This year the bad news from Lake Erie came even earlier than usual. Patches of toxic algae bloom in the western part of the lake were sighted by the middle of June. “For now, there’s no serious threat to Toledo’s water intake,” said the local newspaper, the Toledo Blade, before reminding its readers of the first weekend in August of 2014, when faucets across the city spewed green slime instead of drinking water. The city of Toledo gets its drinking water from Lake Erie. In August 2014 persistent winds had concentrated the toxic algae in the intake zone and 400,000 Toledo citizens had to queue for water supplied in bottles and by tanker.

The weather is just part of the problem, says The Blade: “While heat is a major factor in the timing of a bloom’s onset, the amount of phosphorus that has gotten into rivers and streams from sources such as agricultural run-off is largely responsible for the size.” Roughly 11 million people depend on Lake Erie for drinking water, but the lake isn’t the only body of water where phosphorus and nitrate from agricultural run-off cause algae blooms.

The largest area of hypoxia or ‘dead zone’ is in the Gulf of Mexico near the Mississippi River Delta. In 2017, it measured nearly 23,000 square kilometres, the largest ever sighted. As with Lake Erie, the problem lies upstream, in the soy and maize fields of the Midwest. Artificial chemical fertiliser contains nitrate and phosphate because plants need both in order to grow. Nitrogen is water-soluble and will leach from the soil, especially if the soil is degraded. In particular, as a result of heavy rainfalls, it can be washed off fields with the topsoil. Further, nitrate and phosphate don’t just cause algae blooms and dead zones, they are also toxic for humans and have to be filtered out of drinking water. In the US, as well as in Europe, maximum limits are enshrined in law. The question is: who has to pay for their clean up?

It certainly should not be the customers of the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), says Bill Stowe, engineer, lawyer and CEO of this public water provider in Iowa’s capital, Des Moines. Tall and with a mane of white hair, he cuts an imposing figure – that he has the guts to go with it, he proved in 2015 when the DMWW sued three ‘drainage districts’ for the discharge of nitrate pollutants into the Raccoon River, the main water source for the city. When I met him in autumn 2016 in Des Moines, he told me, “We are a surface water provider for 500,000 people in this area. The water does not come from an aquifer, and [its quality] is driven by land use. The Raccoon River is an open sewer, for industrial agricultural producers have no responsibility for what they do. Any other industry has this responsibility.”

Agriculture is what Iowa does: 85% of all land is devoted to it, including 5.5 million hectares of maize and 3.9 million of soy. The foundations for the agricultural boom were laid in the early 20th century when farmers started to transform the ‘wet prairie’ into arable land. Perforated pipes (called ’tiles’) were dug about a metre deep into the soil so the water could drain into the nearest ditch, and from there into rivers and streams. Today there are close to 70 kilometres of drainage lines for every square kilometre of land in Iowa. And these tiles are central to Bill Stowe’s argument.

Stowe compares tiles to the chimneys at a factory. The quality of the air coming from the chimney is measured and if it contains toxins the factory owner can be fined and made to remedy the problem. The water that runs from the tiles into the ditches and waterways should be treated the same way. The visible head of the drainage pipe is for water what the mouth of a chimney is for exhaust fumes. Stowe argues that farmers should be held accountable for this pollution. In the US, anyone discharging water into public waterways from a point source, like a culvert, a drain or a sewer, has to be licensed. With the right to discharge come obligations like silt fencing or controlling the amount of phosphorus, nitrate and other pollutants. Agriculture has an exemption for “water run-off” from fields, but the drainage tiles, argues Stowe, are a “point source pollution” and that’s why, in his opinion, the drainage districts should be regulating the system.

Stowe made the economic argument for taking the fight to the courts. Even though the DMWW has the world’s largest de-nitrification unit, it is no longer big enough. A new one would cost about $100 million, which is why Stowe suggested the DMWW board invest $2 million in a lawsuit in an attempt to avoid having to build a new facility. For Stowe it’s a socio-economic issue too: as long as pollution from farms is not regulated, the financial burden of the clean-up rests with the water works. Because of the additional costs for de-nitrification, water rates in Des Moines had to be increased at the end of 2016. A lot of people can ill afford the rate rise. In a city where three quarters of all school children in the inner city region are eligible for subsidized meals, families were already financially stretched before the price increases.

The fight got ugly fast. “The Des Moines Water Works have declared war on Iowa”, said then Republican state Governor, Terry Branstad, before the suit was even filed. Agricultural groups like the Farm Bureau and Corn Growers Association, realized immediately that the lawsuit could set a precedent that would have far-reaching consequences for farmers – and not just in Iowa.

In an attempt to get rid of Stowe, Iowa lawmakers introduced a bill to dismantle the DMWW, but before it came to a vote, a Federal Court dismissed the DMWW lawsuit without considering the arguments. The industry reacted with delight, but also acknowledged that the issue of nitrate pollution does need to be addressed.

Iowa is one of 12 US states with a voluntary nutrient reduction strategy. But according to the Des Moines Water Works, this strategy is not working. A press release at the end of June 2018 states: “The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy has failed. Nitrate concentration in both the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers has been unchanged since the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was introduced in 2013. However, nitrate loads in both rivers has actually increased during that same time frame. And remember, the stated goal of the program was to reduce Iowa’s contribution of nutrients in our rivers, streams, and lakes by 45%, which is nowhere in sight.” A recent study by the University of Iowa confirms this assessment. Iowa is responsible for 55% of the nitrogen load in the Missouri River.

Asked for a comment, Jen Terry, the executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council said conservation strategies (such as stream buffers) should become mandatory for farmers. If farmers do not plant right up to a ditch but leave even a narrow field margin, which they do not spray with herbicides, run-off will be considerably reduced. Actively planting prairie grasses and trees is even better. “The NRS (Nutrient Reduction Strategy) is a promise that has fallen short,” she told The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, “we need to have adequate sustained funding with timelines. We need an accountability framework set up for the NRS, a non-voluntary framework for non-point pollution.” Regulation and penalties are what conventional farmers fear most. With rising land rents and prices for soy and maize near or below the cost of production farm incomes have been steadily going down.

Ron Rosmann farms near Harlan in western Iowa. He is one of the founders of Practical Farmers of Iowa, a grassroots farmers’ organisation that promotes farmer-led research, supported by scientists at Iowa State University. He’s been farming organically since the 1980s. Chemical fertiliser in conventional agriculture is only one of the problems, he told me as we toured his farm. Even worse is the manure of pigs, chicken and cattle, which are raised in confinement in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). There are strict rules for when and where farmers can empty lagoons by spraying or injecting slurry directly onto the soil. The problem is that the rules are not adequately enforced. One of Rosmann’s neighbours has a herd of 6,000 cattle in a feedlot. The lagoon overflowed several times with manure running directly into a little creek, he told me. We passed a centre pivot that distributed diluted manure, the pipe running across the field from the lagoon. Rosmann showed me where the ‘tiles’ exit into a nearby ditch – the smell of manure hung in the air and the water was green and slimy with algae.

The contrast to the Rossman’s farm couldn’t be starker. Rosmann has planted wide prairie strips that are buzzing with insects. The native prairie grasses attract butterflies and birds, including birds of prey that keep the rodent population in check. A row of mature trees provides shade for grazing cattle. After the harvest, they glean any leftovers from the fields. The pigs have outdoor access. but it is too cold in winter to keep them on grass year-round. There is no lagoon under the barn, instead the pigs have deep straw bedding, which is regularly cleaned out and composted. With cover crops, a long crop rotation and compost, Rosmann and his sons have perfected nutrient management to a fine art and do not use artificial fertilisers to augment the natural soil fertility. And he still has lots of plans and ideas for further improvement: he would like to create wetlands and ponds for migratory birds and plant more fruit and nut trees.

Bill Stowe, the CEO of the Des Moines Waterworks has more modest targets and just hopes that farmers, farmer organisations and politicians will look at the bigger picture: “The larger message is that we are operating a heavily subsidised agriculture. Agricultural producers need to be responsible and accountable. We are at a crossroads. What is the vision for this state? Is Iowa no more than a big feed lot fed by corn and hogs between the two greatest rivers in the US, the Missouri and the Mississippi?”


Photograph: MPCA Photos

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