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

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