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Lawmaker tangles with University of Iowa researchers on water quality
Email sent to two engineering unit directors about opinion piece on race and the environment
IOWA CITY -- University of Iowa faculty members said they were surprised by an email from an Eastern Iowa lawmaker who indicated that his support for their programs, or for tenure protection for faculty, was in jeopardy after an opinion piece written by a UI researcher about race and water quality.
“I have been supportive of academic freedom on campus, and even voted against eliminating tenure on college campuses,” Republican Rep. Chad Ingels, from Randalia in northeast Iowa, wrote in the March 26 email. “However, public comments like these make me reconsider my position.”
The email went to Witold Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center, with copies to Gabriele Villarini, a UI engineering professor and director of IIHR--Hydroscience & Engineering, and Rep. Holly Brink, R-Keokuk.
Ingels, who is vice chairman of the Iowa House Agriculture Committee, said he was angered by a March 26 opinion piece on the Civil Eats website by Chris Jones, an IIHR research engineer who also writes a blog on water quality.
The Civil Eats piece, which is adapted from one of Jones’ blog posts, talks about how low-income and minority Iowans are disproportionately impacted by poor water quality.
Jones focuses on Ottumwa, where 14 percent of the population is Latino and 5 percent is Black, he said. The city draws water from the Des Moines River, which has high levels of nitrate primarily from agriculture.
Ottumwa’s aging water treatment plant doesn’t have the capacity to remove nitrate and the quarry water the city uses to dilute the river water can have algae, Jones wrote.
It was Jones’ implication that farmers — largely older white men — are racist for not doing more to improve water quality that upset him, Ingels told The Gazette.
“That’s the way I took it,” Ingels said. “I didn’t like that it made me feel that way.”
The practices Iowa farmers use to grow crops and raise animals have evolved over time to help farmers stay in business and supply food to the nation, Ingels said.
Iowa farmers produce about 7.5 percent of the nation’s food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On his own farm, Ingels doesn’t till and plants cover crops -- practices shown to improve water quality.
“He focused it entirely on brown and Black communities,” Ingels said of Jones’ essay. “There are communities all over this state that are primarily Caucasian that have the same issues that may not be able to handle their wastewater. It’s a socioeconomic concern rather than a racial concern. I don’t think race needs to be brought into that.”
Ingels said in the email that Jones’ “race-baiting” could hurt the credibility of IIHR, an institute that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020, and make Republican lawmakers less likely to support water quality efforts.
In 2017, the Iowa Legislature threatened to eliminate state funding to the Iowa Flood Center likely because of misconceptions the unit also oversees water quality research done by Jones and other scientists. Most of that money was restored under a budget amendment that came after an outcry from communities that have benefited from the Flood Center’s flood modeling.
Krajewski replied to Ingels’ email the same day, thanking the lawmaker for voting against a bill to abolish tenure, which Krajewski said “allows for scientific discourse and debate of ideas and perspectives.”
He told Ingels that Jones “is an upstanding person who is very knowledgeable and passionate about water quality issues in Iowa.”
Jones, who has seen the email, said “it’s curious that I seem to have hurt this guy’s feelings while at the same time we have a metropolitan area of 600,000 people that’s looking for a new source of drinking water” -- referring to Des Moines, Ottumwa’s upstream neighbor that already has a nitrate removal facility and now is considering digging wells to ensure safe drinking water, the Associated Press has reported.
“How do you separate socioeconomic standing and race in the United States?” Jones asked. “We have a lot of immigrant labor working in the hog processing facilities, one of which is in Ottumwa. These things are pretty intertwined in my observation.”
Larry Weber, a UI engineering professor who has served on state and national water quality groups, also drew criticism from Ingels recently after talking about water quality on Iowa PBS’ “Iowa Press” show June 18.
In a three-part tweet June 19, Ingels said Weber “misled the public” by saying manure is washing off farm fields into streams and lakes. “Sure, we can do better on improving #water quality, but let's do it honestly,” Ingels said.
Manure usually is injected into the soil, where it breaks down into components, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, Ingels said in the tweet. While excess nutrients from manure and commercial fertilizer are ending up in Iowa waterways, it’s not raw manure, he told The Gazette.
“Manure going into your water sounds a lot worse that the components of nutrients and phosphorus going into your water,” he said, acknowledging he might be splitting hairs.
Weber said it appeared Ingels was trying to discredit the UI professor’s appearance on “Iowa Press.” “Our work is published, it’s fact-based and science-based,” he said.
Rather than needling each other on social media, Weber said, he’d be glad to have a conversation with Ingels about ways to improve water quality, such as digitizing manure management plans so mapping can be done to make sure manure isn’t being over applied.
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