The Iowa Trout Stream at the Center of a Feedlot Fight | Civil Eats

The Iowa Trout Stream at the Center of a Feedlot Fight

Environmental groups and residents argue that the Supreme Beef CAFO has a faulty manure disposal plan that threatens Bloody Run Creek, a spring-fed trout stream. They also allege a brazen abuse of power at all levels of decision-making.

Fisherman Ted Fleener hunts for trout in Bloody Run Creek. (Photo credit: Larry Stone)

Fisherman Ted Fleener fishes for trout in Bloody Run Creek. (Photo credit: Larry Stone)

In 2017, Larry Stone heard whispers about construction taking place near his home in Clayton County, Iowa. A retired photographer, Stone pulled up to the site, located around 20 miles away from where he lives, and began taking photos.

“A guy came roaring up on his little ATV and said, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’” Stone recalled recently.

His curiosity eventually landed Stone a tour of the project: Walz Energy, a joint venture between a cattle-feeding operation and an energy company. The idea, the manager explained, was that Supreme Beef would run a feedlot, and Feeder Creek would supply a biodigester, a machine that would process manure and capture the resulting methane to be sold as energy.

“The [manager] said, ‘This is not a feedlot; it’s a renewable energy project. We need at least 10,000 cows to get enough manure for the amount of methane we want to generate,’” Stone said.

“Anything that is a contaminant on the surface can get down into the fractured bedrock very easily and very quickly contaminate the groundwater.”

The biodigester project fell apart, but the plan for a 11,000-head feedlot moved forward. Without the biodigester, Supreme Beef—which is perched on the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, a spring-fed trout stream filled year-round with rainbow, brook, and brown trout—had to come up with a plan to get rid of its manure, known as a nutrient management plan (NMP), which would need to be approved by Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

According to the DNR, any open feedlot operation with 1,000 or more animal units needs to submit a plan to ensure the operation does not over-apply manure to surrounding cropland.

Seven years ago, the Iowa Sierra Club, the Iowa chapter of Trout Unlimited, and a group of concerned citizens formed the Committee to Save Bloody Run in response to that plan, which they saw as scientifically incomprehensible. Since then, the committee has been opposing Supreme Beef’s operations and fighting the feedlot’s manure management plans.

The scrutiny of these plans is timely, as Iowa now has the second highest cancer incidence in the country, and it is the only state where rates are increasing. Many cancers are linked to nitrates, which are found in drinking water contaminated with manure or nitrogen fertilizer, and advocates are concerned about the link.

The fight to keep Iowa waterways clean is decades long—and the increase in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) there is only making the fight more difficult. Each year, animals in CAFOs produce twice as much waste as the entire U.S. population. Although the state is known for hog production—hogs outnumber people 7:1—the number of cattle in Iowa feedlots is increasing, too. And for good reason: Cattle is the top-ranked agricultural commodity in the U.S.

The fight is especially contentious in northeast Iowa because the region is unlike the rest of the state, where fertile layers of soil were left behind from glacial drift and now act as a filter for water that moves down into the aquifers below. Northeast Iowa’s Driftless region has not seen glacial drift in over 2 million years.

An aerial view of the Supreme Beef facility taken by drone. (Photo credit: David Thoreson)

An aerial view of the Supreme Beef facility taken by drone. (Photo credit: David Thoreson)

Chris Jones, a retired University of Iowa research engineer and the author of The Swine Republic, explains that because of this difference in the soil, the region has never been well suited for large-scale industrial agriculture. “Anything that is a contaminant on the surface can get down into the fractured bedrock very easily and very quickly contaminate the groundwater,” he said. “So, when we try to farm at these very large scales . . . that presents a real acute and chronic hazard to the water resources in that area.”

According to the committee, Supreme Beef likely first moved cattle to its farm in 2021, when it was operating on a NMP approved by the DNR, but that plan was later thrown out after the Committee to Save Bloody Run challenged it in court. In November 2023, DNR accepted a new NMP from Supreme Beef, despite years of opposition.

Advocates say they’re up against collusion between the DNR and the Iowa Legislature, which they believe to be doing everything in its power to keep the cattle feedlot open—regardless of its impact on water quality. DNR claims it is simply following standard procedure.

Now, the committee is attempting to defend against agricultural pollution using a new approach: It’s taking the DNR to court over its water use permit laws.

“All those cattle drink a lot of water,” said Jones, who is an expert witness in the case. “There has been some concern that the Supreme Beef well would rob water from other nearby wells that serve both homesteads and that are used for watering livestock.”

One resident who lives not far from the Supreme Beef operation, Tammy Thompson, claims in the suit that she needed to drill a new, deeper well because their water was contaminated.

“DNR strongly believes that the water use permit should be renewed. They feel that it’s not their responsibility or obligation to determine how the water is being used and how that use might impact the environment,” said Jones.

Supreme Beef did not respond to Civil Eats for comment for this story, 

Origins of the Current Fight

Retired chemist Steve Veysey has been fishing in Bloody Run Creek for decades. The creek is 50-70 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, and thanks to natural springs, it never freezes over. He also likes the fact that it’s shallow enough to wade in.

In 2006, Veysey was one of the plaintiffs in a group that sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for not requiring the state of Iowa to enforce standards in the antidegradation policy nestled within the Clean Water Act. The policy states that “existing instream water uses and the level of water quality necessary to protect the existing uses shall be maintained and protected.” Veysey and other plaintiffs claimed Iowa regulations did not ensure this.

“In terms of water quality, there was the presumption of crap instead of the presumption of quality,” Veysey said. “And we won. EPA forced the state, essentially, to adopt new rules that presumed a stream or river segment had beneficial uses unless it was proven otherwise.”

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As a part of that victory, the state created a list of “Outstanding Iowa Waters” deemed worthy of protection. Bloody Run Creek was one of them.

Then, in 2017, over a decade after the Clean Water Act victory, Veysey found himself again advocating to get the government to keep Bloody Run clean.

“There were a couple of, I would call them, con men, who went to the Walz family, which had a very small cattle operation at that time. They convinced them they could make lots of money by expanding their operation and having it be a methane digester and a waste energy operation,” said Wally Taylor, legal chair of the Iowa Sierra Club who argued the antidegradation case in 2006.

Under the initial biodigester plan, the DNR permitted Walz Energy as an industrial wastewater treatment facility. During that construction, they created and received permitting for an industrial wastewater treatment lagoon. According to Veysey, when the biodigester plan stalled, the feedlot repurposed the basin as a 39-million-gallon earthen lagoon to house raw manure right on top of the Bloody Run watershed.

In a 2021 petition for judicial review submitted in Iowa District Court, the Committee to Save Bloody Run argued that the lagoon directly defied state’s definition of an “open feedlot structure,” but due to a technicality, which states that open feedlots can use “alternative technology” to “dispose of settled open feedlot effluent,” the judge ruled that it was legal.

“If manure gets in a stream [and] decays, it sucks the oxygen out of the water,” Veysey said. “Now, all of a sudden, the dissolved oxygen that fish need to survive goes below a certain threshold and your fish die.”

Steve Veysey fishes for trout in Bloody Run Creek. (Photo credit: Larry Stone)

Steve Veysey fishes for trout in Bloody Run Creek. (Photo credit: Larry Stone)

Pollution by way of the Supreme Beef operation is not purely hypothetical. In 2018, the Iowa DNR fined Walz Energy $10,000 for illegally discharging stormwater into Bloody Run Creek while building the feedlot. They were fined again for other violations, and in 2018, the DNR attorney recommended the case be taken up by the Iowa attorney general’s office.

Then, in an unusual move, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission (EPC), a long-standing group comprised of Iowans appointed by the governor, decided to allow the DNR to resolve the problem on its own, and gave the agency full jurisdiction over Supreme Beef, without an attorney general investigation.

A DNR for Whom?

In September 2023, Supreme Beef submitted what would become its final NMP and, after multiple revisions, in November, the DNR accepted a revised plan it never opened for public comment.

The day after the plan was accepted, Taylor, legal chair of the Iowa Sierra Club, said Supreme Beef began spreading manure onto nearby farm fields—a move that members of the committee worry will oversaturate crops and result in the remaining manure leaking into the headwaters of Bloody Run.

The advocates say the pattern is part of a familiar history. “We think that the DNR gave Supreme Beef a heads-up ahead of time before they even actually approved the plan,” said Taylor. “The DNR has, for years, taken a hands-off approach on animal feeding operations and let them get by with lots of things.”

“The DNR has, for years, taken a hands-off approach on animal feeding operations and let them get by with lots of things.”

Back in 2021, open records requests filed by a reporter from the Cedar Rapids Gazette confirmed that Senator Dan Zumbach, the father-in-law of Jared Walz, a co-owner of Supreme Beef, worked with the DNR to find ways to get the plant approved. Zumbach, who is vice chair of the Iowa Senate Appropriations Committee, has received campaign donations from Monsanto, Bayer, Koch Industries, Smithfield, and DuPont, all large agribusinesses that might impact his decision. Zumbach did not respond to Civil Eats for request for comment for this story.

In 2022, Veysey, Taylor, Stone, and Jessica Mazour submitted an ethics complaint to the Iowa Senate against Zumbach. They referred to emails between Iowa government officials accessed through a public record request to argue that Zumbach was misusing his power as a state senator to assist with his son-in-law’s feedlot.

The complaint also noted various instances where Veysey attempted to verify the math in the NMP and said he found faulty calculations, which the group believes ultimately allows Supreme Beef to “significantly underestimate the number of crop acres they would really need for manure application.”

“The mistake was clearly pointed out to DNR staff during the public comment period by many reviewers but was ignored,” the complaint read. It was ultimately dismissed by the Iowa Senate.

In response to these claims and the others in this story, the DNR told Civil Eats that it “approved the NMP under the parameters set forth in state law and administrative rules” and then referred to a set of specific requirements and environmental protection codes.

It has been widely reported that Zumbach likely used his position in the legislature to pressure Chris Jones to stop writing his University of Iowa blog, which featured his research on Iowa water quality data. As Robert Leonard reported in Deep Midwest, Jones alleges that the pressure came with an implied threat that funding for monitoring systems could be impacted.

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A few weeks later, Zumbach co-sponsored Senate File 558, which was signed by the governor in June 2023 and effectively shifted funding away from water sensors put in place to measure water pollution. Earlier that year, a sensor Jones had installed at Bloody Run Creek measured levels as high as 23.9 mg of nitrate and nitrite per liter. The EPA’s safe drinking water standard is 10 mg per liter, and new research shows that any more than 5 mg puts people in danger

“This was sort of a brazen abuse of power,” said Jones. “He’s defunding the water quality sensors that are immediately downstream from the Supreme Beef operation.

After previous efforts to push back against Supreme Beef’s NMPs proved unsuccessful, members of the Committee to Save Bloody Run are now involved in a lawsuit against the DNR focused on water use permit regulations.

Attorney James Larew is arguing that the DNR did not consider the public interest—which included around 70 comments in opposition—when it renewed Supreme Beef’s water use permit, which allows it to withdraw an anticipated 21.9 million gallons per year. Goat farmer Tammy Thompson, whose farm is located approximately 500 feet away from the feedlot, declared in the suit that “the contamination was so bad that it prohibited us from being able to move forward with our entrepreneurial endeavor of selling goat milk.”

“If you’re doing something right, Satan’s going to keep coming after you. I don’t understand why they keep coming after Supreme Beef.”

The approach to regulation—or lack thereof—is familiar to those who have been watching the farm landscape in Iowa. “There’s only one instance that we could find where an application for a water use permit had ever been denied by the Department of Natural Resources,” said Larew. “We’re talking tens of thousands going back into the 1950s, never challenged. The statutes themselves indicate that it’s not just the quantity of water the department should be concerned with but also these larger public interests.

While Supreme Beef did not respond to Civil Eats’ request for comment, at the hearing in the DNR building in the beginning of February, co-owner Jared Walz expressed frustration about the latest lawsuit.

“If you’re doing something right, Satan’s going to keep coming after you,” Walz said. “I don’t understand why they keep coming after Supreme Beef.”

The Committee to Save Bloody, however, doesn’t intend to stop fighting for clean water. The seven-year battle has been driven by retirees hoping for a better future for Iowa waterways. It’s an uphill battle, but the stakes are high, said Veysey. “If we can’t protect the best [waters] we have, we can’t protect any of it.”

Some farmers are also resisting the expansion of large agribusinesses like Supreme Beef. As Aaron Lehman, president of the Iowa Farmer’s Union, put it, “Food is being controlled by folks who have very little concern for our communities and our landscapes.”

Iowa lakes and streams feed into the Mississippi River, which flows thousands of miles across the country before reaching the Gulf of Mexico, where agricultural runoff is a major contributor to hypoxia in the dead zone.

“Our waterways do not stop at the state line,” Lehman said.

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. Read more >

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  1. Glenn Merrick
    This is a tragic example of agency capture by industry. It seems that the Committee to Save Bloody Run Creek should look to experts in Public Trust Doctrine and take on the Iowa DNR for breach of that trust. They should also look to the legal efforts in southeast Minnesota where a case contesting the ongoing well-water nitrate contamination is underway. The coordination between Supreme Beef, Iowa legislators, and the DNR is inexcusable.
  2. Keith F. Johnson
    The technology and equipment for composting feedlot manure are
    readily available. Composting would readily solve this problem.
  3. Stuart stukey
    I worked in water and waste water treatment for over 35 years. The IDNR's decisions are greatly controlled by the political establishment in Des Moines, especially when it comes down to agricultural regulations. I have heard that from several former IDNR environmental specialists over the years. They get orders from above and reluctantly have to follow them. The municipalities keep getting hit with more regulations on end of pipe limits while ag is basically hands off. Look at field tile. More going in the ground all the time with no limits on the effluent coming out of the end of that pipeline.

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