on IPP’s side here, so it’s time for a personal anecdote. Several years back when water was running high from late spring runoff, I took my family – including the dog – for a little float down Abbe Creek in rural Linn County, Iowa. You’ll have to forgive my ignorance. I grew up floating the trout streams of Montana and I had this naive idea that American rivers and streams are generally clean and healthy. My husband, the native Iowan, was extremely skeptical, but he’s also fundamentally game for anything, which is why I love him.

We put in at a little bridge on a dirt road with inner tubes and float toys. The Newfoundland splashed in with delight. The water was mud-colored and completely opaque. When we got right down to water level it was obvious that there was a lot of junk floating in it – specks of something brown that didn’t smell good. But there we were, on a beautiful day, in our surf shorts and water shoes, so we shoved off and floated.

The smell didn’t improve. The dog, who loves water more than life itself, soon scrambled up onto the eroding bank and walked beside us rather than playing in the water. Any time we dipped an arm or leg in the water, it came out with a  film that dried hard. Soon we were all holding ourselves out of the water as much as possible, trying not to touch it any more than necessary as we made for the bikes we’d left at the nearest downstream bridge. The next day everyone had a sore throat and the dog came down with a skin condition that required antibiotics and partial shaving.

The Farm Bureau blog post concludes by exhorting members: “…when activists try to trick you into believing Iowa has some of the nation’s worst water quality and lay the blame of farmers, make sure to treat them with the facts.” Well, I’ve done my own field research, and until I can take my family for a swim on a warm spring day without the water making us sick, I will remain convinced that Iowa has a very serious problem.

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One Response to Iowa Water Quality: How Many Words Are There for Ick?

  1. kevin5 says:

    this is a great article based on personal experience. The IFB spends big money projecting a perception that all is well, nothing to worry about, and that “farmers” care about our water quality. I will believe IFB when they require farmers to water all livestock from available surface water only. When livestock start dying, they will change their tune!

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