Driftless Water Defenders Go on the Offensive in Iowa

New group mobilizes citizens to protect Iowa’s “last island of ecological integrity”

Nina Elkadi July 1, 2024

Ann Edgerton, 80, is no stranger to activism. Edgerton spent much of the 1980s advocating for nuclear disarmament, first getting her start by forming her own chapter of the Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament near Decorah, Iowa, going on to rub shoulders with the likes of Carl Sagan and Randall Forsberg, and even spoke after Jesse Jackson at the conclusion of the 1986 Great Peace March for Global Disarmament.

Now, Edgerton is organizing in Decorah again, but this time to preserve water quality in the Driftless area of the Midwest.

On June 15, Edgerton helped greet the crowd of 100 people who attended the kickoff event for the Driftless Water Defenders, a new 501(c)3 nonprofit that plans to organize and educate citizens, and to litigate around water quality issues in Iowa’s Driftless area.

Jim Larew, registered agent and attorney for the Driftless Water Defenders, speaks at the group’s kickoff event in Decorah, Iowa, on June 15. (Kate Robinson, Driftless Water Defenders)

“I think clean water is on the cusp of a new kind of civil rights movement here. It could be expressed as a right to access to clean water, and it’s a threatened right,” says Jim Larew, registered agent and legal counsel for the organization. “One of the first things settlers noted about Iowa was the purity of the water. In those 180 years since the first settlement in Iowa, the waters have been abused. I think there is a visceral sense that [clean water] is a part of our heritage, and it’s being threatened.”

Known for its rocky bluffs and natural springs—remnants of a world left untouched by the glacial drift of the most recent Ice Age—the Driftless area comprises more than 24,000 square miles in parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin. Because of its thin layer of topsoil and unique karst topography, the Driftless area is ideal for storing water, where soluble bedrock such as limestone and shale creates a landscape of sinking streams, caves and springs. But these same features also allow water to flow quickly without significant filtration, making the region not only poorly suited for agriculture but especially vulnerable to pollution, whether nitrate pollution from agricultural runoff or manure spills from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that now dot this part of Iowa.   

An example of the Iowa Driftless area’s karst topography at Dunning’s Spring Park in Decorah, Iowa. (The Waterfall Record)

“The Driftless area is sort of this last island of ecological integrity in Iowa, and it’s probably time to circle the wagons to try and protect it,” says Chris Jones, president of the Driftless Water Defenders and author of The Swine Republic.

“The situation with the Supreme Beef feedlot in Bloody Run Creek kind of opened some eyes,” Jones says, referring to a feedlot which has been sued multiple times for polluting a prized trout stream in the area. “The livestock industry was clearly not going to consider the ecological sensitivity of the driftless area, and they would expand up there given any opportunity.”

Last year, Jones was a research engineer at the University of Iowa, where he kept a blog documenting the degradation of Iowa’s water quality and the connection between agriculture and pollution. As Robert Leonard reported in Deep Midwest, Jones alleges that the university pressured him to stop writing his blog — with an implied threat that funding for water monitoring systems could be impacted without action. With that, Jones retired. A few weeks later, Senate File 558 was signed by the governor and effectively shifted funding away from sensors Jones had put in place to measure water pollution.

On June 4, Jones sent a letter to Michael S. Regan, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Meg McCollister, the administrator of EPA’s Region 7 which covers Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri, calling for a moratorium on the creation of new, or the expansion of existing, CAFOs in the region. In the letter, Jones writes, “No doctor would treat a leg crushed by a car without making sure the car is first removed, so why would we attempt to treat our water pollution without first mitigating the source of the pollution?”

In a post announcing his decision to join as president of the Driftless Water Defenders in June, Jones expressed his frustration that people in rural Iowa have largely been forgotten, even though they shoulder the heaviest burden of pollution.

“I do not speak at an event (and I do a lot of events) without people expressing their feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness to affect change on environmental issues,” Jones wrote. “I’m frequently asked if they shouldn’t just move away.”

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Although the challenges ahead remain daunting, Jones emphasizes the role of the Driftless Water Defenders in overcoming that sense of hopelessness and powerlessness: “We’re not about putting diapers and band-aids on the landscape to hoodwink the public about progress. … We intend to fight.”

To that end, the Driftless Water Defenders is hosting more events this summer in Elkader, Waukon and Dubuque, Iowa, to raise awareness and bring more folks on board.

The organization will have membership dues, though Larew says that the organization “will find a place for everyone who is interested,” regardless of ability to pay. Jones says the organization’s vision is to build a framework for organizing that can be transferred to other regions and watersheds.

When Edgerton first got asked to go door-to-door for Driftless Water Defenders, she politely declined.

Ann Edgerton, left, knocking on doors in Decorah, Iowa, with the Driftless Water Defenders. (Terri Mozzone)

“I said, ‘No, I’m too old. I’m done with that. I can write. I can talk to groups of childcare givers. I can do some presentations that have to do more about why we’re doing this for children,’ ” she says. “Well, it took me less than 24 hours to call [them] back and say, ‘All right, we’ll go do it tomorrow.’ And so this 80 year old, about to be 81 on July 16, was out door-knocking.”

There are many reasons why someone might support a cause, but not all of them lead to action. For Edgerton, a retired professor of early childhood development at the University of Minnesota, the wellbeing of children has always been the motivation for her advocacy. She has three of her own.

“There are some issues where you feel like, ‘Oh, I just can’t take it on. It’s too big,’ she says. “But in the end … there are always these issues at the core of what it takes for human beings to thrive, and for young children to grow, and to have a sense of community.”

For Edgerton, clean water is one of those issues that should unite community members across party lines.

“I hate those comments about left [wing] or right [wing], because it really comes down to love and caring. Do you love this planet? Do you love your children and the children there? You can begin to change, but one person isn’t enough,” Edgerton says. “Kind of like the nuclear weapons thing, a lot of this is driven by fear. But that fear is balanced by, if you love this area or planet, then you’re going to care about this water and what’s going on.”

Nina Elkadi

Nina Elkadi is a writer from Iowa who reports on the intersection of climate change and agriculture. Her work also explores the manipulation of science and how corporate negligence affects consumers and workers.

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