The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

August 13, 2013

Iowa's water quality disconnect

The Des Moines Register
Aug. 10
The Clinton Herald

---- — The Iowa State Fair is now in full swing. This is a grand showcase for livestock, produce and farm machinery, and it is the closest most people will get to the industry that produces the annual bounty for which Iowa is famous around the world.

Iowans, however, may have a hard time squaring this wholesome image with growing evidence of the environmental consequences of large-scale agriculture.

It is time to end this disconnect between the nostalgic view of agriculture and the reality of 21st-century farming in the Midwest.

Iowa agricultural interests should work just as hard the rest of the year after the fair ends to demonstrate their dedication to clean water and soil conservation. Unfortunately, just the opposite is happening.

Exhibit A: Closed-door meetings earlier this month with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hosted by Gov. Terry Branstad to discuss the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ strategy for getting this state into compliance with federal clean water standards. Also at the table were representatives of the Iowa Farm Bureau and agriculture groups representing pork, cattle, chicken and turkey producers.

Staff members for the governor’s office and the EPA dismissed objections by Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement that the very businesses responsible for Iowa’s water problems were allowed to participate in the meetings, while environmental groups were not.

The excuse was that affected “stakeholders” are consulted when new regulations are written. But, as the Sierra Club points out, the EPA rules are already in place, and Iowa is not in compliance with them. The only question now is what Iowa intends to do about that.

It seems obvious the affected “stakeholders” in these discussions should, at the very least, include the groups that originally forced the EPA to crack down on Iowa, including CCI and the Sierra Club. And what about the people of Iowa? After all, they must tolerate rivers and lakes fouled with manure and fecal bacteria. They were not invited to the meetings, either, while the businesses the state has failed to properly regulate were given a seat at the table.

Something is wrong with this picture, but it is not out of the ordinary.

The fact is, the political leadership of Iowa — including the governor, the secretary of agriculture and too many members of the Iowa Legislature — is far more attentive to the interests of big ag groups than the interests of ordinary Iowans who enjoy boating, swimming and clean drinking water. That’s because big ag spends a lot of money on elections and lobbying.

As a result, Iowa counties that have zoning laws regulating the placement of factories and homes are forbidden by state law from regulating the sites of animal confinements. Farmers are asked only to voluntarily comply with conservation programs designed to reduce nitrates in rivers, lakes and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, cities are required to meet federal clean-water regulations. In the case of Des Moines, that means the operation of a $7 million nitrate-removal plant at a cost of $7,000 a day to water customers.

The net effect is that agricultural groups convey the impression that farmers are immune to the rules that apply to everybody else. This surely does not represent the views of the typical Iowa farmers who want to be good stewards of the land and good neighbors, and who also want clean water for their families.

These farmers are ill served by industry groups such as the Iowa Farm Bureau that refuse to accept any hint of regulation of agriculture.

and insist they are doing everything in their power to protect the environment when the evidence points in the other direction.

Rather than further driving a wedge between conscientious farmers and the people of Iowa who demand better environmental quality, livestock and crop commodity groups should become advocates of change.

Iowa government officials.

, likewise, should be partners in making that change rather than conspiring to oppose it.

Then, perhaps, the image of agriculture at the Iowa State Fair will match the image on the land in all 99 counties.