Mourning the Iowa River, New Orleans style


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Six pallbearers carried a casket through the rain this weekend to the tune of “When the Saints Come Marching In,” followed by a herd of umbrellas.

They held a New Orleans-style funeral for the Iowa River, ranked as the third-most polluted river in the U.S. in 2007 by American Rivers, a national conservation organization.

Some of those ailments and pollutants include farm chemicals, animal waste, and silt.

Approximately 20 percent of chemicals placed on farm fields will end up in U.S. rivers — from herbicides and pesticides to the fertilizer au naturel: manure, according to the online magazine, Blue Planet Green Living.

This run-off has led to unacceptable levels of phosphates, nitrates, E. coli, ammonia nitrogen, chlorophyll, and other contaminants in the Iowa River, according to state Department of Natural Resources’ standards.

Joe Hennager, CEO of Blue Planet Green Living, addressed the crowd before leading them on a march through downtown Iowa City on a soggy July 4.

“Environmentalism in the rain is not a very cool thing,” he said. “Oh, and don’t swim in the Iowa River if you have an open wound.”

Hennager organized the “metaphorical dramatization” with help from the Facebook group “Save the Iowa River.” The members wanted the “true New Orleans-style jazz funeral parade” — complete with a saxophonist and tuba player and several amateur kazoo-blowers — to coincide with the weekend’s Jazz Festival.

“It’s a fun ol’ time — bouncing and rocking along,” said Jazmyn Whitman, a UI senior who said she has been volunteering with the organization for a couple months.

Considering the weather, she thought the turnout was “amazing.”

“These people are here because they really do care, and that’s really cool,” she said.

And care is exactly what the Iowa River needs if it’s going to survive, Hennager wrote on his website. He believes the funeral will “stir up” attention and reaction to the river’s multiple problems.

“Some days the river’s green, other times yellow, and sometimes black,” he said. “People need to know about the risks and pollution.”

Hennager and others passed out bottles of “Iowa River Water” during the parade. Filled with murky water and lined with silt on the bottom, the containers listed as “ingredients” both chemical and bacterial. Next to the ingredients the label read: “Caution, not for human consumption.”

Chad Anciaux, a 22 year-old Iowa City resident who served as a pallbearer on July 4, said he is familiar with many of the lakes and rivers in Iowa because he fishes them frequently.

“I wouldn’t keep anything from it,” he said. “Those fish aren’t right-looking.”

Also in attendance was Kevin Railsback, a nature and wildlife filmmaker, who is working on a feature-length documentary about the Iowa River.

The project is about halfway done, he said, and he expects to finish it by Nov. 15. He plans to enter it into the Under Water, Over Land Challenge, a wildlife and outdoor-based film competition.

“I’m done filming the beautiful scenic stuff,” he said. “Now, we got to get the dirt.”

He got plenty of it, too — he only had to look at the “Iowa River Water” bottles.

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