Her well runs dry with progress

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

She called about hog confinements surrounding her, with her mind on air and water.

“It’s putrid. I can barely breathe at night,” she said.

This older woman can appreciate the smell of money. She and her husband used to raise hogs. Now they just have some cattle grazing grass along the creek, and farther back they raise corn and soybeans.

Back when they put the new well in at 475 feet they were told they would never need another, it was so deep. Then the ethanol plant came in 15 miles away. They had to drill down another 48 feet. Then more and more hoghouses and faster grid drainage. They’ve doubled its capacity in some parts.

The slough on 40 acres gets drained and planted. The water is rushed down a creek that aerial photos show has nary a blade of grass near it.

The caller thinks she might have to call for some more pipe down to that aquifer that appears to be sinking.

“May I quote you on some of this?” I asked.

“Oh, no. My neighbors think you’re crazy. I can’t be talking to you. But keep it coming. The muskrats are gone. I don’t know why you would want to drain 40 acres with a slough when you could get a government payment and watch the wildflowers grow.”

She wonders what she can do without getting into a huge fight with people she otherwise would like if a referee were there. But there is nobody keeping neighbors neighborly. The Pocahontas County Board of Supervisors would take the role if the state would let it. They have passed a Good Neighbor Policy that they admit has no teeth. But at least they said something. And they were the first to try to prevent people from farming into the ditches. It is a start.

It speaks further volumes when the Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors, stalwart friend of agriculture as it stands, seeks to protest certain hog confinement sitings. You could say they have nothing to lose by complaining when thousands of hogs are making their presence known to an acreage previously undisturbed, because the board has no authority under state law. County officials can say that they have tried to impose some restraint knowing full well they have absolutely no say in the matter. The law is the law.

But that they would say anything at all is the most remarkable part.

Many people might say the caller is crazy worrying where the wildflowers went, or thinking that her deeper well could in any way be connected to increasing water consumption from ethanol and livestock production increases over the past 20 years.

She knows instinctively — her folks and his have been working the ground here since the 1890s, good Germans all — what the scientists document: that the Jordan aquifer serving Fort Dodge and its growing ethanol complex is dropping rapidly, and that the Dakota aquifer serving Storm Lake and Cherokee is at the brink of substantial decline.

She’s thinking about it as she contemplates dropping more pipe.

“Our drainage is so fast, how is that water ever supposed to make it down to the aquifer?” she asked. “We need those sloughs. I like ethanol, but I think it is dropping the aquifers. I don’t know what the farmer is supposed to do. It’s tough.”

Yet through the generations they always had cattle on grass and it always kept them in good stead through ups and downs.

I also can appreciate why she doesn’t want to be put in the middle of the debate. But there are crazy people out there who are concerned about their water, what’s in it, how they will get it, and whether we can sustain what we have. The swirl over where rural Iowa is heading has her shying away from some neighbors. Our roads are taking a beating from semis serving hog confinements. Our aquifers are challenged by our consumption. The pace is not slacking but is intensifying, along with terms of the debate.

If we had leadership we could agree to move forward. If you let the supervisors referee what goes where and how through reasonable zoning, that is how you recreate neighborliness. Resentment builds when one party has no say over how matters proceed, and if you question the process you simply do not support agriculture. My friend on the phone feels that way, and she and hers have farmed here for 128 years. If government could be a buffer between neighbors in the country as it is in town, maybe we could get somewhere — sensible, well-placed livestock production that helps rural communities thrive. A few more cattle and a little more grass, we agreed, but she is old-fashioned that way, from back not so long ago when you could drink from that creek.