How rural America can avoid ‘another century of degraded water’

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Despite the presidential caucus debacle Iowa hosted Feb. 3, the too-old, too-white, and too-rural (at least to pundits who drop by every Leap Year) Hawkeye State still finished its awful week with an act of political courage rarely seen in U.S. agriculture today.

Call to action

The Des Moines Register published on Feb. 7 a clear, sharp call to action on the state’s increasing “degradation of drinking water” by pointing the finger directly at Big Ag and its enablers in the Iowa General Assembly.

The criticism isn’t new; several Iowa newspapers — especially the Pulitzer Prize-winning Storm Lake Times — regularly point out how Big Ag and the state legislature have worked together to make political buck-passing on the state’s worsening water quality Iowa’s unofficial sport.

Ag experts

The unusual part of the Register’s op/ed, however, was its writers: four ag experts with impeccable legal and scientific credentials few would debate separately and no one should take on collectively. More on each later.

Their editorial effort begins with a punch in the face: “In 2019, Iowa’s streams carried away a billion pounds of nitrogen and 50 million pounds of phosphorus.”

Whoa, a billion pounds of wasted N and 50 million pounds of unusable P? What did that cost Iowa farmers, as well as the state’s citizens, parks and wildlife whose lives depend on clean water?

To date, solutions have been short-sighted and ineffective. In 2013, the Iowa legislature passed its Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a timid approach its backers hoped would pacify public calls to act. But “Iowa’s water quality has not improved.”

Weak regulations

The reason is as obvious now as then: Iowa’s water problems flow from how its farmers operate: When the manure from the state’s 25 million hogs and 80 million laying hens is added on top of its fertilizer-intense corn-soybean monoculture, “Animals are so overpopulated in some areas that manure-borne nutrients far exceed crops needs.”

Everyone knows this so, now, “It’s time to admit the obvious and regroup.”

All must recognize that the state’s livestock industry “has grown far beyond our agencies’ capacity to enforce the weak regulations we have.” Worse, these regulations mainly rely “on farmer altruism,” or self-sacrifice, that “will require generations to produce measurable results.”

Iowans deserve better

And that’s just not good enough. “We think Iowans deserve better from an industry indemnified by the taxpayer through billions of dollars spent on trade mitigation payments, crop insurance subsidies, and disaster relief.”

And, “Poor water quality is not the result of callous, poorly informed or rogue farmers; rather it is the predictable result of land use policies, vulnerabilities of the corn-soybean-animal confinement scheme, and an economic system tyrannically ruling farmer decisions.”

What needs to be done, the four experts suggest, are forward-leaning actions most farm groups and state legislatures haven’t touched for decades. Now, however, everyone needs to focus on “resilient ways that benefit all Iowans” like taxing fertilizer and feed to trim overuse, monitor manure application to stop over-application and toughen today’s weak regulatory system.

These long-needed, well-informed ideas won’t go away because the ag experts who offer them are Iowa’s most respected ag experts. One is Neil Hamilton, emeritus professor of law at Drake University and a nationally respected ag law expert. Another is Matt Liebman, a professor of agronomy and the H.A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State.

Two University of Iowa faculty members round out the four-person team: Sylvia Secchi specializes in sustainability and public policy and Chris Jones, a research engineer, writes an authoritative, often provocative blog on Iowa water quality.

The four conclude their piece as they began it: with a clear, indisputable fact.

“The challenge represented by our degraded water is enormous. We know of no problems approaching this magnitude that have been solved through individual actions. Iowans deserve more than meaningless platitudes and dogmatic devotion to voluntary approaches.

“Now is the time to act if we are to avoid another century of degraded water.”

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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children. farmandfoodfile.com

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