Letters to the Editor

Requiem for a river

To the editor:

Yesterday, my family and I did a river float, from just north of Richland to just north of Brighton, a winding 5.5 hours across a small section of eastern Iowa. At the outset, things were much as I expected: the water was muddy brown — the result of field runoff from recent rains, and soil loss from the steep banks that are slowly being eroded by the passing water.

There was trash in the river: plastic bags, bottles and cans, etc., but not too much. We were hoping to see some wildlife and, indeed, there were great blue herons, kingfishers, cliff swallows and the usual kettles of turkey vultures. At one point, we saw a baby raccoon scurrying along the banks. There were fishing folks out in their johnboats, and we had heard reports of good-sized catfish in the river (not that

I would want to eat one, in spite of being a pescatarian). So, no real surprises, either positive or negative. But as we floated I became aware of an increasing melancholy in my spirit whose source was not obvious. Then, upon talking with my wife, Sandy, who felt it also, it came into focus. Where were the turtles? And the frogs? We realized that during the entire trip we had seen not one of either. Turtles, especially, are a barometer species, indicating the state of health — or unhealth — of our river systems.

I’m sure there are snapping turtles lurking in the depths, but they are not the species I’m referring to; I’m talking about the painted turtles and other ecologically sensitive types. We saw none of these, even though we were observing things closely. Contrast this with a recent trip we took on the Rio Grande in SW Texas. There we saw turtles in abundance, despite the Rio’s reputation as one of the more polluted rivers in and by the U.S.

I believe the Skunk River is dying, or already dead, animated by post-mortem cadaveric spasms.

Who is to blame for its untimely death? Certainly the “smoking gun” or “axe in the well” is to be pinned on our present systems of agriculture. Fall tilling, which leaves the soil bare for extended periods; field drains, which we saw sticking through the embankments and which accelerate runoff into the system and form a direct link from farm chemicals to waterways, chemicals such as dicamba (recently made illegal, for good reason), glyphosate, and other herbicides and pesticides; and excess nitrogen, from raw hog manure leaking into waterways — all these, combined, conspired to kill the Skunk River. And they have succeeded. May it R.I.P.

— Mark Stimson, Fairfield