FAIRFIELD — A statewide conference Thursday brought water, soil and Iowa experts together to talk about tackling a problem trickling through the state — impaired waters.
Iowa's Department of Natural Resources lists 608 bodies of water as "impaired." Environmentalists present at the conference have 750 listed, more than half the waterways in the state. That means a lot of things, but some of the most common problems putting waters on the DNR's list are high levels of bacteria, such as E. Coli, heavy turbidity from eroded soil and high pH levels from manures.
To the people organizing the conference, those impaired waterways represent a philosophical battle in Iowa's future. The three people behind the wheel for the event were Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy, Southeast Iowa Food Hub's Barb Stone and Blue Planet Groupe CEO Merlin Yockstick. Other involved groups include the American Sustainable Business Council, the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, Americorps Green Iowa and the Iowa Sierra Club.
The keynote speaker John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri, dove into the philosophy to start the conference.
"A preoccupation with economic development will destroy the livability of communities, but the livability of communities will create the economic means of sustainable economic development," Ikerd said.
Ikerd's speech painted a frightful picture of Iowa's economic landscape. To summarize: big agribusiness extracts wealth from farmers and rural communities, sending it to massive multinational companies hidden away in hedge funds and even bigger parent companies.
The young workers whom so many Iowa leaders, including many in Burlington, seek are neglecting smaller communities to instead find much higher quality of life in big cities. With wealth and people fleeing rural towns, quality of life only worsens in smaller towns.
And this period of American history, which Ikerd argued ought to be a "rural renaissance," has instead brought a "rural ghetto."
The impaired waters, he said, is a symptom of the multinational companies "colonizing rural communities." It's a symptom that needs solving.
"If we want livable rural communities, then we are going to have to clean up the water," Ikerd said.
His answer to the problem? Regulation. It's our capitalist system that's dirtying our waters, so it will have to be a regulatory government system that cleans them up.
But the regulations need to come from the bottom up, Ikerd said. Those being regulated, in this case farmers, need to realize change is in their best interest and "consent to be regulated" for the rules to ever work, he argued.
Following Ikerd, panelists discussed possible regulations and the process that are actively polluting waters. Discussions covered everything from cover crops to pig poop.
Most speaking at the conference wanted to talk about nutrient pollution. Susan Heathcote, the water program director of the Iowa Environmental Council, defined the term as "nutrients in fertilizers, nutrients that come from human waste and animal waste" and said nutrient pollution is "pervasive across the state of Iowa."
Nitrates specifically seem to be a problem. A test of nitrate level in the Missouri River found that 70 percent of the river's nitrate originated from Iowa, reported one speaker, Iowa Flood Center Research Engineer Christopher Jones.
Several panelists agreed on a point: it's Iowa's near-total dependence on growing corn and soybeans through "drained landscapes" that's causing much of the problem, and it's a problem that's been engineered into existence by such large-scale agriculture.
"We've engineered a system that's just tailor-made to deliver nitrates to our streams, whether or not we're managing them correctly," Jones said.
Liz Garst, a farmer and Iowa Environmental Council member, opened her speech by saying Iowa has lost half its farmable soil and half the necessary organic matter in its remaining soil. Farmers specifically aren't the problem, but farmers who don't understand their soil are, she said.
Ikerd, in a point that earned applause from the crowd, ended his speech with a personal challenge.
"I think the rural renaissance is still there, but I think it's going to be up to the people within communities to make that happen. It's up to the people at the local level to start doing things and making examples that will change the public opinion and start building rural communities."
This conference was intended to be the first of many more. Organizers hope to hold them throughout the state with involvement from locals.