Farm pollution of rivers and streams parallels city/industry sewage pollution of 100 years ago

Today's pollution of Iowa rivers and streams from farm runoff echoes an earlier chapter in Iowa history when agricultural industries – livestock slaughterhouses and sugar beet processors – caused severe widespread pollution of those same state waterways.

Then, like today, agricultural interests resisted intervention by the state and lobbyists on behalf of those powerful food industry groups fought against public health officials seeking to require that cities and slaughterhouses build sewage treatment plants.

The idea that all of our major Iowa cities and major industries pumped untreated waste into local rivers may seem hard to understand today. Yet in the 1920's, large cities and major industries thought nothing about dumping all of their untreated waste effluent into the nearest river or stream.

That practice ran into the same problems as today's farmers draining water with nitrates into those same rivers: the people downstream of that pollution eventually get angry and seek to have their elected representatives end the practice.

In June 1926, a Mason City hog slaughtering plant (Decker Packing Company) and a sugar beet processor (American Beet Sugar Company) pumped so much waste into the Winnebago River basin (Lime Creek and Shell Rock River) that severe pollution was found 90 miles downstream. Tens of thousand of fish were killed.

According to accounts of the pollution events, related in a 1974 book by the Iowa Pollution Control Association and Iowa State University, residents "along the river and the conservation groups in the state were up in arms; they demanded action."

The outrage prompted the state to order the companies to cease pollution by the end of the year. The next year, both companies worked with engineers at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) to develop waste treatment systems for their operations.

And, in 1934, after political wrangling and election of a new state administration, hearings were held on pollution of the Des Moines River and orders issued to require Estherville, Humboldt, Fort Dodge, Emmetsburg, Des Moines and Ottumwa to build sewage treatment plants.

The following year, after hearings on Cedar River pollution, orders were issued to require Cedar Falls, Cedar Heights, Waterloo, Vinton, LaPorte City, Rath Packing Company of Waterloo and major canning companies to do the same.

Alfred H. Wieters, the State of Iowa's Sanitary Engineer in 1926, was front and center in the Lime Creek (Winnebago) and Shell Rock River pollution case. In recalling the fight to stop cities and industries from using streams for waste disposal, Wieters reserved these words for those who had opposed the state clean-up efforts.

"Just in passing, and to indicate how attitudes have changed, let me mention a few of those who fought us every inch of the way. Among these were the Iowa Association of Manufacturers and the Iowa Municipal League. Waste treatment and pollution control generally was not then a popular cause with the larger cities or with industry," Wieters recalled.

(The Iowa Municipal League, now called the Iowa League of Cities, has continued its efforts to block additional curbs to pollution of state streams and rivers. It recently sued the U.S. EPA for seeking to end so-called sewage treatment "bypass" flows. Similarly, the Iowa Association of Manufacturers, now called the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, continues to oppose any new regulations to tighten pollution controls on its members.)

Central Iowa communities were targeted for legislative mandates back in the 1930's because the smaller rivers being used for waste disposal were unable to dilute the large concentrations of sewage.

Today, many Des Moines residents are, like their ancestors, "up in arms" about the high levels of nitrates polluting the Des Moines River, their source of drinking water.

Since nitrates are particularly dangerous to young infants, the city's water company installed a very expensive system to remove the chemical. And, after years of inaction by the state and ineffective voluntary runoff programs by farmers, the Des Moines Water Works earlier this year filed a lawsuit against three watershed boards which oversee the areas primarily responsible for the drainage of nitrate-laden runoff into the Des Moines River.

As with the sewage treatment fight in the 1930's, industry, in the form of the Iowa Farm Bureau, is lobbying against the water company lawsuit and any legislation, state or local, which would require farms to end pollution of state rivers and streams.

When confronted with the cesspools that had become many state rivers and streams in the 1920's and 1930's, Iowans acted to end the use of the waterways for sewage disposal.

What will Iowans do about farmers polluting waterways with chemicals remains to be determined.

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