New book is call to action to protect Iowa’s precious waterways

DES MOINES — A new book by an Iowa author implores people to preserve the waterways that sustain our crops — and our lives — by tackling tough issues from climate change to nitrate pollution. Professor Neil Hamilton, who recently retired after 36 years directing the Agricultural Law Center at Drake University, uses the river as a narrator in his book, “The River Knows.”

“The book is designed, in some ways, as a wake-up call and as a way to make people stop and think,” Hamilton says, “to try to get them to think a little bit more about the water and our rivers and streams, how they’re affected and what people can do to try to help protect them.”

Runoff from farm fields has led to multi-million-dollar lawsuits between utilities like Des Moines Water Works and Iowa’s agricultural community. Those nitrates are blamed for causing up to 40-percent of the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an area covering more than six-thousand square miles that’s void of marine and plant life.

“I think Iowans, if we would stop and think about it, should be embarrassed — and concerned — about the amount of pollution that we’re putting into the Missouri and the Mississippi,” Hamilton says, “and how we’re contributing to the dead zone in the Gulf.”

Hamilton, who grew up in southern Iowa’s Adams County near Lenox, says it’s a true challenge to reach a solution when we’re raising crops on some 25-million acres of land every year. Asking farmers to voluntarily change their ways, he says, isn’t working.

“It’s clear that there are things that we can do that can help us limit the nitrogen use and nitrogen loss,” he says, “and I don’t think that we have engaged with the issue yet as much as we should.”

“The River Knows” is the sequel to Hamilton’s 2022 book, “The Land Remains,” where Iowa’s fertile, underappreciated soil told its own story.
“The river has a different story than the land, right? The land is fairly stable and surrounded by people, whereas the river flows every day. It’s a public resource,” Hamilton says. “And as the book says, the river suffers more insults on a daily basis than perhaps the land will ever know.”

Clean water is both endangered and resilient, he says, and Hamilton remains optimistic water warriors will rise to defend rivers and streams, preserving them for future generations.

The book is available at many Iowa bookstores and through the publisher, Ice Cube Press, based in North Liberty.