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Nitrate Monologues: Stories From Water and Farm Frontlines in Iowa

Rachel Serslev is a junior at the University of Iowa, studying Environmental Policy and Planning and Economics. This essay appears as part of the Climate Narrative Project, a special media arts initiative in the Office of Sustainability.

Let’s begin with Aldo Leopold, Iowa’s beloved conservationist. Leopold said land ethics rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. His land ethic extended the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals.

As part of the biofuels rush, between 2005 and 2010, American corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than one billion pounds. So, where do excess chemicals go? Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Is there such thing as a river ethic?

The Iowa River twists in an interconnected and continuous system, accumulating and dissipating as it travels across the land. The water that flows through the river systems shapes the environment around it, above it, below it, impacting every aspect of life on the farm, in the towns and in the cities. The river runs through all of us.

So, why then, would we degrade the Iowa River and its watersheds with such carelessness?

Iowa is ground zero of the corn-belt. Corn has become the sole embodiment of many, if not most Iowan lives. Since the 1850’s when corn began to replace the natural prairies of Iowa, farms have been expanding and pushing their boundaries closer to roads, rivers and other farms, gridlocking Iowa into a permanent state of boom and often bust farming. Never has this been more true than today—we are living in what may be considered the last throes of a corn rush.

Thanks to incentives for ethanol, fuel has become the number one use for corn in America. As noted in a recent Associated Press (AP) investigation, this intense development of the corn-belt in Iowa and across the heartland includes a loss of nearly five million acres of prairies and woods across the nation in areas that were originally set aside for the Conservation Reserves land program. This loss has had a significant impact on our landscapes, natural drainage systems, and the health of the rivers in Iowa and those downstream from them, all the way to where the Mississippi empties into the gulf. Not to mention the impact this is having on our climate.

In 2008, a study in the journal Science concluded that, “plowing over conservation land releases so much greenhouse gas that it takes 48 years before new plants can break even and start reducing carbon dioxide.”

As part of the biofuels rush, between 2005 and 2010, American corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than one billion pounds. So, where do excess chemicals go? In recent years the Gulf of Mexico has turned into an extreme dead zone due to the increased use of nitrates and phosphates. The runoff of these chemicals is intensified by the weather events that lead to record drought and rainfall that comes with climate change.

In this time of extreme drought and extreme rainfall, what is the impact of one acre of corn on our river? When a field floods the excess nitrates and phosphates that have not been taken up by the crops run into Iowa’s waterways; into our drinking water.

Carol Sweeting sits before me in a dim, bustling café. She is the water treatment and distribution information coordinator for Iowa City. Her untouched iced coffee sweats beside her as I ask her to describe her personal relationship with the river.

Carol: I grew up in the river town of Dubuque where I spent my childhood fishing on the backwaters of the Mississippi. Water and the environment were an important part of my parent’s upbringing. I always enjoyed the river and being in the water growing up, so that is part of the reason I pursued a career involving water issues. I’d say that water’s in my blood.

Mackenzie Beideman, a student at the university pursing a degree in Environmental Policy and Planning, works as a systems operator at the university’s water treatment plant.

Mackenzie: My freshman year I lived in Quad so I had to cross the river every day to get to class. I saw how dirty it was and it made me think about how dirty Iowa City is in general. People don’t care and there is litter everywhere. Before I started working at the water treatment plant I didn’t care where the water came from. When I would be in one of the buildings on campus drinking out of the water fountain or taking a shower in the dorms I never realized it was Iowa River water that I was using. Beginning work at the treatment plant gave me a different perspective on the river. The way we think about it is that we are always fighting the river.

But Carol and Mackenzie are on the receiving end of our river and agricultural problems. We need to step away from Iowa City, and return back to our farmlands to understand the beginning of this river story. 

The esteemed farmer and poet Wendell Berry once wrote: “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: Love. They must do it for love. Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable.” I wanted to know—how did this love of the land incorporate our water, our rivers and the chemicals we pollute them with?

I first spoke with Grant Schultz, an organic farmer and coordinator of Farmhack, which enables sustainable farming via innovative technology. He sits before me in a worn, red flannel as he describes what his surrounding natural environment means to him.

Grant: I grew up on the Mississippi and you would go to the city and see signs that say hey, don’t eat the fish out of this river but if you do only eat one or two because the PCB’s are so high. So Iowa City is the same thing, you’ll see people fishing down there on the Iowa River and you shouldn’t be eating what you are harvesting from the river and it’s a damn shame. When I can’t connect with my environment, the river, because I can’t eat what’s in it, I don’t want to come back. It’s a creeping thing that removes you from your environment slowly.

And then I turned to Terry Erb, a conventional farmer and seed dealer working in Wellman, IA. I can see the callouses on his hands as they gesture when he speaks of his work on the fields and off them.  

Terry: The 200 plus customers that we deal with, I think they are concerned about the waterways and they all work hard to repair the waterways and the buffers and keep them nice because it’s in our best interest as farmers.

If farmers, and all of us, have some kind of connection with the rivers that surround us, then why are we not taking better care of them? Thanks to more awareness and farmer programs, studies show declining trend lines for nitrates in Iowa River this spring, and another analysis shows declines in both nitrates and phosphates in the Upper Iowa River. And yet, despite such reductions, nitrate concentrations have increased 12 percent from 2000 to 2012 at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The next question I had for my interviewees was what is the biggest impact of agricultural runoff and should we even care about it?

Carol: Agricultural runoff is contributing to high levels of erosion, nitrates, phosphorus and turbidity, all of which we should care about because these things impact the water we drink. Our old water treatment plant on Madison Street took about 90 percent of its water from the river and there was never a time in the past when the water exceeded the standards for safe drinking water. As agriculture intensifies, our primary goal is to get off the Iowa River and start using water from alluvial wells and groundwater. We weren’t most worried about high levels of chemicals, we were worried about the future and progression of agriculture which is out of our control. We are very fortunate to have a new facility that allows us to switch between sources of water.

Mac: Water treated at the plant is primarily river water but at times of high melt or runoff we need to balance it out by mixing it with well water to level off the substances from runoff. In the spring and summer seasons the hardness is bad, nitrate goes up and therefore more intensified treatment. We have to put a lot more into the water for it to be safe because of the all the agriculture that is going on up north. A lot of students are upset with the chlorine levels in the water but most of them don’t understand that it’s needed in order to make the water safe.

As the AP investigative report noted, nitrogen fertilizer, when it seeps into the water, is toxic. Children are especially susceptible to nitrate poisoning, which causes “blue baby” syndrome and can be deadly. So, are nitrates our only concern?                   

Grant: Clear and present danger, the biggest issue is chemical application and runoff. People talk about the obesity epidemic but corn syrup can only go so far, part of that is things we are exposed to in the environment. Nitrates aren’t even the biggest issue because they are more easily treated in the water supply than endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are dangerous because it’s slow onset; the frog in hot water thing. We should without a doubt care but it has to do with where the responsibility lies. If you pour a bucket of paint on someone’s lawn they are going to get pissed, but if you feed them dirty water for 30 years they don’t notice the difference.         

Terry: It is a huge problem because everything that runs off of the fields is an inefficiency for us. We want it to stay there because it’s not good for me but it’s also not good for anyone else if the pesticides that I apply are running off into the waterways. However, everyone is trying to use as little product as they can while still being able to control their land and we are quickly getting a grasp on what the right amount really is. We don’t want to throw away the product that we are applying but on the other hand we don’t know what the right amount is so in some sense we do still tend to over apply nitrates.

Recognizing that there is a problem with agricultural runoff and that it is affecting the lives of the people in contact with these bodies of water leads us to the realization that we need a solution. So, what can we do to mitigate the destruction of the river that defines Iowa City?        

Carol: Stormwater Volunteer Opportunities is an organization that I run, which involves the clean-up of the streams and rivers in Iowa City. We remove invasive species and junk trees which hinder the growth of natural grasses and cause erosion. We also do an annual Iowa River clean up where we collect trash that accumulates from Iowa City to Hills, IA. Obviously, there is no way to “clean-up” agricultural pollution. However, I believe the best way to move forward with preventing it is to keep funding  research that will fix the problem. The only means to a solution is the long term analysis of water quality that will tell us what agricultural practices are making the water quality better and which are making it worse. Farmers are already pursuing some of these beneficial practices like winter cover crops. However, funding is being cut for water testing which will limit our knowledge on the benefits of new practices and technologies.

Mac: These chemicals definitely have more benefit on the land, the only issue is keeping them there. In my opinion there is not a lot you can do about the use of chemicals on agricultural land because it is healthier for us to have safe food to eat especially when we have the ability to treat and make the water drinkable.

Grant: When it comes to any environmental issue education is the biggest thing that needs to happen. Earth Day and the Lorax are cool until fourth grade and then until fourth grade until twenty-two you have no exposure to that shit.          

Terry: I think it’s an education process in addition to a generational shift. Looking at growers younger than us, thoughtfulness about agricultural runoff is part of their process while the older generation is still clinging on to past farming methods. It’s not that it wasn’t a concern to older generations, the thing is they weren’t even aware that there was a problem. These days we see huge leaps and bounds. It’s crazy how every year there is more and more technology. It’s mind boggling. Technology is giving us the ability to micromanage a crop rather than painting with a broad brush because we have to make a lot of assumptions about pesticide application. New technology is giving us the ability to not assume but to be more precise.           

Education is certainly part of the answer but can we rely on the development of technology to save us? Or rather, is it more of a question of how we use our technology, and what priority we give human and environmental health over the expansion of the ethanol market? Is more regulatory measures to limit the use of chemical application in agricultural production the answer to our problems? 

These are the questions that we as concerned citizens must ask ourselves. As you drive down the highway, passing endless stretches of farmland, do you see just the corn that is growing there or with that corn, do you see all of the other environmentally harmful things that come with it as water flows over the land and into our rivers; into our water? Or, perhaps I should say: is it what we do not see that should galvanize us to action?

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