Why we're suing Iowa over its failure to protect our water
In early 2018 the Iowa Legislature took a step in addressing Iowa's water quality with a plan to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels by 45 percent.
We all have deep connections to water. But Iowa lawmakers have taken our water for granted for too long.
Our rivers, lakes, and streams connect us to stories of our past, and provide us water for drinking, cooking and bathing. They are also places where people come together to recreate, fish, and swim.
Our waters used to run clear and teem with wildlife, but that’s not the case any longer. Instead, people in our communities think twice before jumping in or grabbing a glass from the tap, and it’s largely because industrial livestock operations have used and abused them freely as a dumping ground for massive amounts of animal waste.
Under the Public Trust Doctrine — a law that has been on the books since before Iowa was a state — it is the right of everyone to be able to use and enjoy the navigable waters of Iowa, not just factory farms. And it’s the job of the state to protect this right. The state isn’t doing its job.
That’s why members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Food & Water Watch and Public Justice have joined together to file a lawsuit demanding the state act in the best interest of this public trust.
While there is a well-known, statewide water crisis in Iowa, our lawsuit covers the water crisis here in Des Moines, in Polk County: the Raccoon River. The Raccoon River is the source of drinking water for 500,000 people. It is lined with parks and canoe put-ins. And it is contaminated with nitrates and toxins from cyanobacteria, thanks to factory farms.
We’ve heard from a mother who’d like to take her kids canoeing, but she’s not sure the waters are safe. We’ve heard from kayakers who don’t go out on the water any more because they are afraid of the pollution. We are losing a connection to the land and water that we share.
We’re tired of being told that our interests – our drinking water, our health, our enjoyment of public waters – must be compromised or balanced with those industries willing to destroy our lives for profit. It’s time for people who care about the water in Iowa to come together and hold our elected officials accountable.
It’s no secret that the scales of power in our state have been out of balance for a while. Iowa’s decision makers prioritize the profits of corporate agribusinesses and the factory farm industry, instead of thinking outside of the box to protect the public’s use of water. We want to change that.
Despite having more than 750 impaired waterways, Iowa doesn’t have sufficient protections to keep our water clean. We need mandatory — not voluntary — measures. Much like a kid with a dirty room, it’s rare for an industry to voluntarily change its ways. We need to say yes to clean water and no to more factory farms.
Time is of the essence. Scientists report that as temperatures and rainfall in Iowa increase, so too will toxic blue green algae in the Raccoon River. It’s there now, and it will get worse.
We need a mandatory plan to get Iowa’s water back on track for the public good, and for our future. We already know what management practices will work to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and some of those practices also help reduce greenhouse gases.
There’s too much at stake to bet on voluntary practices. We want to force elected officials to think about a food and farm system that works for farmers, workers, eaters and the environment, not just industrial interests.
This is our water. If we do this right, we will be able to clean up our rivers and water – for us, for our kids and our grandkids.
The state must uphold its promise to the people of Iowa. It must start now.
— Wenonah Hauter is executive director of the national advocacy organization Food & Water Watch and author of "Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America."
Hugh Espey is executive director of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement.