Register editorials highlight Iowa’s water quality debate

Water Works Park in Des Moines.
Water Works Park in Des Moines.
KC McGinnis | August 4, 2015

A series of editorials published in the Des Moines Register has highlighted concerns over Iowa’s water quality.

The editorial exchange started by Dennis Keeney, former director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, begins with Keeney’s criticism of the “weak leadership” of figures like former governors Chet Culver and Tom Vilsack, who now serves as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Keeney cites these leaders and more as promoting an unsustainable, market-driven agricultural economy that is biologically incompatible with Iowa soil, inevitably leading to current high runoff rates.

“Midwest agriculture leaders chose to ignore the warning signs and pushed for more of the same,” Keeney wrote. “The point is that weak leadership on environmental issues crosses political lines. It responds not to the need of the residents of Iowa, but to the need to keep Iowa agriculture humming along on its pathway to industrial domination.”

Secretary Vilsack followed Keeney’s critique with a stern response, insisting that he made water quality a priority during his time as governor and continues to reach across party lines to improve water quality around the country. In 2003, Vilsack called for Iowa’s first Water Quality Summit in hopes of cleaning up Iowa’s impaired waters by 2010. Today, this list includes 725 lakes, streams and waterways, with water quality improvement plans written for 153.

On July 23, farmer and soil scientist Francis Thicke, along with Keeney, the Leopold Center’s Fred Kirschenmann and UNI Center for Energy and Environmental Education director Kamyar Enshayan responded to Vilsack’s editorial by criticizing Iowa’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

“Remedial practices are absolutely necessary to prevent nitrate loss to our rivers,” they wrote, “and widespread farmer participation will be necessary for significant progress.”

The group of researchers recommended adding more perennial crops to Iowa’s agricultural portfolio. These plants, like native prairie grasses, have roots that can prevent nitrate runoff year-round without exhausting soil.

The most recent contribution to the public discussion over water quality solutions came from Des Moines Water Works Board of Trustees chairman Graham Gillette, who strongly criticized Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy as a “voluntary pollution compliance scheme.” He recommended regulating all discharges into Iowa waterways and establishing a clean water fund to help drainage districts transition to water sustainable practices.

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