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Troubled Waters: Can Iowa Fix Its Water Quality Crisis?

by Diane Rosenberg | Executive Director

“When you kill off part of an ocean 2000 miles away you know you’re not doing something right.”

Dr. Chris Jones doesn’t mince words when he writes about Iowa’s abysmal water quality, and he didn’t mince words during the Southeast Iowa Sierra Club’s quarterly meeting, Iowa’s Troubled Waters. The July 20 event was aptly held at Lake Darling, which continues to experience water pollution even after its $1.6 million dollars renovation.

Dr. Jones addressed the current state of the Iowa’s waterways, including a historical perspective of what led to Iowa’s deteriorated waterways, and provided several recommendations for water quality improvement.

He addressed issues of scale “that we never want to talk about.” Regulations don’t come close to protecting Iowa from its 25 million hogs, 80 million laying chickens, 4 million beef cattle and other factory farmed livestock, he said. “We should not be indemnifying this system, and if we do, we should have some say in how it is operated.”

“We cannot bring ourselves to admit we have a mass balance problem,” he continued, meaning 25-50% more nitrogen is applied to fields than what a crop can use. 32% of the surplus makes it into our streams, he says. “We want to sell nitrogen in this state, right? We sell billions of dollars of nitrogen.”

Don Cline, a member of Friends of Lake Darling and former DNR Fisheries Biologist, also spoke laying out the history of Lake Darling, its challenges, and the 10-year renovation effort. And Dr. John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri, Columbia and JFAN Board Member kicked off the presentations with “Clear Water – the Lifeblood of Livable Communities.”

JFAN recorded “Iowa’s Troubled Waters” and you can watch the entire meeting or Dr. Jones’ individual presentation.

Dr. Jones covered a lot of ground in his compelling talk. Here are some tidbits from his presentation:

• Before Europeans came to Iowa, the state was 20% wetland, approximately 1% oak savannah, and 70% prairie. Today, 70-75% of Iowa is in crops. Less than 1% of prairie (think deep roots) remain.

• Clay tiles were introduced in the 1860’s – 1910’s, an underground piping system that dries out Iowa’s wet soil to make it more productive for growing crops. The tiles drain excess surface water into drainage ditches, which over the years developed into thousands of miles of Iowa streams. Tile lines are the primary vehicles delivering nitrogen and phosphorus into streams.

• From the 1930s – 1975, meandering creeks were engineered into straight streams, energizing the water and increasing flow speed. This led to significant stream erosion. [Flash floods are a result of stream straightening.]

• Farms transformed from diversified crops to predominately corn and beans. A slide compared a 1941 crop map illustrating a patchwork of five crops, pasture, marsh or wetland, and idle land with a 1975 map of primarily corn and soy.

• Iowa is part of a 31-state watershed that drains into the Mississippi River, but it’s a significant contributor to the Gulf’s dead zone. With only 4.5% of the land and 6% of the water flowing into the Mississippi River, Iowa nonetheless contributes 29% of the nitrogen winding up in the Gulf. “This dead zone, it’s our problem, we own it, right? We have an obligation to other people in this country to clean up our act,” said Dr. Jones

Northeast Iowa is the only part of the state with any biological integrity left he says, and that the state should “pull out all the stops” to protect it from further damage.

Dr. Jones provided five recommendations to improve water quality, including overhauling manure management plans, which he said are 30 years out of date.

His ending remark drew applause, “Will we ever design a system around human nutrition?”

Don Cline followed, providing a brief history of Lake Darling and addressing one of its biggest problems – the watershed to lake ratio. The lake is comprised of 302 acres, but the watershed is 12,490 acres – a 41:1 ratio. Cline said that a 20:1 ratio is works better by keeping a lake full of water but not full of sediment.

The 10-year renovation project involved 83% of the landowners signing up for various conservation practices for a total of 161 projects. Twenty-seven ponds were built around the lake to reduce sediment and improve marine life by filtering water draining from the watershed into the lake.

The project is considered a partial success with a 95% reduction in sediment and a 4.5-foot level of water clarity.

The ponds, however, do not filter out nitrogen and phosphorus, so safe swimming remains a problem. Lake Darling often has DNR swimming advisories for high levels of E.coli and sometimes microsystin, a blue-green algae that is toxic enough to kill dogs.

At the end of the meeting, Sierra Club member Diana Krystofiak introduced a newly forming Jefferson County Water Quality Initiative, which will develop projects to improve local waterways. Anyone interested in learning more and getting involved can contact Diana at

You can watch the entire Sierra Club meeting here including a presentation of several environmental awards. A recording of Dr. Jones’s individual presentation is here. His powerpoint presentation can be viewed here.


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