Horse hockey

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

They never give up. Agri-industry has won every battle at the ballot box and in the courtroom in Iowa to pour chemicals into our surface waters without limit, so long as it is poured through a drainage tile. Still, it uses front groups to spread what comes out of a cow’s trailing side about the state of surface water pollution. Former Des Moines Mayor Preston Daniels got sucked in to pen an essay last week in The Des Moines Register claiming that nitrate levels in the Raccoon River are not rising.

Daniels argues that population growth and not necessarily surface water pollution is the root cause of the need to expand the Des Moines Water Works’ capital facilities, such as its nitrate removal system.

The water works claimed in a federal lawsuit filed against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties that rising nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, fed by drainage districts, will force the utility to replace and expand its aging nitrate removal system, the largest in North America. The lawsuit was dismissed last spring by US District Court Judge Leonard Strand on a motion for summary judgment. Judge Strand ruled that drainage districts could not be sued because they lack statutory authority to remediate pollution claims, basing his opinion in part on a parallel opinion from the Iowa Supreme Court — that drainage districts cannot be sued for money damages.

The lawsuit was dismissed on a question of legal standing, not on the facts of the case.

Those facts, entered uncontroverted as evidence in federal court, are these:

Nitrate levels in the Raccoon River have risen, on average, from just over 4 milligrams per liter to 8 milligrams per liter over the past 40 years. It was driven in large part by the expansion of drainage systems since 1980.

More drainage has become necessary because climate change has made Iowa wetter since the early 1970s. At the same time, land use has changed appreciably. The hills used to be green between Storm Lake and Carroll dotted by cattle; this spring they were black awaiting soy and corn plantings. Cropping has intensified in the Raccoon River watershed over the past 35 years. Chemical fertilization has increased apace. As drainage systems are improved to combat wetter soils, more nutrients are delivered to the drainage ditch and on to the Des Moines Water Works, along to the Mississippi River and ultimately to the growing dead zone that is killing shell fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. Our agricultural largesse is blighting another food industry: fishing.

Nitrate levels in the Raccoon, the principal source of drinking water for 500,000 metro consumers, nearly doubled from 1974 to 2016. The data are collected by the Des Moines Water Works and available within five minutes of an email from the former mayor as it was to us.

The world’s most distinguished soil and climate scientists all say the same thing: We need whole-system landscape changes to preserve our soil, maintain or improve crop productivity and clean up our water. Those whole-system changes are being fought tooth-and-nail by the companies that don’t want to see a single acre diverted from corn or soy production, which is predicated on a chemical base. Hence, their relentless campaign continues that misleads citizens trying to understand the problem.

Most of the serious proposals call for increased federal conservation funding, trying to lure cattle back to the rolling hills of Iowa and out of the unsustainable feedlots in Kansas and Texas, and finding better ethanol feedstocks than No. 2 yellow corn. There are serious debates over the need for some sort of regulation to control farming at water’s edge. You can be at odds in the debate but not with the facts.

But the mayor knows better. Here is what he said in his column:

“Studies have shown, however, that although nitrate levels in rivers tend to fluctuate on a yearly basis, they have remained roughly the same over the past few decades.”

He went on to say that nitrate levels have shown “little change.”

The levels have doubled over the past few decades.

They are well over suggested limits of 5 mg/l recommended by the University of Iowa.

Daniels would know this if he read The Des Moines Register regularly. The facts are out there.

Also, the water works has had to issue warnings to consumers in recent years as cyanotoxins in the Des Moines River especially, and the Raccoon secondarily, have shown increases. These blue-green algae blooms are becoming more common in Iowa lakes and rivers. East Lake Okoboji is a mess of green slime. These toxins can cause serious human health issues well beyond skin rashes.

Daniels wrote that he is excited to be a part of the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, which is an apologist front for the most powerful lobby: agri-industry and the petrochemical complex. As a former water works board member, he should be able to access facts that inform his partners with the partnership so they might actually be able to do something for clean water. This information might help him.

He pretends to be offering a solution where all the regional interests come together to seek a framework governing the water works utility. But what he really is talking about is a denial that Iowa’s surface waters are polluted, and that we are doing wonders for water quality. The data suggest otherwise. There is no indication that nitrate levels are in retreat. In fact, they are rising. Denial is a powerful thing when abetted by disinformation.