Ag secretary: Environmentalists’ alarm on Raccoon River was ‘propaganda’

A farmer harvests corn near Slater, Iowa on Oct. 17, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig on Thursday labeled as “propaganda” a national environmental group’s listing of the Raccoon River as one of the nation’s most-endangered. 

“That so-called report was a bit of propaganda, I think,” Naig said of the American Rivers report this week. 

“It was obviously a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization. They can go out and say what they want to, but what they talked about related to Iowa is not based in fact.

Republican Mike Naig is Iowa’s secretary of agriculture. (Photo courtesy of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship)

“We are moving in the right direction,” he added.

Naig appeared at a recording of Iowa PBS’ “Iowa Press,” which airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Ted Corrigan, CEO of Des Moines Water Works, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch this week the state faces a “catastrophe” if it doesn’t find a way to stem agricultural pollution in the river. 

Naig strongly defended the state’s record in addressing farm runoff, which environmental groups for years have criticized as weak. They have called for regulations to replace the state’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

American Rivers listed the Raccoon, one of the key drinking water sources for 500,000 Iowans, No. 9 on its annual list of the nation’s 10 most imperiled rivers. 

Naig was quick to note the state has significant work to do to address agricultural pollution.

“We are focused every day in getting more (conservation) practices on the ground,” Naig said. “That is the answer.

“We have a long way to go. I don’t sugar coat it at all,” he added.

Moderator David Yepsen asked Naig if a $100 million-plus plan to create water trails, including whitewater courses in downtown Des Moines, should wait until the waterways are cleaned. 

Naig focused first on the water trails’ promise to improve recreation, help the economy and draw residents to the area.

“I think these water trails are a good thing,” Naig said.  “I think it actually brings some awareness to water quality. I think it’s a quality of life/workforce issue for us as a state. 

“Yes, we will continue to work on water quality,” he added. “We are moving in the right direction.”

Yepsen asked if Naig’s use of the word “propaganda” amounted to a “farm leader just blowing off environmental concerns.”

Naig responded, “Absolutely not.”

Naig added: “It’s a fundraising plea for (American Rivers). They can do that. I’m not saying they can’t. But if you want to talk facts, (there is) a lot of evidence that says we’re moving in the right direction, that work is actually getting done every day on the ground.” 

Des Moines Water Works ensures tap water is safe, as it must under state and federal law, Naig said. 

He added: “We have work to do on improving water quality.” 

Naig addressed several other topics: 

Supreme Beef. Asked if the Iowa Department of Natural Resources should have approved a large cattle operation near a trout stream in the Monona area in northeast Iowa, Naig said, “We did not weigh in on it because it’s something that I expect that the DNR is doing exactly what they should do in reviewing those things and approving them if they comply with the law.”

— Gov. Kim Reynolds’ proposed ethanol standards: “This is a good thing for Iowa. I appreciate that the governor has put a bold proposal forward.”

Agriculture economy. Naig noted that after several years of disruptions caused by COVID-19 and trade wars, farmers are approaching the planting season with a good chance to see a profitable year. Corn is running close to $6 a bushel, and soybeans north of $14 a bushel. Strengthening markets could make it even better. “Maybe there’s more even to come depending on what happens with demand. You can sit here today knowing that you’re going to go to the field and be able to make a profit. That is where we want to be.”

Running for re-election. Naig said he is running. “I love the job. We’ve got a lot of great things going. I’d love to have another four years to keep working.”