Monday, November 21, 2016

Let’s set politics aside and work to protect Iowa’s water

On Election Day, President Barack Obama reminded Americans, “No matter what happens, the sun will rise in the morning and America will still be the greatest nation on Earth.” He was, of course, correct. The morning revealed a people united in the pursuit of a more perfect union. We may occasionally disagree on which path to take, but we are bound by a shared belief that a government by the people is a government for the people. In trying times, we must rededicate ourselves to finding common ground. The obstacles in our way will not be overcome if we are distracted by political power struggles. Such conflict does nothing to solve the problems our nation, state and communities face.

Few issues are more vital to the future of Iowa and its people than Iowa’s increasingly polluted water. As chairman of the board of Des Moines Water Works, I am acutely aware that the political forces in our state have yet to find common ground on how to stem agriculture pollution. The federal lawsuit DMWW filed 18 months ago continues to wind its way through the legal process, but most Iowans agree, regardless of the outcome of this case, the solution will not come entirely from the court. Iowa must adopt reasonable measures to keep pollution from reaching waterways in the first place, which is why the DMWW board and many leaders involved in government, academia, business and the agriculture industry continue to seek reasonable plans to protect water cooperatively. However, some who are more interested in political retribution than adopting policies and programs to protect Iowa’s water are attempting to derail such cooperation.

Shortly after DMWW filed a lawsuit arguing drainage districts in three northern Iowa counties should be responsible for the quality of water they release, an agriculture industry-funded group began paying for television ads attacking DMWW’s leaders. Politicians in the General Assembly filed bills to penalize Des Moines for what Gov. Terry Branstad said was DMWW’s "war on rural Iowa." These ads, statements and political machinations were initiated to punish DMWW for raising the water pollution issue. No one can reasonably argue any of these actions forwarded constructive discussion.

The change in the balance of power at Iowa’s Statehouse has re-energized some who wish to protect narrow interests by thwarting DMWW’s lawsuit and its efforts to protect our most precious shared natural resource, water. One such punitive measure being revived by obstructionists is a bill aimed at effectively dismantling DMWW. This bill passed the Iowa House last year but died in the Senate. Those pushing a bill to rewrite Iowa Code Section 388.1 and other similar bills are doing so to halt the federal water pollution lawsuit, not to address any other matter.

DMWW is the regional supplier of safe, affordable drinking water for central Iowa. Established nearly 150 years ago, the people of Des Moines are both DMWW's primary customers and its owners. Today, water systems throughout the region are supplied by DMWW, meaning most every person in the area’s suburban communities, cities and counties drink DMWW water. We are committed to continuing to seek ways to collaborate, manage more efficiently and equitably govern. But don’t be fooled. The bill mentioned above is not an effort to govern better, it is a questionable maneuver designed to strip an asset from the people of Des Moines. Should it pass, it too will land in court. This bill is vindictive politics at its worst.

The issue is Iowa’s water quality. A few supported by narrow interests are trying to use the politics of division to distract. I love Iowa, and I firmly believe it and we are better than this. What we face is not a war between urban and rural interests. We are all on the same side as Iowans and as Americans. Let us agree to work together to protect water. We should argue about what path to take and then agree to use science and facts to help us decide together which route to take. Now is not the time for political retribution and obstruction. Now is the time to find common ground. Now is the time for progress.
This entry was first published in the print edition of the Des Moines Register and The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. This link, The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, is an editiorial that followed my essay. 
Graham Gillette can be reached at 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

It's time for more than talk on Iowa's water pollution

A few days after the New Year Governor Terry Branstad unveiled a water quality plan he called his “ biggest and boldest initiative” ever. Legislators’ hopeful statements about water policy echoed through the Capitol rotunda. After a year of verbal threats, suggestions of legislative retaliation and being disparaged by television ads funded by the Iowa Farm Bureau, my colleagues at Des Moines Water Works and I were cautiously optimistic. Perhaps this would be the year words would lead to action.

It was not to be.

Decades of talk in Iowa about curbing agriculture water pollution resulted in a plan that relies on volunteerism. The U.S. has not relied on voluntary compliance to control industrial air pollution. It would be foolhardy to so in the matter of agriculture water pollution. Iowa’s declining water quality demands more than optional compliance.

Not only did talk not lead to action during this year’s legislative session, most proposals discussed were misdirected – the Governor’s plan and many of the others amounted to little more than money for farmers, money not tied to results. Reasonable standards and regulation must be part of any successful effort to reduce agriculture water pollution.

Effective action will consist of three components
1. Stop pollution where it starts. Law and policy must ensure all water discharged into public waterways — regardless of whether from government, farm or other business— meets acceptable standards to protect public health.

2. A sustained funding mechanism linking dollars to permanent behavior change. All plans must include basic standards of care for all agriculture businesses — tailored to the landscape for maximum benefit.

3. Accountability measures establishing long-term responsibility for protecting the environment. The plans must include a timeline for pollution reduction requirements, benchmarks to assess progress, local watershed goals, and enforceable environmental protection duties. Scientifically verifiable water quality data must be collected, analyzed and reported, and made readily available to the public.

Iowa’s water did not become suddenly polluted
At the time the U.S. government was spending $375 million to build the Panama Canal, $300 million was being spent to drain Iowa’s wetlands, which once stretched across North Central Iowa. Thousands of miles of clay pipe, called tiles, were placed in trenches dug mostly by hand. These tiles carried groundwater to ditches. Ditches lead to streams. Streams lead to rivers, and eventually, this water empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

“Corn doesn’t like wet feet,” is a familiar farm saying. Landowners placed tiles a few feet underground in patterns specifically designed to whisk water away from crop root zones, the feet of crops like corn and, later, soybeans. Iowa law made it possible for owners of adjacent land parcels to form government drainage districts. Drainage districts coordinated the planning and construction of the intricate systems to carry groundwater from the valuable farmland that arose from marsh.

Meandering streams and rivers were redirected, becoming straight channels to expedite the increased water flow. Verdant marsh became fertile farmland. Iowa’s agriculture industry boomed, but the boom came with an environmental cost.

Crops use nutrients found in Iowa’s fertile, black soil, but farmers must continually apply additional nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to meet increasing yield demands. Nitrifying bacteria found in the soil break this fertilizer into nitrate. Nitrate finds its way into groundwater. Most of this groundwater would not have moved or would have moved slowly under natural circumstances, but, thanks to efficient modern drainage systems installed to keep the feet of crops dry, it now flows virtually unimpeded into streams and rivers.

High nitrate concentrations in drinking water can cause blue baby syndrome, which decreases the oxygen-carrying capacity of hemoglobin and can lead to death. Research indicates nitrate contribute to cancer, thyroid conditions, and diabetes in others. These threats caused Congress to include a process for establishing standards for nitrate concentration levels in the 1974 Safe Water Drinking Act. Iowa’s rivers regularly surpass the federal regulation requiring drinking water contain no more than ten parts per million of nitrate.

Ending Iowa’s water crisis will require leadership
Iowa’s economy and farmers have profited for more than 100 years from human reengineering that forever altered the land and waterways of our state. The bill for Iowa’s ailing environment and protecting human health from polluted water is past due. Draining Iowa’s wetlands took political capital, cooperation, and concentrated effort. Fixing the resulting problems will take nothing less.

We must demand more than talk from those we elect. It is time for action.
This entry was first published in the print edition of the Des Moines Register
Graham Gillette can be reached at 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Benchmarks and accountability needed to clean up Iowa's waterways

As they are with the stagnant national political climate, Iowans are growing weary of the debate over Iowa’s water pollution problem. Sadly, if fatigue drains public interest, common sense could be silenced and those who support the agriculture industry’s continued self-regulation without accountability will win.

Iowans need to stand together and insist lawmakers and policymakers act now.

Sensible laws limiting water contamination, holding agriculture landowners and renters responsible for the pollution they cause, and implementing plans for cleanup are required and long overdue. Voluntary measures will continue to have little impact.

While public discussion about what can be and needs to be done about Iowa’s fouled water was elevated last year, little has been accomplished. And, the General Assembly appears poised to let another year pass without taking significant action.

Every day Iowa’s water becomes more polluted with toxins discharged by the agriculture industry. These agrotoxins endanger public health, degrade the environment and threaten our state’s future. While it has been estimated the agriculture sector represents one-third of Iowa’s economy, protecting water is vital. For decades the needs of industry have been placed ahead of people and planet — the financial interests of the few trump the health and well-being of the many.

Agricultural production in the U.S. impacts water, soil, air, wildlife and human health has been estimated at a cost of $5.7-16.9 billion per year and few if any of these costs are borne directly by industry.*

In 2015 alone, Des Moines Water Works spent $1.5 million in operating costs to denitrify water largely polluted by agricultural tile drainage discharge. The costs of denitrification must be paid by ratepayers. Iowans are right to ask whether it is fair for taxpayers to be responsible for paying the costs of cleaning up industry’s pollution.

This summer more public beaches will be closed due to toxic algae blooms created by farm pollution, more Iowa waterways will be added to the 725 already designated as impaired for uses such as swimming and fishing and water utilities across Iowa face taking emergency measures to meet the standards imposed by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, our state policy for reducing nutrient pollution, remains voluntary for those involved in the agriculture industry, landowners and those renting the land alike. This toothless initiative lacks timelines for pollution reductions, plans for implementation, local watershed goals and mechanisms for funding the cleanup. Bold action is necessary to restore our rivers, lakes and streams. However, to achieve real progress, any water quality proposals or plans must include three key elements.

1. Stop pollution where it starts. Law and policy must ensure that all water discharged into public waterways — regardless of whether from farm, industry or municipality — meets acceptable, permitted limits, tailored to protect public health.

2. Include a sustained funding mechanism binding incentives to permanent behavior change. All plans must include basic standards of care for all agriculture businesses — tailored to the landscape for maximum benefit.

3. Include accountability measures in order to establish long-term duties to protect our shared environment. The plans must include a timeline for pollution reductions goals, benchmarks to assess progress, local watershed goals and enforceable environmental protection duties. This means scientifically verifiable water quality data must be collected, analyzed and reported, and made readily available to the public.

Governor Branstad and Iowa’s legislators have it in their power to act, but doing so means standing-up to powerful agriculture industry leaders. Tell the Governor and your other elected representatives it is time they stand with and for you. Saving Iowa’s water for Iowans is more important than protecting a powerful industry political group.

This entry was first published in the print edition of The Gazette
Graham Gillette can be reached at