University researcher says senators sought to silence him by threatening stream monitoring funds

by Jared Strong, Iowa Capital Dispatch
May 3, 2023

A researcher at the University of Iowa says two Republican senators pressed the university to halt his blog — which included unflattering critiques of the state’s agricultural practices and water quality — by insinuating that university funding was at risk, according to the researcher.

Chris Jones, a research engineer for the university’s Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research, said he agreed with his superiors to cease his writings on the university’s website. He had anticipated some sort of threat from lawmakers who disagree with him, and he was nearing retirement anyway. His last blog post published April 2.

Jones alleges the threat came from Sens. Dan Zumbach of Ryan and Tom Shipley of Nodaway. Zumbach denied the allegation. Shipley did not respond to requests for comment.

“No threat to funding was ever made because of the content of a blog,” Zumbach told the Iowa Capital Dispatch. “Any assertion to the contrary is reckless and potentially defamatory.”

Jones further alleges that even after he and the university capitulated to the senators’ demands, they advanced legislation that would strip funding from a stream-monitoring system Jones coordinates that tracks nitrate at dozens of sites across the state.

“These guys don’t operate in good faith,” Jones told Capital Dispatch. “They demand something and then they come back later for more. … This has got to end somewhere. How long can people let these guys operate like this?”

Iowa Sen. Dan Zumbach is a Republican from Ryan. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

The situation was first reported by Robert Leonard, author of the blog “Deep Midwest: Politics and Culture.”

Jones said the senators were apparently perturbed by two of his posts and provided printed copies of them to a university lobbyist.

“They said, ‘Look, you can’t be over here asking for money for various programs through the university while you continue to let this go on,’” Jones said, recounting what he had been told by a superior.

The lobbyist did not respond to a request to comment for this article. Zumbach did not elaborate on the encounter.

The posts included one that examined water quality as an issue of social justice — “Our water here in Iowa is polluted just as legally as black people were segregated,” it said — and one that mentioned a controversial cattle feedlot that is operated by Zumbach’s son-in-law.

The large northeast Iowa feedlot is controversial because of its proximity to Bloody Run Creek — a premier trout stream — and because Zumbach intervened to help get the facility built. A district court judge invalidated the feedlot’s plan for handling its manure last week. Environmentalists fear a leak from the facility could devastate the stream.

Another state lawmaker claimed Jones was “race-baiting” in 2021 in an essay that said racial-minority and low-income residents are more likely to have low-quality drinking water that is polluted by agriculture, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette. The lawmaker said he might reverse his support for professor tenure, which protects their employment and is meant to promote academic freedom.

In Jones’ final blog post on April 2, he bemoaned what he perceives as preferential treatment given to farmers compared with non-farmers and noted that it would be his last essay on the blog. The blog posts are still available on the university’s website and are also hosted on Jones’ new site, called “The Swine Republic,” which shares a name with a book of his essays that is set to go on sale this month.

He also is set to retire in about two weeks. Before the kerfuffle with the lawmakers, he had planned to work for at least one more year.

Jones questions whether it was wise to yield to the lawmakers’ demands and said academics have been too willing to make concessions to ensure their research will be funded.

“People in academia are playing the short game,” Jones said. “You’re enticed by a little bit of money here and a little bit of money there to do the work that you want, without recognizing that agriculture is playing the long game, and when that’s the case they’re going to prevail. And they have prevailed.”

The situation with Shipley and Zumbach is one example, he said: They got what they wanted and still cut funding.

The Iowa Water Quality Information System aggregates nitrate data from dozens of streams and rivers in the state. (Screenshot of the IWQIS website)

A Senate appropriations bill that sets funding levels for two state departments that oversee agriculture and natural resources is poised to take $500,000 annually from the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, which funds the Iowa Water Quality Information System. It passed the Senate 33-16 last week and was approved by the House 62-33 on Tuesday.

That system, which is coordinated by Jones, collects nitrate pollution data from the state’s rivers — a key set of metrics to determine whether the state is achieving its nitrate-reduction goals. Two of its monitoring sites are near the controversial feedlot.

Jones said the system has also enabled other research projects that have totaled more than $100 million but will likely cease to function without the state funding.

“That’s what these two guys are killing,” Jones said of the senators. “And they don’t care, because one of ’em’s son-in-law has a (cattle feedlot) up at Bloody Run Creek.”

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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