Iowa joins 13 other states challenging EPA water rule

The Raccoon River near Walnut Woods States Park in Des Moines, Iowa. (Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr)
The Raccoon River near Walnut Woods State Park in Des Moines, Iowa. (Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 18, 2015

Governor Terry Branstad announced Tuesday that Iowa will join 13 other states in challenging the U.S Environmental Protection Agency’s Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rule.

The challenge is part of a current court case in the U.S. District Court of North Dakota Southwestern Division against the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. In a press statement, Branstad called the rule “a federal overreach that imposes significant barriers and impairs Iowa’s ability to advance innovative, water quality practices that would actually advance our common goal of water quality.”

Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds said the rule is “an overreach by the federal government that hurts Iowa farmers and small businesses” and applauded efforts by Iowa senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and other Iowa congressional delegates to combat the rule. She said she hopes the rule is withdrawn so “Iowa can continue to improve water quality through the collaborative and innovate Nutrient Reduction Strategy.”

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said, “The misguided WOTUS rulemaking process has created uncertainty and has threatened to impede our efforts to get conservation and water quality practices on the ground. Joining this lawsuit is the right thing to do and I hope that ultimately the courts will overturn the rule.”

Federal officials say the rule is necessary “to limit pollution in small waterways and wetlands that 117 million Americans depend on for drinking water.”

Other states challenging the rule include: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming.


Study brings together researchers from Iowa and Nepal

A section of the Bagmati River between Lalitpur and Kathmandu. (Sundar1/WikiMedia)
A polluted section of the Bagmati River between Lalitpur and Kathmandu in Nepal. (Sundar1/Wikimedia Commons)

Nick Fetty | November 11, 2015

Researchers at the University of Northern Iowa are working with their counterparts at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal on a study that will examine the Bagmati River.

The Bagtami River is “the principal river of the Bagmati Basin in central Nepal.” Industrialization and urbanization in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu (pop. 1,003,000 [2011]) have contributed to ecological and environmental issues in the river. Through the study researchers hope to develop an “effective hydrologic assessment scheme for the polluted body of water.”

The project is led by UNI earth science professor Dr. Mohammad Iqbal.

“Students will learn about global environmental problems, particularly issues that are directly linked to human health,” Dr. Iqbal said in a press release. “This will be a great opportunity for our students to develop respect and understanding for people of a different culture, specifically for those people who are living in adverse environmental conditions.”

The researchers started on the project during May of this year when Dr. Iqbal and two of his students traveled to Nepal. The researchers conducted water and sentiment sampling, analyzed procedures, and implemented policy changes using scientific data. The team is expected to continue working on the project through the end of 2016. Funding for this project was made possible because of a $56,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Bagmati River study is just one of the international research efforts in which UNI is participating. Last month NSF awarded UNI with nearly $750,000 to study environmental sustainability in the arctic. UNI will work with researchers from in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden on the project.

Iowa State professor explores history of Persian Gulf oil

Michael Christopher Low, an assistant professor of history at Iowa State University (Iowa State University)
Michael Christopher Low, an assistant professor of history at Iowa State University (ISU News Service)
KC McGinnis | October 29, 2015

Disease outbreaks and drought during pilgrimages were important factors in the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia in the late 19th century, according to recent research by Iowa State University history professor Michael Christopher Low.

Low’s recent essay published in Comparative Studies in Society and History outlines how the discovery Saudi Arabia’s massive oil reserves came in part as a result of the Ottoman Empire’s desire to find potable water in the region. After years of drought and an extensive cholera outbreak in the late 1800s, the Ottomans saw the discovery of clean water in the Arabian peninsula as a way to prevent the spread of disease following annual pilgrimages to Mecca. This search for water eventually went underground, where explorers instead found historic petroleum reserves.

In an ISU News Service interview Low noted a degree of irony in this discovery in light of Saudi Arabia’s current dependence on oil for desalinization, where the state gets most of its drinking water. He said that 15 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil goes to desalination facilities, without which the state would be unable to function.

Low’s historical research has implications for today as several U.S. states including drought-stricken California consider ocean water desalinization as an option for the future of clean water. These plants, which discharge waste water with even higher salt content back into the oceans and many of which depend on fossil fuels, could have compound negative effects on marine ecosystems and the atmosphere.

Either way, Low’s research shows that historical inquiry can inform current policy, especially around connected resources like petroleum and water.

Iowa DNR, environmental group disagree on manure efforts

(Mark Evans / Flickr) A farmer sprays liquid manure onto a field.
(Mark Evans / Flickr) A farmer sprays liquid manure onto a field.
KC McGinnis | October 27, 2015

After stating that it has met its goals to improve manure management at Iowa farms, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is facing criticism from an Iowa environmental group over its manure management efforts.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI) says the DNR’s efforts since 2013 haven’t gone far enough in reducing nutrient pollution from manure spills in Iowa, where the number of impaired waterways listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has increased 15% in two years. The group is calling for the EPA to step in to provide stricter enforcement of Clean Water Act standards at factory farms.

The DNR’s current work plan required it to increase oversight to 20% of Iowa’s livestock farms being inspected every year. The DNR met that goal over two years, managing a 41% inspection rate. CCI wants the DNR to require permits requiring farmers to maintain manure-related equipment and pay fines for spills. The DNR claims that issuing such permits is actually forbidden for states under EPA rules.

CCI and DNR members will meet November 3 to talk about Iowa’s manure management plan in more depth.

Fish kills reported across the state

An example of a large fish kill in California (Bruce Evans / Flickr)
An example of a large fish kill in California (Bruce Evans / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | October 6, 2015

Fish kills stretched across more than 20 miles of Iowa waterways last week.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources first reported on September 28 that a massive fish kill was spotted in Stoney Creek northwest of Spencer. After finding elevated ammonia levels in the creek, the DNR later concluded that egg washing liquid from Sunrise Farms near May City had been dumped into a corn field that flowed into Stoney Creek, leading to an 18.2 mile spill that killed more than 160,000 fish.

Another spill along Buchanan County Creek was traced to a hog confinement where below-building manure pits had overflowed, leading to a two mile fish kill. Spilled grease from a food processor led to another small spill west of Osceola in Clarke County.

DNR officials said fish can be at greater risk this time of year as manure pits begin filling up. DNR environmental specialist Sue Miller reminded farmers to check their manure levels frequently to avoid additional spills.

The string of fish kills affected mostly minnows and chubs, with those lost in Stoney Creek valued at more than $28,000.

Cancelled swim portion of an Iowa triathlon highlights water quality issues

The start of the 2013 Iowa's Best Dam Triathlon at the Coralville Reservoir (Justin Torner)
The start of the 2013 Iowa’s Best Dam Triathlon at the Coralville Reservoir (Justin Torner)
KC McGinnis | September 17, 2015

Triathletes in eastern Iowa were disappointed Sunday to find that the swim portion of Iowa’s Best Dam Triathlon (IBDT) had to be cancelled due to public health concerns.

After finding high E. coli concentrations in the Coralville Reservoir, IBDT race officials were forced to cut the swim portion of both the Olympic and Sprint distance triathlons held last weekend. They replaced the swim portion with an additional run, making the event a duathlon.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources regularly tests state beaches and lakes for E. coli, which can cause serious illness in humans. It is often carried into waterways through fertilizer runoff or sewage. Lake MacBride has had E. coli advisories posted since early August.

The cancelled swim event is another example of the toll of high nutrient runoff from agricultural production on Iowa water recreation. Mitigation efforts like Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy may help Iowans be able to enjoy clean water next summer.

Report surveys water recreation in Iowa, U.S.

Summer Fun Index vIA-page-001

Nick Fetty | September 2, 2015

A recent report by the Environment America Research & Policy Center analyzes outdoor water recreation in Iowa and the rest of the country.

The 8-page report – entitled Summer Fun Index: Counting the Ways We Enjoy Clean Water – was released on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Water Rule which went into effect August 28.

John Rumpler – a senior attorney for Environment America – was the lead author of the report which surveyed outdoor water recreation in 28 states. The researchers found that nearly half a million Americans visited 2,201 state and national parks (includes various types of national park units) with waterways during the summer of 2015. Additionally, nearly 17 million Americans registered for fishing licenses while nearly 8 million registered boats during 2015. The report ranked the top-five states in the following categories: number of visitors to state and national parks with waterways, summer camps with water activities, licensed fishers, and registered boaters. Iowa did not crack the top-five in any of the categories.

The report concluded with several recommendations for ways to keep American waterways safe or to make them safer. Recommendations included requiring “permits with stringent, enforceable standards” for facilities that threaten waterways, implementing stricter fines so that it “no longer pays to pollute,” disallowing projects that “pave over or otherwise degrade our wetlands,” “establishing numeric pollution limits and enforceable clean up plans for all waters too polluted” for recreation or wildlife, and providing tools and resources so communities can “prevent runoff pollution and end sewage overflows.”

This marks the second year Environment America has released its Summer Fun Index.

Iowa Stats

  • State & national parks* with waterways: 69
  • Visitors to state & national parks* with waterways: 14,317,288
  • Summer camps offering water activities: 22
  • Licensed fishers: 359,767
  • Registered boats: 221,939

* For these purposes, “national parks” include various types of national park units