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Woke Aldo

Posted on January 9th, 2020

I spoke with a colleague this morning who had returned from a holiday break spent at her rural Iowa childhood home. While we were each cooking up the usual post-holiday small talk, she related to me some of her recent conversations with farmer relatives that included this idea:

There is not a problem with Iowa’s water quality.

I don’t know how widespread this opinion is, but I do know from personal experience it’s not that uncommon. Many Iowans feel this way.

I disagree.

I do wonder how folks come to believe this.  I think part of it is that few living Iowans know what our streams should or could look like. I can recall during my youth wondering why the Skunk River was straight. It never occurred to me that people had the capacity to un-meander a pretty good-sized river, or why they would even try.

I’m also of a mind that people see brown rivers and green lakes and think that is the natural order of things. People ask me all the time what the “natural” level of nitrate or phosphorus or sediment is in our water (it’s about 1/100 to 1/10th of what it is now). Without a significant investment of time and energy, how would the average person know what adequate stream and lake water quality would be for Iowa? This ignorance fertilizes opposition to standards for our lakes and streams, which would provide easy indicators of current quality.

Lastly, I have no recourse but to believe that our collective environmental ethic does not include good water quality. I want to, but I just can’t see any way around that. The public continues to grant social license for the impairment of our water. This conservation or land or water ethic, or whatever you want to call it, deserves to be explored.

I doubt anybody has ever met a farmer who didn’t consider themselves to be a “conservation” farmer, or a “good steward” of the land. A veritable parade of them receives awards every year at the state fair, and I’m convinced that these are sincerely held beliefs. So why doesn’t our water get better? One reason certainly is the environmental vulnerabilities inherent to our production system.

But there is another factor here and I think it relates to our concept of conservation. For many in agriculture, “conservation” means maintaining the productive capacity of the farm for future generations. Historically, it has not meant producing environmental outcomes beneficial to the public. Are these things mutually exclusive?—No. But neither are they synonymous.

Terraced field. Photo credit: NRCS.

The best example of this is a terrace. There can be no doubt that terraces on cropped land help maintain the productive capacity of the farm. Do they improve water quality? Well, to answer that question requires a lot of nuance and the truth is that in many cases, the answer is a flat-out no. I don’t want to dive too far down this surface intake today (sorry if you don’t get the metaphor, I don’t have time to explain), but terraces can effectively degrade stream water quality.

One benefit of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is that it has at least begun to unify these two concepts of conservation.

Many have written about these concepts of conservation and land ethic, but for a lot of people, the unchallenged intellectual Godfather of this topic is Burlington-born Aldo Leopold. Long ago, Aldo returned from a mountaintop carrying some stone tablets upon which was etched a land ethic. But alas, 80 years later we’re still worshiping the golden calf. Also the golden hog and the golden bushel. And the golden egg.

Like many, I thought the tablets still existed as A Sand County Almanac, Aldo’s feel-good collection of wistful land ethic and conservation essays. I was wrong.

Iowa’s most likely entry in the next Mark-Twain-look-alike-contest, if there ever is such a thing, told me about another Aldo book: The River of the Mother of God. These are the tablets.

Warning: if you think I’m too sardonic, then this book is not for you, especially the final 1/3 of it.

I’ve thought for a long time about how I could talk about the book in this space. There’s no way I can out-Aldo Aldo, and I hope I never get so presumptuous as to think I could interpret it for anybody.

But I have a lot of photos. I take some and people send me some. The idea came to me that I should select some of these photos and attach Aldo excerpts to them. That effort is what follows. The photos are all of Iowa. When reading Aldo’s words, bear in mind that they were all written prior to 1948.

“Even the Agricultural College fell for the idea of making land by wasting water.”








“The farmers must have their corn; their only recourse is the marshy creek bottoms. These, however, are subject to flashy floods. To raise corn on the bottoms the floods will have to be prodded downstream by straightening, which in turn will aggravate the flashy runoff and augment erosion. Thus the cycle of misuse.”


“I will not tire you with all the red herrings, subterfuges, evasions, and expedients which these people have used to befog this simple issue.”

Photo credit: R. Harden.

“We of the machine age admire ourselves for our mechanical ingenuity; we harness cars to the solar energy impounded in carboniferous forests; we fly in mechanical birds; we make the ether carry our words and even our pictures. But are these not in one sense mere parlor tricks compared with our utter ineptitude in keeping land fit to live upon?”





“Migratory game has lost heavily through drainage and over-shooting; its future is black because motives of self-interest do not apply to the private cropping of birds so mobile that they ‘belong’ to everyone , and hence to nobody.”


“It cannot be right, in the ecological sense, for a farmer to drain the last marsh, graze the last woods, or slash the last grove in his community, because in doing so he evicts a fauna, or flora, and a landscape whose membership in the community is older than his own, and is equally entitled to respect.”

“Take Weaver’s discovery that the composition of the plant community determines the ability of soils to retain their granulation, and hence their stability. If finally verified, this new principle may necessitate the revision of our entire system of thought on flood control and erosion control.”

My comment: I can’t read this excerpt and not get angry about the fact that this was written 81 YEARS AGO (1938).


Photo credit: Continuum Ag.





“We have built a beautiful piece of social machinery–the Soil Conservation District–which is coughing along on two cylinders because we have been too timid, and too anxious for quick success, to tell the farmer the true magnitude of his obligations.”











One of Iowa’s constructed nutrient-reduction wetlands, which researchers hope will reduce nutrient runoff to the state’s rivers and streams, as well as the Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Adam Kiel, Iowa Soybean Association“The engineer believes, and has taught the public to believe, that a constructed mechanism is inherently preferable to a natural one. The conservationist believes the contrary.”

Photo credit: A. Kiel.






“If we grant the premise that the ecological conscience is possible and needed, then its first tenet must be this: economic provocation is no longer a satisfactory excuse for unsocial land use (or, to use somewhat stronger words, for ecological atrocities).”

Photo credit: R. Harden.





“We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam shovel, and we are proud of our yardage.”







“I point out merely the seeming assumption that skillful structures can solve our water problems, and by implication exempt us from the penalties of bungling land use.”

Photo credit: R. Harden.











“No prudent man is a fisherman.”









“We asked the farmer to do what he conveniently could to save his soil, and he has done just that.”









“Because rain which spatters upon vegetated soil stays clear and sinks, while rain which spatters upon devegetated soil seals its interstices with colloidal mud and hence must run away as floods, cutting out the heart of the country as it goes.”






“Despite nearly a century of propaganda, conservation still proceeds at a snail’s pace, progress still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory.”

Photo credit: R. Harden.







“You can’t hurry water down the creek without hurting the creek, the neighbors, and yourself.”











“As a man thinketh, so is he.”







“In farm country, the plover has only two real enemies: the gully and the drainage ditch. Perhaps we shall one day find these are our enemies, too.”








“I mention last what seems to me the least discussed but most regrettable instance of short-sighted engineering–the wholesale straightening of small rivers and creeks. This is done to hasten the runoff of local flood waters, and its face, pushing trouble downstream, of seeking benefit for the locality at the expense of the community. In justice the stream-straightener should indemnify the public for the damage; in practice I fear the public may at times subsidize him.”


Image credit: B. Beck.






“We speak glibly of conservation education, but what do we mean by it? If we mean indoctrination, then let us be reminded that it is just as easy to indoctrinate with fallacies as with facts. If we mean to teach the capacity for independent judgment, then I am appalled by the magnitude of the facts. The task is large mainly because of this refusal of adults to learn anything new.”

Photo credit: M. Liebman.


“The direction is clear, and the first step is to throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land-use. Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays. That philosophy is dead in human relations, and its funeral in land-relations is overdue.”

Photo credit: University of Wisconsin

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9 Responses

  1. Frank Durham says:

    Hi, Chris,

    I enjoy your elegantly crafted pieces. Short, tight and hard as a rock. You always make the point. Hang in there; the world could come to its senses…!

    We miss you on Summit Street!


    • cjones says:

      Thanks for your kind words Frank. I hope you and your family are well; Summit Street is in good hands with you at the helm!

  2. Dennis Goemaat says:

    Chis – I always look forward to reading your latest work – always thoughtful, compelling and often concerning. Thank you for your ongoing efforts to inform Iowans of our water quality issues.

  3. Raymond J Harden says:

    I enjoy seeing my photos put to a good use. I will send more of them to the flood center to be use by anyone that wants to clean up Iowa’s waterways.
    It was a good article.

  4. Cornelia Butler Flora says:

    This is part of the “bubble” that tell us everything is FINE with Iowa agriculture — no reason to do anything different that what we currently do. That is so sad.

  5. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    Thanks for this excellent essay, Chris, and for the big bonus of those great photo-and-quote combinations. I’ll be revisiting this essay in future.

    Three thoughts about why many Iowans think this state does not have a water quality problem.

    1) A narrow focus on drinking water. When I was a volunteer conservation lobbyist in the Statehouse long ago, I encountered the idea among some legislators that as long as what comes out of the faucet is safe to drink, there’s no water quality problem in Iowa.

    And there was sometimes a secondary focus on fishing. As long as Iowans can go out and catch fish in some places, how bad can the surface waters be?

    I’d like to think those attitudes are rare now throughout this state. But I’m not at all sure that’s true, especially if people could speak frankly and anonymously.

    2) Limited out-of-state exposure and low standards. I grew up in Michigan, with occasional visits to upstate New York and other clean-water locations. So clean surface water is not mythical to me. I’ve seen it, experienced it, and want it here.

    But I suspect clean water is mythical for some Iowans, and that other Iowans think that clean water is for other states and that Iowa’s water is already as clean as it should be and can be, as pointed out in the essay above.

    3) A subconscious but very strong desire to avoid cognitive dissonance and unpleasantness. To restore Iowa’s waters to better condition will require a lot of money (from farmers, taxpayers, both). It will also require the recognition that conventional rowcrop and CAFO livestock production are by far the biggest water problems we’ve got.

    That presents potential conflicts with the generally-high opinion that Iowans have of farmers, according to polls. For some Iowans, it’s a whole lot easier to just decide that we don’t have a water problem.

    As a side note, I’m very willing to believe, from what I’ve read, that the farmer award-receivers at the State Fair so far have been genuinely-good water-protecting conservation farmers. However, they are obviously a very small percentage of the 86,000 (or thereabout) farmers in Iowa.

    And so many awards have been handed out at the State Fair each year already that I wonder if the very best candidates have already been given awards, and if it’s becoming a little harder to find top-tier nominees. As I recall, the new nomination period has already been announced, making it longer than in previous years.

    In any case, what we now have is a small group of Iowa farmers being publicly and justifiably praised for their outstanding conservation work, while tens of thousands of other Iowa farmers who are not doing needed conservation work are basically not discussed. This is not a recipe for water quality success.

  6. Bob says:

    I’m afraid the Outstanding Conservation Awards program, like the conservation practice side of the Iowa 4R Nutrient Reduction Strategy, is a public relations ploy to make people believe what they are doing is helping water quality. Don’t get me wrong, the conservation practices are a necessary component to clean up our surface waters but will not achieve desirable results with the continued practice of over applying nutrients. With this over application, and as conservation practices are put in place, the phosphorus concentration will rise in the soil, shifting the transport mechanism from soil erosion to dissolved phosphorus through water runoff. This can be observed in Hardin County by reviewing manure management plans filed with the IDNR. Farm operators are paid tax payer money to implement conservation practices but have no incentive to practice the 4R portion (right rate of fertilizer). By simply following Iowa State University publication pm1688, farmers could significantly (up to 35%) reduce P entering our streams from their fields without sacrificing yields at no cost to them or the tax payer. The 4R portion with meaningful limits should be required if they accept tax payer money for conservation practices.

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