Read highlights from Art Cullen's Pulitzer Prize-winning editorials

The best news out of Iowa last week was Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for “editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.” Our state’s journalism community has long recognized the quality of Cullen’s work. The same series of columns earned him one of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council’s Skip Weber Friend of the First Amendment awards last year.

Cullen will donate most of his prize money to non-profits, including charities assisting refugees and the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, whose executive director Randy Evans helped Cullen press his case with Buena Vista County leaders who were withholding public records. Speaking to James Warren of Poynter and Jared Strong of the Carroll Daily Times Herald, Cullen went out of his way to credit his son, Tom Cullen, who “did most of the heavy lifting” while digging into who was paying for the legal defense of three counties sued by the Des Moines Water Works.

The Storm Lake Times posted all of the winning editorials on this page. Links to the individual columns are on the Pulitzer Prize website. I enclose below excerpts from those columns, from Storm Lake Times publisher John Cullen’s tribute to his brother, and from Art Cullen’s “thank you” column. I hope this post will inspire Bleeding Heartland readers not only to click through and read last year’s award-winning work, but also to bookmark the Storm Lake Times website and check its opinion page regularly.

From “BV is losing the public,” March 2, 2016:

Anyone can see how filthy Storm Lake is, how the Des Moines River near Humboldt is a mud flow, how shallow lakes in Northwest Iowa have eroded into duck marshes.

Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion.

Everyone knows it’s not the city sewer plant causing the problem. And most of us recognize that this is not just nature at work busily releasing nitrates into the water. Ninety-two percent of surface water pollution comes from row crop production — an incontroverted fact from the court case. […]

The Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors appears to have a religious tenet that drainage districts shall not be regulated. They are willing to gamble the future of agriculture and the county’s taxpayers on that belief. We think they should look for the first opening to settle the case, but they would rather spend our money on three law firms (in Storm Lake, Des Moines and Washington) without bothering to wonder how much it will cost.

From “Wrong assumptions,” March 11, 2016:

It is wrongly assumed that we need to spend $4.7 billion — actually, more like $15 billion when you factor in federal and private cost-shares — to clean up our nitrate problem. We did not have a nitrate problem when he had a 10% acreage set-aside under the federal farm program using the same basic cropping practices. If we devoted 10% of Iowa’s row-crop acres to pasture or other grassland practices we would eliminate the problem. That is but one solution that would not necessarily cost anyone money, but might increase economic activity by increasing corn, ethanol and livestock prices.

Which leads to our other problem with assumptions: that sustainable agricultural practices do not inherently have economic value, which in fact they do. […]

As we have said for many years, we have been throwing money at soil and water conservation for nearly a century, but it keeps getting worse. That’s because we plow through the fencelines, all over the river bottoms and into the ditches. Every acre must be maximized for corn and its nitrogen-fixing alternate, soybeans.

We have legislated away any control over the agri-industrial complex that lives off natural resource depletion and pollution. Everything must be voluntary. Hence, Iowa has lost creek buffers, pasture and in-field grass strips since 2009. The costs are assessed to the City of Storm Lake and State of Iowa in dredging bills and to the Des Moines Water Works for its nitrate-removal system.

The water works has discovered that stewardship cannot be purchased. It must be litigated. The utility’s principal aim is to make non-point source pollution (ag runoff) subject to permitted regulation under the Clean Water Act. If regulation were imposed (as it was in pre-Earl Butz farm bills) markets would figure out how to allocate resources. Let the markets decide how to react — farmers and landowners consulting with agronomists on how best to meet the regulatory framework. Some might want to meet those goals with bioreactors, some with a cow-calf herd on marginal rolling acres, some by planting non-corn ethanol crops near creeks or other flow points. Farmers will innovate, and the early adapters will make the most profit.

From “Unveiling the hidden truth,” March 18, 2016:

Regardless of your opinion about the merits of the water works’ lawsuit, the public deserves to know who is paying law firms in Des Moines and Washington, D.C., and under what terms. […]

First, you always follow the paymaster. If Farm Bureau is signing the check, then you know who is really calling the shots on our behalf. We elected a board of supervisors and a county attorney to direct the policies and protect the taxpayers of this county. We did not elect the Farm Bureau or any other interest group to set our course.

Second, you always have friends when you are winning. Not so much when you are losing. We don’t know what the terms are among the slush fund donor(s), the boards of supervisors and the attorneys. […]

Third, the public deserves to know all it can about how this defense is shaped since we believe the county, and its drainage districts, could be on the hook for more than $100 million in damages or, at least, could be subject to violations under the Clean Water Act. […]

Fourth, Iowa law requires disclosure of this information. It is illegal to hide it as the supervisors are.

From “Big, bold and dead,” March 30, 2016:

The initial reaction to the lawsuit was to condemn the water works for interrupting our way of doing business. The second intuitive reaction was to throw a ton of money at the issue. The agri-industrial community has tried to convince us it will take $6 billion or $10 billion or $15 billion to protect Iowa’s surface water from nitrate pollution. It scares the bejeebers out of taxpayers, especially in defendant counties.

The truth is that it won’t take $6 billion. It will take judicious stewardship of what the good Lord gave us, something more than chasing another 10 bushels on a 200-bushel corn yield for a commodity that has declined in real value since the Civil War.

The water works seeks regulation of drainage districts, which scares the bejeebers out of agri-industry. It would have to account for its pollution and stop it. That’s why the commodity groups and the giant chemical companies are paying whatever it costs in legal fees to knock this lawsuit out of federal court — and to keep their contributions a secret so far.

The legislature could solve much of the problem by requiring 50-foot grass buffers along waterbodies. Plowing into the banks of Pickerel Lake near Marathon should be banned. People who plow into road and drainage ditches should spend the weekend in jail. That sort of thing.

But that will not happen.

From “Who pays the wizard?” April 13, 2016:

[Randy] Evans is a retired reporter and editor at The Des Moines Register who may have given some barroom advice over the years, but no, he is not a lawyer. But he knows some pretty good ones. So do we. In fact, we spoke with some real, live lawyers, including a smart one from Kansas City on Monday, and pretty smart lawyers right here in Storm Lake. They might not be kingmakers, but they are lawyers.

And all of these lawyers tell us one clear thing:

That the Agribusiness Association of Iowa’s Agriculture Legal Defense Fund is acting as an agent of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties by paying the bills for law firms in Des Moines and Washington, DC, hired by the counties to defend them in federal district court against the water works claim that drainage districts are subject to the Clean Water Act. The fund is soliciting and paying out money, at the counties’ request, to pay the two law firms. One of the firms has withdrawn from the case because we keep asking for their billing records.

The county supervisors have asked the law firms to release their records and who is paying them.

The AAI has said that the donor information is not a public record because this is a non-profit, private organization. Some donors have revealed themselves as standing up for Iowa agribusiness: the Farm Bureau, and the corn and soybean associations. They want their members to know how their dues are being used.

From “Settle, now,” April 27, 2016:

A Washington, DC, law firm withdrew as defense counsel rather than release what it considers confidential information. We consider attorney billings and fund donors to be the public business subject to the Iowa public records law. If we were not right, the counties’ own attorneys in Des Moines and locally would not have advised them to seek the release of the records. Despite their request to AAI and the blue-chip law firms that all the information be released, the fact remains that the counties have not complied with our request, detailed in two letters to the counties by Iowa Freedom of Information Council Executive Director Randy Evans over the past few months.

Our request is this: Comply with Iowa law. Tell us who is donating to your legal defense.

That AAI will not fund the counties going forward does not absolve the counties from telling their citizens who is conducting business on our behalf. Our request is for full disclosure and to comply with the law stands. […]

The counties have spent more than $1 million just in fact-finding and brief-writing (and reviewing our editorials at $250-plus per hour) using dark money. Now that the slush fund has run dry, thanks to friend of the farmer Doug Gross and his anonymous pals, the county supervisors are not sure where to turn. They might have to raise another $2 million to get this lawsuit through the Iowa Supreme Court and a federal bench trial in Sioux City. The supervisors say they do not know where the money will come from. […]

The water works already has spent $700,000 and plans to spend another $500,000, at least, through trial. It will assess water customers for the costs.

Neither the Buena Vista County taxpayers nor the Des Moines drinking water consumers can afford this litigation going forward. The alternative is settlement.

From “They don’t know,” July 1, 2016:

We have just learned that the supervisors, not AAI, severed their relationship in April because we wanted to know who those donors were. Monsanto and Koch Fertilizer executives met with AAI when the fund was formed. Who else chipped in? AAI won’t say. Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross, who designed the secret fund, won’t respond to our questions. The supervisors are too timid to ask in an effective way. They appear to believe that this is a moot point since the relationship was severed over transparency issues. We believe it is a continuing offense against the Iowa Public Records Law and precedent set by the Iowa Supreme Court. The supervisors are fully aware of our opinion — they paid lawyers hundreds of dollars an hour to read our editorials on the matter as if they were court briefs, using funds raised from secret donors.

Yet they do not answer the basic question, claiming ignorance.

We recently asked how much the Belin Law Firm has billed since the relationship was severed with AAI and Doug Gross. Supervisors told us they didn’t know. We asked who is paying the bills. Supervisors said they didn’t know. This is the company line. Eventually, BV County Drainage Attorney Gary Armstrong informed us that Belin has piled up about $300,000 in legal fees since March that remain unpaid until funds appear. This is at least a $100,000 liability to Buena Vista County, as it presumably will share that tab with Calhoun and Sac counties — but we actually do not know, so secret the public officials are.

We have asked, repeatedly over months, how the county will cover its legal bills. The supervisors say they aren’t sure. They say they hope their “friends” still step forward. What sort of friend would leave you hanging with $300,000 in unpaid bills because they covet their anonymity?

Any CEO would be fired with that sort of response. […]

Either the supervisors are ignorant or coy. Neither serves the public interest.

From “The way forward,” August 31, 2016:

We have polled every political leader in Iowa over this question. With but one exception, every leader would like to find a way to settle the dispute. Vilsack, the highest-ranking official, said he is perfectly willing to lock himself in a room with Iowa Republicans and Democrats until a solution is found. He might get hungry when he finds that a majority of Iowans want some sort of regulation to help protect water quality. Coming out of the room without a clear accountability standard would not impress the Des Moines Water Works to dismiss its lawsuit against Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties. Almost the entire point of the lawsuit is to impose nitrate effluent standards on drainage systems. That is, regulation.

Vilsack and Gov. Terry Branstad are almost identical in their approaches: Stick with voluntary conservation inducements through a huge, multi-billion-dollar state fund that leverages even more federal funding.

They diverge on one key point: Vilsack is attempting to work on a settlement. The former Democratic governor met last week with the chairman of the water works board to see where there might be an opening. The board chairman had no trophy to bring back to Des Moines from Washington. But they did have a constructive conversation. Branstad won’t engage in a serious discussion with the water works or any environmental faction about how to enhance our agriculture to make it more resilient and sustainable. Branstad has said there is a “war” declared by urban Iowa on rural Iowa, even though polling suggests that over 60% of Iowans agree with the water works position — including strong majorities of small-town residents. […]

We now have all the leaders agreeing to a meeting, presumably in Storm Lake, to discuss how to settle this lawsuit and improve Iowa water quality. That is what we suggested from the day the lawsuit was filed: Settle it. The Des Moines Water Works was willing to entertain those talks. The three counties involved were not. At this stage, it might not matter any more what the counties think because they have essentially handed the issue over to Branstad, Vilsack, the water works, et al, to hash out. The counties have sworn off settlement talks. They ordered BV County Attorney Dave Patton not to speak with Water Works CEO Bill Stowe to see where a deal might be had. Those talks are occurring, but BV County has no seat at the table because our supervisors were too arrogant or afraid, flush with dirty, dark agri-industrial defense funding. The world just might pass them by. The darn thing is the supervisors appear to wish it that way. Every day the counties refuse to take the lead in seeking a settlement, they give up leverage to other actors.

From “Farm Bureau County,” September 16, 2016:

Buena Vista County officially is a Farm Bureau county. The Farm Bureau and Iowa Corn Growers have pledged to cover the legal bills of Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties as they defend themselves against a lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works over pollution of the Raccoon River. The supervisors are expected to happily agree. The BV supervisors looked like the cat that just swallowed the canary upon announcing the deal.

They are happy that Farm Bureau is setting the terms of the legal defense and not the elected officials of our county. We have given up our franchise.

The supervisors believe they have no choice but to allow Farm Bureau to pay the bills and thus call the shots. They already called one shot: In the Farm Bureau engagement letter proposed to the counties, it states that the counties shall not claim that farmers are liable for pollution claims in the lawsuit in order to hold drainage districts or the county itself harmless. […]

We did not elect Farm Bureau to define our interests. We elected five county supervisors and a county attorney. The supervisors believe that the Farm Bureau’s interests are the county’s interests. The county attorney has been sidelined by order of the supervisors.

From “Leave sales taxes alone,” November 18, 2016:

The legislature should leave the school sales tax alone. It does not make sense to use it to pay for water quality corporate welfare.

Likewise, many on the left and right would like to use a fractional sales tax passed by voters in 2010 for the environment for ag-industrial welfare. When voters approved of the Outdoor Trust Fund by amending the Iowa Constitution they thought it would be used for parks, fish and wildlife. That’s how it was sold, as a way to make Iowa more amenable to young folks in particular. It was not sold as a way to transfer funds from the working class on which the sales tax is levied most heavily to the farmland investor class. It was meant to give something back to the working stiff in return for his sales tax contribution: better fishing in Storm Lake, better hunting at Sunken Grove and Martin’s Access, more public recreation for all. Rather, many of us would like to use that fund to buy off the water works and let the Koch Brothers fertilize where they will as they will.

The Republican power structure in Iowa is not vested in seeking a negotiated settlement with the water works, at least not yet. That makes a water quality fund that goes beyond the existing public dole unnecessary. Plenty of federal funds await the good stewards who are out there, if they are inclined to apply.

The Iowa Legislature would do well just to lay off water quality funding in the next session.

Let the water works case proceed.

From Art Cullen’s column “Thank you,” April 14, 2017:

So we thank the supervisors for being obstinate in the first instance. And, we thank in particular Supervisor Paul Merten, D-Storm Lake, who after appreciating how that lack of disclosure was wrong and illegal insisted on a more transparent path. He earnestly tried to provide the public with an accounting of the letters of engagement with law firms and how the bills would be paid. He often didn’t know an answer to our questions but eventually got answers. He grew as a political leader, in our estimation.

We thank Randy Evans, director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council in Des Moines, who engaged with us in our efforts to get these secret documents unveiled. The IFOIC is a non-profit organization funded by member dues, including ours and other media organizations along with attorneys, librarians, artists and educators. The Iowa Cubs, too. Evans is an accomplished bulldog reporter and editor who thinks and writes like a lawyer when he has to. We thank his co-conspirator Mike Giudicessi (we spelled it right for once, counsel) of the Faegre Baker Daniels Law Firm in Des Moines for his many years of selfless pro bono work on behalf of the council and the First Amendment and open government in Iowa.

We thank the Hamilton Law Firm of Storm Lake for its invaluable counsel and support. Steve, Willis and Mary have stopped us from jumping over many cliffs through the past 27 years. And thanks to our friends Dan Connell and Dave Jennett, too, for their friendly insights.

We thank Buena Vista County Attorney Dave Patton for his persistent honesty and candor, and for his efforts to seek a mediated solution to the litigation. […]

We thank Michael Gartner — the only other living Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial writing in Iowa — our former boss at The Daily Tribune of Ames for prodding us, correcting our grammar just like mom, and telling us that we should take a shot at the big game because it was important. We thank the late John McCormally, also a Pulitzer winner for editorials, for inspiring us as young men from his perch overlooking the Mississippi at Burlington. The best advice from the Marine from Iwo Jima who became a pacifist: When they knock you down on the mat, get back up and come back for more.

From John Cullen’s column “A day for brotherly love,” April 14, 2017:

No one deserved this honor more than Art, who has been regarded for years as the best editorial writer in Iowa. He’s the backbone of the paper and a strong voice for the community. The Storm Lake Times enjoys an outsize influence in state politics because of the force of Art’s well-reasoned thoughts. He has been a constant booster for the community. With his connections in Des Moines, he was instrumental in getting King’s Pointe built and also supported lake dredging efforts by jawboning state leaders for funding.

Critics may question his progressive views, but they can’t challenge the facts he uses to buttress his arguments. That’s what impressed the Pulitzer judges who elevated his work above the biggest names in journalism, including runners-up Washington Post and Houston Chronicle.

People have told me for years that while they may disagree with Art’s views, they enjoy reading his editorials nevertheless and appreciate his insight on issues. There have even been a few editorials that caused me to wonder about the consequences, but I knew that Art knew more about the issue than I, and if we’re going to be a credible news source, we have to be straight with our readers. A newspaper is built on its integrity, and when you sacrifice that for money, you’re finished.

  • Strong congratulations to Art Cullen, and the hard truth about nitrates

    Art Cullen richly deserves his Pulitzer, and three enormous cheers for him! I hope it will lead to many more good things for him, his newspaper, and his community.

    I would like to gently clarify, however, some of what he said about the ways to reduce nitrate pollution. Buffers do help somewhat, but not nearly enough. They are much better at reducing phosphorus pollution, which tends to travel with eroded soil, than reducing nitrate pollution.

    Putting 10% of Iowa’s rowcropped land into grass would be great for a variety of reasons, and it would help reduce nitrates. But the nitrate problem would not be solved. That’s because the biggest problem is that thousands of new miles of drainage tile have been laid in Iowa crop fields in the last fifty years. More and more new tile continues to be added. I could show examples in my county from the last several months.

    Adding more tile, even on upland fields, does increase crop yields. But all that new tile also provides a fast route for nitrates into waterways. In the case of drainage tile, what increases yields also increases water pollution.

    Some producers and landowners really don’t want to hear that and/or argue with it. I’ve been at drainage meetings where that has been clear. Their arguing is ironic in a sense, because Iowa’s major farm groups have heartily endorsed the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. That’s mostly because they are so very fond of the all-optional-all-the-time “strategy” part of the Strategy.

    But endorsing the Strategy also endorses the research and recommendations that make it very clear that tile drainage is Iowa’s big nitrate trigger. To solve that problem, we need to use the Strategy’s solutions.

    Those solutions include cover crops. Using cover crops every year on almost all of the corn and bean acres in the drainage region of Iowa would go a tremendous way toward solving the nitrate problem.

    But in spite of Bill Northey’s whooping and hollering about cover crops, less than three percent of Iowa’s cropland has cover crops now, after several years of promotion and cost-share efforts. Not good.

    Other solutions include CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers, extended crop rotations, and converting sizeable areas of row-cropped land to some kind of perennial vegetation. Those solutions aren’t exactly spreading like wildfire in rural Iowa either.

    All of these measures require money and effort. It’s a lot easier to do nothing. And of course the Strategy does not require that anything be done.

    To further complicate the problem, drainage districts are working on drainage projects throughout the drainage region of this state. In many if not most cases, they are working to restore drainage capacity that has been lost over the years..

    Many farmers are complaining that their tile systems are not working properly because their tile empties into big drainage pipes and ditches that no longer work well after decades of being used and silted in. Dredging those ditches and replacing those pipes will help the drainage systems function as designed. But guess what it will mean for nitrate pollution.

    And in some cases, the drainage district capacities are being improved. That has nitrate implications also. And there is strong pressure for more drainage districts to improve their capacities.

    Now that the Water Works lawsuit is dead, farm groups will no longer be able to claim the “distraction” of the lawsuit as an excuse. We’ll be back to big questions. And one of the biggest, as Art Cullen pointed out, is the question of how much money working-class Iowans should have to pay to farm landowners and operators, some of them decidedly not poor, for pollution reduction. And what should Iowans be able to expect in return for that money?

    I hope Art Cullen will keep pounding on those big questions, because he is a superb writer and pounder. Congratulations again, Art, and thank you.

  • Thank you!

    I’m working on a guest post about Iowa water politics, and greatly appreciate the compliment.

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