Op-ed: Water Pollution in Iowa Is Environmental Injustice | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Water Pollution in Iowa Is Environmental Injustice

White farmers in the state’s corn, soy, and hog industries are turning a blind eye to the nitrate pollution impacting Black, brown, and low-income residents most.

Water runs off a farm in Iowa. (Photo credit: Lynn Betts / NRCS)

Water runs off a farm in Iowa. (Photo credit: Lynn Betts / NRCS)

In 2017, there were more than 86,104 “primary producers” (AKA farmers) on Iowa farms. Of these folks, 85,827 are white, 80 percent are male, and the average age is 58.9 years old. Incredibly, only 15,430 (18 percent) of these farmers are under the age of 45. I bet you can’t name another profession where 75 percent of their members are AARP-eligible. I can’t, unless there are some buggy-whip makers or blacksmiths still around. Long and short, Iowa farming is whiter and older and manlier than the “Caddyshack” country club.

Many of Iowa’s cities don’t reflect that demographic, however. Take the city of Ottumwa, an hour and a half south east of Des Moines. It’s the childhood home of my grandfather, Roscoe Wagner, and the place his dad John landed after he gave up on farming. John Wagner’s grandfather, William Wagner, left Germany in 1846 to settle and farm in the southeastern part of the new state of Iowa.

Today, Ottumwa has about 24,400 people, down from its peak of 33,900 in 1960, the year my great-grandfather died. It’s now the 20th-largest city in Iowa, and one of the state’s more diverse communities, with about 14 percent of the population identifying as Hispanic and nearly 5 percent identifying as Black—similar to Des Moines and Sioux City. The median age in Ottumwa is 33, and 65 percent of the population is under the age of 45. Ottumwa is also one of the poorest cities in Iowa. Depending on the data source, it ranks in the mid-700s out of about 900 Iowa communities in median household income, which is remarkable considering its relatively large size (for Iowa). The city lies in Wapello County, which ranked 94th out of 99 Iowa counties in median household income in 2019, at $50,533 a year.

What links the farmers mentioned above with the city of Ottumwa is water, specifically the Des Moines River. From its source in southwest Minnesota, Iowa’s largest inland stream travels through north-central and southeast Iowa (and Ottumwa) to its confluence with the Mississippi at Keokuk. The river and its tributaries drain more than 14,000 square miles and some of the most coveted farmland on earth, much of which lies in the areas upstream of Des Moines.

Without a license to pollute the public’s waters with nitrogen, the corn/soybean/CAFO system in Iowa can’t exist in its current configuration.

This area lies within the recently glaciated Prairie Pothole Region, which runs in an arc from present-day Des Moines to central Alberta. Thousands of wetlands were left behind by the melting glacier in Iowa alone, and the water table was artificially lowered to dry them out and make the landscape suitable for crop production. Moisture from rain still pools in these depressions, and so fields are underlain with an intricate cobweb of drainage pipes (called “tiles” in Iowa) that send enough fertilizer and manure nitrogen into the Mississippi watershed to kill an estuary 1,500 miles away in the Gulf of Mexico. As Todd Dorman of the Cedar Rapids Gazette has said, “The Dead Zone Starts Here.” That nitrogen reaches the stream network as nitrate, which is a regulated drinking water contaminant and the Gordian knot of Iowa agriculture.

Without a license to pollute the public’s waters with this contaminant, the corn/soybean/CAFO system in Iowa can’t exist in its current configuration. That’s why the industry tenaciously fought the 2015 Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, which sought redress for the contamination of the drinking water consumed by 20 percent of Iowa’s population. The utility spends millions filtering nitrate out of its water, and when it tried to sue the water districts in heavy corn- and soy-producing regions to the north, the industry pushed back hard. The lawsuit was dismissed, but the problem hasn’t gone away.

Something you don’t hear a lot about is that contamination makes its way down to Ottumwa, which—like Des Moines—also uses the Des Moines River as a drinking water source. In the last five years, Des Moines River nitrate has exceeded 10 mg/L (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standard) just downstream from Ottumwa at Keosauqua on at least 76 days and exceeded 8 mg/L (the level at which your shorts get in a bunch if you’re a water treatment plant operator) on another 106 days.

You could easily say the nitrate threat is greater in Ottumwa than it is in Des Moines because Ottumwa lacks the diversity of water sources and treatment plants that Des Moines has. Ottumwa’s aging drinking water treatment plant (I’ve been in it to consult with city staff on its operation) does not have nitrate removal capacity like Des Moines. The utility relies on water from a former quarry to dilute the Des Moines River nitrate as it is pumped into the treatment plant—and that’s always a crap shoot because these quarries can be cauldrons of harmful algae.

While you can argue “fairness” all day long, the truth is the Des Moines area, with a large customer base residing not only in the city of Des Moines but also in several affluent suburbs, has the resources to purchase and operate nitrate removal technology. You can’t say the same thing about Ottumwa. And Iowa’s landed gentry—the mainly white, many wealthy, some especially wealthy farmers I mentioned above—are polluting the water in a community where many poor people and people of color live. Many of the Ottumwa folks earn their living by slaughtering the hogs that help pollute the water and are produced by that same landed gentry. The JBS hog processing facility in Ottumwa processes a staggering 7 million hogs per year and 1 million pounds of pork per day.

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Do the workers know that Ottumwa drinking water has elevated levels of nitrate? Or do they care that there is increasing evidence that nitrate in drinking water is a carcinogen? I can’t say for sure. Iowa’s politicians certainly don’t seem to care. Try to find one, just one, from either party that has talked about Ottumwa’s drinking water. These politicians do, however, like to spend time trying to put money into the pockets of the landed gentry. Earlier this month, Iowa’s Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig told Radio Iowa that they need “resources and regulatory relief” from the Biden administration in order to reduce nutrient runoff.

Did I miss something? Are regulations causing this problem? There’s actually very little about agricultural water quality that we do regulate. Or, is some other sort of regulatory relief a ransom the public must pay to the polluters if they want clean water? The water belonging to the public—Ottumwans and all other Iowans—shouldn’t be held hostage by the landed gentry.

I’m writing this against the backdrop of a political climate in Iowa that is suggesting that we in the public sector steer clear of discussing racism and some other “divisive” subjects, and I guess the thinking is that if we don’t talk about them, they won’t exist.

Environmental justice, or the lack thereof, doesn’t get talked about often in Iowa, even though nearly 30 percent of the state’s public water supplies are threatened by nitrate pollution and the dust and vapors from hog CAFOs is a perennial issue. Ottumwa is just one of many examples of the former. And I don’t see any elected person out there in either political party that gives a rat’s behind about it.

Of course, the corn, soy, and hog industries rationalize this injustice by telling us that we should turn a blind eye to the pollution that their practitioners, all (white) paragons of virtue of course, need to generate because they are feeding the world. You can’t make an omelet, after all, without breaking a few eggs. Ottumwans, we’re told, should suck it up, and be thankful they have those hogs to butcher.

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Chris Jones is a Research Engineer at IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering at the University of Iowa. His research focus is contaminant hydrology in agricultural watersheds. He has a PhD in chemistry from Montana State University. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog. Read more >

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  1. Thomas Fletcher Thirion
    Nice Report, this information will be useful to activists that are putting together the Green Peace Corps for sustainable food and environment. Keep up the good work Mr. Jones. Thank you
  2. Barbara Skinner
    Thank you for such an informative article. I hope one day I will see Iowa and its beautiful farmland. The whole topic of water scarcity is so very vital and should be receiving much, much more publicity!!!
  3. THEROOTMATTERS
    42,000 PLASTIC BOTTLES OF WATER DISPENSED

    Tainted wells in Modesto, California. Bedroom territory, especially more so since the pandemic. Availability of homes for sale dwindling. Were buyers forewarned of the underground plumb of nitrates, plus so much more, moving under foot?

    Truly, is there anywhere, that unenlightened farmers have not ruined for eons of time we may not have?

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