Water quality: Four conclusions, and one fear

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John Gilbert, guest columnist

As a conservation-minded farmer who’s been at this for longer than I care to admit, I keep thinking it shouldn’t be that hard to understand Iowa’s water quality issues. But I’m not sure.

I’d like to think I’m using best practices, but, honestly I can’t guarantee I’m not part of the problem.

From my farming experiences, work with soil conservation and our local watershed group, and listening to scientists explain their research, I’ve reached four conclusions, plus a fifth I fear is also true.

(1) This is not a simple issue. There are no easy answers, quick fixes or magic solutions. Searching for silver bullets and holy grails just distracts from the work that needs doing. For more than a hundred years thousands of people have made millions of decisions leading to the current conditions. Intertwined factors are the norm, so untangling cause and effect is not easy.

(2) We can always do more, where the “we” are the people on our farm in particular, farmers and landowners in general, and anyone else in Iowa using water. Those of us working on Iowa’s land know the recommendations (eliminate full-width tillage, use cover crops and more diverse rotations to help our soils hold more water; more nutrient management and basic conservation practices like waterways, terraces and buffers to remove excess surface water; and removing nutrients on field edges with wetlands and re-saturation).

For those not involved in land management, start by remembering three things: (a) if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem; (b) the Golden Rule of watersheds borrowed from Wendell Berry, “do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you”; and (c) water quality must be a determining factor in who we elect to all public positions.

(3) This is not an issue that can be put off. It is tempting to be defensive. We all take pride in our farming, so it’s hard not to be insulted when non-farmers blame us all, especially when we’ve been doing our best to be good stewards. We all hear the frequent commercials showing farmers being good stewards. But do we all live up to the stewardship being shown? It’s not fair for all farmers to share the blame, but unfortunately we must all contribute to the solution ...”all”, as in every farmer and landowner. Those featured in commercials are not enough.

But the problem isn’t all with farmers. Government and commodity leaders need to know their dithering, denying and obfuscating are sending a dangerous message. We’re saying to the rest of the world that we don’t have the resolve, the ability or the desire to solve complex problems. We’re admitting we lack the pride and self-respect to protect our basic resources. That message isn’t inviting to the kind of people and businesses we’d like as new Iowans. It’s hard to attract beneficial pollinators with fly and mosquito habitat.

Former Iowa governor and current US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is the first official to publicly recognize this problem in a recent speech when he warned Iowa there’d be “hell to pay” if water quality issues aren’t addressed soon.

(4) We’re dealing with a problem that’s bigger than nitrates in drinking water (although it gets most of the press). Our problem is bigger than the other nutrients blamed for the Gulf dead zone. Our water also has pathogens — often enough to limit recreational opportunities — silt and even pharmaceuticals, but the problem is even bigger ... even bigger than the insufficient way we look after our precious soils. Our water quality issues are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Our real problem is we haven’t learned how to look after our resources and assets.

This is a holdover from the time when there was always “more” over the next ridge, in the next hole, in the next frontier. We’ve run out of unexplored areas and undiscovered resources, but our attitudes haven’t caught up. Many resources can no longer be for the “owner” to exploit and plunder. They are needed for the common good. That’s certainly the case with water. The first step to change is recognizing there is a problem. The second is understanding it’s much easier to change rules than attitudes. (There’s an irony here that may be part of the problem. When it comes to natural, usable water, we have an embarrassment of riches. Much of the world — even a few miles west of the Missouri — can’t comprehend our problem because they can’t imagine having excess water.)

(5) The one I fear is true: we’re not going to make progress on water quality or soil conservation as long as we insist on full-throttle ag production. I know we’re being told we have to feed a gazillion more people by 2000 something. It’s a noble idea, but a mirage. If we bankrupt our soil and water feeding more mouths now, that just means more will suffer when we do exceed our ability to produce more. This has been the history of civilizations for more than 10,000 years.

Adopting a production-is-all-that-matters mentality means things like soil erosion and water pollution become acceptable. That is not viable. We’ve built a farming system that demands maximized production. And that’s the real problem. We’ve created structural impediments that guarantee trouble. From the farm bill to the tax code to the reliance on a couple crops, to the way our farms are set up, our agriculture demands all-out production. How do we change a structural problem? Not easily, unfortunately. The first step is to acknowledge that the problem is man-made and can be corrected. The problem with structural aspects of any business is they are — well, structural. Poured in concrete. Set in stone. Changing them is expensive, takes time and is generally quite painful.

The one aspect of Iowa’s water quality not mentioned so far is the “voluntary” approach taken in the nutrient reduction guidelines. “Voluntary” isn’t a few volunteering to change so others can continue their existing practices. Voluntary means we all determine what steps we can take, and in what order, and then carry through. Much vexation is being made about government dictating how we farm. We still have time to head off regulations, but not enough for more delays. We need to acknowledge we have problems with our current farming methods, and we’re the only ones who can fix them. We can only make a difference together.

• John Gilbert farms and dairies with other family members in Hardin County along Southfork, a tributary of the Iowa River.

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