'No Country for Old Men' informs struggle to stop pollution of state streams, lakes and rivers

I packed up my 20-year-old pickup and 35-year-old camper last week and took a virus-inspired trip to Arkansas. Iowa campgrounds have been closed for some time now, and those in Missouri closed October 31. Looking further south, I found that Arkansas state park campgrounds are open year-round and I picked Crowley’s Ridge State Park because of its proximity to Iowa (far NE Arkansas) and because there was a lake to fish in.

Crowley’s Ridge is one of the state’s six landforms, a giant alluvial deposit formed near the prehistoric confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. The 200-mile-long sandbar has been amended and elevated with an eon’s worth of wind-blown loess, such that the feature bulges like an arthritic spine 200 feet above the surrounding alluvial plane.

Like Western Iowa’s own Loess Hills, the soil on Crowley’s Ridge is thick and fertile, and the first settlers to the area (Crowley was the first) farmed the ridge because the surrounding bottomlands were unmanageably wet. Also like our own Loess Hills, the soil was highly vulnerable to erosion because of slope and texture. But in contrast to Iowa, where 27% of the Loess Hills is still cropped with corn and soybean (1), Arkansans had the good sense to surrender these hills to nature in the 1930s, and the ridge was re-forested to the original pine, oak and hickory, more characteristic of the Appalachians far to the east than the nearby Ozark Plateau to the west.

The huge wetland complex that surrounded the ridge has been transformed to productive farm ground—soybeans and rice on the Mississippi side (east) and mainly rice on the Black River side (west). To and from the park, I drove along the west side and the views reminded me a lot of what I saw in Hubei Province, China. Table-top flat, a diesel pump and an above ground fuel storage tank adorning the edge of every field, with dikes and water detention basins common. Much like Iowa, there was very little landscape diversity beyond rice production with exceptions being one field each of unharvested corn and sorghum. The Black River and its tributary, the Cache R., flow through this area and both looked as bad as anything you will see in Iowa. I did not see livestock other than an occasional goat and donkey, and the area did not look prosperous.

Although certainly no Iowa, agriculture is big in Arkansas with $8.5 billion in receipts, 14th-highest of the 50 states (Iowa is 2nd to California with $27.5 billion) (2). Like Iowa, Arkansas has also suffered from some high-profile water quality problems linked to agriculture. The state of Oklahoma sued 13 poultry producers in 2005 because phosphorus pollution from operators in both states was destroying the Illinois River and Ten Killer Lake (3). Water quality improved over the last decade after the two states agreed on a stream standard for phosphorus of 0.037 ppm. Water quality standards for nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) have been strongly opposed by agricultural interests for Iowa lakes and streams.

Arkansas does clearly recognize that its natural areas have value. Somehow this state, with 30% less GDP (4), 10% fewer people and 15% less area, is able to afford 10 times more public land than Iowa (5). To be sure, our land is more valuable and more farmable. But if you’ve been to an Iowa park any time during the pandemic, you’ve seen the situation here in Iowa is disgraceful. All summer long, campgrounds, boat launches, the picnic areas and trails were busier than ever. Getting a weekend campsite was nearly impossible at times.

How does Arkansas do it? Arkansans voted in 1996 for a conservation sales tax that designates 1/8th of 1% percent of the state’s general sales tax for their Game and Fish Commission (45% percent), State Parks (45%), Heritage Commission (9%) and Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission (1%). Sound familiar?

It should sound familiar, because 63% of Iowa voters passed something similar in 2010, the Iowa Water and Land Legacy Act (IWILL), that created the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. This would have designated a portion of new sales tax revenues to similar programs here in Iowa. But in Iowa, 63% isn’t enough to overcome the entrenched power structure and the legislature thus far has refused to fund it.

You might recall that last year, Iowa legislators finally seemed like a decade was long enough to let the big hitters in agriculture get accustomed to ideas like the crazy liberals in Arkansas have embraced: wildlife, nicer parks and better trails. But our guys warned us there was going to be a ransom: a reformulation of the funding scheme so more of the money would be funneled to farmers (i.e. on private land) because presumably they can’t afford to stop polluting without public help.

So speaking of money, it’s interesting to take a look at farm incomes these past few years. USDA’s Economic Research Service is forecasting net farm income to increase 43% in 2020, the fourth consecutive year of increase, bringing this metric to its highest level since 2013 and 32% higher than the 20-year average (6). Although prices for corn, soybeans and some other commodities are a little higher than they have been in recent years, the main reason for robust farm profits is government money. Market Facilitation Payments (MFP) related to tariff relief and Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) payments to farmers have ballooned the government portion of farm income to levels not seen in many years.

But still, it’s a near certainty that if we want even a small taste of what Arkansas has, we will have to deal with extortion.

I know there are many people in Iowa’s environmental community that are willing to capitulate and pay the ransom in a desperate attempt to claim one small victory for Iowa’s natural resources. I have my own thoughts on this, and if you can’t guess what they are by now, then I’m a really bad writer. Once again, I have to hand it to agriculture: they gambled 10 years ago that stalling would not be punished and the 63% would eventually become distracted. They knew their obfuscation would be rewarded.

They were right.

Someone who is definitely not a bad writer is Cormac McCarthy. Toward the end of No Country for Old Men, a morose Sheriff Ed Tom Bell visits his hermit uncle Ellis, who is holed up with 12 cats in the ramshackle remains of an old ranch house in the West Texas desert. Ed Tom is despondent because he failed to capture the diabolical murderer, Anton Chigurh, before Chigurh killed several people and made off with $2.4 million in drug money. Ellis is trying to cheer up Ed Tom the best he can when he tells him, “All the time you spend tryin’ to get back what’s been took from you, there’s more going out the door. After a while you just try to get a tourniquet on it.”

Is this where Iowans are, with our water, with our prairie streams and our great border rivers, the wetlands, and the rest of nature that was ‘took’, first from the native people and then from us all? Sometimes I think it is.

Chris Jones, IIHR Research Engineer
Water Quality Monitoring & Research
IIHR — Hydroscience & EngineeringCollege of Engineering

You can sign up for Chris' blog on water quality and agriculture at: https://www.iihr.uiowa.edu/cjones/welcome/


Personal communication, Calvin Wolter, Iowa DNR.

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