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Divided by Water





Ambi               Walking through grass (Becca: Let’s head that way. Follow the yellow grass.)


Mark               Becca Meerdink is the Watershed Coordinator for Sioux and Plymouth Counties. Prompted by a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against Calhoun, Buena Vista, and Sac counties, I visited with her to learn about the water issues Iowans are facing.            


                        In the rain, we walked through the Sandy Hollow Recreation Area, hoping to find an approach to the West Branch of the Floyd River that runs through.


Land abutting the West Branch of the Floyd River put in CRP

  Becca              On the other side of the property, there’s some brand new CRP that’s gone in – Conservation Reserve Program. If you have acres that aren’t producing as they should, you can place it into the CRP program for up to 10 or 15 years and receive a rental payment based on your soil type, to keep it in permanent vegetation, in grass. The best part of it is, though, you have living tall grasses, native plants, so big blue stem, little blue stem, sideoats grama, maybe some flowers, and they’re holding the soil in place.


Mark               The grasses had not yet stabilized the banks of the West Branch, which had cut steep, black walls, carrying the sedement downriver, and preventing us from reaching the river and testing its water. The loss of soil is one of Becca’s many concerns, and an important concern for Iowa, which is why we have programs like CRP. We have also, as Iowans and Americans, set aside money for operators to build terraces, filter strips, and grass waterways in their fields, to plant cover crops and to implement practices such as no-till and low disturbance manure injection, helping to conserve not only soil, but the nitrates and phosphates that are applied to that soil, consequently protecting our waterways from becoming polluted. It’s an effort that recognizes everyone’s interests – those who want to make a profit farming and those who rely upon the water downstream.

The Des Moines Water Works are arguing that this effort is not enough, and that the relationship between the producers upstream and the consumers downstream is out of whack.


Bill                   We believe

Mark               Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works.

Bill                   that the polluters, the producers, who are discharging what we view as illegal amounts of nitrate concentrations into our water should be responsible for cleaning it up.


Mark               The Clean Water Act limits the number of nitrates allowed into drinking water at 10 miligram per liter. The water in the Racoon River, which the Water Works supplies to the Des Moines metropolitan area, regularly exceeds this limit, often doubling it.


Bill                   And so we believe that accommodation should happen through the market, it hasn’t happened through the market. What’s happening is that the cost of industrial agriculture is being pushed to our consumers, and that’s what is really at the heart of our litigation and the heart of our concerns.


Mark               Because water flows so broadly, passing through indeterminate properties, soils, etc., finding a specific source of pollution is an obstacle to much litigation using the Clean Water Act. The Water Works specifically identifies drainage districts in Calhoun, Buena Vista, and Sac counties as the point source polluters  - making an analogy between the tiling, or pipes, draining the fields with the pipes manufacturers use for wastewater, which are regulated because the source of that water is definable.


Bill                   But if you have a farm and tile it, really short circuiting nature’s ability to remove nitrogen and other pollutants like glyphosate or atrazine, that’s unregulated in the state. That’s a problem, and it’s a problem that’s catching up.


Corn growing through a standing cover crop.

  Mark               The conservation programs that Becca connects producers to in Sioux and Plymouth County have been very popular, the demand sometimes outstripping the money that has been set aside. The counties named in the suit have more tiling, more rain, than those here in northwest Iowa, and so the issue is framed differently. But, the concerns are the same. Many of our rivers and waterways, including Perry Creek, the Floyd River, Big Sioux River, and the Missouri River have been declared impaired by the DNR. Farther downstream, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico was nearly 6 and a half thousand square miles last August.


                        I’m reminded of a passage in Curtis Harnack’s memoir, “The Attic.” Hanack, who grew up on a farm in northwest Iowa, is returning by bus. Seated next to an Amish boy, he talks about his old ways of farming, relating to the young fellows current livelihood. But the boy then points out that all of the windmills are in disrepair. He is shocked. How could the mechanism that supplies water be neglected. Harnack says some water is now pumped electronically, but that most of water is now piped in. The groundwater, he says, has been poisoned.



Becca Meerdink standing above the West Branch of the Floyd River

  Becca              We all live in a watershed. I live in my project area—that was kind of a goal of mine—so that it’s personal.  Water quality is personal. It’s something that impacts us all. We kind of take if for granted that the water that flows out of our tap is safe.


Mark               Bill Stowe will be speaking at the First Unitarian Church in Sioux City this evening. Seating is limited. If you would like to go, reserve a seat by calling 712-389-0841. Or email nwiasierragroup@gmail.com.


For Siouxland Public Media, I’m Mark Munger

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