Clean Water and Livable Communities[1]

John Ikerd[2]

“Water is life” has become a common refrain in the environmental and indigenous rights movements and is literally true. The human body is mostly water—ranging from 50% and 70% of body weight. The pulsing stream of blood that carries oxygen and energy throughout our bodies is mostly water. Obviously, water is critical to life. Water is also the lifeblood of livable communities. Webster defines lifeblood as the “seat of vitality” or a “life-giving force” of living things. Definitions of “livable community” vary, but all seem to focus on community attributes essential for a desirable “quality of life”—not just economically but also socially, ecologically, aesthetically, and even spiritually. Livable communities are different from economic communities, which equate income and wealth with well-being. Water is essential to both.

Clean water alone obviously is not sufficient to ensure the livability of a community, just as water alone cannot sustain life. But much like blood nourishes the human body, clean water nourishes livable communities. Blood tests have proven to be reliable indicators of human illness. Chemical or biological deficiencies or imbalances in the bloodstream indicate dysfunctions within the body as a whole. Likewise, chemical or biological pollution of streams and groundwater indicate underlying dysfunctions or illnesses that threaten the livability of communities. Just as blood tests provide indicators of human health, water quality tests provide indicators of community health and livability.

Livable urban communities differ from livable rural communities, but the primary focus and attraction of both is their overall quality of life. The common factors of livable communities in general include “quality of built and natural environments, economic prosperity, social stability and equity, educational opportunity, and cultural, entertainment and recreation possibilities.”[3] I would sum up the requisites livable rural communities as clean water, clean air, good food, affordable housing, pleasant landscapes, a sense of place, and people who care about each other, know how to have fun, and are willing to invest themselves in the future of their community. In livable communities, economic development is simply a means of sustaining a desirable quality of community life in the complex, impersonal environments that characterize modern societies—the economy simply provides a means of sustaining the livability of a modern community.

More than twenty five years ago, in 1993, I wrote about my hopes for a renaissance in rural America. The paper became a chapter in my book, Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture. I explained that when I had grown up on a small family farm during the 1940s and early 1950s, the future of family farms and rural communities seemed as bright as any time in American history. The post-World II economy boom, affordable farm tractors, and new commercial fertilizers and pesticides had brought a period of prosperity to farming communities. Rural communities were widely recognized as good places to live and raise families.

By the 1960s, however, American agriculture had entered a long period of chronic “farm crises” caused by periodic oversupply and unprofitable prices. A change in U.S. government farm policies during the early 1970s encouraged all-out expansion of production exacerbated this ongoing problem. The new farm programs encouraged farmers to employ the strategies of industry: to specialize, routinize, mechanize, and consolidate into larger farming operations to achieve economies of scale. Farmers were advised to “either get big or get out” of farming. The industrialization of agriculture not only reduced costs but also allowed each farmer to produce more and total production increased faster than the growth in demand for agricultural commodities. As some farmers got “bigger” others were forced to “get out.” One prominent agricultural economist referred to this as the “curse of agricultural abundance.”

In 1993, I wrote about the impact of the industrialization of agriculture on rural communities: “The trend during this period has been toward fewer, larger, and more specialized farms. The result has been declining rural populations, declining demand for local markets and locally purchased inputs, and a resulting economic decay of many rural communities… Some communities attempted to diversify their economy… Industry hunting became a preoccupation... Jobs, any kind at any cost, seemed to be the primary objective... Many rural development activities were rooted in nothing more than short-run exploitation of undervalued human and natural resources in rural areas… Many manufacturing companies and branch plants that initially relocated in rural areas eventually moved to other countries where laborers are willing to work even harder for far less money.”

Most rural communities in the U.S had emerged and evolved as farming communities—not only to support farms but also farm families. Farming was their purpose. I wrote, “Some new rural economic activities such as tourism, vacation homes, retirement communities, and rural residences can have strong geo-economic foundations in climate, landscapes, or proximity to urban employment. Such activities have helped some rural communities survive the harsh reality that they no longer had any important purpose. However, most American rural communities continue to search for a new purpose for their existence.”

My assessment of America may have seemed a bit harsh at the time, but my overall message was actually quite hopeful. In spite of chronic crises in farming, rural communities were still good places to live. I quoted the “principle of universal cycles”—that everything on earth tends to move in cycles. Sooner or later, prosperity would return to rural America. The leading futurists of the time believed that the desirable quality of life in rural areas would provide an incentive for a new era of urban to rural migration. In his widely quoted book, PowerShift, futurist Alvin Toffler wrote that the forces of industrialization had run their course and are already reversing.[4] “The most important economic development of our lifetime has been the rise of a new system of creating wealth, based no longer on muscle but on the mind.”[5] Peter Drucker, a noted guru of business management, in his book The New Realities, wrote “The biggest shift – bigger by far than the changes in politics, government or economics – is the shift to the knowledge society.”[6]

Robert Reich, U.S. Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, in his The Work of Nations[7] identified three emerging categories of work: routine production service, in-person service, and mind work, which he called “symbolic-analytic services.” He pointed out that mind workers often work alone or in small teams, connected only informally and flexibly with the larger organizations that employed them. They could choose to live and work anywhere—including rural areas. John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, in Megatrends 2000, called their mind workers “individual entrepreneurs”.[8] They wrote that entrepreneurial individuals, working alone or in small groups, would seek out community for companionship. They suggested that a sense of community, which was all but destroyed by industrialism, might be restored in rural areas by individuals empowered by knowledge. They wrote: “In many ways, if cities did not exist, it now would not be necessary to invent them.”[9]“Free to live almost anywhere, more and more individuals are deciding to live in small cities and towns and rural areas.”[10]

By the 1990s, many people had abandoned cities for the suburbs for quality of life reasons: lower crime rates, better housing, and recreational opportunities. Suburbanites were now free to abandon the suburbs for rural areas for additional quality of life reasons: more living space, fresh air, clean water, a cleaner overall environment, prettier landscapes, and, perhaps most important, to regain a sense of community—a sense of belonging. The new economic challenge of rural communities would be to create places where the new mind workers could live agreeably, work productively, and raise their families—where immigrant and homegrown mind workers alike would choose to relocate and create ecologically and socially sustainable rural communities. The idyllic quality of rural life would be the key to prosperous and resilient rural communities. At the turn of the 21st century, there was every reason to hope that such a rural renaissance had begun.

My hope for the future of rural America came from the changes I had seen in agriculture. After graduating from high school in 1957, I was able to attend the University of Missouri, where I earned my PhD degree in agricultural economics in 1970. I then spent the first half of a 30 year academic career as a traditional, “bottom-line” agricultural economist. I was an advocate of industrial agriculture. We were going to help farmers reduce their costs of production and eventually make good food affordable for everyone. In the process, we would create economic opportunities for innovative farmers who would support prosperous rural communities. But this meant that farming had to become a business, not a way of life. Farmers who choose to “get out” rather than “get big” would simply need to be willing to find another way to make a living.

For me, that way of thinking was severely challenged during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s. Agricultural production expanded rapidly during the 1970s to supply growing and profitable global markets. When a domestic and global recession during the 1980s caused a collapse in markets for agricultural commodities, prices fell to unprofitable levels. Farmers who had “gotten big” by borrowing lots of money during the 1970s were caught with huge debts at record high interest rates. Many couldn’t even make interest payments on loans. Nightly network news programs regularly featured farm foreclosures and bankruptcies—farmer suicides were not uncommon. The large, industrial farms also were eroding the soil and polluting the air and water with agricultural chemical and biological wastes. Industrial agriculture was poisoning the lifeblood of rural America. The agriculture I had helped create was not sustainable—economically, ecologically, or socially.

Thankfully, the sustainable agriculture movement rose to public attention in the late 1980s. I was able to secure a grant from USDA in 1989 that allowed me to redirect the rest of my academic career to educating and advocating for agricultural sustainability. In the sustainable agriculture movement, I saw, and still see, the potential for changes in agriculture to play an important part in a rural American renaissance. Sustainable farms can restore and regenerate the productivity of the land and help restore economic viability and livability to rural communities. They function in harmony with the living ecological and social systems within which they exist and in fact are a part. Sustainable farms must meet the basic needs of people, not only as consumers but also as producers, farmers, members of rural communities, of society, of present and future generations.

The emergence of the modern organic food movement in the 1980s and its rapid growth in 1990s and early 2000s helped fuel hopes for an agricultural renaissance. The rapidly increasing numbers of farmers markets, signaling growth of a new local food movement, renewed hope that small and mid-sized family farms would play a prominent role is a sustainable agri-food revolution. The global Slow Food movement also linked good food to small, local, sustainably-managed farms. Sustainable farming took on many different names: organic, biodynamic, ecological, holistic, regenerative, restorative, innovative, and others. All of these emerging farming systems were “knowledge-based” approaches to farming. The sustainable agriculture movement clearly was part of the “knowledge-based” transformation that was taking place in the larger economy and society. The outlook was hopeful, if not optimistic.

Regretfully, the hope for a 21st century rural renaissance has yet to become a reality. Instead, a 2017 Wall Street Journal article labeled rural America as the “New Inner City.” In terms of poverty, education, teenage births, divorce, death rates, disability, and unemployment, rural counties now rank below inner cities. [11] Drug abuse and crime, once mainly urban problems, now plague rural communities. What happened to the rural renaissance? I think the futurists failed to anticipate the economic and political power of the corporations, including those that now control and benefit from industrial agriculture. Government farm programs and “rural development” strategies have implicitly sanctioned and supported the economic colonization of rural America.[12] Valuable rural resources have been extracted and rural people exploited in the name of rural economic development.

Wendell Berry—farmer, philosopher, and author—in a 2017 letter to the New York Times described it this way: “The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying.”[13] This is not rural economic development; it is rural ecological and social desecration.

What did Americans actually gain from this desecration? The industrialization of agriculture didn’t feed the hungry. In 2017, one-in-eight Americans were classified as food insecure and one-in-six American children lived in food-insecure homes.[14] More people are now classified as “food insecure” than back in the 1960s.[15] Whatever has been gained by lower food costs has been more than offset by rising costs of health care. An epidemic of diet related illnesses, such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and cancers now threatens the physical and financial future of the nation.

The evidence of this rural desecration is clearly evident in polluted streams, lakes, and aquifers—in tainted water, the lifeblood of rural communities. The EPA has identified “agricultural nonpoint source pollution as the leading source of water quality impacts on surveyed rivers and streams, the third largest source for lakes, the second largest source of impairments to wetlands, and a major contributor to contamination of estuaries and groundwater.”[16] Eutrophication has led to massive “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and other U.S. coastal areas. Furthermore, industrial agriculture, with its heavy use of animal manure and commercial fertilizers, is a major contributor to the eutrophication of surface water in all regions of the world that have adopted industrial agriculture.[17]

In my new home state, Iowa, the “agricultural establishment”[18] has persisted in a state of denial. On Earth Day 2017, the American Farm Bureau proclaimed, “Farmers are environmentalists first, maintaining and improving the soil, and other natural resources to pass on to future generations.”[19] If they are, they aren’t doing a very good job of it. Industrial farmers routinely proclaim they are at least doing a better job of controlling water pollution than the small farmers they displaced. Iowa water quality statistics tell a very different story. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, water samples from more than 1,000 water bodies collected biennially between 2008 and 2016 indicate more than half of Iowa’s public waters remain polluted or “impaired”.[20] The total number of “impaired waters” in 2016 was 750.The number of Iowa streams, lakes, and wetlands sufficiently “impaired” to require reporting to the EPA for additional corrective action increased nearly four-fold between 1998 and 2016—from 159 to 608.[21] This was a time of rapid growth in industrial agriculture and agriculture is by far the largest source of water pollution in the state of Iowa.[22]

Water sampling for submissions to EPA is not designed to indicate trends in water pollution. However, “impaired waters'' are indicators of the “health of ecological communities” and consequently the “livability of rural communities.” If a thousand blood samples were drawn each year, random or not, from a population equal in number to Iowa’s total water bodies, and if half of the blood samples indicated a critical deficiency or risk of a deadly disease, it would be accepted as a clear indication of a major public health problem. If periodic blood tests showed a fourfold increase in a particular disease or pathological condition over an 18 year period, in spite of voluntary programs to halt its spread, it would be considered an epidemic calling for drastic measures to thwart and eradicate the threat to public health.

This is the dilemma we face in rural America today. We have an epidemic of rural economic extraction and exploitation that is clearly evident in the increasingly polluted streams, lakes, and wetlands all across the state of Iowa and other major agricultural states. The agricultural establishment refuses to accept blame or to respond in any meaningful way. Rather than developing strategies to address very real problems, they are spending tens of millions of dollars a year for a national public relations campaign designed specifically to defend industrial agriculture. [23] They also claim industrial agriculture is essential to keep domestic food prices affordable, provide food for a growing global population, and sustain rural economies. None of these claims are true, but that’s another story and another presentation.[24]

Legislators and regulators at state and national levels apparently lack the courage to confront the agricultural establishment, to acknowledge the epidemic of agricultural pollution, and to enact appropriate measures to restore health and vitality to rural communities. The means of implementing appropriate and effective programs may be complex but the principles are quite simple. Industrial agricultural operations are “industry” and should be regulated at least as rigorously as other industrial operations. The fact that most agricultural pollution is nonpoint source pollution may make implementation and enforcement more difficult, but it doesn’t change the basic principles involved or the necessity of addressing the problem.

Industrial pollution is fundamentally a problem of concentration. Everything ultimately comes from nature, including industrial pollutants. But, nature doesn’t concentrate more of anything in one place than the other things of nature can use, absorb, or assimilate. The concentration of contaminants from industrial operations are simply too great for nature to neutralize or assimilate. For example, the nitrogen in the air is dispersed and harmless. When nitrogen is concentrated to make commercial fertilizer it becomes a potential environmental hazard. When farming methods destroy the ability of plants to hold nitrogen in soils, the nitrogen concentrated in nitrogen fertilizer becomes a water pollutant. When too much of this nitrogen in drinking water becomes concentrated in the bloodstream, people get sick and some even die. Nature can absorb, even needs, the biological wastes from millions of animals to provide food for the living organisms in soils and streams, which in turn provide food for plants, animals, and people.

However, when too much livestock manure is applied on too little land, as is invariably the case with concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs, the concentration of nutrients and biological organisms destroys life in the soil and becomes a toxic pollutant in streams and groundwater. A 2490 head CAFO generates as much biological waste or raw sewage as a municipality of 7,500 to 10,000 people.[25] Manure management plans in Iowa allow CAFOs of this size to spread their raw sewage on cropland with no meaningful treatment. A 2018 report concluded that “it is impossible to avoid the very substantial scientific evidence showing the impacts of livestock production and its very rapid growth on the degradation of Iowa water and air, and consequently the health of the people of the state.”[26] While the report focused on Iowa, it cites more than 150 scientific references to studies from many parts of the U.S. People bear the public health risk of polluted water to drink or to fish in, or swim in, while the CAFO operators and corporate contractors reap the economic rewards.

Virtually all of the hogs and poultry in the U.S. are produced by corporations or are produced under comprehensive corporate contracts. Virtually all of the corn and soybeans are produced with seeds that are patented and “owned” by large biotech corporations that virtually dictate farmers’ production practices—including applications of toxic pesticides. Just like other large industrial corporations, corporate agribusinesses are purely economic entities and aren’t going to do anything voluntarily that subtracts from their economic bottom lines.

In today’s political world, however, the only power greater than the economic power of corporations is the power of the people. If we are to retain or reclaim the livability of our communities, by one means or another, people in rural communities must come together and claim their basic rights as Americans to clean water—the lifeblood of livable communities. Clean water alone will not ensure the livability, but without clean water there is no hope for authentically livable communities. Water samples, like blood samples, provide indicators of community health. There are many sick rural communities in America. However, many rural communities in America still have a chance to realize the rural renaissance foretold by the futurists. These communities are or can become places with clean water, clean air, good food, affordable housing, pleasant landscapes, a sense of place, and people who care about each other, know how to have fun, and are willing to invest in the future of their communities.

For the first time since the 1990s, I see the possibility for a fundamental change in federal government policies that could stop and reverse the economic colonization of rural America. A 2019 Congressional Resolution calling for a Green New Deal is not a law, but has been endorsed by all leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. In spite of opposition by those who oppose its emphasis on mitigating climate change and support by those who hope to profit from a new “green economy,” I believe the most important of its provisions express a reaffirmation of the responsibility of government to protect basic human rights of all people.

The U.S. House of Representatives Resolution 109 states: “It is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal… to secure for all people for generations to come— clean air and water; climate and community resiliency; healthy food; access to nature; and a sustainable environment; and to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression”[27] The Green New Deal clearly states that clean air and water, healthy food, community stability and a sustainable environment are basic rights of all people for all generations. The people of rural America are listed among the “historically oppressed” people to be assured equity and justice in the protection of their rights.

The Green New Deal obviously will confront vigorous opposition. Support and opposition likely will be divided along political party lines—but shouldn’t be. The core values reflected in Green New Deal are Democratic, Republican, and American values. The American Declaration of Independence proclaims, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” If we have a right to life, we have a right to clean air, clean water, and safe, nutritious food. Without these essentials of life, there can be no liberty to pursue happiness.

Those who work for government agencies or public institutions need not wait for a reaffirmation of the responsibilities of government. We all have a responsibility to do everything we can, within whatever legal constraints we may face, to uphold the fundamental principles of public service encoded in our founding documents. I am not knowledgeable enough to know what others can or cannot do but we all can do something. I believe we each have a sacred duty, a responsibility and a collective ability, to make our government work for the good of the people. Edward Hale, a Unitarian minister, in a report to President Theodore Roosevelt, wrote: I am only one, but I am one. I can't do everything, but I can do something. The something I ought to do, I can do. And by the grace of God, I will.[28] Hale also wrote, “Together—one of the most inspiring words in the English language. Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” Today, we have had an opportunity to learn more about what we should do, and can do, to protect the lifeblood of our rural communities—our water. If we each do what we can do, then together we can find ways to reclaim the promise of rural America.

I still have hope for a rural American renaissance. Rural communities can still be places where the mind workers, entrepreneurs and sustainable farmers, as well as factory and office workers, will choose to live, work, and raise their families—where their children and their children’s children also will choose to live and grow. Communities that meet this challenge will discover that livability is a far better economic development strategy than continued economic extraction and exploitation. Pioneering livable communities could well rekindle the vision of the 21st Century Rural Renaissance envisioned by the futurists back in the 1990s. However, clean water is the lifeblood of livable communities, and as long as the water remains polluted, the future of many rural communities clearly is at risk. If the past 25 years have taught us nothing else, we should remember this one lesson: A preoccupation with economic development will destroy the livability of a community, while the livability of a community can provide the economic means of reclaiming and sustaining its ecological and social livability.


[1] Prepared for presentation at Rural Michigan Initiative Conference at Alma College, Alma, MI, Nov. 7, 2019.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia MO, – USA. He is the author of six books, which are available on Books and Kindle E-books, and dozens of presentation papers, blog pieces, and other website posts at and Email: The professional opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Missouri.

[3] Partners for Livable Communities, “What is a Livable Community?” .

[4] Alvin Toffler, PowewShift (New York: Bantam Books, 1990).

[5] Toffler, PowerShift, 9.

[6] Peter Drucker, The New Realities (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, Inc., 1989), 173.

[7] Robert B. Reich, The Work of Nations (New York: Vintage Books, Random House Publishing, 1992).

[8] John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, Megatrends 2000 (New York: Avon Books, The Hearst Corporation, 1990).

[9] Naisbitt and Aburdene, Megatrends 2000, 332.

[10] Naisbitt and Aburdene, Megatrends 2000, 329.

[11] Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, RURAL AMERICA IS THE NEW ‘INNER CITY’, TheWall Street Journal, May 26, 2017, .

[12] John Ikerd, “The Economic Colonization of Rural America,” Rural Sociology Society Annual Meeting, Columbus, OH, June 23-27, 2017, .

[13] Wendell Berry, “Southern Despair,” New Your Times Review of Books, Reply to Nathaniel Rich, May 5, 2017 .

[14] USDA, ERS, “Food Security in the U.S., Key Statistics,” Updated Tuesday, October 11, 2016, .

[15] CBS documentary, “Hunger in America,” 1968,

[16] EPA, Polluted Runoff; Non-point Source: Agriculture, January 2017, .

[17] National Geographic Society, “Dead Zone,” .

[18] The agricultural establishment includes the large agribusiness corporations, the American Farm Bureau Federation, major farm commodity organizations, USDA, most state Departments of Agriculture, and agricultural colleges.

[19] American Farm Bureau, “Farm Bureau Proud,” Facebook, April 2017.

[20] Iowa Department of Natural Resources, “Impaired Waters,” .

[21] Iowa Department of Natural Resources, “Impaired Waters,”

[22] Jennifer Terry, “Water Quality Challenges in Iowa’s Agricultural Watersheds,” Des Moines Waterworks, April, 2017. .

[23] Kari Hamerschlag and Anna Lappé, “Spinning Food,” Friends of the Earth, .

[24] John Ikerd, “How to Feed the World Intelligently,” Presented at Tennessee Local Food Summit, December 2016. .

[25] Ron Fleming and Marcy Ford, “Human versus Animals - Comparison of Waste Properties,”Ridgetown College - University of Guelph, July 4, 2001.

[26] James Merchant David Osterber, “The Explosion of CAFOs in Iowa and Its Impaction on Water Quality and Public Health,” The Iowa Policy Project, January 2018 .

[27] 116th Congress. (2019). 1st Session. H. Res. 109. Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal.

[28] Attributed to Edward Everett Hale in: United States. President (1922). Addresses of the President of the U.S. and the Director of the Bureau of the Budget. p. 80