Three Ways to Stop the Pollution of Iowa’s Water

A University of Iowa researcher has a solution to the decades-long degradation of the state's water quality

Chris Jones June 16, 2023

University of Iowa water researcher Chris Jones has watched for decades as manure from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), alongside runoff from monoculture corn and soy farms, polluted the streams and rivers of his state. In 2019, he started a blog to draw attention to these issues, hoping to reach a wider audience than he could with more academic papers. The blog was a success, with readers drawn to the careful data and irreverent style he employed to take the apologists for Big Ag to task. Many of those blog posts, along with several new essays, have been collected into the new book, Swine Republic: Struggles with the Truth about Agriculture and Water Quality

In the essay “Downstream,”  Jones explores several ways that Iowa’s water situation could be improved. A condensed version of “Downstream” is excerpted below.

When I speak to groups about the water pollution generated by Iowa agriculture, I’m often asked, “How do we improve things?” Often someone in the audience shouts out “Vote!” If only it were that easy. You don’t get decades-long water quality degradation without the complicity of both political parties. 

Some things have gotten better. The average clarity of our streams did improve in the years immediately following the 1985 Farm Bill, which included provisions for conservation compliance, i.e., farmers cropping on highly erodible land and wishing to participate in federal farm programs were required to adopt various soil conservation practices to prevent erosion. This had a noticeable and quantifiable effect on Iowa streams. Along with that, the widespread use of glyphosate (Roundup) did reduce the use of many more toxic herbicides, and Bt corn genetically modified to resist corn borer larvae lessened the need for insecticides.

But nutrient pollution and the harmful algae blooms caused by it have continued to worsen and it’s debatable whether or not soil erosion and stream clarity have improved much since 2000. Dense hog, cattle and poultry populations have made the presence of E. coli bacteria ubiquitous on our land and in our water, and the sand and gravel substrate of many of our smaller streams, needed by many clean water species, has been entombed beneath a layer of eroded soil and organic matter from manure. As a result, fewer than 20 stream stretches in Iowa’s 70,000 miles of streams meet all their designated uses outlined under the Clean Water Act, and 585 Iowa water bodies are defined as impaired. We’ve had 6,600 private wells exceed the safe standard for nitrate since 2000 and about 25% of Iowans drink water requiring nitrate removal at municipal treatment works.

From 1991 to 2021, an estimated 129,000 gallons have spilled from the Smithfield Foods’ Whitetail hog CAFO waste lagoons into the environment, for which Smithfield has received 11 notices of violation and two letters of warning from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. (Scott Dye, Socially Responsible Agriculture Project)

Iowa’s approach to agricultural water pollution has always been to let farmers decide whether and how to reduce the contaminants sourced to their own fields. This voluntary approach contrasts with a regulatory one which would obligate farmers to adopt various practices and demonstrate their efforts are being manifested in improved water quality. The industry rhetoric promoting voluntary approaches as good and regulation as bad has become accepted dogma such that it is even enshrined in Iowa code.

While it is certainly possible to find fields and farms where voluntary practices have reduced contamination, this approach almost always requires significant taxpayer investment in cost share funds to entice the farmer into adopting it. 

What approaches should we take to get cleaner water? 

I see solutions to our water quality problems falling into one of three bins:

1. Regulate the existing corn-soybean-CAFO system. 

Agriculture often claims it is heavily regulated, but truth is there is very little environmental regulation, especially as it relates to crop production. The livestock industry can claim some regulations, but they helped write them and enforcement is kept tepid through weak funding by the legislature of Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources. The mantra in agriculture is that every farm is different and thus one-size-fits-all regulations could never work. Look around at Iowa farms for yourself—they could hardly be more similar. They all grow the same two crops (corn and soy) with a small subset of those raising only a few species of animals (hogs, beef cattle, egg-laying chickens), all within 2 degrees of latitude and 3 degrees of longitude. And the fact is that regulations can be tailored to specific situations.

Common-sense rules for farming would not inoculate our water from agricultural pollution, but they could go a long way toward improving things beyond the current status quo. Limits on new drainage tile and new CAFOs could arrest the decline in water quality in areas of the state where these drivers are major contributors to degraded water quality.

Regulation would also bring a level of fairness to ordinary Iowa taxpayers, who are asked year after year to provide funds to farmers if they desire clean water. How do we continue to give license to farmers to do whatever they want on their farms, and then ask taxpayers to pay for the environmental consequences? This is unjust and immoral policy in my view, especially because many of our farmers have very substantial accumulated wealth and farm operations are indemnified against natural and economic disasters by the federal government.

2. Diversify Iowa farms.

I’m far from being the first person to suggest we need more biological diversity on Iowa farms if we wish to improve Iowa agriculture’s environmental performance. No agro-ecological system based on only two species of annual plants is going to be resilient to bad weather. This is especially true in a place like Iowa that is situated in the middle of a continent and by virtue of that will have extreme and dynamic weather. 

Row crop production required to feed livestock and produce corn-derived fuel ethanol requires large inputs of fossil fuels for machinery operation, grain drying and chemicals, and especially for the ammonia produced from the natural gas that is used in various fertilizer formulations. Fertilization of crops with both commercial formulations and confinement livestock manure has resulted in significant nutrient losses from agricultural watersheds, which degrades downstream aquatic ecosystems, including the Gulf of Mexico, which suffers from a seasonal Dead Zone (hypoxia) because of farm runoff from Iowa and other states. Likewise, the emphasis on corn and soy production for livestock and ethanol has caused these two crops to displace others like oats and other small grains as well as forages like clovers and alfalfa. This has resulted in a loss of landscape diversity and an increase in nutrient inputs that degrade water quality at multiple spatial scales.

3. Get rid of fuel ethanol. 

The Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 (also known as the Renewable Fuel Standard-RFS) codified the use of ethanol by mandating that gasoline sold in the U.S. contain a certain percentage of ethanol, with amounts increasing each year. This in effect created a guaranteed market for Iowa corn and the ethanol production industry responded by constructing about 40 plants with a production capacity of about 4.5 billion gallons per year, making Iowa the number one ethanol-producing state.

But the environmental costs of corn production are high. Whether corn ethanol actually reduces carbon emissions relative to gasoline is still debated; a 2022 study from researchers at the Universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says no, and in fact corn ethanol may be worse than gasoline when the inputs and land use change needed to grow corn are considered. Couple this with the emergence of electric vehicles and the fact that demand for liquid fuels may have reached peak levels, and a reasonable person can ask why we continue to double- and triple- and quadruple-down on corn ethanol.  

The guaranteed market for corn has buckled a straitjacket onto Iowa land and our agricultural system. It has inflated land values and pigeonholed that land, some of the best on earth for growing food, into what at best is a superficial function and at worst is an abomination. More than half the calories produced by our land go to power motor vehicles, and an area of land the size of 20 Iowa counties is used to grow those calories. 

Releasing those acres from their ethanol-enforced bondage will not be easy, but once free, that land could be used for something other than the corn production that drives so much of our water pollution. This needs to happen if we are to diversify Iowa agriculture and foster new crops and new farmers. It’s true that many aspiring farmers, most of whom are young and would like to try something different than corn/soy, are limited by the availability of land. Ethanol and its guardian angel, the Renewable Fuel Standard, keep Iowa farmland prices inflated, adding wealth to those with a lucky birthright while bringing no real benefit to society.

Reasons for hope

A lot of folks dream of an Iowa re-covered with prairies, wetlands, and oak savannahs. I agree we certainly deserve more of those things, and I am for more of those things. But I think it’s unreasonable, impractical, and imprudent to have wholesale conversion of Iowa farmland to these other land uses. The world needs calories, and a place like Iowa, with abundant rainfall, fertile and thick (in most places anyway) topsoil, approximately level land, and a temperate climate, can produce a whole lot of calories. Because of those qualities, we could produce those calories here with a smaller overall environmental impact than almost anywhere else on Earth. If we wanted to. The problem is, we don’t want to very badly. Iowa agriculture wants to produce junk carbohydrates, protein for mostly wealthy people and a liquid fuel we don’t need, and they want to do it in a reckless manner without consideration for the 97% who don’t farm. 

It is not necessarily the individual actions that are driving degraded water quality; rather it’s the fundamentals of the corn/soy/CAFO system that impel the practitioners to make decisions that are in their best self-interest, and not society’s at large. Our dogmatic devotion to voluntary approaches necessarily relies on the individual actions of farmers and by extension, their willingness to make decisions that are not in their individual self-interest. It’s delusional to think a problem of this magnitude can be solved against that backdrop. 

Our problems arise from the fact that our production system has been designed to maximize and prioritize commerce over environmental and nutritional outcomes. I see no evidence that establishment Iowa has any intention of changing that dynamic. We have institutional, economic and built infrastructure constructed all over the state (and the entire Corn Belt) that aligns with the corn/soybean/CAFO scheme and almost no one willing to abandon even small parts of that infrastructure. Thus, we are left with a patchwork of taxpayer-subsidized half-of-a-half-of-a-half measures that attempt to shore up the system at extremely small spatial scales (i.e., fields and small watersheds) without meaningful or measurable change at the system or landscape scales that people can recognize.

Meaningful and well-thought regulation could help force more farmers into the alternative systems that will produce the environmental outcomes that we want. If farmers are made financially responsible for externalities generated by their farming system, we make it more favorable for them to explore different and lesser-polluting systems.

As I write these words, I can tell you that among my close peer group of scientists and others who study these things, optimism is in short supply when it comes to cleaning up Iowa’s water, at least within the span of their careers. That doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless. But until the bulk of the folks earning their living in this sphere—probably less than 500 people in Iowa—start speaking up and creating space for decision makers (an idea I internalized from my colleague Silvia Secchi) and inspiring everyday Iowans to demand change, progress will be agonizingly slow. 

Until then, I will take my inspiration from the words of Howard Zinn, a person whose ideas inspired many of the words in this book: To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a small victory. 

Be defiant.

Chris Jones
Chris Jones

Chris Jones is a Research Engineer with IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa. He holds a PhD in Analytical Chemistry from Montana State University and a BA in chemistry and biology from Simpson College. He is the author of Swine Republic: Struggles with the Truth about Agriculture and Water Quality.

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