Guest Columnist

Iowa family farmers depend on clean water

Iowa is failing to live up to that duty, and Iowa farmers and rural residents are paying the price

A water control tile line is installed along a new saturated buffer off of Highway 13 in Marion on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2
A water control tile line is installed along a new saturated buffer off of Highway 13 in Marion on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

In a case being heard this week by the Supreme Court of Iowa, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch vs. State of Iowa, farmers and rural residents from across Iowa will share the many harms inflicted upon them and their livelihoods by factory farm polluters. These Iowans are our neighbors and friends, and they have experienced firsthand the devastating health, environmental and economic impacts of factory farm pollution.

While the case covers a small segment of the Raccoon River, the statewide water crisis spurred by Iowa’s increasingly concentrated industrial agriculture system impairs more than 760 Iowa waterways and impacts every person in the state.

Iowans have a right to clean water, and the state has a duty to protect that right. But Iowa is failing to live up to that duty, and Iowa farmers and rural residents are paying the price. Instead of providing minimal regulatory requirements or a meaningful incentive structure, the state exempts agricultural sources and makes pollution controls of nitrogen and phosphorus voluntary.

The family farmers represented by Iowa Farmers Union and Farm Aid share a commitment to acting as responsible stewards of the land and water resources entrusted to them by previous generations, and caring for those resources on behalf of future generations of farm families. Iowa farmers and rural residents rely on clean water for their livelihoods and the health of their families and their communities.

While independent family farmers take on the effort and expense of protecting the soil, groundwater and waterways connected to their farms in order to be good stewards and good neighbors, corporate polluters — whose first priority is their financial bottom line — are free to flout the voluntary measures that, if enforced, could prevent this relentless destruction of Iowa’s waterways.

Iowa’s corporate hog and chicken factory farms discharge 10 billion gallons of liquid manure every year to Iowa farm fields. This ultimately ends up in Iowa’s groundwater and waterways, along with the synthetic nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizer upon which the industrial model that now dominates Iowa’s agriculture depends.

Iowa’s waterways are an essential source of drinking water, recreation and food production, and they feed into the larger ecosystem beyond our state borders. Yet, the state of Iowa has failed in its duty to protect the public trust water resources for its citizens. The state’s approach to reducing nutrient pollution is underfunded, completely voluntary and unregulated.

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Clean water is not the concern of industrial agriculture. But it will benefit Iowa farmers and all people who live in Iowa, which is why Iowa Farmers Union and Farm Aid stand with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement in their bold and brave case against the state. The time is now for Iowa to create and enforce a reasonable set of regulations for factory farms to ensure the purity and safety of its water. It is essential for the state to prioritize its people first, not corporate interests.

Carolyn Mugar is executive director of Farm Aid. carolyn@farmaid.org. Aaron Lehman is a fifth-generation farmer from rural Polk County and president of the Iowa Farmers Union. alehman@iowafarmersunion.org

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