Urgency is a matter of perception

The science is clear, and it is time for Iowa to act for clean water

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After massive rainfalls in 2008, one early morning in June, our fire chief updated Cedar Falls city staff and City Council members on the latest flood conditions; parts of the city were already flooded badly.

“The peak flood elevation is forecast to reach 6 feet higher than previously in the city’s history,” the fire chief said.

We also learned that we had only 24 hours to act to save downtown Cedar Falls.

An emergency was declared immediately: A command post was set up to coordinate all-city response, school buses lined up to transport hundreds of volunteer residents for sand bagging, businesses helped with dump trucks carrying sand, major rescue operations began in areas where residents were stranded, certain roads were closed to public. All other plans were put on hold. A massive mobilization effort saved our downtown during that flood.

Urgency is a matter of perception. In this case, public officials acted on science and evidence — National Weather Service data, a vast network monitoring stations, satellite and radar data, rainfall data, river gauges, and flood forecast modeling — to protect public safety. There was no arguing, no dithering. Action based on robust evidence.

Now, imagine if at that time a well-financed group ran many ads on radio, TV and newspapers all over the region, and had published opinion pieces in local newspapers and had placed guest experts on radio talk shows, floating stories that we don’t know for sure whether a flood is coming, let’s not overreact, and that all this talk of floods is a hoax.

Imagine if they suggested that we really did not need the National Weather Service, because it was too much government. What would happen if public officials fell for such falsehoods instead of acting based on evidence?

Similarly, for the past many decades, global agribusiness agents in Iowa have been working hard to make sure Iowa’s public officials and residents do not perceive and do not act on the urgency of polluted streams, the urgency of soil erosion and contaminated drinking water, or the urgency of Iowans well-being compromised by massive animal confinement operations, or by annual spraying of 35 million pounds of corn and bean pesticides.

They are working hard to tell Iowans that all is well, we do not need a strong DNR, or investment in Iowa’s soil and water protection. And yet, through math, ecology and health sciences, we have robust and overwhelming evidence of these realities, meaning — IOWANS ARE IN DANGER — much like the flood data that compelled Cedar Falls officials to perceive the emergency of flood and act immediately.

Clearly, state officials whose duty it is to protect Iowans are not perceiving Iowa’s situation as urgent, so devastation continues, even when we know a better Iowa is possible. If a foreign power had caused so much destruction in our state, we would send in the Marines.

But what if we did see land-degradation as an emergency, pivotal to our economy and future of our state? I imagine a command post would be set up immediately for coordinating a massive mobilization in Iowa. It probably would involve ecologists, hydrologists, landowners, farmers, cities, counties, public health officials and others to develop and enact policies that would incentivize and implement the best of what we already know from long-term robust scientific findings.

It would involve more four- to five-year crop rotation, integration of crop and livestock, more deep-rooting perennials, more biodiversity, more and wider stream buffers, less corn, far less corn fertilizer, far less pesticides, more cover crops, more small grains, more native Iowa prairie.

We finally would realize that we cannot allow Iowa’s soil and water to be degraded for the sake of foreign trade, and demand that we abandon the cheap-corn federal policies that have, in effect, incentivized water pollution and soil erosion.

Urgency is a matter of perception. To perceive and act on the emergency of Iowa’s land & water degradation, science and evidence must guide and inform policy decisions.

• Kamyar Enshayan is director of University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education and served on the Cedar Falls City Council

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