One nation, underinformed (and one state underwater)

We’ve been slow to report on the flooding that has turned Iowa, golden icon of the Corn Belt, into an underwater nightmare. If I may speak for the group, it’s just pretty damn overwhelming. As of this writing, some 36,000 Iowans have been evacuated from their homes; according to Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, one third of the state was underwater this week. One third! Reuters reports that the flooded area includes 20% of the state’s grain acres.

Amidst all the mainstream media coverage of the flooding — which generally revolves around individual stories of heroism or tragedy, or pets trapped in attics — a few reporters have ventured to ask broader questions about the impacts of the flood. I don’t mean the corn price coverage, which at this point seems most relevant to Wall Street commodities traders. I mean more basic questions like this one: Will people survive the flood, loss of cropland, and waterlogged houses just to be poisoned by their drinking water?

Over on Grist, Tom Philpott did the round-up of nasty things that may be leaching with the flood water into Iowans’ drinking water sources: pesticides, fertilizers, fuel, CAFO manure. As these chemicals, pathogens, and nutrients make their way to the Mississippi River, they’ll also be making their way into the drinking water sources of dozens of cities and towns further south. And when they arrive at the Gulf of Mexico, they’ll find an already stressed ecosystem that may soon support a massive off-shore fish-farming industry. Anyone for a side of Atrazine with those salmon croquettes?


The Ethicurean’s own Corn Maven hails from a farm between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, IA, and she asked her father — who now lives in town but still farms 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans — about the water situation. He reports that they’re doing OK water-wise for the time being; twelve years ago, their town began to source drinking water through the Rural Water program, financed by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, because the water quality in local wells was so poor. The town’s water is now trucked in from a plant 30 miles away, where it has been tested and treated.

But many Iowa farm families are not so lucky. Those who do not live in town may get drinking water from wells on their property. Pathogens from manure and nitrates (which come from nitrogen fertilizer or manure and, if drunk in high concentrations, can cause infant death) can easily leach into them, particularly the older ones. E.coli bacteria was showing up in rural wells even before the flooding, according to this 2006 AP report. Corn Maven’s cousin, who lives on the farm and can’t access the Rural Water program’s supply, buys all his drinking water.

Those who don’t will have to find a way to deal with the new agrichemical assault on their water supply. One Des Moines county emergency management official offered this depressing challenge in a Monday AP report: “If you drink this water and live, tell me about it.”

The flood that hit Iowa was billed as a “500-year storm event,” the type so extreme that it only happens once every 500 years. It goes pretty much without saying that there’s no way anyone could have predicted just how bad it would be. But in recent years, we’ve become less and less able to predict flooding period, not just particularly extreme events. Why? In part because since September 11th, the Bush Administration has steadily cut funding to stream and river gauges, which measure the changes in flow patterns and water levels that signal a potential flood. Notably, it is doing the same for programs that monitor water quality.

Which means that when Iowans begin to ask what’s in their drinking water, it’s entirely possible that no government entity will be able to tell them.


If you’ve read my previous posts on Bush administration attempts to reduce public access to information about toxic substances in agriculture — from CAFO air pollution to pesticides — then the coming rant will sound familiar. Here we go: In addition to cutting funds to monitor stream flows, Bush has axed funding to the National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program, which collects long-term data on groundwater quality and drinking water supplies. NAWQA had 496 water-quality monitoring sites in 2000. Now it has 113. The administration’s 2009 budget proposal cuts funding even further, and the U.S. Geological Survey, which implements the program, estimates that they’ll have to halt the collection of water quality data completely in 29 states as a result.

Also on the chopping block is the Toxic Substances Hydrology Program, which Bush has been trying to eliminate for years. As it happens, this is the program charged with identifying and tracking data on water pollution from pesticides. Bush’s 2009 budget proposal zeros out the program. It’s convenient that the administration has also suspended the Ag Chemical Use Survey; since we won’t know which pesticides are being used on U.S. crops, nor how much, what’s the point in trying to track their presence in our water?

Then there’s the National Stream Water Quality Accounting Network, a collection of monitoring sites that track the concentration of chemicals in major U.S. rivers, including the Mississippi. Its funding has declined in real terms each year since 2002, and the number of monitoring stations has fallen by 92% since 1997. Many of the smaller streams that feed the Mississippi are no longer being tested.

And finally, on a broader note, let’s not forget the role that climate change may have played in the floods (and the more extreme impacts it could have on our food system in the future). According to the U.S. Global Climate Change Research Program, precipitation has been rising steadily in the northern hemisphere over the last century, with the Midwest showing the greatest increase — a jump as big as 20% in some areas. Too bad that Bush has cut critical funding for programs that track climate change, including NASA’s climate satellites.

The Iowa floods have turned a big spotlight on the issue of water contamination from industrial ag sources, although arguably they’d been contaminating Iowa’s water for a good long time before the floods came. When Iowans finally dig out and start asking questions about how agrichemical exposure might affect them and their families, though, they won’t find a lot of answers. Nor will residents living down-river.

But the problem is far bigger than Iowa or the Mississippi: we’re all in the same boat thanks to Bush’s attack on pollution monitoring programs. Here’s hoping that boat isn’t a leaky one. You never know what could be in the water.

Photo of the Iowa flood courtesy of iStockphoto.

2 Responsesto “One nation, underinformed (and one state underwater)”

  1. Brad Johnson says:

    The Bush administration also shuttered regional EPA libraries, reopening them years later in starkly reduced capacity. The EPA’s Midwest Regional Administrator, Mary Gade, was fired after trying to get Dow Chemical to clean up riparian pollution.

  2. Brian Clark says:

    Just a quick correction. A “500-year flood” doesn’t mean a flood that happens only once in 500 years. Confusingly, considering the terminology, it means there is only a one in 500 (0.2%) chance of such a flood occurring in any given year.