Political Ecology of Water Quality in Des Moines, Iowa: Agriculture and Identity In the Prairie Pothole

Authors: Anaya Hall*,
Topics: Agricultural Geography
Keywords: political ecology, water quality, agriculture
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/9/2021
Start / End Time: 9:35 AM / 10:50 AM
Room: Virtual 27
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

In 2015, Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) filed a federal lawsuit against three upstream agricultural counties alleging that the drainage districts had violated federal water quality standards. Though the suit was ultimately dismissed, the unprecedented action ignited fierce debate over industrial agricultural production in the Des Moines watershed. In this paper, I investigate the origin and progression of this conflict through the productivist discourse that shaped the history and materiality of row crop agriculture in Iowa with particular attention to two critical factors of production: drainage tiles and nitrogen fertilizers. Situated within a cultural discourse on agriculture and reclamation, the lawsuit garnered national attention and led claimants to articulate identities in line with larger political agendas. The struggle over drinking water quality in Iowa is a struggle over the meaning of the prairie pothole landscape. The DMWW lawsuit flattened the debate into a simple dichotomy pitting municipal water users against agricultural producers and escalated cultural tensions surrounding the agency of ‘nature’ and the territorial control of water. Although the suit strategically juxtaposed urban and agricultural positionalities, I argue that this narrative is problematic in that it serves to invisiblize rural residents - particularly vulnerable to agricultural externalities - and unfairly blames farmers, whose ability to practice conservation is constrained by simultaneous ecological, political, and economic processes. The competing claims illuminate how water and its meanings across the landscape are subject to territorializing narratives and transformed by federal and state agricultural policies and capitalist production dynamics.

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