Manure from ag operations ruins waterways. When will Iowans get their fill of filthy water?

If a toddler’s diaper leaks at a public swimming pool, parents get their kids out of the water. Teenagers gag. Lifeguards recognize there’s a problem and respond by skimming, treating or even draining the water.

Contrast that with Iowa’s natural waterways, which are awash in animal manure, harmful chemicals from pesticides and other pollutants, mainly from farm field runoff. Visitors are apparently expected to just swim, fish, boat and recreate in them with a smile and a plugged nose. The contamination is even referred to as “nutrients,” a term that leaves the impression there is something healthful about it. And elected authorities do not take the problem seriously.

Iowa’s strategy has long been to trust farmers to do the right thing when it comes to reducing agricultural pollution of waterways. But the state’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2013, hasn’t changed things. There is no reason to think that the missing ingredient is more time.

The latest reminder is a report from American Rivers, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy nonprofit, which each year identifies the 10 most endangered waterways in the nation. This year the Raccoon River, which serves as a drinking water supply for more than 500,000 people in Des Moines, landed in ninth place on the list.

The group says waste from about 750 animal feeding operations in the river’s watershed “is spread on fields, often at rates that exceed the soil’s ability to absorb it.” The remaining manure runs into our waterways.

The ground can soak up only so much excrement. The question now: When are Iowans going to get their fill of it and demand changes?

The people of this state do not have to accept fishing in stinky streams, rafting down polluted rivers and contributing to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where excessive algae blooms deplete underwater oxygen levels. We should not have to fork over loads of money to clean our drinking water of nitrates that may increase the risk of ovarian, thyroid, kidney and bladder cancers. And we should not tolerate the collective shrug we too often get from state leaders.

Iowa’s agriculture secretary, Mike Naig, called the American Rivers report “a bit of propaganda” during a recent recording of Iowa PBS’ “Iowa Press.”

Then he added that familiar, well, propaganda about water quality that many of us have heard from politicians for as long as we can remember: “We are moving in the right direction.”

That is false.

When it comes to nitrogen in waterways, things have continued to get worse statewide for the past two decades, said Chris Jones, a research engineer at the University of Iowa’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering, originally named the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research. “The situation with the Raccoon River would be similar.”

For a voluntary nutrient reduction strategy to work, you need volunteers. Having only 4% of Iowa land in cover crops after eight years “is a kick in the crotch, let’s just be honest,” according to Jones.

An editorial writer asked him what Iowa should do. He outlined five ideas he said would be minimally disruptive to farmers and free to taxpayers:

Ban row crops in the two-year flood plain where fertilizers and pesticides are washed into waterways every other year.

Ban fall tillage, which increases soil erosion and nutrient loss and is not necessary for growing corn and soybeans.

Ban manure on snow and frozen ground. Existing rules about this are too weak, and the practice is “great for smelly snowball fights, really bad for our rivers,” Jones said.

Require farmers to adhere to Iowa State University’s fertilizer guidelines, which were put in place to prevent over-application but are not followed by many farmers.

Reformulate regulations for concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Hogs in confinements generate waste that must go somewhere.

“The reason we don’t do these things isn’t because they won’t work,” Jones wrote in a recent blog post. “It’s because there are a lot of cowards when it comes to Iowa water quality.”

That cowardice prevents politicians from imposing mandates on the agriculture industry. It prompts them to funnel more and more money to farmers to try to encourage responsible environmental practices.

And it is turning Iowa waterways into toilets.

— Des Moines Register, Iowa


A National Heritage Area in rural Nebraska is an opportunity, not a threat

Edward Dunn, the Perkins County GOP chairman and Grant city administrator, told a gathering of fellow Republicans this week in McCook to beware of the National Bio and Agro-defense Facility at Kansas State University.

The $1.25 billion lab is being built by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be the nation’s leading center for animal disease research. Dunn, who believes that the coronavirus leaked into the world from a lab in Wuhan, China, warned that the Kansas facility “will be vulnerable to a tornado, and diseases such as hoof-and-mouth, Ebola and mad cow could be spread by a storm,” the McCook Gazette reported.

Interesting theory lacking a factual basis.

Others at the meeting urged opposition to a proposed National Heritage Area designation for a large swath of north-central Kansas and south-central Nebraska. Kathy Wilmot of Beaver City, a former State Board of Education member, said the Heritage Area “opens the door to more regulations by other government agencies that will take away the rights of local landowners,” according to the Gazette.

Another interesting theory lacking factual basis.

But opposition to heritage areas, created under President Ronald Reagan and championed ever since by lawmakers of both parties, is growing among Republicans.

Gov. Pete Ricketts this month, joined by his economic development and agriculture directors, announced opposition to the push by the all-volunteer Kansas-Nebraska Heritage Area Partnership to seek a study of its idea. Ricketts, who incorrectly pinned the idea on the Willa Cather Foundation, whose land would be included in the much-larger area, said the designation would require a national environment policy plan that could act as “a significant barrier (to) infrastructure and other important projects.”

“This designation poses the risk of federal overreach in our communities,” the governor said.

It is correct that heritage area plans must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. But the track record of the nation’s 55 National Heritage Areas suggests that the governor is conjuring monsters under the bed while pandering to paranoia that the feds are coming to take away the good life, starting with Red Cloud.

It is illegal, under a 2009 act of Congress, for the government to use eminent domain to acquire land, impose local zoning changes or change water rights for heritage areas.

In dedicating the Illinois and Michigan Heritage Corridor, the nation’s first National Heritage Area, Reagan (hardly a wild-eyed environmentalist land-grabber) described the designation as creating a “new kind of national park” marrying preservation, conservation, recreation, education and economic development. The Government Accounting Office, 20 years into the program, found no effect on private land ownership.

The entire state of Tennessee is a National Heritage Area focused on Civil War sites. And yet the state has not been stymied by the designation. Rich States/Poor States, a product of the conservative ALEC-Laffer State Economic Competitiveness Index, in 2020 ranked Tennessee as having the nation’s eighth-best economic outlook. Nebraska was 36th.

The heritage areas are spread around the country, including in Nebraska neighbors Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and Iowa.

Iowa’s lawmakers celebrate their National Heritage Area — Silos and Smokestacks — established in 1996. Iowa’s two Republican senators are working to reauthorize it so the area “can continue to share the story of agriculture and highlight the rural communities that are and will continue to be the backbone of our country.” They say it’s a “great resource” that provides educational opportunities for both residents and tourists.

In Nebraska, the governor sees a similar designation as an “unquantifiable and unknowable risk” to the state and its economic prospects. Of course, we can never know the future, so it might be wise to reject every idea because something bad might come of it. Then again, doing nothing also comes with unquantifiable and unknowable risk.

But one certainty is that politicians who oppose the Kansas Nebraska Heritage Area will retain the support of people who think tornadoes will unleash mad cow disease.

— Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska


Lockdowns come with high costs

We are pleased that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is not choosing to close down the state in response to the latest wave of the coronavirus — a response she’s opted for during past surges. Shuttering large swaths of the economy is costly on many fronts, and has long-lasting impacts.

A new report released by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, authored by University of Michigan-Flint economist Chris Douglas, estimates that Michigan lost more than 64,000 jobs during the state’s second lockdown, starting last November. During the so-called “pause to save lives,” indoor dining was banned through Feb. 1. Other businesses, such as theaters and bowling alleys, as well as high schools and colleges were also closed for weeks.

Since this lockdown hit the hospitality industry especially hard, Douglas focused on the effects on restaurants and bars. In Michigan, an estimated 3,000 restaurants have closed since the beginning of the pandemic, taking with them thousands of jobs. Women and minorities are disproportionately impacted.

The study found Michigan’s job losses were much steeper than neighboring states, thanks in large part to its tight restrictions. Jobs at eateries and bars fell 23% from October 2020 to January 2021, according to the report — a direct result of the shutdown order.

These findings mirror an earlier report from the Anderson Economic Group, which examined the economic hit following the second lockdown. That report found the leisure and hospitality industries lost nearly 60,000 jobs between November and December, yet the retail industry, which was allowed to remain open, saw an increase of jobs during that time frame.

Other Midwest states, including Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana, that avoided bans on indoor dining experienced much smaller industry employment losses of 5% or less.

“We can clearly see that the costs of the shutdowns have been devastating,” said Douglas in a statement. “Unfortunately, the shutdown did not appear to provide any noticeable benefits that could justify the massive costs to the jobs and livelihoods of Michigan’s citizens.”

Douglas also took a look at the data surrounding the effectiveness of the lockdowns on preventing deaths from the virus. He found “little statistical relationship between lockdown severity and declining COVID-19 deaths.” Other neighboring states fared about the same as Michigan in terms of virus cases, even though they had much looser mandates in place.

This meshes with a recent Associated Press report that found similar COVID outcomes in Florida and California, despite disparate strategies for responding to the virus.

Yet Douglas identified a strong statistical link between shutdowns and unemployment.

In his conclusion, Douglas writes: “Economic shutdowns provide massive, concentrated costs on those businesses and individuals impacted by these restrictions. Many businesses who were mandated to close will never reopen. Many individuals who worked in the affected industries consequently will have a difficult time finding a new job.”

Governors like Whitmer want to appear they are being proactive in fighting COVID, but they must take the evidence into account to ensure they aren’t doing more harm than good.

— Detroit News

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