This article originally appeared on Outside
To mark the unofficial start of summer over Memorial Day weekend, my partner and I went hiking at Geode State Park near our home in rural southeast Iowa. As we walked around the lake, we came across two towheaded boys no older than ten. “My brother keeps losing his lure,” the older one told us, shaking his head, as the younger boy waded knee-deep into the water. On the grass behind them lay an open fishing tackle box, as well as two iPhones–those necessary evils for today’s unsupervised children–that appeared to have been mindlessly tossed aside. For anyone worried about kids wasting their lives in front of screens, this would be a heartening sight. But as we made our way around the lake, we noticed patches of toxic blue-green algae blooming on the water’s surface.
As the nation’s top pork producer, Iowa’s 23 million hogs outnumber its three million people by more than seven-to-one. Every year, millions of pounds of raw hog waste are applied to the state’s corn and soybean fields. Nutrients from fertilizer wash into lakes and streams, poisoning water that flows into the Missouri and Mississippi river basins, which provide drinking water to a combined 28 million Americans. The state’s tributaries to the Mississippi have played an outsized role in creating the Gulf of Mexico’s annual “dead zone,” an oxygen-depleted area of the ocean.
Iowa’s answer to this colossal problem is its nutrient reduction strategy, a $5 billion effort which, since 2013, has encouraged farmers to voluntarily adopt more sustainable practices. According to environmental scientist Chris Jones, it hasn’t worked. For eight years, Jones sounded the alarm on Iowa’s worsening water quality as a research engineer at the University of Iowa. In blog posts published on the school’s website, he wrote provocatively about the agricultural lobby’s “cropaganda,” castigating industry and political leaders for putting profits over people.
His outspokenness has made him a thorn in the side of agribusiness and its beneficiaries. In 2019, he calculated that manure from Iowa’s livestock and poultry generates the human waste equivalent of a whopping 168 million people. The Iowa Farm Bureau fired back with an op-ed in the Des Moines Register criticizing Jones’ “poop blog.” In 2021, when Jones pointed out the plain fact that poor people and people of color are more likely to have their drinking water polluted by agriculture, a state representative accused him of “race-baiting.”
Jones decided to retire this spring, after he says state senators Tom Shipley and Dan Zumbach approached a university lobbyist with printouts of his blog posts, insinuating that school funding would be cut if the blog was allowed to continue. Shipley told Outside the allegation was “absolutely false.” Zumbach could not be reached for comment, but he told the Iowa Capitol Dispatch in May that Jones’ claim is “reckless and potentially defamatory.”
Also last month, the Iowa House passed a bill that would eliminate funding for the state’s network of water quality sensors, a project once managed by Jones that provides Iowans with real-time data on dozens of lakes and streams.
To say the least, the future of Iowa’s waterways looks bleak. But as Jones writes in his new book, The Swine Republic: Struggles with the Truth About Agriculture and Water Quality, remaining hopeful is a moral imperative. The book includes a collection of essays from Jones’ blog, as well as some new material. I spoke with Jones about the forces driving Iowa’s water crisis, and what everyday people can do to improve water quality in their own communities.
OUTSIDE: There’s a common expression that manure is “the smell of money.” In some circles, it feels like the only socially acceptable way you can acknowledge the stench. The idea is if you complain, you’re disrespecting farmers. How does this attitude keep us from having tough conversations about the agricultural industry?
That saying goes way back. But manure doesn’t quite smell the way it used to, since we have such a large number of hogs concentrated in small areas. We used to have 60,000 farmers in Iowa raising hogs, and now we’re down to maybe 5,000 or so. I don’t think people give that saying as much consideration as they used to.
We treat farmers like royalty here–at least, some of us do. When politicians film TV commercials in Iowa, they want to go out and stand on a farm. And so, we’re willing to cut farmers some slack on the environmental consequences of their work. That is certainly an obstacle to solving our pollution problem. Now, I’m not saying farmers are bad. They’re human beings. Like the rest of us, they make decisions in their own self-interest. If we want to improve the conditions here, we need to change the framework in which they make their decisions.
Earlier this year, the state released a report revealing that Iowa has the second-highest cancer rate in the country (behind Kentucky), and is the only state with a rising rate of cancer. Nitrate in drinking water can increase the risks of colon, kidney, and stomach cancers, but the word “nitrate” is nowhere to be found in the report. What’s your assessment of how the state has addressed water quality as a public health issue?
When the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed in 1974, the maximum contaminant level for nitrate was set at ten milligrams per liter, or ten parts per million. That was intended to protect infants, who developed blue baby syndrome after drinking formula prepared with nitrate-laden well water. Now, we know that drinking water with high levels of nitrate increases the risk of cancer for adults, even at levels below the U.S. legal standard. It’s not too difficult to believe that nitrate in our drinking water is driving higher cancer rates. Many people across Iowa never drink water with nitrate levels below five parts per million, and that’s considerably above the levels associated with increased cancer risk in the recent literature. Our state agencies aren’t talking about the dangers of consuming nitrate at lower levels.
One of your essays is titled, “Middle of Nowhere Is Downstream from Somewhere.” The essay is about hog waste in the Iowa River. But it reminded me of how water pollution in this state doesn’t only affect Iowans. Can you explain how our agricultural practices impact people and wildlife beyond Iowa?
We’re polluting water at a continental scale. Iowa occupies 4.5 percent of land area in the Mississippi Basin, but contributes to 29 percent of the nitrate and 15 percent of the phosphorus polluting the Gulf of Mexico. What we do here is impacting water quality 1,500 miles away.
The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is created by algae blooms, which thrive on high-nutrient water. When the algae dies, it sucks oxygen out of the water and kills off fish, shrimp, and other desirable species. The algae also produces toxins that are harmful to your liver and neural system. Those toxins can be very difficult to remove during the water treatment process, so people end up drinking them.
We’re polluting water at a continental scale.
One-fifth of Iowa’s land area is used to grow corn for fuel ethanol, and more than half of our corn is used for this purpose. How is ethanol production connected to Iowa’s poor water quality?
Corn is one of the most environmentally intensive crops you can grow. It requires a large amount of chemicals and fertilizer, as well as diesel fuel to plant and harvest it. Many farmers also believe corn requires aggressive tillage, so we have soil erosion associated with that which leads to water pollution. The conventional wisdom is that ethanol fuel produces less carbon emissions than regular petroleum. But recent research shows that’s not true. A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that greenhouse gas emissions increased 24 percent with ethanol versus gasoline.
There are crops we could grow on those acres that would produce better environmental outcomes. Iowa used to be the biggest apple producer in the country. We also used to be the nation’s leading oats producer. Now, we hardly grow anything except corn and soybeans.
All of the infrastructure we have here is aligned with those crops. And that includes the transportation system, the crop insurance industry, the fertilizer manufacturers, and all the agricultural retailers across Iowa–there are 1,100 of them. If we’re going to do something different, we need market development and policies that would enable that transition.
Last summer, two thirds of state beaches had advisories against swimming due to high levels of bacteria or toxins. As climate change causes temperatures to soar, access to water recreation is increasingly important. What are your thoughts on that?
This is a quality of life issue. Iowa has three million people, and we’ve had around three million people for decades. If we want people to move here, and if we want to retain young people, we need clean water and places where you can enjoy the outdoors. You’re not going to select Iowa on that basis if you have other choices on where to live.
Iowa’s percentage of public land (2.8 percent) ranks 48th in the country, only beating Kansas, another agricultural state, and Rhode Island. Only seven percent of that land is within state park boundaries. How does this lack of green space connect to our water quality issues?
Only about one percent of the state’s land area is really usable from a recreational standpoint. Natural areas tend to buffer what’s happening on working lands by reducing flooding and storing carbon. Minnesota is a farming state, but there’s also a lot of parks, which mitigates the environmental consequences of agriculture. Here, we don’t have that. Everything that can be farmed in Iowa is farmed.
Water in nature shouldn’t smell. I’m standing in front of a river right now, and it smells.
When you’ve talked with other Iowans about our lack of outdoor recreation space, is that something that people are aware of? I feel like if you grew up here, you don’t really know anything else.
I think that’s right. Iowans have vacationed to Minnesota and Wisconsin for generations. We could have those types of experiences here–fishing, paddling, canoeing. We could have some really remarkable rivers if we wanted to. But I think people are accustomed to the current condition. There’s fatigue on this. They see that it isn’t changing, and so they’ll just spend the extra money to drive 500 miles to do what they want to do. Do we really want to be known as a state where you can’t do much in the outdoors?
You write about a number of policy changes that you believe would improve Iowa’s water quality–banning the application of manure to frozen ground, limiting livestock’s access to streams, and diversifying farm operations, to name a few. But there’s very little political will at the state level to take action. What can ordinary Iowans do to enact change?
Just because the legislature doesn’t want to do these things, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them. The fact that we have a state where agriculture dominates 85 percent of our land area and it basically goes unregulated–that’s got to be a discussion topic. To eventually make these taboo solutions acceptable, you need to talk about these things. It’s not that regulation won’t work. They’re afraid that if we had regulations, they would work, and people would want more.
If people want change, it’s got to happen at the grassroots level. You have to engage your local officials. That’s how I see change happening. I don’t see it happening from above.
Go out and look at a lake or stream by your house. Does it look the way you think it should look? And does it smell the way you think it should smell? Water in nature shouldn’t smell. I’m standing in front of a river right now, and it smells. I always tell people, ‘You don’t need to believe me. Just go out and look for yourself.’
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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