The population problem Iowa should discuss: Livestock and its effect on water quality

A boy fishes at Raccoon River Park in West Des Moines on May 22, 2020. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Through the years, the Iowa Legislature is the place where Iowans gather to debate the biggest issues and challenges facing our state. It has been this way for 175 years.

The 2021 session is days from adjournment, but there has been precious little time spent discussing one of the thorniest problems confronting this state in decades or looking for solutions.

The issue is the quality of our water.

Our lakes, streams and rivers are so polluted with agricultural runoff that experts urge people, for health reasons, to not swim in many lakes and to avoid eating fish caught in certain rivers.

While most lawmakers dodge this issue, a University of Iowa researcher has become a no-nonsense voice on the problem and its solutions.

Christopher Jones is a research engineer with the Iowa Institute of Hydroscience and Engineering. (Photo via University of Iowa)

Chris Jones is a scientist at the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research. Water quality is his area of expertise. He says many Iowans do not grasp the magnitude of the water problem in our state or the reasons for it.

“Iowa has around 3 million people, a total that has not changed much over the last 80 to 90 years,” Jones wrote on his blog. “People are large animals, and as such our bodies produce a lot of waste. That being said, we produce much less waste than the animals we eat.”

A feeder pig, for example, is about the same size as a human. A piglet weighs about 3 pounds at birth and about 250 pounds when it is slaughtered six months later.

“Everybody knows Iowa has a lot of livestock,” he wrote. “If you are like me, maybe you have heard that our state has enough animals to effectively be as populous as California. It’s bigger than that. Much bigger.”

That feeder pig excretes 3 times as much nitrogen as a human, 5 times as much phosphorus and 3.5 times as much solid waste, Jones said.

In 2019, Iowa had about 24 million hogs, 250,000 dairy cattle, 1.8 million beef cattle, 80 million laying chickens and 4.7 million turkeys. The equivalent-sized human population that would generate the same amount of waste as these animals is staggering, Jones said.

Iowa hogs produce waste that is equivalent to 83.7 million people, he wrote. Our dairy cattle produce waste equivalent to 8.6 million people. Beef cattle wastes are equivalent to 25 million people, laying chickens are equivalent to 15 million people, and turkeys are equivalent to 900,000 people.

“In total, these five species generate the waste equivalent to that produced by about 134 million people,” Jones wrote. “Managing waste from these animals is possibly our state’s most challenging environmental problem.”

There is a lot of crop land onto which farmers can apply this waste. But the time in which to do this without damaging crops is not large, he said, and wet, cold and hot weather can limit applications.

“There are only a precious few weeks in a year when this Mount Everest of waste can be applied to corn and soybean fields. And there can be no doubt that the sheer amount … have consequences for water quality.”

We often hear people saying that we all want clean water. But Jones is blunt here: “Clearly, we do not all want clean water, at least not in a meaningful way. When it comes to our lakes and streams, we may all agree that the concept of clean water is a good one, but a critical mass of someones and somethings is holding us back from getting it.”

He continued: “When will farmers and the industry in general ever take responsibility for the negative consequences that happen beyond the field? It’s pretty clear the ‘feed the world’ virtue-signaling is designed, at least in part, to excuse the environmental wreckage produced by the system.”

We need to be mindful of livestock production’s importance in the rural Iowa economy, with the jobs at confinement facilities, in trucking, equipment sales, construction and meat packing.

“I firmly believe that if we are to solve problems, we all ought to be able to talk about them openly, especially when they involve things we hold in common like our lakes, streams, air and wildlife,” he said.

Jones does not believe voluntary action alone will solve Iowa’s water problems. Instead, he believes the state must act to reduce the problem.

Iowa should ban row crop agriculture in what is called the 2-year flood plain. About 400,000 acres of crops are planted there each year. About every other year, this land floods and washes fertilizer and pesticides into nearby streams.

Iowa should ban fall tillage because it increases soil erosion. The state also should ban the application of manure onto snow and frozen ground.

“I get that the manure pit may fill up faster than expected,” he wrote. “Again, not my problem. Build a bigger pit.”

Jones also favors requiring farmers to adhere to Iowa State University’s fertilization guidelines. And he favors changing the regulations for animal confinement facilities.

“How do we give farmers license to do whatever they want with inputs and then ask the taxpayer to mitigate the pollution? It’s insanity,” he said.

And this is the debate you won’t hear at the Legislature, unfortunately. This is an important debate for Iowa’s future, because there is a lot at stake — jobs, economic livelihood, and the quality of life for everyone.