Thursday, September 10, 2015

Des Moines Water Works versus Dells Water Parks

Like millions of Americans we celebrated the last weekend of summer with a road trip on Labor Day weekend.  Our recent tradition has been a getaway with my sisters and our families for what we call “cousins vacation.”  This year our trip was to the water park capital of the world - Wisconsin Dells.  We had a great weekend of family, food, pools and water slides.  The pools were crowded with families all enjoying what was probably that last hot weekend of 2015. 

As I floated the lazy river and wave pools for hours, there were a few things I began to notice about the pools.   First, it was obvious the park works hard to keep everything spic and span, clean and safe. Probably the most telling sign was the eye reddening, skin irritating doses of chlorine in the water.  That smell of bleach water that assures us the water is safe and clean.    But there were also some mixed signals.  There was the glob of hair clinging around a drain, the chewing gum I stepped in wading into the wave pool, the kid in the inner tube next to me hacking up water back into the pool, and of course there’s always the youngsters like my nephew in water soaked swim diapers in the pool.  And I should not forget there were thousands of barefoot people walking hallways, hotel rooms, parking lots, pool lounges, and rest rooms and then walking right into pools.   Did I still feel safe in the water? – Yes, just like the thousands of others around me.

Being surrounded by this “clean” water it made me think of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against the three county drainage districts.  We all want and need safe, clean water, however, the rhetoric needs to be put in perspective.  The waterworks needs to bring the nitrates in their drinking water to the EPA’s 10 ppm (parts per million) standard established in 1992.    That’s a high standard when dealing with surface water from rivers, rather than sourcing drinking water from groundwater.  Accusations have been thrown around on who is responsible and what must be done to make it safer.  

Most people do not go to a pool or water park expecting clean, fresh water without the additional chlorine treatment.  Reasonable people understand that even though the water is pulled from common sources, extra treatment is needed to keep it safe because the amount of traffic and various contaminates that may make it unsafe.  A similar and realistic expectation needs to be made for the nitrates in the water flowing into the Des Moines Water Works.  There will always be a need for treatment of drinking water.  It may be adding chlorine, adjusting the alkalinity, changing fluoride concentrations, improving the hardness, or removing excess nitrates.   Even if no agriculture fertilizer was applied, there would still be a need for a nitrate removal system because of Iowa’s natural soil fertility and Midwest weather patterns. 

Thousands of people bring their families to Wisconsin Dells every summer to enjoy the water parks and pay absolutely no attention to the little things that add up to water quality.  They are reassured by that ever present chlorine smell.  Meanwhile, Iowa has thousands of farmers who are paying close attention to the little things they do every day and do their part to improve and preserve water quality in our rivers and streams.  Farmers are working hard following the plans outlined in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy to responsibly apply crop nutrients and control run off to improve Iowa’s streams and rivers.  Improvements on water quality are coming, but the ultimate results won’t happen immediately.  It will come over time as the efforts are multiplied across farms throughout Iowa and the most practical solutions are identified and shared.  Farmers need to share the successful stories to reassure Iowans of their water’s quality and safety.

It’s hard for many people to get past the rhetoric and scare tactics being used by the Des Moines Water Works, but my weekend at Wisconsin Dells showed me that most people are reasonable when it comes to their expectations of water.  Let’s move forward using that common sense.  Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a good place to start.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Do As I Say, Not As We Did

This summer our family had the opportunity to host a group of Danish farmers.  The bus load of men from across Denmark came to America to learn more about risk management, agricultural manufacturing, and production practices.  The group was a cross section of family farmers, most with livestock, a few with only crops, and a couple who were organic producers.  They had visited the Chicago Board of Trade, John Deere, Pine Lake Ethanol, and came to our farm as they wound down their trip.

After touring the farm, visiting the feedlots, checking out the corn crop, and taking self guided tours around the machine shed, we sat down for a barbecue.   Then we started to solve the world’s food problems over a cold one.  I had prepared myself to explain and justify the use and safety of biotechnology, but I quickly realized most of our visitors were bigger proponents than me.   “I feed GMO soybeans to my broilers (chickens).  I just can’t grow them myself.  Don’t do what we did.  The European Union ignored science and now we are stuck.”

He explained that they had pretty good soils as a whole, not like central Iowa, but generally very productive.   Denmark limits nitrogen to rates below the economic optimums.  In Europe it’s about 50% less than they used in 1985, plus farmers are restricted from using GMO seed.  While land prices and inputs are comparable in price, yields are limited.   He said they are competing in a world market, and the regulations put Denmark at a big disadvantage.   They had the research but followed the emotional argument.

He then asked, “Do people pay the real cost for organic milk and eggs in America?”  I really didn’t know how to respond, but luckily he continued, “Organic products are subsidized in grocery stores so they are cheaper than conventional milk and eggs.”  Again he reminded me that America shouldn’t do what Denmark had done.  They ignored the real consumer demand for the organic product, which is much lower at real prices.  

As we continued our discussion politics came up.  They had just had elections and with the various parties, the top vote getters were still forming a coalition for control.  “We’ve spent decades trying to get out from the control of government rule (a monarchy until 1849), but they keep adding more rules and laws.  We aren’t trusted.  Don’t do what we do.

I thought a lot about that last thought since then.  Our founders fled Europe for freedom, and it seems like ours keeps eroding away.   Our ag regulations keep growing all the time, and I am afraid we will do as they did, not as I say.