Water Quality: Iowa’s Great Challenge

I recently wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper about nitrate pollution in drinking water in Iowa. I travelled there in May 2019 to meet farmers, community groups, environmentalists, academics and commercial companies – all of whom are affected by, and have an opinion on, Iowa’s water quality problem. Being on the ground, spending time with people and hearing their experiences first-hand, I started peeling back the layers of this incredibly complex story. It took months to research and write – wrestling with the constant challenge of balancing the facts, doing justice to the complexities while making it accessible, engaging and relevant for readers. Here, I’ve posted a longer version of the article…

Cass County, Iowa.

Brent Bierbaum climbs into the ditch running alongside one of his corn fields and dips a nitrate testing strip into the water flowing from a black plastic pipe. It’s draining the wettest part of the field – water that would otherwise flow in streams and gullies through his crop is being redirected downstream, out to the river and beyond.

He checks the strip. The colour is ambiguous; reading anywhere between 10 and 20 parts per million. It confirms a simple fact – the water running off this field contains nitrates, and at levels that would be unsafe, and illegal, in drinking water.

Nitrate is a soluble form of nitrogen which washes off fields into ditches and creeks and, ultimately, into rivers and oceans. Iowa’s dark, rich soils naturally contain organic nitrogen, but decades of commercial agriculture has added synthetic fertilisers and animal manure, loading the land with nutrients it can’t hold on to.

Nitrates are on the move, and in higher volumes than ever before. Iowa is 80% farmland and exports more nitrate to the Gulf of Mexico than any other US state. Nitrogen and phosphorous are the chemicals that suffocate marine life in the so-called ‘Dead Zone’.

Brent never used to worry about the run-off from his fields. On a hot day, cutting thistles in the corn fields, he’d go down to the creek and drink straight from the tile line. “Cold, clean – it’s the best water around,” he says.

Things changed when his local town, Griswold, started having problems with their drinking water. Nitrates from Brent’s fields, and other neighbouring farms, were making their way into the town’s wells. Suddenly a distant problem, thousands of miles away in the Gulf of Mexico, was on the doorstep; threatening the health of friends and neighbours.

“Oh my gosh,” he says. “We all have friends who drink the water in town; we drink the water in town, so we all had an interest in it.”

The legal limit for nitrates in drinking water in the US is 10 parts per million, equivalent to 10mg per litre. It was introduced in 1962 to guard against Blue Baby Syndrome, a potentially fatal condition affecting new-born babies and infants under one-year-old. It’s caused by nitrates starving the body of oxygen, literally turning babies blue.

Studies by the National Cancer Institute found that drinking water with an average level of 5mg/l of nitrate, over a long period of time, may increase the risk of certain cancers. Other studies have linked nitrate intake above 5mg/l with birth defects in babies.

Like most small towns in rural Iowa, Griswold is surrounded by vast fields of corn and soybean. Giant grain silos glinting in the spring sunshine are all that punctuate the landscape for miles around.

Three public wells, fed by an underground aquifer, provide drinking water for Griswold’s 1,000 residents. Between 2012 and 2019, according to Griswold City Council, a single well recorded 21 incidents over 9mg/l and four incidents over 10mg/l. Another recorded 18 incidents over 9mg/l.

Julie Adams, one of Griswold’s busy city councillors, took it upon herself to knock on doors and ring around new mothers and day care nurseries, warning them of the risks: “I tell them, ‘if you have small babies do not use the tap water when you’re making formula. Use bottled water. Just to be safe.”

It’s not an isolated problem. A report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) revealed that, across the US, 1,700 municipal water utilities – most of them rural – regularly have nitrates above the 5mg/l safe limit. Worryingly, 120 public waterworks breach the 10mg/l legal limit. On top of that, Iowa has up to 290,000 private wells, many on remote farms like Brent’s, which are not required by law to be tested.

Griswold’s nitrate levels caught the attention of Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the State’s water quality. They called a meeting and delivered a sobering ultimatum – either bring nitrate levels down or the council would be ordered to spend $1 million on a nitrate removal facility. It would wipe out a third of Griswold’s $3 million annual budget.

“We can’t afford that,” says Adams. “We need a new fire station, we need to knock down a derelict building, we need a new park for the children to play in. We have many more needs than we have money.”

Another councillor Ryan Askeland, who owns and runs the town’s only restaurant, was also at the meeting: “They described the harm it could do to infants under one-year-old and I thought, ‘Holy cow, what they’re putting on the fields is poisoning us.”

Checking himself, he looks around the restaurant and softens his language. “An uneducated person would say ‘poisoning’, what I mean is it was contaminating the water.”

Griswold is a close-knit community. The town folk value their farmer neighbours and are careful not to cause conflict. “Over 80% of the people in here are from the farming community at any given time,” says Askeland. “Everything in this area is pretty much funded by agriculture. We are all on the same team.”

Iowa is agriculture; agriculture is Iowa. The state produces the most of many things – corn, hogs, eggs and jostles with neighbouring Illinois for the top spot in soybean production. Of Iowa’s total land area – nearly 36 million acres – 33 million are farmed.

Hefty property taxes paid by farmers keep the lights on in rural towns, many with dwindling populations, right across the Midwest. It’s no surprise there is inexhaustible goodwill towards them – even when some farming practices threaten their drinking water.

“It’s like when pregnant women took thalidomide,” says Julie Adams. “Nobody really blamed the doctors who gave it to them – they didn’t know. You blame the nitrates; you don’t blame the people who put it on the land.”

Nearly 100 miles east in the state capital of Des Moines, the city’s waterworks took a more hard-line approach – and did blame the farmers.

Des Moines Water Works has the world’s largest nitrate removal facility. It’s expensive and only used as a last resort when nitrate levels in the Raccoon River, which provides the drinking water for 500,000 residents, breach the 10mg/l limit.

General manager Ted Corrigan describes nitrates as their “nemesis” and says monitoring them is a “day by day, hour by hour concern.”

In 2015 the nitrate removal facility ran for 177 days at a cost of $10,000 per day. It was the final straw that pushed DMWW to make an unprecedented move against Iowa’s farmers. They took the fight to the drainage districts, the organisations with financial responsibility for Iowa’s field drainage systems.

Drainage districts were formed in the early 1900s to make Iowa – a land of wet, boggy prairie – farmable. The same amount of money was spent draining Iowa as on building the Panama Canal. Farmers and landowners clubbed together to install underground clay pipes, or tile lines, which flush excess water into the nearest ditch or creek. It’s estimated there are at least a million miles of tile line under Iowa’s fields.

“We believe this short circuits the natural water cycle,” says Corrigan. “Those tiles are dumping an unnatural amount of nutrient into the river.”

Agricultural run-off is exempt under the federal Clean Water Act as a ‘non-point source of pollution’, the reasoning being it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where it comes from. Des Moines Water Works set out to prove otherwise.

Corrigan says: “The basis of our lawsuit was that a pipe is a point source of pollution and it should be regulated as any other point source. Any industry that discharges water into a surface water has to be permitted and with that permit comes regulation requirements.”

But the lawsuit failed. A federal judge ruled that drainage districts have no authority over water quality and no power to regulate nitrates within their districts.

Des Moines Water Works was bitterly disappointed – particularly their outspoken CEO, the late Bill Stowe, who died from cancer earlier this year.

A controversial figure in Iowa, Stowe waged war on “unregulated industrial agriculture” and what he called the “powerful agro-elite”. He likened those who downplay Iowa’s water quality issues to climate change deniers and held the farming industry responsible for the public health risks associated with high nitrates in drinking water. “If a baby died?” he said, “there would be a clear path between agriculture and the death of that baby.”

Speaking to me shortly before his death, Stowe said: “It’s disheartening. The image of Iowa as a sacrificed state at the mercy of industrial agriculture. We will continue to be advocates for agricultural producers taking responsibility for the water pollution they are inflicting on the rest of us downstream.”

Bill Stowe had few friends in the farming community, admitting himself the relationship between him and groups like the Iowa Farm Bureau had broken down completely. “We don’t ever talk directly,” he told me. “There isn’t a constructive dialogue between us.”

Little did he know it would be a 77-year-old farmer from northwest Iowa who would continue his crusade. Gordon Garrison, a determined character with piercing blue eyes and a face weathered by many Iowan winters, hopes to succeed where Des Moines Water Works failed.

Garrison grew row crops – corn and soybean – on 300 acres before he moved into retirement and his land moved into the Government-funded Conservation Reserve Program. Gordon is restoring native prairie pothole habitat, removing his tile lines and allowing the water to return. His farmland is slowly turning back into wetland.

He points down to the creek where he has reintroduced beavers, and beyond to a single-storey white building in the neighbouring field – a hog barn, or confined animal feeding operation (Cafo), housing up to 8,800 pigs.

“That building has no consideration for environmental impact at all,” he says. “I have got algal blooms in my downstream water. After they bought the farm, the nitrate level almost doubled.” 

The pig farm is owned and operated by Minnesota-based company New Fashion Pork. They bought 77 hectares (192 acres) next to Garrison’s farm in 2014 and started producing pigs two years later. The building sits over a pit that can hold more than one million gallons of liquified hog manure, and Garrison claims that the manure was spread illegally on snow-covered ground in December 2018.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued New Fashion Pork with a notice of violation and a fine of $4,800 (£3,900). Garrison filed a citizen’s suit, which he believes will be a precedent-setting case in the US. Garrison’s hope is that his legal action will set a precedent and pave the way for tougher regulation of pig Cafos in the context of water quality protection.

New Fashion Pork, which runs 53 pig confinements across Iowa, has said it complies with all manure application requirements and obtained permission from Iowa DNR to surface apply manure. “Field conditions were not good in most of the state last fall and winter and the DNR routinely granted permission to producers to surface apply manure in December of 2018,” said a legal advisor for New Fashion Pork. The company also said that nitrate loss from crop fields is affected by many factors, but that the source of the nitrogen (manure or commercial fertiliser) has little, if any, effect on the amount of nitrate loss.

“The only way to solve this problem is if there’s peer pressure,” says Garrison. “We can’t let some guys abuse the system and profit from it. If they prevail in this lawsuit that’s just a signal to build more and more.”

There are already more than 7,000 hog farms in Iowa raising around 20 million pigs at any one time; that’s a lot of manure for one state to dispose of.

Many hog Cafos are built on family farms as a diversification for struggling row crop growers. Trump’s trade war with China has crushed the US corn and soybean market. It’s long been said Iowa needs a third cash crop to break the dependence on corn and soybean. As one farmer put it: “We’ve found one. It’s called bacon.”

In Marshall County, 25-year-old Ryan Pickard checks the temperature of his tunnel ventilated hog barn. He’s a third-generation row crop farmer, growing 4,500 acres of corn and soybean. He diversified into custom hog production in 2015 to spread the risk from low grain prices.

“It’s a protection and it was a chance for me to get a better start,” he says. “I had no equity and when you raise a crop below the cost of production, you’re losing money. After a while the banker will throw his hands up and tell you you’re not farming anymore. By me doing this it’s helped me keep everything going.”

Ryan and his 29-year-old brother Brandon borrowed nearly $1.5m to build two hog barns, with one still under construction. They each house 5,000 newly weaned, 18-day-old pigs. They’re thinned out as they grow bigger, with half being moved to another site. Ryan fattens the remaining 2,500 which are sent for slaughter direct from the farm.

The brothers do not own the pigs and receive none of the profit. They are paid instead for ‘head space’ in the building. They do own the manure, which drops through slats into a pit holding up to 800,000 gallons. They also own all the risk associated with it.

Ryan is ruled by the pit. When it’s full, it’s full – and must be emptied. It’s spread once a year on a nearby 200-acre cornfield. He tries to plan ahead, working around the weather, but if there’s a spill or run-off, the full responsibility rests on him.

“It’s something I think about constantly,” he says. “If not managed properly it could give me a very bad name and I don’t want that. If the pit leaks, we need to find the problem and fix it before we can go back into production.”

For Ryan the threat of being shut down is all the incentive he needs to manage the pit properly. But across Iowa there are more, and ever louder calls, for real regulation to protect water quality.

Environmental groups, clean water campaigners and even some farmers believe the voluntary approach, as laid out in Iowa’s much-lauded Nutrient Reduction Strategy, has been a dismal failure.

The NRS, spurred into being by the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, was published in 2015 in conjunction with the Iowa Government and State University. It has some bold ambitions – a 45% reduction in nitrates being exported to the Mississippi River and 12.5 million acres to be planted with cover crops, a conservation practice which is proven to soak up nitrogen in the soil and reduce run-off and soil erosion.

But the NRS sets no deadlines. It makes no rules. It’s a menu of options for farmers to choose from, and they can choose to ignore it if they want to. I’m told most of them do.

The most generous estimate suggests cover crops have been planted on 760,000 acres, just 2% of Iowa’s farmland.

Jennifer Terry, executive director of the Iowa Environment Council, says. “It’s unfair to pretend to Iowans that we can get there in a reasonable time frame via voluntary means. It will take us thousands of years to get these practices in place at the current rate of implementation.”

Griswold, a tiny community on the frontline of the war on nitrates, did find a way to speed things up slightly.

Fearing being slapped with a $1 million bill for a nitrate removal system, the council got on the phone to four local farmers who grow crops on the 640-acre the capture zone around their town wells. Among them was Brent Bierbaum.

“We explained to the farmers what was going on and that we were really hoping they would help us, and they were all on board,” says city councillor Julie Adams.

The City of Griswold is now funding cover crops on 340 acres of land most vulnerable to nitrate run-off. Brent has been planting cereal rye as a cover crop for six years, covering part of the cost himself, and says corn yields are just as good.

Brent Bierbaum with his cereal rye cover crop
Brent Bierbaum with his cereal rye cover crop

But water quality has not improved. Nitrate levels spiked in 2017 and 2018. At the most recent inspection, in February 2019, one well showed an increase of nitrates to 10.5 mg/l.

Councillor Julie Adams is willing to give it more time but admits nitrate levels are going the wrong way. “I don’t think it’s keeping it under control as much as we would like,” she says.

“I think cover crops are a band aid,” adds fellow councillor Ryan Askeland. “We’ve got a wound that’s bleeding and eventually we’re going to need something bigger than a band aid – and that’s the filtration system.”

The biggest battle in Iowa, it seems, is against a mindset. Farmers, instinctively resistant to interference from outsiders, may need to be shocked out of the status quo by their own, trusted communities. Sadly though, it may already be too late. 

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