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The Cedar River Showdown and Cleanup of 1924

Carol A. Buckmann
Outdoor America 2024 Issue 2
Cedar River - credit iStock

Editor’s Note: In 1924, Will Dilg, the League’s first president, urged chapters along Iowa’s polluted Cedar River to collaborate and present the problem to the state’s Board of Health. Chapters agreed. The Iowa Division presented a carefully researched case at a meeting with the Board of Health in Des Moines.

The Board found the League’s case compelling and issued stinging orders to six cities, five gas companies and a packing plant to begin work on “plans and specification for sewage treatment plants such that will be adequate to properly treat all sewage disposed of by each of the parties named.”

The League’s advocacy for a cleanup of the Cedar River was an early victory for the League and for the nation’s nascent clean water movement. Below is the account written by Iowa journalist Carol A. Buckmann from her book, The First 50: The Story of the Iowa Division, Izaak Walton League of America, 1923-1973, published in 1973. - MR

The next project of the Iowa Division following the establishment of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge…was the Cedar River Cleanup in 1924, the first single-handed pollution fight the League took on. They won. The Cedar River project was a test case for the League in pollution and the national office was strongly behind the Iowa Division.

The Cedar River between Charles City and Vinton had become increasingly polluted until by the summer and fall of 1923 its fish were unfit to eat and its water unfit for use by domestic stock. The worst polluters were gas plants, garages, packing houses, sugar plants and canning companies along the river.

Dr. E.T. Alford, Judge J.C. Murtaugh and Cliff Hallowell were appointed by Iowa Division President George Wood to an anti-pollution committee to take the necessary action to correct the situation. The committee arranged for a comprehensive water analysis by H.B. Pederson, chemical engineer from the State Board of Health, along the full length of the Cedar. Hundreds of samples were taken and pollution loads were proved to be present in unbelievably large quantities.

A hearing was called in Des Moines by the State Board of Health and all interested parties were asked to appear. Sixty were present, 57 representing municipalities and industrial interests along the river.

At this time, industries and municipalities looked upon their practice of using the running stream for the disposal of their refuse as an inalienable right. They had come to defend that right. The League’s view was that such use was permissible only as long as it did not adversely affect the common good, abrogate the rights of others to use the water, or become detrimental to public health.

Opposing the 57 were three League members. Little was known then about efficient sewage treatment. It was practically unheard of, and the League’s proposals were regarded as wild, impractical dreams and prohibitively expensive. But the proposals had enough practical common sense and ring of need that the polluters feared the outcome of the hearing and sent their heaviest artillery to overwhelm the League.

After a long parade of witnesses and testimony by the opposition, League representatives were called to the stand. Cliff Hallowell was in the witness chair for most of the afternoon. So well had the League’s case been prepared, so irrefutable were its facts, so dramatic its exhibits, that at the conclusion of the hearing, the League Committee was asked to meet in private with the Board of Health for further discussion.

The League won the day and pollution was ordered discontinued. The dumping was to be stopped.

Twenty years later, March, 1944, in a report by A.H. Wicters, sanitary engineer for the Board of Health, it was stated that the Cedar River had remained passingly pure.

The Cedar River Cleanup was an example of what could be done by a determined effort, even back in 1924.

Top photo: The Izaak Walton League has been monitoring water quality along Iowa's Cedar River since 1923. Here it flows through Palisades-Kepler State Park. Credit: iStock.