He Told the Truth About Iowa’s Polluted Water and Then He Lost His Job
An interview with Chris Jones about the truth and the environment
For eight years, Chris Jones worked as a research engineer at the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research, part of the University of Iowa, and had a blog hosted on the university's website. There, he wrote with immediacy and emotion about water quality and agricultural issues. In a post about water and social justice, published in 2022, Jones wrote, “Our water here in Iowa is polluted just as legally as black people were segregated. The agricultural and political establishments have made sure of that. For industry and its practitioners who mostly claim to embrace conservative and traditional and moral values, should not the standard be what is just? Call me crazy, but if agriculture had the moral high ground here, they probably wouldn't need ‘communicators’ to force-feed us on how righteous they are.”
It’s easy for scientists, environmentalists, and activists to get so bogged down in the minutiae of nitrate levels and alluvial groundwater wells that their readers' eyes begin to glaze over. Jones’ posts were able to break through the technical to the immediacy of problems that affect people’s everyday lives.
And that’s exactly what got him into trouble. On April 2, Jones wrote his last blog post for the university website. He decided to shut down the blog and take early retirement after the university received pushback from lawmakers, who allegedly insinuated that his posts put the university’s funding at risk. Jones alleges that the lawmakers who complained to the university were Iowa State Sens. Dan Zumbach and Tom Shipley. Zumbach’s son-in-law operates a cattle feedlot that was criticized in one of Jones’ posts.
Jones’ story is not just about local politicians squabbling with a researcher over nitrate levels and the ego battles between politicians and academics. It’s about the truth of how pollution affects our land, and the cultural and political forces that work to silence that truth.
It’s an exhaustingly relevant American story about who has the freedom to speak and who has the power to silence.
I spoke to Jones about his work, the reason he had to stop blogging, and why we cannot stop poisoning the only world we have. A collection of Jones’ blog posts will soon be published as a book, The Swine Republic, out on May 19. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lyz: Your blog made a very complex issue accessible — you wrote about water quality and agricultural issues with immediacy and emotion.
Chris Jones: It’s a complicated topic and people are intimidated by the science end of things. And so an obstacle to progress has been the inability of general audiences to wrap their heads around it all. So that's what I tried to do with the writing — to connect the dots. If the public doesn't understand issues clearly, we're not going to solve them.
Lyz: But it's that exact writing style, it seems, that has gotten your blog canceled.
Jones: That's right. People at Iowa State in the College of Agriculture have blogs and they talk about the same things that I do, whatever it might be, nitrogen application or manure management or whatever, but they're written in more of just this white paper style. When I read something, I want to be entertained. I don't just want to read some dry thing. And so I try to entertain people [and] at the same time try to help people learn something.
Lyz: Can you tell me about the blog being shut down?
Jones: When I came to the University of Iowa in 2015, they immediately encouraged me to set up a website, which I did. Any person with an academic appointment here can do this. I started writing essays from the very beginning. In some of my previous jobs I had done some writing for public audiences and general audiences, and always thought I was adequate.
So I started writing these in the first couple of years. I mean, hardly anybody read them. I had some stuff that was read by three people. Then I wrote one, I believe this was 2018 or 2019, and it was called, “This Is What Happened.” It was sort of a history of how agriculture had evolved in Iowa and how the degradation of our water happened right along with it. And that one … I thought, “This is pretty decent.” And so I sent it to, I don't know, maybe 100 or 200 people in my address book and it got a really good response. And I think that one was read pretty widely. After that, it kind of took off … I saw that people liked the provocativeness of my writing.
So each subsequent one that I wrote, I would just try to bite off a little bit more in terms of what I revealed and what I thought was the truth about these subjects. I think as they became more provocative, more people became interested. In 2020, I believe, I wrote one that talked about water quality in the context of social justice, and this one revolved around the city of Ottumwa. In Ottumwa, the drinking water supply is impaired with nitrate. The community is one of the poorest in Iowa. Their water and wastewater treatment plants really have been aging and need upgrades and they don't have the money to do that. At the same time, they have a big meat-packing plant down there, a JBS meat-packing plant that processes, I think, about a million pounds of pork per day.
You have a lot of immigrants and people of color that work in the meat packing plant. Ottumwa also is where my grandparents were from, and so I wrote this essay in the context of all these things sort of swirling around and how the workforce depended on the hogs to slaughter there; they were in effect part and parcel of their polluted water. So one of the legislators did not like this one at all and seemed to think that the piece implied that farmers were racist, which was not implied in there at all. However, I did point out that 99.7 percent of Iowa farmers are white. And that down there in Ottumwa, we had all these people of color that had their water being polluted by these upstream white farmers, and they're down there slaughtering hogs. This is sort of the story of environmental injustice in this country.
So he didn't like it. He sent an email to some of my superiors saying, "Gee, I sure hope these essays don't harm the reputation of the flood center and IIHR” and these sorts of things.
That dust-up was eventually reported in the Cedar Rapids Gazette. And then here recently, I had written this one about trout fishing in Iowa, and it called out the Farm Bureau by name and it used some images from their website where they were trying to claim credit for some improved trout fishing in northeast Iowa, which as I said in the essay was an idea I found repulsive.
Immediately after that, two guys from the legislature came to the university lobbyist and said, "Look, you're over here asking for money for various programs, including the flood center, while at the same time you let this go on," meaning the blog. And they handed him a couple hard copies of the blog. Then it came back over here, and my boss said, "Look, the university doesn't want you to be posting these on the university channels or the university domain anymore." I knew that potentially this day might come and so we talked about it as colleagues and agreed that I would write one last piece as sort of a goodbye, and then I would consider taking the blog to an off-campus domain. I was good with that.
I wrote a first draft, I sent it to him, he sent it over to the administration. And in that first draft, I had put at the end a couple of sentences that said something to the effect that I knew the entire time I was writing these essays that I was basically a dog chasing cars and that even a three-legged dog like me can get too close to the rear wheels once in a while, and that’s what happened. The administration came back and said, "I can't put that in there." I could not say or imply that the legislature was pressuring the university to end the blog. And I said to my boss, "This is in my mind an ethics issue in that I'm being told that I can't say or even imply something that objectively happened, and that's a bad place for an institution to go."
So anyway, I went back and I edited it, and I posted it, and I thought about going to an off-campus domain with the blog but then I always thought after this, I was going to be reticent to talk about things as honestly. I did not want to jeopardize funding for any programs. I didn't want to jeopardize anybody's job. And so I talked to some of my people and my financial guy and said, "Can I retire now?" And he said, "Yes, I think you can." And so I just decided it was best to just call this the end. And so I'm retiring here in two weeks.
Lyz: You are part of a proud tradition of people writing in Iowa who have faced backlash from politicians, among them me and Aaron Calvin… How did you feel about how this was handled by the university?
Jones: Well, firstly, I would say prior to this, the university did have my back and I got zero pushback from anyone in the university on this, all these years that I had been writing blogs. I had several letters from previous university presidents thanking me for taking the initiative to communicate scientific information to the general public. And so this had been seen within the university community as a positive, but as soon as one guy in Des Moines says "boo" about it, they just kind of fold up like a lawn chair. I mean, that tells you the state of affairs in academia.
And I would say that scholars, if you will, in these institutions of higher learning are not without blame here because we've all become so siloed in our thing, and what gets lost in this is how our work benefits the public, if at all, and whether we even try to communicate that. I think we have completely absolved ourselves of any responsibility of communicating information to the public.
So I think academics should be wary of siloing themselves into irrelevance. I think it's bad to tell people that they can't tell the truth. And I think in any society, that's really a destructive thing to be happening.
Lyz: What happened to you is emblematic of the crisis our country seems to be in right now over truth and learning and who gets to know and who doesn't.
Jones: The whole time I was writing this stuff over the years, a lot of people got mad at me, but nobody came to me and said I was wrong.
So if they come and say, "Oh, this work is riddled with errors and it's not credible," that's one thing. But if they just don't like the style or they just don't like the fact that it's annoying to them, that's a really bad place to be.
I think the other thing is when people react the way they do, that tells us how insecure they are about what they're doing. And so in Iowa, my thing is agriculture and water quality and so if [lawmakers] can bear no dissent or criticism about the system, that should tell people they're awfully insecure about what they're doing.
Lyz: We are in a crisis with our water. I was just up in McGregor last weekend looking at the flooding and somebody there said that there are parts of the Mississippi riverbed that are considered basically toxic waste. As a result, we are killing the Gulf of Mexico and we’ve been doing so for years.
Jones: I think people are numb to it. I mean, these stories have been around for so long. The Des Moines Waterworks, for example, is the largest nitrate removal facility in the world, well, people have been hearing about that facility since 1993. I mean, that was 30 years ago. And we still have not made any progress in solving problems like that. We have thousands of private wells in Iowa that have been contaminated to unsafe levels of nitrate, we have 25 percent of the population that's drinking water that has been treated for nitrate removal. And so we've been hearing this for so long, and the problem is of such a magnitude that I think people are numb. Maybe that's why the blog connected a little bit, because when you read it, maybe you don't feel numb. I don't know.
But the other issue we have here in Iowa is people really have no idea what our streams should look like. And so when we drive across the countryside, we see these streams and they're way down in a canyon and they've been straightened. And the banks are these steep banks of dirt. That is not what they looked like when the Europeans got here.
All the modification of the landscape caused the hydrology of these streams to be completely altered, so now they just look entirely different than what they're supposed to look like. But if you drove across the countryside, how would you know that?
“…and so if [lawmakers] can bear no dissent or criticism about the system, that should tell people they're awfully insecure about what they're doing.”
Lyz: Something that struck me about your book was how drastically humans have altered the environment. We have no idea what is natural anymore.
Jones: I always say the 20th century was the century of the engineer. Everything we see when we look out our window, our car window, our office window or whatever has been changed by engineering. And so we've engineered the water to go away. We've engineered the soil and the landscape in general to support corn and soy production and nothing else. We've removed a lot of the native vegetation, the eastern white pine and oak forest that we had in northeast Iowa, and then the floodplain forests are degraded with invasive species and so forth. There's nothing left here that's still in its natural condition, so we don't have reference points.
Lyz: Do you think that there's hope here? Is there any way to fix what we're doing to the land? We all love this place, so why can't we stop poisoning it?
Jones: I think in some areas it is hopeless. This is especially streams that flow to the Missouri River, and the hydrology there in western Iowa is so altered that these streams have all been straightened to square up fields for farming. As a consequence, they've eroded downward. As they approach the Missouri River there's even more downward erosion. I think trying to restore any of that is probably a non-starter from an economic perspective.
I think what we need to do is identify things here that we have that still have some integrity and then fight like hell to preserve them. A lot of it is in northeast Iowa. The Loess Hills would be another example, but I would say, especially northeast Iowa. It does not make sense to spend public money on watershed projects in western Iowa. Those streams are not coming back without another ice age.
Let's preserve what we have. It's not hopeless, but I do think we need to be very reflective on how we spend public dollars on this.
Lyz: Farmers, who are less than 1 percent of the United States population, have such a stranglehold over our politics. Even nationally, we seem to pander to this minority stakeholder and throw a lot of money at them. And like you said, Republicans and Democrats do this, and it hasn't changed a thing and our water just keeps getting worse and worse and worse. Something's got to break.
Jones: People, especially Republicans, think I'm partisan. Well, I'm not. I do plenty of criticizing of Democrats.
I write a lot about how ethanol needs to go. It needs to go if we're going to have some environmental integrity here. And Democrats have been big supporters of the ethanol industry. Inevitably when you see a person running for office for the Democratic Party, and you see their TV commercials, what are they doing? They're out on some farm with some millionaire farmer dressed up in farm clothes. A lot of this is [because] farmers still poll pretty high when the public is asked to evaluate various occupations and so forth. And so politicians want to get next to that. They know that the public has this image of the farmer being this hardscrabble agrarian, and people and politicians want to be identified with that. Well, the truth is, it's a very small percentage of the population. But over 20 percent of our legislature comprises farmers.
You think here, well, if 20 percent of our legislature was teachers or whatever occupation you want, nurses, how would things look? Well, probably different. We'd probably see some different things happening.
Lyz: In your book, you wrote, "I can hardly believe we've gotten to this place. I firmly believe that if we are going to solve problems, we all ought to be able to talk about them openly, especially when they involve things we hold in common, like our lakes, streams, air and wildlife." I think that's so, so essential. And if we don't have those places like universities or newspapers to talk about them, we're in big trouble.
Jones: It's how democracy ends – when we lose the discourse about these basic things that affect our lives.