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

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Proposals to clean Iowa's water are a start, but more will be needed

Water pollution poses significant environmental and public health risks and has become a growing financial burden for Iowans. Recent water pollution proposals by Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett and State Senator Rob Hogg included preliminary funding concepts, but more is needed. Payments to water utilities and additional farm subsidies are not enough to solve Iowa’s agriculture pollution problem.

(Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
The Corbett and Hogg proposals are, in part, reactions to a federal lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) against government drainage districts. DMWW took this action earlier this year after decades of failed attempts to engage state officials, agriculture industry representatives and community leaders to seek solutions.

Government drainage districts were built a century ago to empty natural wetlands and construct some of the world’s most fertile farmlands. Remarkable feats of ingenuity, these systems have been re-engineered over the years to move water from farm to river. Unfortunately, these systems also release large amounts of pollution into Iowa’s waterways. Legal responsibility for this pollution has not been assigned and its impact has been ignored, as pollution grows steadily worse.

Agriculture and chemical-polluted water being dumped by drainage districts is not the result of the latest rain, drought or some other act of Mother Nature. Intricate systems efficiently move water tainted with dangerous toxins from ground to waterway — water that would have stayed put or moved much more slowly without man’s intervention.

Drainage districts should have the same responsibility for what spills from their pipes as do sewer, stormwater utilities, and factories. Stopping polluted water at the source is central to the DMWW case.

Solving agriculture water pollution will take more than money. The Hogg and Corbett proposals present ways to pay for some water initiatives, but both lack the controls, monitoring and regulation needed to adequately ensure we stem the flow of agriculture pollutants.

An effective plan to reduce agriculture pollution must:

1. Improve testing and monitoring of waterways to pinpoint pollution sources and measure results of programs;

2. Create policies that assign responsibility and regulate all significant point sources of polluted discharge equally and without exclusion;

3. Fund cleanup of Iowa’s dirty water

These three elements are vital because many local water utilities and Iowans who draw water independent of public utilities often lack the information they need to evaluate water quality and the tools required to remove pollution.

It has been suggested the Hogg and Corbett proposals would be advanced in exchange for DMWW dropping its suit. Iowa’s problem is much larger than what has been raised in the DMWW suit. Without all three above elements, Iowans may realize little benefit in the short term and we will fail to make meaningful progress in reducing Iowa’s agriculture pollution long term.

Let me be clear, I applaud Senator Hogg and Mayor Corbett for adding something constructive to consider. This type of productive dialogue stands in contrast to the political ad campaign the so-called Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, an organization co-chaired by Mr. Corbett and largely funded by the Iowa Farm Bureau, has been waging for much of this year. As of this month, this group has spent over $550,000 on television ads criticizing Des Moines Water Works for filing its water pollution case and personally attacking DMWW officials. I am hopeful Mr. Corbett will suspend his participation in the creation of attack ads and fully embrace the process of finding meaningful solutions.

I am optimistic. Iowans have a history of working together to solve difficult problems. It is possible the Corbett and Hogg proposals are the first signs consequential progress can be made curtailing agriculture water pollution. But, it is important we understand that spreading a few dollars around to make a lawsuit go away is of little consequence if we do nothing to stop agriculture water pollution at the source.

• Graham Gillette is chairman of the Des Moines Water Works Board of Trustees. Comments:


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