Editorial: The big voice of a little newspaper


Concord, N.H.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Viewed from above on Google Earth, swatches of Storm Lake, Iowa, a community of 10,000, look like corduroy, so heavily is the landscape furrowed.

A healthy portion of America’s food and feed is raised in Storm Lake, primarily by agribusinesses whose farming practices, a local newspaper claimed, are to blame for nitrate pollution of the Raccoon River, the source of drinking water for a half-million people.

“Anyone can see how filthy Storm Lake is, how the Des Moines River near Humboldt is a mud flow, how shallow lakes in Northwest Iowa have eroded into duck marshes,” Art Cullen, editor of The Storm Lake Times, wrote. “Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion.”

On Monday, Cullen and The Storm Lake Times won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. It’s proof that great journalism serving the public’s interest can occur despite limited resources. The twice-weekly paper started by Cullen and his brother John two decades ago has just 10 employees. Art’s son Tom, 24, and his wife, Dolores, do most of the reporting. John Cullen is the publisher.

Iowa and New Hampshire share more than a privileged position in the presidential election cycle. They share a problem found in nearly every state: water polluted by fertilizer runoff, whether from farm fields or lawns and playing fields. That runoff is the major source of pollution in Great Bay, one of the East Coast’s most valuable estuaries. The nitrates must either be removed from drinking water or prevented from entering it in the first place.

In Iowa, the downstream city of Des Moines, facing the need to spend millions to build a plant to remove nitrates, sued Storm Lake’s county and surrounding water districts for discharging polluted water. Cullen’s paper, through dogged reporting, discovered that the state’s agribusiness association, using donations from companies like Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer, had created a secret fund to pay law firms to lobby on behalf of the polluting counties and influence public officials.

“State and federal governments have been throwing money at soil and water conservation since the Dust Bowl, yet the problem is getting worse. It’s because we are farming through the fencerows in a more intense fashion than ever. We allow no buffer, and in fact have methodically eliminated the buffer since 2009. Anyone living in Buena Vista County can see it. Even a county supervisor could, if he weren’t so afraid of agri-industry,” Cullen wrote.

But big corporate farms didn’t want to set aside any land that could be used to grow money just to reduce water pollution.

A federal judge, seconding an opinion by Iowa’s supreme court, said last month that water districts lacked the power to deal with the issue. The problem, in a state with 21 million acres planted in corn and soybeans, was for the state legislature to solve. That legislature, thanks to Cullen’s edits and his paper’s reporting, now knows the players, their motives and the easiest way to solve the problem.

The efforts of the tiny, family newspaper deserved a Pulitzer.