A tiny Iowa paper just won a Pulitzer Prize for tackling farm pollution.
This year’s prize for editorial writing went to Art Cullen at the Storm Lake Times. His winning series of editorials was about the fertilizer runoff that contaminates rivers that provide drinking water for the people of Des Moines.
The Des Moines Water Works got tired of spending millions of dollars to filter nitrate pollution out of the city’s water supply, so it sued upstream regulators, as Grist reported in 2015. As the lawsuit progressed, Cullen revealed in his editorials that big-ag corporations were helping to fund the defense against the case.
Cullen is clearly on the side of water drinkers. That didn’t blind him to the arguments of farmers: “We understand why agriculture objects,” he wrote. Farmers have built their livelihoods within a system that has long allowed them to dump massive amounts of fertilizer into waterways. Some farmers argue that if cities now want cleaner water, they should pay for it. But Cullen argued that it’s the farmers’ responsibility to keep pollution out of the water.
The Pulitzer now provides some vindication not just to Cullen but to the others pushing to clean up Iowa’s water.
Nathanael Johnson is Grist's food writer.