Hope Springs Eternal for the Cedar River

This postcard shows the Cedar River, downstream from where Austin Nichols built his dam near what is now Austin, Minnesota. Photo: Public domain

This postcard shows the Cedar River, downstream from where Austin Nichols built his dam near what is now Austin, Minnesota. Photo: Public domain

As you read this post, you’ll see mention of Joe Hennager, president and co-founder of Blue Planet Green Living. We’d like you to know that writer Joe Frisk is an independent freelancer, who mentioned Joe’s activities regarding the Iowa River independently of any editorial influence from us. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

I remember the summer of 1967, when I fished the Cedar River for the first time, accompanied by my twin sister and older brothers. Against the backdrop of the Hormel packing plant, cane poles in hand, we caught bullheads, bluegills, and rock bass off North Main Street in Austin, Minnesota, population around 27,000 at the time. I also remember the dirty water and the smell.

That afternoon, a tired and hungry not-yet-seven-year-old, I sat at the supper table with questions for my parents: Why is the river so dirty? Can something be done about it? Why would anyone want to live in a town with a polluted river running through it? Does anyone care? They are questions I have asked repeatedly, since that first day of fishing over 40 years ago.


Settlers Claim the Land

In 1853, Austin Nichols staked a claim on land that would soon bear his name, located along the banks of the Red Cedar River in what became Southeast Minnesota’s Mower County. At the time, the river teemed with trout. Predators abounded, stalking their prey; whitetail deer, bison, elk, and many other animals roamed the region. In 1841, the father of Sioux leader Little Crow guided a hunting party here.1

A view of the Cedar River decades later. Photo: Joe Frisk

A view of the Cedar River with its modern dam and bridge decades later. Photo: Joe Frisk

The land, known as oak savanna, was a tangle of underbrush and tall prairie grasses, making travel difficult. Nichols, a hunter and trapper, followed Indian foot trails and animal trails paralleling the river to enter the area from Iowa Territory, while other settlers followed the Red River Trail.2

Growing up, we called the river the Red Cedar, the name found on Joseph Nicolette’s 1843 map of the Upper Mississippi Basin. Nicolette explained in his writing that the river was named for the cedar trees along the sandy banks of the lower course.3 The trees were junipers, mistakenly referred to as red cedars by early settlers in Iowa Territory.

In Austin the name was given to a hotel, the Red Cedar Inn. To this day, I have found no “cedars” on the Minnesota stretch of river, but they were said to have once adorned this upper stretch in great numbers.4 Later, the river became known simply as the Cedar, the name most often used today and found on maps dating back to 1876, as well as in writing dating to 1866.

Three streams form the headwaters of the river, with the main branch located about 25 miles northeast of Austin near Hayfield, Minnesota. North of Austin, clear, cold springs feed the river. The Cedar runs south and east into Iowa, some 329 miles, where it joins the Iowa River on its way to the Mississippi.

The Price of Progress

In 1854, Nichols built the first dam across the river — at least the first in Minnesota Territory — to provide water power for a sawmill he would build the following year.6 The mill, though not a large operation, helped fuel growth of the new settlement. It also signaled the onset of changes that would damage the river for generations to come.

Aided by the river, the wealth of game, and rich soil, the settlement quickly grew. Farmers lifted prairie sod, planted crops, and removed trees for housing. Corn and hog production flourished, along with an emerging butchering industry, and in 1891, Hormel Foods was born. Bear in mind, change came gradually; but within 40 years, Hormel was a thriving company with a formidable workforce — and water pollution had already become a concern. By 1930, Hormel was actively engaged in research to chemically treat their waste water entering the Cedar, with minimal results.7

The Cedar River flood of 2004 resulted in ten million dollars damage in Austin, Minnesota. Photo: Joe Frisk

The Cedar River flood of 2004 resulted in ten million dollars damage in Austin, Minnesota. Photo: Joe Frisk

Farmers spread manure over fields as fertilizer, which ran into the river after rainfall. Local residents and industries dumped wastes into the river. Pollutants and soil washed downstream, out of sight and mind, ignored as a price of progress.

In the early to mid 1960s, engineers rerouted the course of the river on the north end of town. They filled in the land, and people built businesses and housing upon it. Then, in 1978, the river reclaimed its natural course, flooding North Main — another price of “progress.”

The river has flooded periodically during its history, including floods in 1908, 1916, 1925, and twice in 1978. Since the 1978 events, the river has flooded three times: in 2000, 2004, and 2008. All three of these floods affected my current abode a block from the river. Local wisdom holds we’re experiencing a “hundred-year flood” every four years. With $10 million damage during the 2004 flood, the people of Austin are getting serious about flood control. The city is constructing berms and removing houses within the flood plain. Recognizing the importance of preventing runoff in reducing flooding and improving water quality, the Cedar River Watershed District Board (CRWD) is also taking action.

Diagnosing the Problems, Working toward a Cure

The CRWD first met in May of 2007 and has, among many goals, the reduction of flooding in Austin and improvement of water quality.8 The Board received a grant to study the watershed and are in the process of identifying and monitoring problem areas. According to Bev Nordby, Administrator/District Manager, the Watershed District and the Soil and Water Conservation Offices are co-located, aiding the process of educating area farmers about runoff- and erosion-reduction strategies.

  A popular paddleboat rests on the Mill Pond, docked on the spot where the author first went fishing in 1967. Photo: Joe Frisk

A popular paddleboat rests on the Mill Pond, docked on the spot where the author first went fishing in 1967. Photo: Joe Frisk

In addition to their educational efforts, the CRWD is in the second year of monitoring watershed quality. Last year, due to little rainfall, contaminants were “not too bad,” wrote Ms. Nordby. Current testing shows higher levels of pollutants are entering the river from northwest of Austin. Monitoring is crucial, as it allows for diagnosis of river problems, rendering a cure possible. The Cedar River is fortunate to have a watershed board looking closely at problems and educating the public on a fix.

Funding allowing for monitoring on the Cedar came from the Clean Water Legacy Act of 2006, positive action by the State of Minnesota to address the state’s impaired waters. The state legislature appropriated nearly $25 million to increase activities such as monitoring, assessment, and restoration projects. According to the Legacy website, “Minnesota has a proud legacy of clean, abundant water; it’s a critical foundation block in the state’s economy and way of life. But even more importantly, Minnesotans want polluted waters restored and the state has embarked on a path to cleaning up its waters.”

On June 23, 2003, Governor Pawlenty wrote, More so than any other state, the quality and quantity of water in Minnesota is central to our way of life. It helps define who we are and what we value.”9 It’s gratifying to see Minnesota moving in a positive direction to document and clean up impaired water. The people downstream will be equally grateful.

Affecting Downstream Neighbors

Everything that goes into the Cedar in Minnesota ends up in Iowa, including flood waters. In Cedar Rapids, population 124,000, the 2008 flood destroyed a large part of the city, damaging 5,000 homes and over 300 public buildings.10 The flood illustrated the necessity of wetland restoration and other runoff reduction strategies along the full length of the river.

Long before this catastrophe, pollution was a growing concern. Prior to 1963, Cedar Rapids drew its water directly from the river, but taste and odor issu es necessitated a move to the use of wells running parallel to the river. Currently, high levels of nitrate, the result of farm runoff from all along the river, render the river water unfit for use in drinking.11 High nitrate levels in water can interfere with the ability of red blood cells to transport oxygen, giving infants a bluish appearance and breathing difficulty.

Algae blooms often occur in the presence of high nitrate levels. This can result in extreme fluctuations in oxygen levels, with high oxygen levels during the day and low levels at night when oxygen-consuming bacteria feed on decaying algae, a difficult environment for aquatic life.12 Herbicides are also showing up in Iowa stretches of the river, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) suggests these problems will persist until and unless the public decides clean water is worth pursuing.

The Cedar enters into the Iowa River 20 miles from the Mississippi. For 25 years, Joe Hennager has lived two blocks from the Iowa and witnessed its decline. He notes that in 2007, the environmental group, American Rivers, named the Iowa the third most endangered river in America. Joe attributes the majority of the problem to hog lots and the fecal wastes they produce that are dumped on fields and end up choking out life in the river and on downstream. He wrote about this sorry situation in an online article entitled Porked Off! A Critical Look at Iowa’s Water Quality. He points out we do not need to take an us-versus-them approach to cleaning up farm wastes. Grassy buffer areas surrounding fields can trap toxins and greatly decrease runoff and soil erosion while providing wildlife habitat. A win-win situation.13

Or is it? Retired Professor Emeritus Jim Baker of Iowa State University believes there are few win-win situations involved in reducing runoff and erosion. He warns of high costs and great effort that will be necessary to reduce pollution. He believes it is counterproductive to paint a rosy picture and then disappoint the public when efforts fall short.14

The problems on the Cedar and Iowa rivers are as interconnected as the rivers themselves and should be addressed together. It will take a national effort, starting with awareness of the problems and dissemination of knowledge needed to deal with them. Proof this is more than a local problem is found in a link Joe provides to the NASA website showing the Dead Zone in the Mississippi Delta region. Along the rivers, from state to state, we must work together. On the Iowa River, Joe Hennager is doing his part to raise awareness, as the CRWD is doing on the Cedar.

Taking Responsibility

Industry can help out by treating water before discharging it into the river. Hormel partners with the city of Austin to treat its waste water. According to the Hormel website, “Before wastewater is sent to a city treatment plant or is discharged into a waterway, wastewater from our facilities is always treated so it meets government-approved levels.”15 We do not have to boycott pork, as Joe Hennager has done , if the hog production industry will take responsibility and end practices that pollute the water.

North of Austin sits a coal-burning power plant run by Austin Utilities. Coal plants are notorious for their harmful emissions, especially carbon dioxide, but mercury is also emitted by these plants and can contaminate water. Mercury in water ends up in fish and the people who eat them, a national health issue that cannot be ignored. Installing devices called scrubbers can reduce emissions of harmful chemicals by up to 90%.

In an email from Alex Bumgardner, Power Production Director of Austin Utilities, I learned that the Austin plant, due to reduced production, released only 2.25 pounds of mercury into the air in 2008, a significant reduction from the 6.7 pounds emitted in 2006. EPA reporting shows no mercury was discharged directly into the river.16 The plant does not currently utilize scrubbers but stays well within environmental standards.

Residents and industries must take responsibility for cleaning up the Cedar River and its watershed. Photo: J Wasson

Residents and industries must take responsibility for cleaning up the Cedar River and its watershed. Photo: J Wasson

Residents too must make the sacrifices necessary to clean up the river. In some areas north and east of Austin, straight pipes dump raw sewage into the river or into streams leading to the river, the result being unacceptable levels of fecal coliform bacteria (E. coli) and water unfit for recreation. No wonder the swimming holes on the Cedar are long abandoned! In the 1920s and 30s, the North Main area of the Cedar was graced by a sandy swimming beach. Today, there’s a parking lot for the city swimming pool.

Some residents are ignorant of the problem or just apathetic. We need everyone on board and the rest of the country will follow, as clean water is vital to health. Recently, residents of Woodhaven, a small housing addition north of Austin, voted for annexation into the city and will hook up with the city sewer system. The residents of Nicholville, to the east of Austin, are getting a new septic system. Their raw sewage will no longer end up in the Cedar.

All parties are in agreement on the necessity of curtailing farm runoff, industrial wastes, and raw sewage dumping. This will not be realized until problem areas are identified, through monitoring, a task best accomplished by organized efforts such as those of the CRWD. Once problems are pinpointed, farmers, industry, and residents can take steps needed to alleviate them, such as restoring wetlands, building grassy buffer zones, and treating waste water. In Minnesota, those in need of financial assistance can apply for grants and/or loans. Cleaning the upper Cedar could be used as a model for cleanup efforts in Iowa and elsewhere, leading to restoration of the Mississippi and other large rivers that suffer from polluted streams flowing into them.

The Reason We Are Here

A view of the dam from the remaining foundation of Campbell’s Mill. Photo: Joe Frisk

A view of the dam from the remaining foundation of Campbell’s Mill. Photo: Joe Frisk

Researching this story has confirmed what I suspected all along: The river is the reason we are here. It is dirty due to unchecked runoff of pollutants and soil and the dumping of raw sewage. Most people do care and choose to live here in spite of the pollution, holding jobs and building family history.

With increased awareness and a tremendous effort, the river can come back. It won’t be as pristine as Austin Nichols found it, but it could teem with healthy fish and be clean enough for canoeing and other recreation. It is fed by cold, clean spring water, and people are interested in its future. It was polluted over time and will heal in time, though I wish the public would feel a heightened sense of urgency.

I still fish the Cedar River, and the bullheads, bluegills, and rock bass abound. I caught a 19” smallmouth bass off North Main, and largemouth bass are thriving in the Mill Pond. Father Joe Fogel fly fishes the Cedar, from Austin, Minnesota to Osage, Iowa and has had success with smallmouths. Crappies and channel cats are doing fine. Walleyes, recently stocked by the DNR, are growing fast. And water clarity, while still poor, is better than in the past.

The Cedar is sick, no doubt about it, but I sense we may have reached a turning point. From the Cedar River Watershed District Board on downstream to Joe Hennager, Robert Frost would sum it up: “Men work together…whether they work together or apart.” The river can come back! Working together, we can make it happen.

Joe Frisk

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Post

Porked Off! A Critical Look at Iowa’s Water Quality


1. Jean and John Adams, Tales of Mower County (Austin, MN: Jean & John Adams, 1949), 11.

2. Richard Hall, From His Name…Austin (Adams, MN: Night Owl Press, 1991), 17-21.

3. Joseph Nicolas Nicollet and John Torrey, Report Intended To Illustrate A Map of the Hydrographical Basin of the Upper Mississippi River (Washington: Blair and Rives, Printers, 1845) P.  22. Online book from the Minnesota Historical Society archives.

4. Jean and John Adams, op. cit.

5. EconomicExpert.com. Discusses sources of the Cedar River

6. Jean and John Adams, op. cit.

7. H. O. Halvorson, A. R. Cade, W. J. Fullen. “The Precipitation of Proteins in Packing House Wastes by Super-Chlorination.” The Journal of Physical Chemistry. 1932.

8. Downloadable document from the Cedar River Watershed Board.

9. Downloadable document on the Clean Water Legacy Act.

10. Cedar Rapids Commemorates Anniversary of Devastating Iowa Flood. City of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 6-12-2009.

11. Riverbank Filtration Case Studies. 2006

12. Water’s the Matter. Measuring Nitrates and Their Effects On Water Quality. From the Texas A & M University website:

13. Joe Hennager. Online article Porked Off! 3-16-2009.

14. Jim Baker, Experience from the Cedar River TMDL Downloadable document, Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico: Implications and Strategies for Iowa.” 10-16-2008.

14. Hormel Foods, “On Water and Wastewater.”

16. US EPA. Toxic Release Inventory- Envirofacts Report. April, 2009.

It Rained on Our Parade

The parade gets started, despite the rain. Photo: Julia Wasson

The parade gets started, despite the rain. Photo: Julia Wasson

It had not rained in Iowa City for eleven days. We had been experiencing a cooler than usual June, with day after day of amazingly great temperatures and low humidity. I should have known it wouldn’t last.

Iowa weather usually acts like a spoiled child and demands constant attention. The minute you look away, it will catch you in snow without a coat or a thunderstorm without an umbrella. Or the temperature will rise 30 degrees in a few hours and put you in a dripping sweat because you’re not wearing shorts. These are facts of life in Iowa. I forgot. I lowered my guard. I did not schedule a rain date.

For months, I had been focusing on creating a Fourth of July, New Orleans-style, second-line, jazz funeral march. This was to be a symbolic funeral for the Iowa River, held by volunteers from our Facebook group, Save The Iowa River (STIR). The planning went on: a casket, pallbearers, news coverage, musicians, music, marchers, signs, bottles filled with water from the Iowa River, parade permit, first aid kit, parking, tables, tent. When the word rain came to mind, I just told myself that there would be lots of umbrellas at the march anyway, in keeping with the motif; so, if it did rain, everything would work out just fine.

Jazmyn and Eleanor helped us fill the bottles with Iowa River water. Photo: Joe Hennager

Jazmyn and Eleanor helped us fill the bottles with Iowa River water. Photo: Joe Hennager

As the funeral day grew closer, I checked Weather.com a few times. I remember seeing sunny skies all week long, and a 50 percent chance of rain on Saturday. Only 50 percent! Okay, so I’m the eternal optimist. My glass is always half full. Even if it did rain that day, what were the odds that the 50 percent would include the hours from noon to 1:30?

Besides educating the public about the pollution in the Iowa River, we had another purpose for holding the parade. A friend of mine, Kevin J. Railsback, is an award-winning videographer. He wanted to use the footage of our funeral march in his full-length movie about the Iowa River.

Two of our dedicated interns, Jazmyn Whitman and Eleanor M., helped us put up posters around Iowa City. Then the four of us set up shop in City Park the week before the Fourth, pulling buckets of water out of the Iowa River, filling 900 recyclable bottles with very nasty water, and capping them. We hauled the five tubs of bottles to our home, washed the outsides to sanitize them, dried them and applied labels to each bottle. All this took a total of about forty hours, counting everyone’s input — much more than I had imagined.

Just to give you some insight on how to plan a New Orleans-style, second-line, jazz funeral march for a dying river, first — and most important — is the casket. You have to call every funeral home in the county. You have to beg.

We borrowed a beautiful casket to carry in the parade. Photo: Joe Hennager

We borrowed a beautiful, handmade casket to carry in the parade. Photo: Joe Hennager

If you are very lucky, like I was, you will find a funeral home director who is also an environmentalist. Dan Ciha, of Gay & Ciha Funeral and Cremation Services is the kind of guy who wants to build a completely green cemetery. No formaldehyde, no expensive caskets, just wrap your beloved in their favorite blanket and bury them in the good earth. I love this guy.

He must have a soft spot for the Iowa River, too, because he didn’t just deliver us a casket the day before the parade, he delivered us a beautiful wooden casket, handmade by the Trappist monks at New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque. This one was a work of art, sculpted from native pine trees that they had harvested. At the abbey, they milled, dried, hand planed, and assembled the wood, then painted the casket with a light coat of varnish, praying all the while. It was stunning.

But there’s one thing about borrowing a wood casket: If Ciha ever wanted to sell it to a client after the parade, we could not get it wet. Saturday morning, we went back out to the Ciha funeral home and picked up a plastic casket cover.

The next very important element you need are pallbearers. I had called about a dozen strong, healthy, muscular, male friends, who I thought might have an environmental interest in the Iowa River — and who might get out of bed on a Saturday morning on the Fourth of July. That final criteria could have eliminated all of them. I figured I needed at least twelve pallbearers to carry the casket six blocks. That way, we could trade off, as the men got tired.

Eleanor and Jazmyn, our intrepid interns, at work. Photo: Julia Wasson

Eleanor and Jazmyn, our intrepid interns, at work. Photo: Julia Wasson

If everything went wrong, and say, it rained really hard that day, and not a single pallbearer showed up, I fully expected I would have to carry the casket myself. I had a two-wheeler ready just in case I had to roll it up the hill like a Fed Ex delivery man.

Probably the next most important prop for this funeral was the music. I had started contacting musicians two months earlier. I called, emailed, and wrote letters to about 50 different musicians. Each one was a fine artist, I am sure. Some I knew, some I did not. The first ones I contacted played every instrument that you would typically see in a New Orleans-style funeral march: trombone, trumpet, tuba, and saxophone.

The Iowa City Jazz Festival planners had told me I could hold our parade from noon to 1:30, because they wanted us to be finished playing when their concert started at 2:00. Almost every musician I talked to had already been booked at other gigs for the Fourth of July in other cities, or they were planning to march in that morning’s parade in nearby Coralville. Many of them thought they would be too tired to do both events, and many were afraid they could not travel the distance in time for a noon start for my parade. I got many well wishes, but very few commitments.

I found a band of five New Orleans-style jazz musicians from Davenport, who would play for $2,000, and a local group, who would play for $500. I had no budget to work with, but I verbally committed to booking the local band for the lower price anyway. Three days before the event, they canceled for a better offer. I began to worry.

The pallbearers lift the casket for the long walk uphill. Photo: Julia Wasson

The pallbearers lift the casket for the long walk uphill. Photo: Julia Wasson

If no musicians showed up, I figured I could use a boom box and just blast jazz music as we marched. I visited a friend at West Music to see if maybe there were other musicians in town. We seriously considered the following alternatives: banjo, ukulele, guitar, harp, violin, cello, marimba, steel drums, accordion, and harmonica.

At that point, my New Orleans-style jazz parade might have turned into a classical/Latin/folk/rock funeral parade. Maybe I could start a new trend. I took the list of names and phone numbers anyway. Before I left the store, I bought 20 kazoos as a last resort. Things weren’t looking too good.

When I got home, I had an email from a sousaphone player, John Manning. He said he was definitely going to be there. I had a band! I ran back to the music store to buy him some sheet music for “Down By The River Side” and “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

Friday evening before our parade, as I was walking around the Jazz Fest, checking out traffic patterns and security issues, I stopped and watched a group of very talented high school musicians. One particular saxophone player’s solo stood out. As Nathaniel Dean came off stage, I offered him a card and invited him to play at the march the following day. He very politely took the card. As he disappeared into the crowd, I wasn’t sure if I would ever see him again.

John Manning arrives with his sousaphone! Photo: Julia Wasson

John Manning arrives with his sousaphone! Photo: Julia Wasson

I was worried about the build-up of clouds and a weather report that now showed a 75 percent chance of rain the following day. At midnight, it started raining.

My experience with Iowa rainstorms tells me that, if there’s lightning, thunder, wind, and dramatic clouds, the storm may be violent, but it will pass in a few hours. But, if there’s a solid gray cloud mass, no thunder, no lightning, and a steady drizzle, it’s likely to last a long time. This was a drizzle. I checked the radar on Weather.com at 1:00 AM. The map showed the whole state was completely shrouded with rain, and the cloud formation was barely moving. Things were looking bleak.

At 6:00 AM, I was back at the computer, looking for any breaks in the clouds. A large mass of clouds was heading straight east, down Interstate 80. When I put the map in motion, to predict the future progress of the storm, it indicated that there might be a break in the clouds by noon. That was all I needed. Hope!

At 8:00 AM, the phone started ringing. Half of the pallbearers called to cancel. “My car’s in the shop.” “I have a sick kid.” “I don’t feel well.” “I lost the keys to my truck last night.” You would have thought an epidemic had struck every person, car and set of keys in the county. The other half made the mistake of asking me first, “Are you still doing this thing?”

My answer was a resolute, “Yes!” I was counting on the radar I had seen. I frantically sent out emails to as many friends, relatives, musicians, and pallbearers as I could, telling them to hold true. The rain was going to stop. This funeral was going to happen.

By 11:00 AM, I was not so sure. While my friend Robert Garabedian and I set up the “rain tent” at the starting point, I was still receiving phone calls, mostly cancellations. It was still raining like crazy at 11:30, as my wife, our intrepid interns, and the casket showed up. 11:35. 11:40. I was beginning to look for my two-wheeler.

Nathaniel Gier played lead to Manning's base line. Photo: Julia Wasson

Nathaniel Dean played lead to Manning's base line. Photo: Julia Wasson

At 11:45, a few pallbearers, my son, my daughter and her husband arrived. I felt relieved when John Manning came walking in with his sousaphone. At 11:50, a few friends, a few more pallbearers and Nathaniel Dean, the young sax player, arrived. Now, we would have harmony! At 11:55, a television film crew and a newspaper reporter, more marchers, and more pallbearers drizzled in with the rain.

We had the minimum necessary to march: six pallbearers, two musicians, a casket, several people, the film crew, and a news crew. It was still raining.

Jazmyn and Eleanor handed out umbrellas, wooden spoons (our symbol for Save The Iowa RIVER — STIR), kazoos, sample bottles of the Iowa River and a written summary of what ails the Iowa River. At noon, our wet duo was sufficiently tuned up, the pallbearers lifted the casket, and we were off!

As I moved along the parade line, I looked into the faces of friends with matted hair, and water dripping into their eyes, a sousaphone player with an open umbrella bursting from his bell, a sax player wailing the blues with true suffering in his eyes, and six hearty, wet pallbearers, marching in step, rocking the casket to the music. I counted about 40 good, kind souls marching with me, and I didn’t hear a single word of complaint. Not one.

The sousaphone player stopped blowing while climbing the rather steep incline of the Jefferson Street hill. He asked if it we could march the rest of the way in silence. Before I could answer, twenty kazoos came alive with the fervor of a scene from The Music Man. “When The Saints Go Marching In,” complete with piercing lead solos, complex harmonies, a thundering base line, key changes, and long-held high notes, never sounded so good. I was stunned. And it was still raining.

Joe speaks to the crowd after the funeral. Photo: Jazmyn Whitman

Joe speaks to the crowd after the funeral. Photo: Jazmyn Whitman

We finished the march at the entrance to the University of Iowa‘s Pentacrest, at the west end of Iowa Avenue. We played more songs. We watched as the wet photographers and the wet videographers moved around us to get the best shots. We all signed a large letter to the governor of Iowa, our wish list of legislative action points, and we handed out bottles of Iowa River water to passersby. We dried off the casket and loaded it into my car.

Slowly, as if everyone did not want to appear to be giving into the rain, these kind souls and stalwart environmental activists departed. I shook their hands. I hugged them. I thanked them. I said goodbye.

And now, as I write what I remember of that day, I realize that I may have personally invited several hundred people to this event. Ten thousand may have read the invitation in the newspapers. Forty showed up to march in the rain. Together, we stirred the waters to get attention for the plight of the Iowa River. And I am eternally grateful.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

A Symbolic Funeral for the Iowa River

The health of our rivers is something worth saving. Photo: © Viktoriya Popova - Fotolia.com

Every so often, an issue consumes me. I read as much as I can on the subject. I attend lectures. I join action groups. I get involved. This is one of those issues: my beloved Iowa River. The Iowa River isn’t dead yet, but, like so many other rivers, it’s heading that way. And I think it’s worth saving. So, I decided to do something about it.

Tomorrow, on the Fourth of July, the Save the Iowa River (STIR) group will hold a mock funeral for the Iowa River in conjunction with Iowa City’s annual jazz festival. We’ll be rocking a pine casket, loaned by Gay & Ciha Funeral and Cremation Services, while playing “Down by the Riverside,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and other standards. We’ll march in true New Orleans style in a second-line, jazz funeral parade. We’ll have fun, while spreading the word — and water samples — to the public. And you’re invited to join us.

Why Care?

Why do I care about the Iowa River? Why should you? To me, it represents what agriculture has become, factories more than farms. Mass producers of meat and milk and eggs. The river also represents what has happened to Iowa’s government, pressed hard by lobbyists who refuse to allow “Agriculture” (with a capital A) to bow to more regulations. I see Big Ag as a large corporate machine that is profiting at the losses of our air and water quality.

The Iowa is just a river, but someday soon, every single drop of its 300,000 gallons per minute is going to be worth more than gold to us. Someday we will wish we had taken better care of it.

The Iowa River is a 300-mile long snake that curves and winds from the north, central border, down to the Mississippi River on the southeast corner of the state. As she blends into the waters of the Great Mississippi, she carries with her the signature content of all that Iowa has lost control of: her excess chemicals, her excess animal feces, her untreated human waste, and her best topsoil. She is the namesake river of our state, and she sends our pollution southward to the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean.

Defining the Problems

One problem with all the rivers in Iowa is animals. I’m talking about the 100 million farm animals in our state, most of which live in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). These long, often windowless, buildings house chickens, turkeys, hogs, milk cows, or beef cattle. They’re factories, producing much of the nation’s meat, milk, and eggs.

CAFOs like this one contain hundreds of animals and tons of animal waste. Photo: Julia Wasson

CAFOs like this long, low building on the horizon, contain hundreds of animals and tons of animal waste. Photo: Julia Wasson

The Iowa River watershed, which covers approximately one-tenth of the state, houses about one-fifth of Iowa’s CAFOs. Why is it that this relatively small watershed has so many animals?

The answer is that we have some of the best soil in world. On the average, we often grow more bushels of corn and soybeans per acre here than in other parts of the state, and these crops are the main food source for the animals.

A farmer friend of mine explained it this way: “You don’t take the corn to the animals, you grow the animals where the corn grows.” Here, along the Iowa River, we grow 15-20 million farm animals per year.

Farm Chemicals

Most of the corn and soybeans used as feed is planted repeatedly on the same farmland year after year without rotation, a practice that requires additional fertilizers to bolster the nutrient levels to sustain it. Add to that the herbicides and pesticides that are used to increase the size of the harvest. An agricultural salesman told me that the average farmer will inject into, or spray onto, the soil about 10 pounds of chemicals per acre. Farmers in the Iowa River basin till and plant about 3 million acres. That’s 30 million pounds of agricultural chemicals in our watershed.

According to the Iowa State University Extension Service, depending on the rainfalls each growing season, and the soil types, about 20% of the chemicals placed on farm fields ends up in our rivers. That’s about 6 million pounds of chemicals floating in this waterway.

Animal Waste

The other crop that Iowa grows more of than any other state is animal waste. Pigs and cows produce 10 times more waste than an adult human. Turkeys and chickens produce about the same amount of feces as we do. And what do farmers spread on the fields to enrich the soil? Animal feces or, more politely, manure.

Manure is easily collected in all those CAFOs. And it contains some nasty stuff, according to an article in Rolling Stone:

Industrial animal waste contains ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates and heavy metals. In addition, the waste nurses more than 100 microbial pathogens that can cause illness in humans, including salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptocolli and girardia. Each gram of hog feces can contain as much as 100 million fecal coliform bacteria.

Going back to that figure of 20 percent of what goes on the field ends up in the river, mathematically, this puts more animal feces in the Iowa River in one year than the combined human waste of the 36 million people who live in California for the same period of time.

There are very few regulations on animal feces. Environmentalists and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fought long and hard this winter to limit dumping of CAFO sewage on frozen ground. At the eleventh hour, Governor Culver signed a stronger version than the bill that came out of the House and Senate. But, we still have a long way to go.


Something else is floating in our river — in all of Iowa’s rivers, in fact: topsoil. Tiny, almost microscopic grains of rich, black topsoil, as fine as grains of flour. This silt is hundreds of times smaller than a grain of sand, and it floats down our rivers by the ton. It clogs the rivers and lakes, making them run shallower and wider, tearing away more of their banks each year. And, when we have a record year of rainfall, like last year, the resulting flooding creates disaster on a massive scale. But I don’t have to tell my fellow Iowans that. We lived it.

Why is there so much topsoil in our rivers? Some farmers choose to plow and plant right up to the banks of the rivers and streams. They do this to get the most money out of each year’s crops. Can you blame them? They have to make a living, too. Many states regulate the buffer strips that limit access of non-point-source (NPS) pollutants to streams and rivers. The Iowa legislature needs to improve its NPS regulations. Let’s hold their feet to the fire to protect our waterways.

Human Waste

The Iowa River is used for recreation, despite the pollution it carries. Photo: Mark Yuskis

The Iowa River is used for recreation, despite the pollution it carries. Photo: Mark Yuski

The State of Iowa controls human feces pretty well, except for the large numbers of inadequate septic systems and the unincorporated villages that have no sewage treatment at all. At least there are regulations in place for incorporated areas. But many of the sewage treatment plants that do exist along the river are not up to standard, and the city governments say they can’t afford to improve them.

In 2007, American Rivers ranked the Iowa as the third-most-polluted river in the United States. Last year, the Iowa River was ravaged by 500-year floods, which overran several cities’ sewage treatment plants and caused millions of gallons of raw human sewage to flow into it for weeks.

Despite all this, people still swim and waterski and boat in the Iowa River and the Coralville Reservoir that it feeds. Most don’t know what’s in the water they’re swimming in.


Another strange thing floating in our rivers here in the Midwest, mixed in with all the fecal matter and E. coli bacteria, is a Staph bacteria called MRSA, Methicillin Resistant Staphlococcus aureus. This potentially dangerous bacteria can be a cause of necrotizing fasciitis, the flesh-eating disease. Antibiotic-resistant Staph is increasingly prevalent in CAFOs, where farmers must use high levels of antibiotics to prevent diseases that would otherwise spread like wildfire in a highly populated confinement. (There’s a lot more to be said about MRSA, but Dr. Allan Kornberg covered it well in Hog CAFOs Can Affect Human Health.)

The Gulf Dead Zone

What happens when silt, pesticides and herbicides, phosphates and nitrates, human sewage, and animal waste enter a river? They cause massive algae blooms that grow in the sun, eventually dying and sinking to the bottom of the river. As the algae decays, the water loses oxygen. The resulting de-oxygenated water kills fish, crabs, and mussels. We can see this happening where the Mississippi River enters the Gulf of Mexico. Our river is partly responsible for a Gulf Dead Zone that could reach the size of New Jersey this summer.

Come March with Us

So, I invite all of you to join our funeral parade this Saturday, July 4 — in spirit, if not in person. We’ll meet by the river at 12:00 noon at the North end of Madison Street in Iowa City. Bring your musical instruments, umbrellas, and a wooden spoon to represent our Facebook group, SAVE THE IOWA RIVER (STIR). We’ll pass out kazoos to the first 20 people who arrive.

When we get downtown, just before the jazz festival, thanks to financial support from  Blue Planet Green Living (that’s us) and SNK Enterprises, Inc., we’ll hand out small bottles of Iowa River water with a list of the ingredients identified by the U.S. Geological Survey last month: phosphates, nitrates, E. coli, atrazine, metalachlor, acetochlor, ammonia nitrogen, chlorophyll,  chloride, and dissolved oxygen. Metalachlor is a chemical used for grass and broadleaf weed control in corn and soybeans. If you are a farmer, you will recognize metalachlor as Dual, Pimagram, Bicep, CGA-24705, and Pennant. Acetochlor is a class of herbicides known as chloroacetanilides. Trade names are Acenit, Guardian, Harness, Relay, Sacemid, Surpass, Top-Hand, Trophy and Winner.

March with us if you can, as we head south on Madison, east on Jefferson Street, and south on Clinton St. to Iowa Avenue. Bring the kids, your pets — and your umbrellas. This is one funeral that will be fun and educational. Whether or not you march, please sign our letter to Governor Culver, urging him to support stronger laws to protect our state’s rivers.

The Iowa River is not dead — yet. And we intend to keep it that way. We will start by stirring the waters.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Porked Off! A Critical Look at Iowa’s Water Quality

For 25 years, I’ve lived two blocks from the Iowa River. I used to water ski on, swim in, and fish from it. I don’t anymore. Twenty years ago, I felt safe including my children in these activities. We felt safe swimming in the river and eating bass, bullhead, catfish, and walleye from its waters. I had hoped I would be able to share the same experiences with my grandchildren someday.

I had hoped to share the experience of fishing the Iowa River with my grandkids someday.

The Iowa DNR warns against eating more than "1 meal/week" of many fish due to "elevated levels of mercury" or PCPs. Photo: © Pavol Kmeto - Fotolia.com

Nowadays, you shouldn’t just drop in a line and catch your dinner. You should check with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) before you eat the fish. The agency does federally mandated testing for pesticides at least once a year. They test for other contaminants every two years, also as mandated by law. On their Fish Consumption Advisories page, you’ll find warnings like this one:

“The Cedar River from the Highway 218 bridge at Floyd (Floyd Co.) to the Iowa/Minnesota state line (39 mile stretch): Eat only 1 meal/week of smallmouth bass, walleye, and northern pike due to elevated levels of mercury.”

Sound healthy to you?

The DNR website has no current warnings about eating fish caught in the Iowa River. You can eat Iowa River fish, if you want to, but you won’t find many Iowa City residents willing to take the risk. We locals are a little less tolerant of the words “acceptable levels,” especially when it comes to mercury, PCPs, and E. coli.

Yes, that’s E. coli, the bacteria found in feces — from humans and animals. It’s in the water. No worries, though, according to the DNR; E. coli won’t harm you as long as your fish is cooked properly. But don’t try eating it as sushi.


The pollution in the Iowa River is a very complex problem. We can’t just point a finger at one group and say, “Hey, stop polluting our river!”

Communities of less than 400 houses can legally dump raw sewage into Iowa's rivers.

Communities of less than 400 houses can legally dump raw sewage into Iowa. © Joe Klune - Fotolia.com

One of the main sources of E. coli is human sewage. In all of Iowa, there are more than 700 small, unincorporated towns that have no sewage treatment facilities. That’s right, nothing. Nada. Dumping raw sewage is not against Iowa law for a community with fewer than 400 houses. More than 100 such communities dump their sewage into the Iowa River. That’s thousands of gallons of raw human sewage, every day. Whatever goes down those people’s toilets goes directly into the Iowa River — eventually dumping into the Coralville Reservoir (the “Res”), our primary local recreation area. It’s the favorite place for boaters, waterskiers, swimmers, fishermen (and women), canoers, kayakers, and sunbathers.

A friend of ours was canoeing upriver of the Res last summer. “What’s that white stuff in the water?” he asked his companion. “Looks like toilet paper,” the other man said. It was toilet paper. And there were kids swimming not 10 yards away.

I understood from a conversation with Claire Hruby at the Iowa DNR last week that the economic recovery package should provide money to help fund waste water treatment plants for many of these unincorporated areas. Mix that with the low-interest loans already available from the State of Iowa, and there appears to be a chance this problem might get fixed. We did not discuss how soon.


Another major problem is caused by the fertilizers and pesticides that farmers use to grow corn and soybeans, Iowa’s staple crops. We’re the Corn State, you know. Last year we grew 2.2 billion bushels of it on 12.5 million acres. We used to have the best soil in the world for corn. Now we have to make it that way with tons of chemicals spread largely on fields with non-rotated, monoculture crops. When it rains, those chemicals don’t stay where the farmers put them.

There’s a solution to this problem, too. It’s a practice that both respects the waterways and saves topsoil. Crop farmers who have waterways on or next to their property can create “setbacks,” buffer strips of natural grasses between crops and streams. These buffer strips absorb the majority of the toxic chemicals and stop soil from eroding. But it gets better yet for farmers. Those who sign up for the program get paid NOT to plant crops in the buffer strips. It’s a program modeled on the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to plant “vegetative cover, such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filterstrips, or riparian buffers.”

When these pigs are grown, they will produce 10 times the sewage of an average human.

When these pigs are grown, they will produce 10 times the sewage of an average human. Photo: © jura - Fotolia.com

The biggest polluters, of course, are the CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Each year, Iowa supports about 25 million hogs, 4 million cattle, 8 million turkeys, and 57 million layers. Iowa, a state of only 3 million people, supports about 94 million farm animals. By support, I mean that we breed, feed, and deal with the fecal waste of those 94 million animals each year, over a quarter of which are hogs. The majority of those animals live in CAFOs.

Iowa is the equivalent of the second-largest hog-producing nation in the world. China is number one. Hogs produce ten times the fecal waste that humans do. According to NEUSE Riverkeeper Foundation,

Each and every day, those 10 million hogs produce fecal waste equivalent to what is produced by all the citizens in the following states combined: North Carolina, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, New Hampshire and North Dakota (100 million people). This ten to one ratio is verified by the research of Dr. Mark Sobsey (UNC, Chapel Hill).

In one year, just the hogs that live within the Iowa River water basin will produce more fecal matter than all the people in California (33,871,648) combined. That’s a lot of sh*t.

Iowa has a lot to be proud of. We are the corn capital of the world. We are the largest hog producer in the nation. And now, we are the toilet of our continent, or, rather, our rivers are. In 2007, the advocacy group American Rivers named the Iowa River the third most endangered river in the US. (According to the DNR, it is possible that American Rivers group selected the “Iowa River” to symbolize it’s location, understanding that there are many rivers in Iowa that are much worse and many better. The DNR conceeds that the Iowa River, indeed, does have its share of problems.)

According to American Rivers, “Iowans are proud of their state’s high rankings for education and livability compared to other states, but on a crucial aspect of the Clean Water Act, our state lags far behind the rest of the nation. Iowa has failed to adopt adequate clean water rules thirty years after passage of the Act that set a baseline to keep water quality from getting worse. If this baseline isn’t enforced, the state will continue to issue permits that allow increased pollution in the Iowa and other rivers. Faced with a growing load of sewage from both humans and livestock, it is no wonder that the Iowa River is one of the Most Endangered Rivers in America.” The floods last year made Iowa’s rivers even worse, creating exponential increases in runoffs of chemicals, topsoil, and sewage.


Just a few days ago, the Iowa Senate Agriculture Committee in both houses of the Iowa Legislature released a bill to the floor (S308 and H574) that will restrict the Iowa DNR’s ability to control midwinter sewage dumping. For those who live in warmer climates, let me explain the problem: In winter, when farmers dump raw animal sewage on frozen ground — especially when they dump in January and February, when the snow and ice are more compact — little, if any, soaks into the ground to fertilize next season’s crops. A much higher percentage of that raw, animal sewage washes directly into the streams and rivers during the first rains and snow melt. If the proposed legislation goes directly to the floor, there’s a chance that it just might pass.

Soil erosion

Soil erosion like this can be prevented by creating buffer strips along creeks and rivers. Photo: © Madeleine Openshaw - Fotolia.com

Many environmentalists believe the bill should go back to committee, say, to the Natural Resources Committee (last time I checked, water was still considered one of our natural resources). If it goes to the floor and passes right now, this legislation will deal yet another serious blow to all of Iowa’s rivers.

But lest you think this is just an Iowa problem, consider that Iowa’s rivers dump into the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. Our waters touch South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky, and eventually, run into the Gulf of Mexico.

Take a look at the NASA photographs of the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. That colorful ring clinging to the land mass around the curve of the Gulf is our runoff. All those pretty colors in the water show the effects of the Midwest’s pesticides, fertilizers, topsoil, animal wastes, and human sewage hugging the shores of Louisiana and Texas. By this summer, due in part to last year’s floods, the Dead Zone is expected to grow to 10,084 square miles. That’s an area roughly the size of Massachusetts and 17 to 21 percent larger than at any time since the mapping began in 1985.

Due to the nitrogen and phosphorus runoffs from farm fields here in the Midwest, large blooms of algae are depleting the oxygen in the Gulf. This hypoxic water is causing massive fish kills, and driving shrimp and crabs closer to the coast as their habitats are destroyed. Iowa’s crops are killing crops in the Gulf. If the condition worsens, fishing and the coastal economies from Texas to Florida will be irreparably damaged. But the world will still have plenty of corn, soybeans, and hogs.

For those of you who follow Iowa politics, this small vote on this small bill brought a surprisingly large response from some of Iowa’s farm lobbyists, the Iowa Pork Producers, and the Iowa Farm Bureau. There is a lot of money behind these groups. In my opinion, Big Ag runs the State of Iowa. It’s our largest industry. This situation is no different from the coal lobby in West Virginia, the steel and auto lobbies of the Great Lakes region, or the lumber lobby in Washington and Oregon — environmentalists’ voices are drowned out by the clamor of Big Money. The quality of our rivers appears to be far less important to some folks than the almighty dollar.


So, this morning, I stood on the Park Road Bridge over the Iowa River, asking myself, “What can one person do?” Farmers may believe they are the stewards of the land, but they are killing our rivers. This doesn’t have to be a battle between us and them. We all need the rivers.

A winter view of my favorite river.

A winter view of my favorite river. Photo: Joe Hennager

This is simply a failure to communicate. I know that members of the Farm Bureau have children and grandchildren. Their future generations, too, will drink this water, eat the fish, and simply enjoy the rivers’  beauty.

There is some good news. Inventive minds are creating technological solutions for some parts of the CAFO problem. For example, Iowa’s farmers are throwing away a great potential energy source. Methane burns. It’s a fuel. It just needs to be captured and processed. It can be done. The technology is already working in California and has been for five years.

Roger Treloar, a local hog producer, has patented an organic air filter for hog confinements that naturally — and inexpensively — reduces the smell and methane release by 75%. If you want to call him, I have his number. There is more hope for the future.

But I’m not willing to wait until someone invents a solution to handling excess hog waste so that farmers don’t feel compelled to dump in the middle of winter. I won’t stand by and be silent until more farmers act responsibly and plant buffer strips along waterways.

I have decided that I cannot complain about this problem if I am partly the cause of it. You see, I eat meat. So, today, I am going to partially take myself out of the formula. I am going to pick one meat and stop eating it. I choose not to eat pork, because of what the pork lobby is doing in the Iowa legislature right now.

An average person in the US eats 62.8 pounds of pork per year. That’s roughly one 250 pound hog every four years. If I live another 20 years, that’s 5 less hogs consumed. The 1,276 or so pounds of pork that I would have eaten in my remaining years will not have any noticeable effect on the huge hog industry. But I’ll feel good, knowing I’m not part of the demand that’s causing the problem. By not eating the levels of nitrates that are often cooked into or are a part of the pork processing, I’ll even lower my chances of getting chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pancreatic cancer, or contracting MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection that kills 18,000+ Americans annually. (I strongly suggest that you read about a study done recently at the University of Iowa.)

I'm saying goodbye to pork.

I'm saying goodbye to pork. Photo: © Artsem Martysiuk - Fotolia.com

By not eating pork, I’ll be healthier and happier, and so will my favorite river.

The Iowa Pork Producers won’t notice that I’ve thrown away that last package of bacon from my fridge and two cans of pork and beans. I don’t think they’ll notice that I will never again buy hot dogs at baseball games, or eat pork ribs at barbeque restaurants. I will never buy another McRib at McDonalds or a ham, egg and cheese Croissanwich at Burger King. These businesses will not miss me. I am just one person.

Oh, my wife just said she’ll join me. Thanks, Honey. And now, six of our volunteers are cutting out pork, too. Thanks, guys. A few of my friends are joining in. We’re up to 72 hogs already, and I haven’t finished writing this article. Let me make some phone calls and send a few emails. I know some other folks, too, who agree that our Iowa River is an embarrassment to the world. (Check our group on Facebook: Save The Iowa River.) Maybe there are other Iowans living near any of the 72,000 miles of our Iowa waterways, who would like to be able to enjoy them safely.

If you are one of these folks, and you think you can live without pork, let me know. We are each just one person. Our not eating pork is a very small thing. The Iowa Farm Bureau will probably not even notice.
I believe the Iowa DNR should have the power to protect our rivers. I also believe that if I am going to complain about something, I should not be a part of the problem.

Maybe next week, I’ll stop eating beef. After that, chicken… Maybe I’ll have to become a vegan to save my river.

Joe Hennager

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)