Back Forty: How Chris Jones found his voice on Iowa’s water woes

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In this Nov. 1, 2018, photo, Gordon Garrison takes a water sample from a stream on his farm, in Estherville, Iowa. Garrison sued a nearby operation with 4,400 hogs, contending manure from its croplands fouls a creek that runs through his property and feeds the Des Moines River. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall.

By Charlie Hope-D’Anieri

For decades, Chris Jones worked in relative anonymity as a water quality researcher in both the public and private sectors. Over the last eight years he has run Iowa’s largest sensor network at the University of Iowa’s Institute of Hydraulic Research, which gave him real-time data from more than 70 stream and lake sites across the state.

In that capacity, Jones had a front-row seat to the downstream impact of big-scale agriculture, Iowa’s legacy industry. The state that raises, kills and exports more hogs than any other, leads production in corn and eggs and ranks second in soybeans is 85 percent farmland. In the course of a growing season, billions of pounds of nitrogen fertilizer and animal manure are injected, sprayed and spread on crops to boost yield. Plants take up most of the nutrients in these fertilizers, but some of it runs off into streams and lakes, creating toxic algal blooms and contributing disproportionately to a massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. In an average summer, about half of the state’s beaches receive a swim advisory for toxic algae or E. coli. The pollution creates huge costs for Iowans to maintain a clean water supply, and chronic health risks for those who can’t: long-term consumption of excess nitrate in drinking water is linked to cancer and birth defects, and nitrate pollution threatens an estimated 30 percent of municipal water systems in the state.

While Jones watched stream nitrate loads double from 2003 to 2019, he stuck to his lane, publishing scholarly articles and going to conferences. Then “one consequential day,” as Jones called it, he “saw firsthand that a powerful Iowa institution was without question not operating in good faith” when it came to improving Iowa’s water. “I decided that day that I couldn’t go on doing what I was doing, taking the public’s money as compensation for my work, unless I did it honestly and reported what I observed.” 

Shortly after that meeting, in early 2019, he began posting short essays on a personal blog hosted by the university. In weekly posts he tutored Iowans in water quality basics, describing how pollution is measured and how it has changed over time, providing his assessment of the factors driving that change.

A collection of these posts, along with some new essays, will be published May 19. The Swine Republic: Iowa’s Struggle with the Truth About Agriculture and Water Quality is a chronicle of a mild-mannered scientist finding his voice as he breaches taboos in farm politics. He spares no one and sometimes loses his cool. Reading Jones’ book, it’s his exasperation that lingers—the frustration built up during a career spent making sensible recommendations to fix an urgent problem that had no hope of implementation. 
In March 2019, Jones posted a map that converted the volume of manure produced by the farm animal population in each of Iowa’s watersheds into a human waste equivalent. It showed that in total the state’s farm animals annually generate a quantity of manure equal to that produced by 168 million people—roughly the combined populations of Tokyo, Paris, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles—every year. Jones described managing this untreated waste as “our state’s most challenging environmental problem.” 
The state’s largest agricultural lobby responded with an op-ed in The Des Moines Register that referred dismissively to Jones’ “poop blog.” Jones replied to the op-ed on his blog, and the stakes of his truth-telling experiment ratcheted up.

Jones would go on to parse the disingenuous rhetoric of agriculture media, often with humor and a touch of derision—the term “cropaganda” makes an appearance. He referenced Joseph Heller and Aldo Leopold, George Orwell and Bob Dylan. Dispatches from fishing and camping trips, in Iowa and elsewhere, lamented the consequences of dirty water. Throughout, he continued to emphasize that the state’s agricultural system depends on public laws and coffers, reminding taxpayers, “It’s your water.”

As the blog progressed, a haves- and have-nots framing overtook his scientific narrative. There are a few clean lakes in Iowa, Jones observed­—they just happen to be where the richest people like to keep summer homes. He does not vilify Iowa farmers generally, but he does point out that they are almost unanimously old, white, male and wealthy. His blog built a statewide following, amassing hundreds of thousands of pageviews.

The problems Jones describes, and their causes, have been clearly understood by scientists and the farming community for 50 years. So, too, have the solutions. Modest limitations on nitrogen fertilizer use, better manure management and protections for small portions of stream-adjacent and flood-prone land could more or less solve the nutrient problem within a generation. 

But such regulations would restrict the expansion of livestock operations, especially the hog industry, and would squeeze fertilizer sales. In a state where corporate agriculture tends to get what it wants, such reforms are pipe dreams at best.
Instead, state leaders have preferred a “voluntary” regulatory regime that funnels money into programs designed to educate farmers on how to reduce their pollution and pays them to change their behavior. These carrots are not conditional on outcomes, only on the implementation of “best practices.” After many years and millions of dollars invested in this strategy, water quality has not improved.

Chris Jones

Jones repeatedly went at this voluntary strategy. Working with industry was counterproductive, he argued, because it seeded false narratives that the problem was getting better. This argument isolated Jones more than any other, because it required that he call out many of his peers—scientists (“Joan of Arc isn’t exactly our role model”), regulators and environmental groups that clung to narratives of collaboration and treated the industry as a good-faith actor. He also was willing to implicate himself. “We have a whole bunch of people whose livelihoods and relevance link back to water pollution,” he writes. “I admit to being a card-carrying member.”
Not surprisingly, all this airing of the state’s dirty laundry eventually caught up with Jones. He says that in late March of this year, two state senators approached a university lobbyist, brandishing printouts from Jones’ blog, and threatened to cut support for the Iowa Flood Center. (The Flood Center, a statewide research and warning system, has been mistakenly associated with Jones’ work in the past, though it doesn’t fund his research and does not deal with water quality.) One senator has denied Jones’ account, and the other has not commented publicly. The next day, Jones’ boss asked him to move the blog off of the university website, and he complied. His last post was April 2. He will retire from his position on May 16. (As of May 8, his blog archive remained live.)

Within a month of the blog’s demise, Iowa’s legislative attack on water research accelerated. A budget sent to the governor’s desk on May 2 included cuts that will effectively destroy the statewide water sensor network Jones oversaw.

Farming is still king in Iowa. Meaningful regulation remains taboo. But Jones knows that Iowans can see and smell every day that their water is bad. “We … let agriculture dictate … how water quality is to be addressed in this state,” he writes. “Our water will be terrible until we summon the courage to change this dynamic.” And if the people ever decide, as he did, that the Corn Emperor has no clothes, The Swine Republic will serve as a radical’s handbook, a public record of what happened and why.