Rules optional for some, mandatory for others

You know how some memories stick with you for no logical reason? One such memory involves my dad in the 1960s when I was a teenager.

After World War II, my father worked for the City of Bloomfield, eventually becoming operator of the city’s water treatment plant.

Pop graduated from high school on the eve of the Great Depression. His most intense period of book-learning after high school came in the 1960s when Iowa decided to require state licenses for operators of municipal water treatment plants and sewage treatment plants.

After so many years away from the classroom, this was a time of anxiety as Pop prepared for the licensing exam. He attended classes at night and had his nose in textbooks other evenings.

I mention this, because this was about 60 years ago. More recently, a different and far larger contingent of Iowans has been experiencing anxiety over state regulations. But this time the anxiety involves people angry the government is turning its back on the same reasons for requiring Iowa cities and towns to have state-licensed operators of their water treatment and sewage treatment facilities.

The basis for the state’s decision in the 1960s was simple — and it was one Pop did not quarrel with, even amidst the stress it created for him.

The state believed back then that establishing mandatory training and operational standards for these treatment plants was necessary to ensure the quality and safety of Iowa’s drinking water and our public water sources.

State officials did not want Iowans drinking unsafe water. Officials did not want Iowa’s rivers and lakes to be polluted with untreated sewage from municipal wastewater systems. Officials did not want human waste running down the streets the way it does in some poor nations.

These were not voluntary standards cities like Bloomfield could choose to meet. Compliance was not optional. Owners of manufacturing and processing plants faced similar water and air quality standards decades ago — and meeting those standards was not optional for them, either.

The owners may have grumbled about these regulations. But in the end, they accepted the reality the air over their businesses and the water supplies they relied on belong to everyone and not just to their businesses.

Americans knew following these scientific practices was necessary if society was going to ensure our water was safe to drink, cook with, swim in and take fish from.

The attitude a half-century ago — doing something, despite the cost, because it is for the greater good — is far different from the hands-off approach Iowa government officials take today when the subject turns to the pollution of Iowa’s rivers and lakes by livestock wastes and farm chemicals.

State officials launched a voluntary program for reducing this pollution in 2013. Ten years later, any improvement has been negligible, at best.

The Des Moines Register wrote recently in an editorial, “Agriculture-related pollution is not getting better in Iowa. Water quality is not getting better in Iowa. What we are doing is not working. Policymakers and ag groups need to start over to find an approach that does more than shrug at the depressing data.”

One person who refuses to shrug is Chris Jones. The retired water quality research scientist at the University of Iowa discusses his assessment of our water problems in his sobering book, “The Swine Republic,” which was published in 2023 by the Ice Cube Press of North Liberty. It is still available, and I encourage you to read it.

Jones believes Iowans fail to understand just how huge the water quality problem is in our state.

Iowa’s population includes 3 million humans, and nearly all their waste is processed in the municipal sewage treatment plants that are closely regulated by the state and federal governments.

There is no comparable treatment required of the wastes produced in enormous quantities by Iowa’s animal population — approximately 23 million hogs, 250,000 dairy cattle, 1.8 million beef cattle, 80 million egg-laying chickens, and 4.7 million turkeys, Jones wrote.

Most people do not realize these animals, in total, produce vastly more manure than the humans who live here. The animal waste in Iowa is equivalent to the amount that would be produced if the state had a human population of 168 million people, rather than 3 million humans, Jones found.

And Jones writes no other state produces more fecal waste from livestock **per square mile** than Iowa does. It is the equivalent of what would be produced if 2,979 humans lived in each square mile of this state.

Statewide, the livestock manure produced in Iowa is equivalent to the amount of fecal waste a state with 168 million people would produce, Jones found. Of course, no state has a population that large. California is the largest, with 39 million people. Texas is next with 30 million people.

That livestock waste in Iowa is being spread on farm ground, where rains and melting snow often wash it into streams, rivers and lakes before it can be taken up as an organic fertilizer. That contamination of surface water supplies is why people are discouraged from swimming in many rivers and lakes in Iowa, using some of our state beaches, or eating fish they pull from these waters.

Livestock production certainly has a positive effect on Iowa’s economy. It means thousands of jobs, in livestock confinement facilities, in trucking, meat packing, farm supply sales and similar businesses.

But what Jones calls “the environmental wreckage” that goes along with being a top ag state needs to be addressed, too — even if our political leaders prefer to minimize its effects.

Iowans would not stand still for human sewage flowing through the streets of our communities. Nor should we be complacent with livestock wastes washing into our rivers and lakes the way is does. There is no logic in having standards that some must meet while others get a pass.

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Randy Evans can be reached at

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