Lawmaker argues with University of Iowa researchers over water quality

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Larry Weber (center), director of IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering, speaks on June 6, 2016, during a press conference at the University of Iowa with then-U.S. representative Dave Loebsack (right). Left, Witek Krajewski, director of the Iowa Flood Center. (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette)

IOWA CITY – Faculty members at the University of Iowa said they were surprised by an email they received from an eastern Iowa lawmaker who said his Support for their programs, or protecting faculty tenure, was in jeopardy after an opinion piece written by an IU researcher on race and water quality.

“I have supported academic freedom on campus and even voted against eliminating tenure on college campuses,” Rep. Chad Ingels, R-Randalia, wrote in the March 26 email. . “However, public comments like these make me reconsider my position.”

Rep. Chad Ingels, R-Randalia

The email was sent to Witold Krajewski, Director of the Iowa Flood Center, with copies to Gabriele Villarini, Professor of User Interface Engineering and Director of IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering, and Representative Holly Brink, R-Keokuk.

Ingels, who is vice chairman of the Iowa House agriculture committee, said he was angered by an opinion piece on the Civil Eats website on March 26 by Chris Jones, a research engineer from the IIHR who also writes a blog on water quality.

The Civil Eats article, adapted from one of Jones’ blog posts, discusses how low-income and minority Iowans are disproportionately affected by poor water quality. Jones is focusing on Ottumwa, where 14% of the population is Latino and 5% is black, he said. The city draws water from the Des Moines River, which has high levels of nitrates mainly from agriculture. The aging Ottumwa water treatment plant lacks the capacity to remove nitrates, and quarry water the city uses to dilute river water may contain algae, Jones notes.

It was Jones’ implication that farmers – largely older white males – are racist for not doing more to improve the quality of the water that burned Ingels, the lawmaker told The Gazette.

“That’s how I took it,” Ingels said. “I didn’t like it, it made me feel that way.”

The practices that farmers in Iowa use to grow crops and raise animals have evolved over time to help farmers stay in business and provide food for the nation, Ingels said. Farmers in Iowa produce about 7.5 percent of the nation’s food supply, according to the US Department of Agriculture. On his own farm, Ingels does not plow and plants cover crops – practices that improve water quality.

“He focused entirely on the brown and black communities,” Ingels said of Jones’ essay. “There are communities all over this state that are predominantly white who have the same issues that may not be able to manage their wastewater. It is a socio-economic concern rather than a racial concern. I don’t think race should be involved in this.

Ingels said in the email that Jones’ “racial bait” could damage the credibility of the IIHR, an institute that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2020, and make Republican lawmakers less likely to support the efforts. water quality.

In 2017, the Iowa Legislature threatened to cut public funding for the Iowa Flood Center, likely due to misconceptions that the unit also oversees water quality research by Jones and d ‘other scientists. Most of that money was restored under a budget amendment that came after an outcry from communities who benefited from the Flood Center’s flood modeling.

Krajewski responded to Ingels’ email the same day, thanking lawmakers for voting against a bill to abolish tenure, which Krajewski said “allows for scientific discourse and debate of ideas. and perspectives “.

He told Ingels that Jones “is an honest person, very knowledgeable and passionate about water quality issues in Iowa.”

Jones, who saw the email, said “It’s curious that I seem to have hurt feelings like this when at the same time we have a metro area of ​​600,000 people looking for a new source of potable water ”- referring to Des Moines, the upstream neighbor of Ottumwa who already has a nitrate disposal facility and is now considering digging wells to ensure potable water, the Associated Press reported.

“How do you separate socioeconomic status and race in the United States? Jones asked. “We have a lot of immigrant labor working in the pork processing facilities, one of which is in Ottumwa. These things are quite closely related in my observation.

Larry Weber, a professor of user interface engineering who has served on state and national water quality groups, also recently drew criticism from Ingels after speaking about water quality in Iowa PBS’s “Iowa Press” show on June 18.

In a three-part tweet on June 19, Ingels said Weber “has misled the public” by claiming that manure is washing away farm fields into streams and lakes. “Of course we can do better to improve water quality, but let’s do it honestly,” Ingels said.

Manure is typically injected into the soil, where it breaks down into components including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, Ingels said in the tweet. While excess nutrients from manure and commercial fertilizers end up in Iowa’s waterways, it’s not raw manure, he told The Gazette.

“The manure that gets into your water looks a lot worse than the nutrient and phosphorus components that get into your water,” he said, acknowledging that he might split hair into four.

Weber said it appeared Ingels was trying to discredit the IU professor’s appearance on “Iowa Press.” “Our work is published, it is based on facts and science,” he said.

Rather than helping each other on social media, Weber said, he would be happy to have a conversation with Ingels about ways to improve water quality, such as digitizing manure management plans so that the mapping can be done to ensure that the manure is not finished. applied.

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