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Fishing in the Rain

Posted on September 25th, 2019

I’ve always liked fishing in the rain for several reasons, not the least of which is that the fish bite. But it can’t be just any rain; a slow and steady warm rain with no wind and no lightning is best. Fish won’t bite if there’s lightning, and besides I’m terrified of lightning and if you’ve forgotten what it’s like to wear a soiled diaper, try being 10 miles from the dock on Lake of the Woods when a lightning bolt comes out of nowhere to strike the island 50 yards to starboard. Sorta takes the fun out of fishing in the rain.

While fishing in the rain Saturday morning, it occurred to me that many other species seem to not mind a slow steady rain. The blue jays still were taunting each other with their blue jay obscenities, and wood ducks seemed to be playing chicken with their dare-devil flying amongst the one million trees that have been planted in Johnson County’s Kent Park.

While trying to catch a meal’s worth of bluegills, I thought about how to work into an essay a presentation that I had heard the previous day, this by Dr. Kim Van Meter . She is an Iowa native (Gilbert) and Ecohydrology professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Kim has multiple degrees from the University of Iowa, including a BA in English, a MS in Chemistry and PhD in Engineering, and you can hear them all in her voice and her words. Some of her recent work has looked at “legacy” nitrogen (N) in the Mississippi River Watershed. By legacy we mean N accumulated in the soils and groundwater of farmed landscapes. This accumulation is the result of A>B where A = manure and fertilizer N inputs, and B = N harvested in the grain.

Dr. Kim Van Meter

The Van Meter work has shown that as much as 40% of the stream N in the Mississippi Basin is a result of farming activities and surplus nitrogen that was applied 20 or more years ago (1). This might be considered a bit of good news, if we were reducing this surplus. There’s not much evidence, however, that we are doing that here in Iowa. In fact, when I look at statewide N budgets for Iowa, I think the surplus is increasing.

Our main inputs of N are commercial fertilizer, hog manure, and fixation by soybeans. Soybeans are a legume and they “pull” nitrogen out of the atmosphere and “fix” it in the soil. This is why corn grown after soybeans needs less nitrogen than corn grown after corn. When I look at these inputs over the last 20 years, along with the amount of nitrogen harvested in the crop grain, it’s pretty clear that all are increasing, but, the amount of input N is increasing faster than the amount of N leaving in the crop. Under this circumstance, we would expect the amount of N leaving in our rivers to be increasing. This is in fact happening (see graph of my data; bear in mind this graph does not include beef, dairy or poultry manure).

Summary of nitrogen inputs (top) and outputs (bottom) for Iowa, 1999-2018. Notes on the data sources are at the end of the essay. The idea for the graph format I got from the Van Meter presentation.

What I am doing here with the graph is N Budgeting, i.e. quantifying inputs on one side of the ledger and outputs on the other. I recall attending an Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) meeting about 10-15 years ago and watching a DNR employee, who had recently created some statewide nutrient budgets, get aggressively challenged by an ag industry advocate on the work he had done. At the time, I found this somewhat curious.

Now I know these budgets are a threat. They open up the curtains on a little shop of horrors, mainly by eroding much of the industry rhetoric of the last 20 years on fertilization. Some of that has included catch phrases like “spooning it on”, “agronomic rates”, “manure is a resource” and insistence that rate reductions (i.e. reducing the amount applied) will not improve water quality.

In my view, the industry has painted itself into a corner with its rhetoric. If indeed farmers are applying at agronomic rates, then we must be:

a) losing a far larger percentage of the inputs to streams than what the industry wants to admit, or

b) mining soil fertility in destructive ways that could be of crisis proportions, or

c) both a) and b)

The other more logical explanation here for our increasing stream nitrate is that we continue to apply nitrogen in amounts that are substantially larger than what is being harvested in the grain, and of course the industry is not exactly excited about admitting this either.

Thus the wet paint and the corner.

When I do a very basic linear regression of the data shown in the chart, these are the increases I get from 1999-2018:

  • Nitrogen excreted by hogs: +59.8%
  • Purchased commercial nitrogen: +35.3%
  • Nitrogen fixed by previous year’s soybeans: +29.4%
  • Nitrogen harvested in the grain (corn and soybeans): +11.2%
  • Input surplus (Hog N + commercial N + fixation N – grain N): +55.1%
  • Nitrogen transported by Iowa rivers: +82.9%

That 55.1% number is what Kim Van Meter is telling us will be in our children’s and our grandchildren’s water 50 years from now. If she’s right, there’s not much hope in solving things in my lifetime, especially if there’s nothing to compel the industry to get its arms around this, and there isn’t. Now I know their rhetoric is that it’s the soil, or weather, or point sources, or golf courses that are the problem. That rhetoric is unserious.

The other thing at work here is that the industry wants to continue expansion of hog production. Well, ok. You can’t very well make a sincere argument that Iowa can absorb more hogs unless you’re going to reduce inputs of commercial nitrogen. That is not happening. People want to sell nitrogen.

Yes, N removed in the grain is increasing with improved crop yields, but it is not keeping up with the inputs, at least not in Iowa. Clearly the industry’s goal when it comes to inputs is not perfection; rather their strategic goal is a consistent surplus of N on the landscape, and your water is the collateral damage.

Now we hear from time to time that Iowa has exciting momentum when it comes to water quality. But when I look at the N data, it sure appears the momentum lies with our efforts to squeeze every last bushel and hoof of productivity from the landscape. From an environmental perspective, those last few bushels are going to come with a heavy price in terms of water quality, if history is the indicator.

I don’t really like the phrase “factory farm” because nearly all farms have by necessity specialized and adopted certain methods of the industrial revolution. The phrase doesn’t really say much to me. On the other hand, I do believe Iowa is a “factory state”. Iowa is one giant photosynthesis factory, one that we keep fueled with a super-abundance of nitrogen and phosphorus and one that has very few limitations on what it can emit to the surrounding environment.

Can that factory be retooled to produce the environmental outcomes that we want? The industry would have us believe that it can, provided the taxpayer ponies up sufficient money and they are given sufficient time, usually on the order of decades or generations. Ok then. This is probably a billion dollar per year problem, at least for a while, unless the system can be transformed to something different, something like Matt Liebman (Iowa State Univ.) has been proposing for a long while.

Ictalurus punctatus (channel catfish)

I will wander toward an end with a return to fishing, this on Sunday, again in the rain. This time for channel cat, a species that tolerates the worst in us. As I looked at a muddy Iowa River, I thought about Dr. Van Meter’s comment that rivers are “integrators”. In the disturbed and managed ecosystems of Iowa, these rivers are “us”. Do we like what we see? I don’t.

How do we change this? I read recently that change happens with push from the outside and leadership from the inside. We need a lot more of both.

Some notes on my data:

Commercial fertilizer amounts are derived from Iowa Department of Agriculture sales data and Gronberg and Spahr, 2012.

Hog population were derived from USDA (National Agricultural Statistics Service) while nitrogen content in hog manure was derived from Libra et al. 2004.

Stream N loads come from Jones et al. 2018 and Jones and Schilling 2019.

Soybean Fixation of Nitrogen calculations came from Barry et al. 1993.

Kim Van Meter paper on legacy nitrogen:

(1) Van Meter, K.J., Van Cappellen, P. and Basu, N.B., 2018. Legacy nitrogen may prevent achievement of water quality goals in the Gulf of Mexico. Science360(6387), pp.427-430.

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3 Responses

  1. I’m a small farmer who had spent over $150,000.00 on necessary Conservation Compliance measures to stay in Compliance with my signed 1995 farm’s very limited 404 Corps of Engineer’s Agreement that is recorded on that farm’s Abstract. My Conservation work was dug away in 2010 after I was blackmailed to sign off on my shares in 2-200 acre farms in Mitchell and Floyd County Iowa at 1/2 their value. As the growth of Industrial Farming with Foreign ownership of Iowa’s farmland has increased and with some politicians who have designed the Farm Bill to benefit themselves and other large Foreign and Domestic farmland owners, small farmers have had their growth stifled by those same more powerful large land owners and increasing Foreign Investors under Trump’s Administration. I had complied with Iowa’s 16 Drainage Laws and the Clean Water Act’s Anti-Degradation Laws and the WOTUS Rules that were REPEALED last week on 9/12/2019 in Mitch McConnell’s Republican Senate. After my husband Gary was murdered in January of 2004, I continued until late 2009 to limit/prevent their channeling of flood water run-off from 50,000 acres on my first home farm into the Source Water for 500,000 Iowans. Large Foreign and Domestic ownership of Iowa land has grown as the health and medical costs to Small Farmers has grown. Industrial farming practices and the reshaped drainage patterns off of some larger farms, results in the increased illegal swifter Flood drainage of Industrial Farms, causing damage to small farms, like mine, and in Charles City, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and many small towns and to many Iowans homes. Small farmers who obeyed the Clean Water Act’s Anti-Degradation Laws and the 16 Iowa Drainage Laws are dying earlier than their parents and grandparents. My husband Gary Lack was murdered and his body was cremated without our permission, then my son Adam who helped me file a Discrimination suit against the USDA-NRCS in 2007 was murdered in 2008, after he had created the RUSLE3 equation to be part of the resolution of that suit. According to James and Dee Urbatsch, my husband Gary was drugged and allowed to bleed to death and be cremated without our permission, so we could not prove our cancers were caused by their contaminating our water. By altering historic drainage and channeling drainage from 50,000 acres through lines of Sinkholes in Cedar (W) Township Mitchell County Iowa’s Aquifer Recharge Area Sinkholes into the Cedar Valley Group Aquifers the Source Water for 1/2 million Iowans making it so contaminated we cannot safely filter out the NITRITES (including the Ammonia Nitrogen or Anhydrous Ammonia Nitrogen). Until the powerful group of landowners (former Head of Farm Bureau and Branstad “Family” Farms) and their contractors who had Judge McKinley and Mark Walk threaten the lives of my other children in 2009 are made to correct their illegal drainage off of their 50,000 acres of farmland 1/2 Million Iowans and the Dead Zones health will suffer. First they hid our well tests from us, exposed us to high heavy metals and Ammonia Nitrogen levels affecting my family and neighbors’ health and whoever else uses the Cedar Valley Group Aquifers as their Source Water in at least 8 Counties Downstream. When those sinkholes in Mitchell County Iowa take on more farm run-off in our more frequent flooding events, the tests for the 5 Nitrogen fertilizer Spectrum tests done on our Tap Water in the Plume from my prior home farm, after their trespassing and illegally digging away of 42 acres of my rich top-soils, to gain them an illegal drainage outlet, they increased my farm’s soil loss into the Cedar Valley Group Aquifers along with Heavy Metals, Nitrogen fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, Trihalomethanes, E-Coli, Coliform, and Cyanobacteria’s Cyanotoxin’s after Chlorination. Go to and look up Adam and Gary Lack’s Case Files. On the Update of Adam’s case file is an Email to the USDA-NRCS agents who had worked along with the other USDA-NRCS Agronomists and EPA Water Quality federal agents who had installed Adam’s “educational” USDA-NRCS “Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation Version Three” under Gina McCarthy at the EPA and President Obama’s Administration. Former Administrations had enforced regulations and the Clean Water Act and The Clean Air Act’s Anti-Degradation Laws, until February of 2017 when Trump’s Appointed Republican’s REDACTED huge data files access, at the EPA and USDA-NRCS, so Americans could not even know or have access to the growing levels of Big Oil Foreign and Domestic Conglomerates’ Anhydrous Ammonia that has no MCL set for it yet as the EPA needed access to the 20 years of well water tests that documented Ammonia Nitrogen or Anhydrous Ammonia contamination growing, since the late 1970’s, when it was first applied. and is not supposed to be in our ground water or aquifers at all, but our Cedar (W) Township wells were testing up to 12,200 parts per billion. Atrazine’s (MCL of 3 ppb) and other AG herbicides and pesticides have MCL’s measured only in ppb like Arsenic’s MCL of 10 ppb and our tests on our water were having Iowa’s DNR and County Sanitarians telling us that tests results even of Nitrates of 45 p/ml up to 98 ppml were safe – ok. Des Moines Water Works has better more definitive test results in their lab, than the University of Iowa’s Hygienic Lab test result for arsenic which only measured to pp million or ml. Getting a Arsenic test result of less than 1 parts per million, can still kill leaving the test open to levels of Arsenic being 999-1 pp billion of Arsenic with its MCL set at only 10 ppb.

  2. Trump’s Republican’s REDACTED the data in February of 2017 that was utilized by Adam’s USDA-NRCS “RUSLE3” to limit Point Source Contamination of US Source Waters with Anhydrous Ammonia and CAFO liquid manure. These two very water soluble Nitrogen fertilizers, produce the growth of the Blue-Green Alga’s Cyanobacteria and its Carcinogenic Cyanotoxins that are increasingly being released upon Chlorination, into US drinking water or our Tap Water.

  3. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    The real “exciting momentum” has been in the increasing amounts of hot air, verbal balloon releases, general happy hoopla, and numbers-juggling from various officials and interest groups, claiming that we are making wonderful water progress and that the future’s so bright, we gotta wear shades. And yet, at the same time, that it will take many, many, many, many years to have cleaner water. Many.

    A closely-related PR technique is to push farmers waaaaay out in front of the industry to serve as the faces of that industry. This is to try to ensure that even questioning what is happening to the Iowa landscape will feel like unfairly attacking good hardworking people who are having hard economic times. To paraphrase THE WIZARD OF OZ, pay no attention to the giant corporations behind that curtain.

    The strategies being used deserve far more attention from Iowa journalists than they have ever gotten, which is basically none. As a former journalism grad student who took classes in propaganda and PR, I grind my teeth at this stuff.

    And for better or worse, many of us humans are hard-wired to respond more to clever PR work than to logic, hard numbers, and facts like the ones provided in the blog post above. And general widespread science illiteracy is definitely not helping.

    Frankly, what we may need is an equally clever-and-well-funded campaign showing photos of the friendly hardworking faces of Iowans who arrive at dirty lakes and can’t swim, who work on river cleanups and get sick because of the bad water quality, etc. And somehow, we need to make the connections in people’s heads between what’s in the water and who is in office.

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