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Author Chris Jones wades into agriculture's grip on Iowa's water quality in his new book 'The Swine Republic'

Chris Jones poses outside in front of a tree in Iowa City.
Clay Masters
Dr. Chris Jones, author of The Swine Republic, poses for a photo outside IPR's Iowa City Studios a few days ahead of his retirement as a research engineer at University of Iowa's IIHR .

University of Iowa Research Engineer Chris Jones is abruptly retiring. Jones spent years researching and writing about Iowa’s water quality. He worked for the Iowa Soybean Association and Des Moines Water Works prior to his time at the University of Iowa.

Dr. Jones has a new book out Friday from Ice Cube Press called The Swine Republic: Struggles with the Truth about Agriculture and Water Quality. The book is largely a collection of essays that first appeared on his University of Iowa blog. Jones says it’s an effort to explain to a general audience how Iowa’s politics, economics and culture affect Iowa’s water quality.

“[Academics] have sort of forgotten how to talk to general audiences,” Jones says. “Taxpayers are the ones that pay for the work that we do and they should have an expectation that we bring that information to them in an understandable way.”

His writings have led to controversy over funding for the stream monitoring system he runs. Jones says two Republican senators pressed the university to halt his blog by insinuating that university funding was at risk. One of the senators, Dan Zumbach of Ryan, denied this allegation to the Iowa Capital Dispatch– calling it “potentially defamatory.”

IPR’s Clay Masters talked to Chris Jones about The Swine Republic.

CLAY MASTERS: It’s been ten years since The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was released, which is a kind of a laundry list of different practices farmers can do voluntarily to help clean up nonpoint pollutants in Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams. Have things changed in the last decade towards better water quality in the state?

CHRIS JONES: “In terms of our statewide loss of nitrogen and phosphorus to our streams, no, it has not improved. This line that you hear all the time from politicians and others in industry that “the nutrient strategy” is working. People just blurt that out and it's just become sort of ridiculous and trite. The thing I tell people is you need to understand the primary objective of the nutrient strategy was not to clean up the water.

“The primary objective of the nutrient strategy was to convince EPA not to regulate nutrient pollution in the Mississippi River basin like they do in the Chesapeake Bay area. [That’s] where the federal government and the state governments have taken a regulatory approach. There was great trepidation that that same approach would be taken in the Mississippi River basin. So, the nutrient strategy was meant to serve as a sort of totem [to say] we're trying to do something, this doesn't need to be regulated.

“That was the objective of the nutrient strategy to begin with. So, in that context, the nutrient strategy has worked. It's worked splendidly for industry in preventing the federal government from regulating this here.”

CM: You lay out that a criticism that you get is that you're frustrated and you're not talking about solutions. You do lay out a number of solutions in the book. How would you get meaningful regulation in the state?

CJ: “Well, I think we have to look at the morality of our existing policy. Our existing policy gives farmers license to do basically whatever they want on their land. At the same time, the taxpayer subsidizes the system through various programs, both [with] federal and state programs. And then we also are asked to pay to mitigate the pollution. In my estimation, that's morally bankrupt policy. Farmers, by and large, are not poor people in Iowa. We ask people of lesser income and lesser means to fund all this stuff. I just think it's wrong.”

“I think we need an understanding of the workings of the existing policy, firstly. There's common sense things we know that we could do now that would improve water quality now. Fall tillage, for example… Any drive across the countryside, this past winter, you saw [the worst] wind erosion I've ever seen. The dirt in the snow drifts in the ditches. So, would banning fall tillage work? Of course, it would work. It would work to reduce wind erosion.”

“When you see people on industry and in politics say ‘regulation wouldn't work,’ well, sure. It wouldn't work for farmers. Right? It's not going to work for farmers. But would it work for the common good? Of course it would. These things cost the taxpayer nothing. Why should we not have an expectation to say that the system should be operated in certain ways when we're helping underwrite it?

CM: The Nutrient Reduction Strategy in 2013 came along. Then in 2015, there was a very high profile lawsuit that the Des Moines Water Works put forward that ultimately failed in the courts. These issues got the general public talking about water quality. How do you see, as you're leaving your post at the University of Iowa, the conversation keep moving?

CJ: Well, I think we're really at a crossroads here with our production systems. That's because ethanol seems to be on its way out. It's clear that it's going to die sometime. I think the question is that sometime going to be in five or 30 years. We have an enormous amount of our land in production for corn to produce ethanol. What are we going to do with that land moving forward?

“We need to be talking about that now - right now - and so on. What can we transition those acres to? That would help farmers retain prosperity, but at the same time, help us get the environmental outcomes that we want. We need to be talking about that now. This day is coming when ethanol is going away, this is the opportunity we've, this is the best opportunity we've ever had to modify the system to help it deliver the environmental outcomes that we want.”

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Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.