Why Environmental Groups are Suing the State of Iowa

by Maggie Tauranac

Published: 5/23/19, Last updated: 9/11/19

In March, a coalition of environmentalists sued the state of Iowa and several state agencies for denying Iowan citizens their right to clean and safe water.

Adam Mason grew up in Storm Lake, Iowa, near the Raccoon River, which provides drinking water to half a million people in the region. It is also a source of community and income, playing host to a recreational fishing industry and a number of tournaments. But in recent years Mason and his family won’t eat fish from the Raccoon anymore; the water quality has deteriorated to the extent that it’s no longer safe. This is thanks in part to another staple of the region: large-scale agricultural and livestock operations.

Holding Factory Farms Accountable

Large-scale farming of both crops and livestock is persistently a source of “runoff” that causes problems for surrounding air, soil and water. Iowa is the number one producer of both soy and corn in the United States, and produces one-third of the pork produced in this country, making it by far the top national producer of pork as well. Industrial scale soy and corn farming relies heavily on fertilizers and pesticides, and concentrated animal feeding operations (factory farms) produce a terrific amount of animal waste runoff – or manure that has overflowed from storage lagoons into waterways. These fertilizers and pesticides, as well as the animal waste, contain high levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients, which are destructive to habitats and unhealthy for humans, have made their way into Iowa’s water supplies.

Today, Adam Mason is the Policy Organizing Director for a community organizing group in Iowa called the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (or Iowa CCI). Together with legal assistance from Public Justice, Food & Water Watch and a larger legal team, Mason and his coalition are taking aim at Iowa’s natural resource and agricultural departments, two state environmental boards, and the commissioners responsible for overseeing the regulation of hog farms. The lawsuit is specific to Polk County, Iowa, which includes the city of Des Moines.

Iowa does have a program in place to reduce the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in surface water by 45 percent. This voluntary program is called the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, but according to Mason, only three percent of Iowa’s farmers are currently participating. The lawsuit, if successful, would put landmark mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, and a moratorium on all new hog farms and expansions to existing ones.

There is precedent for this lawsuit, according to the coalition, under Iowa’s Public Trust Doctrine. The doctrine was a condition of Iowa’s statehood, and holds Iowa’s navigable rivers as a public right. Presently, Iowa is putting corporate interests over those of Iowa’s residents, and the lawsuit seeks to correct this. “We believe we’re in a pitched battle over the role that the government should play as an institution that is made up of all of us, of we the people,” Mason says.

Iowa’s Water Quality

Iowa’s water is of infamously poor quality. In April of this year, a report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) showed that thousands of Iowans are drinking well water with levels of nitrate and coliform bacteria that are dangerous to human health. The EWG says that the well water (similarly to the Raccoon River) is being contaminated by upstream farms. Iowa has state laws saying individual wells aren’t required to be tested, so that means residents have been drinking contaminated water unknowingly. The report refers to well water rather than watershed water — which is what is covered by the lawsuit — but Mason says it’s all part of the larger problems facing Iowa and it has broadened the conversation about the current system of farming and the harm it can do. “Rural folks don’t like factory farms for a number of reasons: the air quality, the water quality, the detriments that they’ve brought to rural communities,” he says.

Rural folks don’t like factory farms for a number of reasons: the air quality, the water quality, the detriments that they've brought to rural communities.

Adam Mason

Policy Organizing Director, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement

But not everyone agrees with the story that rural residents are opposed to factory farms. The state and these environmental groups are in a battle of narratives. The CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association, Kirk Leeds, is quoted about the lawsuit in the Des Moines Register, saying that all lawsuits do “is divide rural and urban and causes everyone to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyer fees.” The statement pits urban communities against rural by implying that rural Iowans (or farmers) are the ones who would be harmed by regulations, since limiting their runoff would mean implementing more costly farming approaches. And the regulations would be in favor of urban residents and their water supplies.

But Adam Mason says rural communities, and farmers especially, are harmed by industrial agriculture and corporate consolidation. “This system of industrialized ag absolutely isn’t working for farmers on the ground, the folks who are trapped in this system of doing monocultured farming are going on four to five years now of commodity prices that are below the cost of production. They’re losing money trapped in this system, and more and more folks are starting to wake up to that.”

Fighting Industrial Agriculture With Policy Changes

Industrial Farming and Water Quality

There are farming systems that do not rely heavily on pesticides and fertilizers, and that produce meat without damaging local water systems. To encourage these types of production, the coalition proposes, farmers should be compensated or incentivized in ways that are healthy for ecosystems. This would give Iowa policies that protect both the land and the stewards of that land.

Brent Newell, a senior attorney with Public Justice who is providing legal advice to the coalition, says that there is need for policies that require reductions of nitrate and phosphorus. He says that farmers deserve a fair price for their labor, their work and for their contribution to healthy ecosystems. These are the same practices in farming that would help build soil health and sequester carbon in the long-term, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and slowing climate change. Furthermore, Newell – like Mason – sees these policies as providing the groundwork for rebuilding communities that are suffering, with farmers currently getting less than 15 cents for every dollar at the grocery store. The policies Iowa has now, such as the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, do not successfully achieve environmental protections, nor do they help or compensate farmers who are stuck in a corporate system in which they have little control.

Both Mason and Newell say they know the lawsuit will be a fight, and already the state defendants have filed a motion to have the case dismissed. “We’re trading blows right now,” Newell says.

In the end though, they’re optimistic. Mason says water is a unifying force, and one that bridges political ideologies. Everyone can get behind the need for universal access to clean water. “We’re seeing, again, more Iowans across the political spectrum kind of coming together around the issue of water… Folks aren’t giving up.”

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