Family-run Iowa newspaper takes on Big Ag, wins a Pulitzer

Ditch outside Des Moines with high nitrate levels.
This farm ditch outside Des Moines, Iowa on 200th St. west of Voss has had high nitrate levels on more than one occasion, seen here on Dec. 19, 2014.
Courtesy of Des Moines Water Works

The co-owner of a small-town Iowa newspaper who took on powerful agricultural groups for allowing nitrogen runoff to pollute lakes and streams and wrote that the state "has the dirtiest surface water in America," won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing on Monday.

Art Cullen's editorials in the Storm Lake Times helped unveil hidden corporate donors behind a major lawsuit over nitrate pollution in the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers, which supply drinking water to Des Moines and surrounding areas.

This work earned Cullen and his 3,000-circulation paper a coveted Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing Monday, "for editorials fueled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa."

This tone is reflected in one of several of Cullen's editorials that earned him the award:

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.

What's more, the public probably suspects that it should not cost billions of dollars to fix the problem. It doesn't. The solution demands that we quit farming into the ditch and over the fenceline. If we left 10% of Iowa's marginal land fallow the nitrate problem would disappear. Iowa State University research proves it.

"I don't know what it means," Cullen told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer about winning the prestigious award. "It feels good because it vindicates our position which sought the release of public records" relating to the polluting of the Raccoon River and Des Moines River.

The 10-person newsroom is a family operation that includes Cullen's brother, wife and son.

What's it like running a community newspaper? "It is the most fun you can have with your clothes on," Cullen told Wurzer.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

For the full interview with Cullen and Wurzer use the audio player above.

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