Iowa is an agricultural state with 40% of our land used for highly fertilized crops.It takes over a pound of fertilizer to produce a bushel of corn and Iowa will produce around 2.7 billion bushels of corn this year. Some of that fertilizer will be taken up in the corn, but some will also run off into Iowa waters, creating blooms of algae. Some of this algae will produce toxins and remove oxygen from water, killing aquatic life and making the water unfit to drink.
We also have hogs here. Iowa is a state that has more hogs than people. There are about 21 million hogs in Iowa and 3 million people. That’s right. For each person there are almost seven hogs at any given day. Iowa is #1 in hog production nationwide. We also have more turkeys than people here in Iowa. We lead the nation in egg production. As you might imagine, we produce a lot of manure here–10 billion tons per year! You’d think this would make the state a power player in the GDP of the nation but no, we are responsible for 1% of the nation’s wealth.
With all of our manure and fertilizer and the water-soluble nutrients, you can imagine that we cause problems for ourselves and others in terms of water quality. Polluted water is a public health issue here in Iowa. Who is accountable for Iowa’s water pollution? This is the question and with this question comes a lawsuit. The Des Moines Water Works is suing counties upstream, saying they need to be regulated and accountable for their pollution. The point of the lawsuit is that these counties run pipes of agricultural pollution into state and federal waters and no one is stopping them.Those downstream pay the price for this unregulated drainage, much like a sewer pipe. The pollution is associated with cancer, birth defects, blue baby syndrome, toxic cyanobacteria, and blooms of algae downstream. The Des Moines Water Works spends over a million dollars per year cleaning up this drainage.
Why doesn’t the pollution, caused by manure and fertilizer, just soak into the ground? The counties that are being sued are naturally swampy and must be drained with plastic tiles. These are connected to pipes and the pipes drain the swampy pollution into the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers.
There are things that can be done to prevent this such as crop rotation, planting cover crops, bioreactors, and other conservation practices. The problem is, the polluters don’t like the city folk telling them what to do and have no incentives to clean up their pollution. Appealing to their human decency isn’t working. Manure can be used as fertilizer and in fact, it is underused according to our agricultural college, Iowa State. But do we use it this way? Not much. Fertilizer is cheaper and Iowa has even given a new fertilizer plant billions of dollars to set up shop here.
The lawsuit has been called “a war on rural Iowa.” This isn’t accurate or helpful. The lack of compassion for those downstream is problem here in Iowa and in our nation. The lawsuit will begin this June 2017. If the Des Moines Waterworks loses the lawsuit, it will need to spend up to $100 million dollars on a new denitrification plant in order to be able to make their water safe enough for their consumers to drink. Even sadder, the pollutants are water soluble so even if removed to make the water of Des Moines safer, they will find their way back to the water supply.