13 Takeaways from Art Cullen’s “The River Runs Toxic: A Warning From Iowa”

On September 10th, Art Cullen appeared on South Dakota Public Radio to talk about water pollution in the upper Midwest.

1.    Following the suit by the Des Moines water treatment plant, the entities (counties bordering the Raccoon River) being sued had plenty of “dark monies” to use in their defense.

2.    Our entire Midwestern river systems from the far north to the Gulf of Mexico are being threatened by our contemporary agricultural practices.  Sure, we can have 200 bushel corn, but we’ll have a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico about the size of New Jersey. 

3.    Rivers in southwest Minnesota and the Rock River in Iowa are essentially dead.  The Minnesota River is an aquatic dead zone.  In South Dakota, the health of the Big Sioux River is also in doubt. 

4.    After 38 years of editing for the “Storm Lake Times”, Art Cullen can appreciate all perspectives.  In the last four decades agriculture has greatly intensified.  Farmers have no choice; they become locked into the intensive agriculture system.

5.    The problem – how do we sustain our land and water resources in a sustainable manner over the long run?

6.    A looming future problem – how do we sustain agricultural production with a growing global population and decreasing acres of agricultural land (globally) in the context of global climate change.  In short, what does the future hold?

7.    We are already seeing increasing soil loss, increased rainfall, decreased crop production (efficiency?)

8.    Push back from the ag community:  County Board of Supervisors (Raccoon River counties) accused Art Cullen of being anti-agriculture.  But this is not the case.  Art Cullen is simply being realistic and reasonable.  Storm Lake is already being filling in by sediment; it will one day disappear. 

9.    Our collective attitude regarding agriculture has to change.  It’s not just money but stewardship.  Iowa is the best place in the world go grow corn, but currently, the corn and soy operations are simply not sustainable.  

10.  In addition, we implement so few remedial actions like riparian buffer strips along rivers and other conservation measures.  Art Cullen has photographs of soybeans planted “over river banks” adjacent to stream channels.

11.  Productivity of the land is NOT a lost cause.  Our topsoil can be regenerated and revitalized but now, we experience a net loss in fertility.  Constructive practices include cover crops, pastures, cattle grazing on the land, and others like riparian buffers, conservation easements, and many others.  Need to look to our past – how did former agricultural practices enable us to farm sustainably.  How did Native Americans farm sustainably?  

12.  The Great Plains are changing rapidly physically, biologically, and socially.  The city of Storm Lake, being a huge agricultural processing city, has a large population of minorities and schools are making necessary adjustments.  

13.  Art Cullen is publishing a book on this entire Des Moines, Raccoon River, intensive agricultural experience entitled “Storm Lake”.  Publication date is October 2, 2018.