Is there such a thing as a river ethic?
Climate Narrative Project fellow Rachel Serslev asks that question in her research, “Nitrate Monologues: Stories from the Water and Farm Frontlines in Iowa.” Featured in the national environmental journal, EcoWatch, Rachel interviews farmers, water specialists and students to explore the impact of agricultural runoff on streams and the Iowa River.
Here’s an excerpt:
Thanks to incentives for ethanol, fuel has become the number one use for corn in America. As noted in a recent Associated Press (AP) investigation, this intense development of the corn-belt in Iowa and across the heartland includes a loss of nearly five million acres of prairies and woods across the nation in areas that were originally set aside for the Conservation Reserves land program. This loss has had a significant impact on our landscapes, natural drainage systems, and the health of the rivers in Iowa and those downstream from them, all the way to where the Mississippi empties into the gulf. Not to mention the impact this is having on our climate.
In 2008, a study in the journal Science concluded that, “plowing over conservation land releases so much greenhouse gas that it takes 48 years before new plants can break even and start reducing carbon dioxide.”
As part of the biofuels rush, between 2005 and 2010, American corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than one billion pounds. So, where do excess chemicals go? In recent years the Gulf of Mexico has turned into an extreme dead zone due to the increased use of nitrates and phosphates. The runoff of these chemicals is intensified by the weather events that lead to record drought and rainfall that comes with climate change.
In this time of extreme drought and extreme rainfall, what is the impact of one acre of corn on our river? When a field floods the excess nitrates and phosphates that have not been taken up by the crops run into Iowa’s waterways; into our drinking water.
Carol Sweeting sits before me in a dim, bustling café. She is the water treatment and distribution information coordinator for Iowa City. Her untouched iced coffee sweats beside her as I ask her to describe her personal relationship with the river.