In Iowa, a tale of politics, power, and contaminated water

By Keith Schneider

IOWA CITY, IOWA – Here in the heart of US farm country, the wretched quality of Iowa waterways is a well-known lament. Farm fields laden with synthetic fertilizers and manure produce bounties of over 2 billion bushels of corn each year, but those same fields also produce a torrent of run-off that contaminates virtually every mile of the state’s streams and rivers and every acre of lakes and ponds.

For Iowa’s farm sector and its powerful political allies, the dire public and environmental consequences are perhaps unfortunate, but acceptable, outcomes of modern, large-scale agriculture – and, importantly, a topic best kept out of the spotlight.

Advocates for solutions to farm-related water contamination recently found out just how difficult it can be to try to shine a light on the problems. Over the last few months, a campaign of political bullying, academic intimidation, and information repression has roiled the state, offering a rare and vivid illustration of the power the agricultural industry can wield to silence challengers and to evade responsibility for it mammoth waste stream.

“It’s not working for Iowans,” said David Cwiertney, director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa. “We’re not changing behavior in agriculture. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the damage we’re causing to people here in Iowa, to water quality impacts.”

The Iowa saga began in March when two senior Republican state lawmakers decided a state water quality researcher, who was tracking and mapping water quality problems and writing a blog about agriculture’s culpability, was getting a little too much attention.

Sen. Dan Zumbach, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Sen. Tom Shipley, chair of the Senate Ethics Committee, reportedly told a lobbyist for the University of Iowa that they wanted to silence the researcher’s widely read, university-sponsored blog because of its aggressive reporting on farm-related water contamination. [cg1] The author of the blog was Chris Jones, a 62-year-old chemist and research engineer at the University of Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research (IIHR).

Jones warned in his blog that strategies to reduce harmful run-off of farm fertilizers and other nutrients were not effective. As head of the Iowa Water Quality Information System since 2015, Jones backed his warnings with data; data he said made it clear that the state’s increasingly intensive industrial farm practices were pouring more nutrients into Iowa’s streams and rivers and water pollution was getting worse.

Within days of the push from the lawmakers, university administrators shut down Jones’ blog and he resigned. Weeks later the state legislature voted to defund the monitoring network Jones led.