Report — From the February 2016 issue

The Trouble with Iowa

Corn, corruption, and the presidential caucuses

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William Stowe’s office sits near the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, which were laid down by the Des Moines Lobe of the Wisconsin glaciation more than 12,000 years ago. The office was built there to superintend the piping and delivery of river water to half a million customers of the Des Moines Water Works. Stowe is the head of the organization. He trained as both an engineer and a lawyer, and lately has needed the latter set of skills. His utility has sued the county operators of drainage districts in rural Iowa in a case that is pending in federal court. Environmentalists nationwide view the case as a bellwether; it may well produce the legal precedent they need to solve a plague of continental scale. Many Iowans view the dispute as a battle between the city and the country; they see Stowe as a pariah.

“We have had death threats,” he says. “We’re the ‘radicals.’ We’re the ‘revolutionaries’ who are declaring war on rural Iowa. In reality we are protecting public health, and we’re protecting the economic viability of our consumers.”

Audience members at the Iowa Freedom Summit, hosted by Iowa Congressman Steve King and Citizens United, Des Moines, Iowa, 2015

Audience members at the Iowa Freedom Summit, hosted by Iowa Congressman Steve King and Citizens United, Des Moines, Iowa, 2015

The problem is simple enough. Rain falls on Iowa pure and clean, but it arrives at Stowe’s intake pipes a few hours later sufficiently polluted to violate federal standards for drinking water. Farmers have been raising corn and hogs in Iowa, and the people of Des Moines have been drinking river water, ever since the Civil War, but only in the past decade or two have the nitrogen fertilizers from industrial agriculture rendered that water undrinkable.

Under the current reading of the relevant federal law, pollution from a factory pipe is called “point source” and is regulated. If a factory or municipal sewage-treatment plant sends concentrated nitrates and phosphorus down a discharge pipe to a river, the feds will put a stop to it. Runoff from a farm’s field, “nonpoint source,” is not regulated at all.

Nationwide, any river or stream that wends through farm country suffers pollution to the point of death, but in the Upper Midwest, the plague is nearly total. Agricultural fertilizers traveling from the Corn Belt down the Mississippi River have killed a Connecticut-size stretch of the Gulf of Mexico that is now called the Dead Zone. Iowa occupies less than 5 percent of the land in the Mississippi basin, but it contributes 25 percent of the nitrate pollution responsible for the Dead Zone, almost all of which is attributable to farming.

In August 2014, Corn Belt fertilizer pollution led to a toxic algal bloom that poisoned the water supply of Toledo. John Kasich, Ohio’s governor then and now, alleged by some to be the thoughtful conservative among the Republican presidential candidates, responded to the contamination of a large city by calling out the National Guard to distribute bottled water. Later he signed a palliative bill, endorsed by Big Ag, that did nothing to sully his business-friendly reputation or to limit the phosphates and nitrates responsible for Toledo’s problem. None of this is mentioned prominently in his campaign in Iowa.

At least a third of Iowa’s farmland is underlaid with drainage pipes, like the veins of a hand. The same is true in much of Kasich’s Ohio, as well as in Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, and parts of Wisconsin and Michigan. Again like veins, the networks gather fluid in bigger and bigger pipes that finally pinch together before discharging into rivers. The Environmental Protection Agency says that farm pollution is not pollution because it doesn’t come out of a pipe, but in Iowa, farm pollution does come out of pipes. Nonetheless, paper is waved over the water, a box is checked, and the toxic runoff is transubstantiated.

These days a fair amount of the nitrates are derived not so much directly from chemical fertilizers as from hog manure. There are about 21 million hogs in Iowa, and almost all of them live in hog factories. Each hog produces the waste of about 2.5 people, meaning Iowa bears the shit equivalent, from hogs alone, of about 45 million people, some fifteen times its human population. But Iowa also has 52 million laying chickens, 50 million of which are in concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) that hold more than 100,000 birds. These birds likewise produce more manure than all the people in the state. Almost none of it passes through a sewage-treatment plant or even a septic tank before making its way through drainage pipes to the public waterways and drinking water.

It is technically possible to remove nitrates from water, and this past year the Des Moines Water Works has been attempting to do that, at a cost of more than a million dollars. But the level and persistence of the pollution have repeatedly overwhelmed the equipment. Absent cleaner intake water, the Water Works will face up to a $180 million bill to upgrade its equipment, but this amount vastly understates the cost of the problem. There are 260 cities and towns in Iowa that face similar problems with their water supplies, and removing the nutrients from drinking-water intakes does nothing for the life of the rivers themselves.

There’s another way to fix the problem. It involves simple measures such as running farm-field drainage pipes into restored wetlands and permanent pastures instead of rivers. Ten acres of wetland can treat the runoff from 1,000 acres of hard-farmed corn. By timing their applications, farmers might also apply less fertilizer while still ensuring their yields. These measures do not mean growing less food, though they might require some different crops, maybe even raising a few cattle on grass. Scientists from the state’s agricultural department and Iowa State University have penciled out and tested a program of such low-tech solutions. If 40 percent of the cropland claimed by corn were planted with other crops and permanent pasture, the whole litany of problems caused by industrial agriculture — certainly the nitrate pollution of drinking water — would begin to evaporate. There are no technological or financial hurdles to implementing this program, but there is a political obstacle: the federal government would have to stop subsidizing the growing of corn. Between 1995 and 2012, those subsidies amounted to $84 billion.

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’s “Bakken Business” appeared in the March 2013 issue of Harper’s Magazine.This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

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