Little Village black and white logo
Julia DeSpain/Little Village

Ten years ago, the state of Iowa published its Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), a plan to reduce the amount of nitrate and phosphorus polluting not just the state’s waterways, but that of everyone downstream from Iowa, until the pollution flows into the Gulf of Mexico, where it helps create the massive dead zone that forms every summer.

Agricultural runoff is the source of almost all that nitrate and phosphorus in Iowa’s water. That’s not surprising since about 30 million of the 36 million acres that make up the state’s total landmass are devoted to raising crops and animals. The pollution comes from excess fertilizer flushed off fields by irrigation, rain and melting snow, as well as fecal matter leaking into streams from the state’s many industrial-style concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

The NRS contains a compendium of best practices for Iowa farms and other agricultural operations, and its overall goal is an eventual 45 percent reduction in nitrate and phosphorus loads in the state’s water. Not even the biggest professional cheerleaders for Iowa agriculture would claim the state has met or is about to meet that goal. But that didn’t stop them from making vague claims of success during events at the end of May to mark the NRS’s 10th anniversary.

“What we have been focused on the last 10 years is not just talking about doing things, but getting work done,” Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig said at an anniversary event on a farm in Story County. “There has never been more people, more resources, more actual work getting done in the state of Iowa than there is today.”

Republicans Gov. Kim Reynolds, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and Rep. Brenna Bird in a photo posted to Reynolds’ official Twitter account on March 3, 2023.

Proponents of the status quo in Iowa point to the data published on the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) that show a drop in nitrate loads in recent years. But IDALS and everyone else agrees that drop reflects the lack of rain in the state over the last four years. Little rain means less water to move nitrates off fields, and as of the end of June, 83 percent of Iowa was experiencing drought or abnormally dry conditions.

To Alicia Vasto, water program director at the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC), comparing IDALS latest measurement of the amount of nitrate and phosphorus flowing out of the state to the figure from 10 years ago is a better indicator of what has happened since the NRS was introduced.

“Those show that the nitrogen and phosphorus loads leaving the state are not really different than the baseline measurements,” she told Little Village. “We should be well on our way towards the 45 percent reduction goals.”

IEC has launched a site dedicated to examining Iowa’s water quality over the last 10 years. Its name, Iowa’s Declining Decade, suggests what the environmental nonprofit has found.

But possibly the most telling number about water quality in Iowa is 50 million. In its capital improvements budget released earlier this year, the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) projected it will spend as much as $50 million in the coming years on its newest project to secure clean water for its customers.

Pollution seeps into an Iowa stream from a nearby farm. — Lynn Betts/USDA

“I don’t think the amount of change that has happened thus far has made any impact on water quality,” Des Moines Water Works CEO and General Manager Ted Corrigan replied when asked what improvements he’s seen over the first 10 years of the NRS.

DMWW provides water for approximately 20 percent of the state’s population. That water is drawn from the Raccoon River and Des Moines River as they run through the city, as well as shallow groundwater sources, which are fed by the two rivers.

“Both the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers are certainly impaired in terms of quality and their ability to serve as a source water for the metro area,” Corrigan said.

In 2021, the Raccoon was ranked as one of America’s 10 most endangered rivers by the environmental group American Rivers, due to pollution from agricultural runoff. The nitrates in the river will even seep into the DMWW groundwater sources.

To handle the challenges presented by its water sources, DMWW has built an advanced nitrate removal facility, one of the biggest in North America, for when nitrate concentrations in the river are higher than normal equipment to handle.

“Last year, we ran the facility for a month or so,” Corrigan said. “It was the first time in at least four years that we had to run it.”

That four-year break is the result of a lack of heavy spring rains, as Iowa endured abnormally dry weather. When the nitrate removal facility is running, it costs DMWW about $10,000 a day to operate.

In recent years, DMWW has seen a growing challenge in the summer months as algae blooms that are fed by the nitrates increase.

Blue green algae on an Iowa beach. — Iowa Department of Natural Resources Beach Monitoring Program

“Not so much in the Raccoon, but very often — pretty much annually — on the Des Moines River we’ll see that,” Corrigan said. “We believe it has something to do with the Saylorville Reservoir.”

The low-head dam on the river in Des Moines has also seen an increasing problem with algae blooms. DMWW is working with the Army Corps of Engineers and researchers at Iowa State University to better understand these blooms.

The algae can block the filters DMWW uses, but more importantly, it can also produce toxins — in particular, microcystin, a toxin that can cause liver damage and has been linked to cancer.

“That is something we’re not well equipped to remove, so it’s best for us just to avoid using a source that has that kind of contaminant in it,” Corrigan said.

DMWW stops drawing water from the Des Moines River when the blooms are a problem.

Blue green algae on an Iowa beach. — Iowa Department of Natural Resources Beach Monitoring Program

“In the fall as the water cools off and the algae die off, we start to see nitrate come up again. It’s just kind of a rolling cycle of challenges all the time. The good news is though we’re pretty well-equipped to deal with most of those challenges, so we can provide clean and safe drinking water for our customers.”

To help cope with the challenges, DMWW is planning to establish a series of radial collection wells along the Des Moines River. The wells are placed next to the river, and reach a depth of up 60 feet. The wheel then acts like a hub for perforated pipes that run parallel to the river, or even beneath the riverbed. Those pipes collect river water that has passed through the alluvial sand and gravel, which function like a giant filter that eliminates almost all the pollutants in the river water, as well as any algae or viruses.

The water in the wells is clear, as opposed to the water in the rivers, which “often looks like a chocolate milkshake,” Corrigan explained.

“The wrinkle there is that it’s extremely expensive to build” radial collection wells, he added.

Blue green algae on an Iowa beach. — Iowa Department of Natural Resources Beach Monitoring Program

Even if DMWW spends $50 million or more on the new wells, there is ultimately no engineering solution to Iowa’s water problems, Corrigan stresses. Real improvements will only come with the adoption of more responsible agriculture practices, like the ones included in the NRS.

“All those practices show promise and there are points of light all over the place, but they just are not being implemented at the scale needed,” he said.

The NRS contains no mandatory actions. Everything is voluntary. The majority of Iowa’s elected officials at the state level, and all of them in federal office, back the voluntary approach. To the extent the Iowa Legislature has acted on these issues in recent years, it’s been to strip local governments of any authority to regulate where CAFOs are located.

Left to its own devices, Iowa wouldn’t even have an NRS. In 2011, the EPA ordered all the states whose rivers flow into the Mississippi River to develop nutrient reduction strategies in response to the growing dead zone in the Gulf Mexico, which is caused by agricultural pollutants depleting the oxygen content of the water.

For the past several years, there’s been no better guide to Iowa’s ag-afflicted water than Dr. Chris Jones. Jones, whose Ph.D. is in analytical chemistry, spent his career working on water quality issues in Iowa, in private industry, at public utilities and most recently as a research engineer at the Iowa Flood Center, part of the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research (IIHR), the University of Iowa’s Hydroscience and Engineering center. At the center, Jones oversaw the sensor system that monitors water in the state’s rivers.

When he started at UI in 2015, the university was encouraging faculty and staff to create blogs to share their work with the public. Jones did, creating a blog hosted on the IIHR site. At first, he wrote mainly for academic readers and other professionals. But after a while, Jones decided to try to write for a wider audience.

“The public wasn’t hearing what the true stories were in terms of water quality,” he explained. “So much propaganda is put out by the ag advocacy organizations and also state government that I thought it was important to try to describe these issues in real, honest terms to general audiences.”

The essays Jones published on his blog are now available in the recently published collection, The Swine Republic: Struggles with the Truth about Agriculture and Water Quality. The book is essential reading for anyone trying to understand why Iowa finds itself in its current situation.

Starting in the 19th century, tile drainage became common in Iowa. Pipes with perforated covers are buried in farm fields to quickly remove excess water and lower the water table, making the soil better suited for crops like corn. The tile system bypasses the soil and plants that would normally help filter out things in the water like nitrates from fertilizers.

Except in the northeast corner of the state, tile drainage became the norm on farms. It’s especially dominant in western Iowa and the north central part of the state (which is a watershed for DMWW’s supply).

And over the last 50 years, commercial pressures have led to Iowa farms concentrating on just two crops: corn and soybeans. Those two crops cover 25 million of Iowa’s 30 million acres devoted to agriculture. As crop diversity on farms declined, the need for fertilizers, pesticides and equipment to apply those chemicals increased. It’s a farming model Jones calls “max acres.”

“If a piece of land isn’t being farmed, you’re not selling seed there, you’re not selling chemicals there, you’re not selling equipment there, you’re not selling insurance there,” he explained. “There’s no grain to be shipped from that land by truck or train. All this activity on this private land in Iowa, crop production, juices the system with cash. We have a system that’s designed for commerce.”

It’s not a system that benefits smaller farmers, who see their costs for chemicals and fuel increase every year, and Jones points out it leads to bad practices, like farming up to the edge of a stream, making runoff even more likely. But the system has ensconced itself at the heart of Iowa’s economy, and is defended by politicians of both parties.

The Gulf hypoxia zone, July 25-31, 2021. LUMCON/NOAA

Jones’ writing began to reach a much wider audience when he turned his attention to shit. Literally.

As diversity decreased on Iowa farms, livestock was phased out. But even as the number of farms raising cattle decreased, cattle numbers in Iowa increased thanks to CAFOs. Those industrial-style operations are also why Iowa raises more hogs and chickens than another state.

In a 2019 essay on his blog, Jones worked a formula to estimate how many humans would be needed to produce the same amount of shit all those animals do. The formula was complicated, but the results were eye-opening.

According to Jones’ estimates, Iowa’s hog population produces roughly the same amount of shit 83.7 million people would. Beef cattle shit on the same scale as 25 million humans. For laying chickens, it’s 15 million.

“You have to create a visual that people can relate to,” Jones said.

Jones’ public profile as an expert of water quality grew, but not all the new attention focused on his work was favorable.

“The story told to me was Zumbach and Shipley came to [UI’s lobbyist at the state capitol during this year’s legislative session], and said, ‘You can’t be over here asking for money for various programs, especially the Iowa Flood Center, and continue to let this guy do what he’s doing with this blog,’” Jones recounted.

Julia DeSpain/Little Village

Zumbach and Shipley are Dan Zumbach and Tom Shipley, both farmers and both senior members of the Republican caucus in the Iowa Senate. Zumbach chairs the appropriations subcommittee of the Senate Ag committee, which Shipley also serves on.

Zumbach has denied threatening UI’s funding over “the content of a blog.” Shipley hasn’t responded to media inquiries. UI isn’t commenting.

Jones said his boss told him he needed to move his blog off of UI servers, so he transferred it to Substack at the beginning of April.

“The whole thing got me thinking,” Jones said. “Did I really want to keep working?”

He thought that even if his blog was no longer hosted by the university, his writing could still pose a problem for his colleagues and important water quality programs. To avoid future problems, Jones announced in April he would retire from UI in May. He said he’d been planning to retire “in a year or two” anyway.

“And then Zumbach, three weeks later, sponsored this bill to kill the water quality sensor network, this program that I managed at the university.”

Jones is referring to an appropriations bill that cut the budget of ISU’s Nutrient Research Center by $500,000, the exact amount it was going to use to fund the sensor network. The center says it can still support the network in the coming fiscal year, and is looking for new sources of funding non-state sources of funding for it.

The $500,000 cut from the center was redirected to IDALS, which Senate Republicans say can better use it.

“The sensor network may survive in some sort of shape or form; I don’t know what it will look like,” Jones said.

Volunteers pick up trash alongside the Des Moines River at ICON Water Trails and Iowa Rivers Revival’s Riverfest cleanup on May 19, 2023. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

“So what’s next?” Ted Corrigan asked rhetorically near the end of his interview with LV. “We can’t just continue to pollute rivers with impunity and think that anyone who needs to use them downstream will just pay to clean it up.”

Vasto and IEC, Corrigan and Jones agree that some degree of regulation of ag practices will be needed to improve things, but none of them are hopeful it will happen. There’s no appetite for new regulation at either the state or federal level. And there’s very little existing regulation. Even the Clean Water Act exempts “normal” agricultural runoff from regulation.

There are some voluntary efforts making a difference. Vasto points to Polk County’s program encouraging farmers to install bioreactors, which are small ditches filled with wood chips placed at the edge of fields to help slow and filter water runoff. DMMW is partnering with Polk County and IDALS to promote the planting of cover crops. ISU is endorsing the use of prairie strips, native plants used to create borders between fields and streams. And there are some farmers all around the state determined to use best practices to improve the environment. But none of it is happening at a large enough scale to counter the damage being done by max acres.

“And who gets short-changed by all this?” Jones said. “The public.”

A kid peers down at the Coralville Dam spillway, May 2023. — Emma McClatchey/Little Village

This article was originally published in Little Village’s July 2023 issue.