Iowa Agriculture Secretary Calls American Rivers Endangered Rivers Report “Propaganda”

Via Flickr

Maxwell Bernstein | April 16, 2021

In a recording of Iowa PBS’s “Iowa Press” Mike Naig, the Iowa Agriculture Secretary, labeled the American Rivers choice for placing the Racoon River on the Endangered Rivers List as “propaganda,” according to Iowa Capital Dispatch.

“That so-called report was a bit of propaganda, I think,” Naig said. “It was obviously a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization. They can go out and say what they want to, but what they talked about related to Iowa is not based in fact.”

In an interview with the Iowa Capital Dispatch, Des Moines Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan said that the designation for the Raccoon River should not have come as a surprise. “It is clear, given the ammonia, phosphorus, and thousands of pounds of nitrogen that flow past our treatment plant, that adding any more nutrients to our watershed without addressing the water quality issues is going to lead to catastrophe,” Ted Corrigan said. 

Environmental groups suing for Raccoon River water quality

The Raccoon River in Des Moines (Michael Leland on flickr).

Julia Poska| April 11, 2019

Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Iowa late last month over degraded water in the Raccoon River, a drinking water source for 500,000 people.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch are suing the Iowa Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture and  two state environmental boards, according to the Des Moines Register. They are seeking a ban on building or expanding animal feeding operations in the Raccoon River watershed until nutrient reduction compliance for farmers becomes mandatory.

“There’s too much at stake to bet on voluntary practices,” the plaintiffs wrote in an op-ed for the Register. “We want to force elected officials to think about a food and farm system that works for farmers, workers, eaters and the environment, not just industrial interests.”

Runoff of fertilizer and manure from farms contributes to harmful algae blooms, which  leech toxins into local waters and create a lifeless Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  The environmental groups say the state has failed to uphold the “Public Trust Doctrine,”  which states that the government must protect certain natural resources for public uses, like drinking and recreation. As of now, tried-and-true nutrient reduction strategies like planting cover crops are incentivized but not mandated for farmers.

Others, like the Iowa Soybean Association CEO and the Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, told the Register the “potentially divisive” lawsuit disappointed them. For many, this case recalls the 2015 Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit against drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, which attempted to force compliance with federal clean-water standards for “point-source” polluters but was ultimately dismissed.


Iowa awarded $5M+ for water quality improvement projects



Nick Fetty | January 15, 2015

The federal government has awarded more than $5 million as part of a conservation project that aims to clean up waterways in the Hawkeye State.

The state of Iowa will receive $3.5 million for the project while the city of Cedar Rapids will get $2.1 million. The funding is part of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s $370 million Regional Conservation Partnership Program. An additional $400 million is expected to be leveraged by other groups participating in the program. The program aims to “cut down on fertilizer runoff, expand bird nesting areas, and restore native grasslands” in an effort to improve water quality across the country.

This project brings together a wide variety of partners from private companies to universities to local and tribal governments and gives these entities the opportunity to develop their own unique plans. In addition to the conservation efforts, this program is also expected to create jobs.

“This is an entirely new approach to conservation efforts,” Vilsack said in a press release. “These partnerships empower communities to set priorities and lead the way on conservation efforts important for their region. They also encourage private sector investment so we can make an impact that’s well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own.”

This funding comes on the heels of announcement by Des Moines Water Works to pursue a lawsuit against three Iowa counties for failing to manage nitrate levels in the Raccoon River.

State could face possible lawsuit for water quality issues

Des Moines Water Works utilizes the Des Moines River (pictured) and the Raccoon Rivers as its two main water sources. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)
The Des Moines Water Works utilizes the Des Moines River (pictured) and the Raccoon River as its two main water sources. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 6, 2015

The Des Moines Water Works – Iowa’s largest water utility – is considering bringing a lawsuit against the state challenging the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Last month an unusually high surge of nitrate levels in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers forced officials with the Des Moines Water Works to activate its nitrate removal facility which costs roughly $7,000 per day to operate. These costs have been passed on to the Des Moines Water Works’ more than a quarter of a million customers. High nitrate levels that go untreated can lead to multiple health complications such as blue baby syndrome as well as various cancers and miscarriages.

Bill Stowe – CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works – has been critical of state’s voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy. In an editorial he wrote for the Des Moines Register in October 2014, Stowe stated: “Until industrial agriculture is no longer exempt from regulations needed to protect water quality, we will continue to see water quality degrade and our consumers will continue to pay.”

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy “is voluntary for farmers [and] calls for a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution leaving the state.” Critics of the strategy say that the voluntary approach has been ineffective in improving Iowa’s water quality.

The Des Moines Water Works board of directors is scheduled to meet Thursday and a decision on whether to bring legal action against the state may be discussed at that meeting.

USGS study finds waterways have high levels of neonicotinoid in Iowa, Midwest

Nick Fetty | July 24, 2014

The Raccoon River near Water Works Park in Des Moines. Photo by Carl Wycoff; Flickr
The Raccoon River near Water Works Park in Des Moines.
Photo by Carl Wycoff; Flickr

A new study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) finds that waterways in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest are experiencing particularly high levels of an insecticide known as neonicotinoid.

Farmers and gardeners use neonicotinoids – or neonics – because their effectiveness against a whole range of pests. However, the insecticide has been linked to decreased bee populations as well as a fall in the number of certain prairie bird species.

Neonics – which are chemically similar to nicotine – disolve in water quickly which means they’re susceptible to running off fields and polluting rivers, streams, and other waterways. A 2013 Dutch report found that imidacloprid – one of the chemicals in neonicotinoid – had harmful effects on “a wide range of non-target species.” Similarly, a 2014 Canadian study found neonics to be detrimental on wetland ecosystems.

The use of clothianidin – another chemical found in neonicotinoid – on corn in Iowa nearly doubled from 2011 to 2013. In 2013 the Iowa DNR released a 114-page report examining polluted waterways throughout the state.

Nitrates often released back into rivers

Photo via Jason Mrachina; Flickr
Des Moines cityscape. Photo via Jason Mrachina; Flickr

According to the Des Moines Register, Des Moines’ nitrate removal facility was responsible for dumping approximately 13,500 pounds of the contaminant into the Raccoon River last year.

Nitrates can be detrimental to human health if consumed in high enough quantities, which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires drinking water to be monitored for the compound. However, once nitrates are removed from the drinking water, they are often released back into Iowa’s waterways.

The Des Moines location is not alone in this practice. The majority of Iowa’s other 15 nitrate removal facilities follow the same routine, and many do not monitor what quantity of nitrate they are releasing.

Although this practice is completely legal, it has serious environmental ramifications. The Raccoon River is part of the Mississippi River watershed, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Midwest fertilizer runoff from the watershed, high in nitrates, is largely responsible for the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone. Nitrate levels in the Gulf’s water allow algal blooms to thrive, which in turn leads to low oxygen levels that are deadly for many aquatic species.

The future is not completely bleak; progress is being made towards preventing the nitrates from reaching water systems in the first place. Farmers and researchers are collaborating to explore and advance environmentally sustainable agricultural practices.

ISU professor testing sustainable agricultural practices

Nick Fetty | June 14, 2014

Corn field in Black Hawk County, Iowa. Photo via PARSHOTAM LAL TANDON; Flickr
Corn field in Black Hawk County, Iowa.

Iowa State University agronomy professor Matthew Liebman has been experimenting with crop rotation as a means of reducing waterway-polluting fertilizer usage, according to a recent article in National Geographic.

Liebman used a three- and four-crop rotation – consisting mostly of corn, soy, oats, and alfalfa – across 22 acres. The study concluded that crop rotation not only reduced nitrogen levels – a byproduct of fertilizers that pollute waterways – but also produced higher corn yields. These pollutants contribute to contamination in the Mississippi River which has lead to a virtual organic “dead zone” where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Iowa’s Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers has seen record high nitrate levels in recent years. Iowa corn farmers produced 2.2 billion bushels across 13.1 million acres in 2013 which is expected to rise to 2.4 billion bushels across 13.6 million acres.

“Hog Wild: Factory Farms are Poisoning Iowa’s Drinking Water”

Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary; Flickr

Ted Genoways goes into an in-depth analysis concerning the issues of farm runoff polluting Iowa’s drinking water.

“Millions of pigs are crammed into overcrowded barns all across the state, being fattened for slaughter while breeding superbugs—all to feed China’s growing appetite for Spam”

Follow this link to read the full story via On Earth. 

On the Radio: Des Moines Water Works Safety Measures

Photo by w4nd3rl0st (InspiredinDesMoines); Flickr

This week’s On the Radio segment covers Des Moines’ actions in meeting the high nitrate levels in their river water. Continue reading for the transcript,  or listen to the audio here: Continue reading