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)