Number of Impaired Waters in Iowa Decreases for the First Time in 22 Years


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Nicole Welle | December 3, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released the impaired waters list Tuesday, and the report showed that segments of 750 Iowa lakes and waterways contain pollution levels that fail to meet state requirements.

Almost 60% of Iowa’s lakes, rivers, streams and reservoirs assessed by the DNR over the last five years fell short of state requirements for one or more functions. These include fishing, supporting aquatic insects or recreational swimming and boating. Parts of the Des Moines River, which provides drinking water for 500,000 Iowa residents, and recreational areas like Lake MacBride are on the list, according to a Des Moines Register article.

This year’s list reveals the daunting reality that over half of the state’s waters are polluted, but it also provides some hope for the future. It showed that since 2018, the number of impaired waters in Iowa has decreased by 2.2%. It is not a huge decline, but it is the first time the number has gone down in 22 years. Bodies of water were taken off the list either because conditions improved or the DNR wrote plans to improve water quality.

Solving Iowa’s water pollution problem will require follow-through on those plans, and some environmentalists think waters should only be taken off the list after that happens. Cooperation from farmers will also be crucial since fertilizer and manure runoff is one of the state’s biggest contributors to water pollution. The state reported manure spills as the leading cause of the 97 reported fish kills this year, and farmers have so far been reluctant to take advantage of incentives to take part in conservation practices.

Gov. Kim Reynold’s proposed a tax raise earlier this year that would help fund water quality improvements, but the COVID-19 pandemic has suspended legislative action. Organizations like the Iowa Environmental Council continue to call for an increase in mandatory regulations since the current voluntary compliance system is not doing enough to improve Iowa’s poor water quality, and they hope that the state government will do more to address the issue in the future.

New Research Estimates Lead Exposure In Iowa’s Drinking Water


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Thomas Robinson | November 17th, 2020

Researchers at the University of Iowa have reported that between 51,000 and 79,000 Iowans may be exposed to unsafe lead levels in their drinking water

In a recent paper, Iowa researchers have used data collected for compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) to estimate how many Iowans might be at risk for lead exposure from their drinking water.  Their findings demonstrate that current in home water testing measures fail to adequately capture lead exceedances, and that water systems serving smaller populations were more likely to exceed accepted limit. From their estimates, around 65,000 Iowans are likely at risk for lead exposure above the EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, particularly for young children.  Low levels of lead exposure can have a large influence on children’s development resulting in behavioral and learning problems as well as slowed growth. Surprisingly, most lead in drinking water comes from pipes in individual homes meaning that enforcement of lead limits for water utilities likely misses lead exposure at the point of consumption.

While Iowa is not facing a lead crisis like those in Flint, MI or Washington D.C., the testing for lead in drinking water opens the door for consumers to be unknowingly exposed in their homes.  The findings of Iowa researchers suggests that changes are needed in how we ensure public protection from legacy toxins in our drinking water.

Incentives Alone are Not Enough to Solve Iowa’s Dirty Water Problem


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Nicole Welle | October 29, 2020

Governor Kim Reynolds plans to revive her stalled Invest in Iowa plan during the legislative session next year, but experts warn that tax money going towards voluntary farm-based projects to improve Iowa’s water quality is not enough to make a difference.

Gov. Reynolds introduced the Invest in Iowa plan as a way to improve Iowa’s business climate and boost the state’s image. The plan would raise Iowa’s sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, lower income taxes, provide mental health funding and improve water quality, according to an article in The Gazette.

The funds for improving water quality would go towards incentive-based farm projects aimed at reducing fertilizer runoff into Iowa’s waterways. However, the plan does not include any accountability measures to ensure that funded projects are actually successful. University of Iowa professor Larry Weber, a co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center and former director of the IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering Institute, said in a panel that adding restrictions is crucial to the plan’s success. He also noted that Iowa’s nitrate load has doubled over the last 20 years even though the state has payed farmers $600 million over that time period for conservation projects.

On top of adding restrictions, many environmental experts also believe the state needs to reduce the rate of agricultural intensification, ensure farmers volunteering for these programs are educated and understand the problem, discourage the overuse of manure and commercial fertilizers and rethink the state’s system for siting livestock confinement operations. Livestock confinements are a big contributor to water pollution, but they are quickly increasing in number in Iowa’s watersheds.

Iowa’s water quality problem is a complex issue that requires multiple solutions. However, these additional solutions would require changes in law that would get a lot of pushback from powerful ag interests that sell seed, feed and fertilizer, so experts like Larry Weber fear that Iowa’s water quality will continue to decline under Gov. Reynolds’ plan.

Environmental Group Report Says Two Iowa Companies Have Escaped Enforcement Action for Multiple Clean Water Violations


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Nicole Welle | October 12, 2020

Two Iowa companies have repeatedly reported to state and federal governments that they have exceeded limits set for how much pollution they can discharge into Iowa’s rivers over the past three years, but environmental agencies have not taken action against them.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center blames this lack of enforcement on federal and statewide budget cuts that came as a result of President Trump’s decision to cut spending and staffing needed to enforce the Clean Water Act. Trump shifted responsibility to the states, but many states in the Midwest have also reduced their budgets, according to a Des Moines Register article.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center’s report says that ADM in Clinton and Gelita USA in Sergeant Bluff have violated permit limits dozens of times since 2017 by dumping pollution into the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. ADM spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said that their corn processing plant has struggled to meet requirements over the last few years, but that the company has worked with enforcement officials to resolve the problem. The Environmental Law and Policy Center was unable to find any formal public record of ADM solving the issue, however.

The center focussed on the two companies in Iowa that had the most violations, but they think it is likely that there are other companies in the state escaping enforcement as well. The report states that funding for pollution control in Iowa dropped 19% in 2018. A lack of funding for enforcement could lead to further increases in pollution levels in Iowa’s rivers, a scenario that could put wildlife and communities who use these rivers as sources of drinking water at risk. About 28 million people currently get their drinking water from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Areas Devastated by Wildfires Face Emerging Water Contamination Challenge


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Thomas Robinson | October 6th, 2020

Attention is being drawn to municipal water contamination in Californian towns after exposure to devastating wildfires.

After the Camp fires ravaged California in 2018, testing of municipal water systems revealed widespread contamination by volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Unfortunately, it isn’t known exactly how VOCs infiltrate the water pipes, however, it is thought that potentially melted plastics, or contaminated air and broken pipes could be the cause. Another issue for the recovering areas is that many water pipes in California are polyethylene based, which can melt during fires.  These pipes can absorb VOCs flowing through them and release them over a longer time period at lower concentrations.

One chemical measured in water tests that could be absorbed and leeched over time is Benzene, a known human carcinogen.  Benzene showed up at levels over two thousand times the federal level in drinking water samples after the Tubbs fire in 2017.  Benzene is part of a family of contaminants called BTEX which are connected to petroleum products. 

Fire damaged drinking water systems pose another challenge for struggling families returning to their homes after wildfires.  Contamination at the levels observed after wildfire events can lead to acute and chronic health outcomes, which will leave their mark on the affected communities for years to come.

Iowa DNR Issued Water Quality Warnings for Half of State Park Beaches This Summer


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Nicole Welle | September 17, 2020

The Iowa DNR issued advisories for over half of state park beaches this summer due to unsafe levels of E. Coli bacteria or microcystins in the water.

DNR conducted weekly tests Memorial Day through Labor day, and 39 state park beaches had at least one week during the summer where toxin levels were high enough to trigger a warning. They reported a total of 118 advisories over the summer, an increase from the 79 advisories issued in 2019, according to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article.

E. Coli, which indicates the presence of feces in the water, was responsible for most of the warnings. However, elevated levels of microcystins, which caused 12 advisories, can lead to a range of health problems in people exposed to them. These include gastroenteritis, allergic reactions and potentially life-threatening liver damage. Microcystins are produced by certain types of freshwater blue-green algae.

Studies have shown that much of the bacteria and toxins causing the warnings come from manure runoff and contaminates from nearby fields. Sandy beaches also tend to have higher levels of bacteria from manure from geese and other animals. Higher levels of toxic algae blooms, however, can have a variety of causes. Weather, temperature, nutrient availability and other environmental stressors are all factors, according to Dan Kendall, and environmental specialist in charge of the beach monitoring program.

The DNR’s Lake Restoration Program has plans to begin reducing bacteria in some of Iowa’s lakes that have been most heavily affected and continue testing each summer to monitor toxin levels.

Half of Soil Phosphorus Losses Attributed to Erosion


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Thomas Robinson | September 15th, 2020

According to a recent study, global phosphorus levels in soils are declining despite high levels of applied chemical fertilizers and soil erosion is to blame.

Researchers have analyzed global phosphorus levels in soils and found that all continents, except for Asia, Oceania, and Australia, have net negative soil phosphorus balances.  Phosphorus loss from soils poses a challenge to the global food supply because without phosphorus, an essential plant nutrient, crops are more susceptible to disease, and are likely to have stunted growth.  The most striking finding in the study was that around 50% of phosphorus losses from soils was attributed to soil erosion, a preventable but commonly neglected aspect of agriculture. 

Unfortunately, the phosphorus lost because of soil erosion poses another threat in the form of eutrophication. Eutrophication is caused by high levels of nutrients in aquatic ecosystems and is associated with declining water quality.  The increased nutrient concentrations promote large populations of algae, which consume large quantities of oxygen when they die and decompose.

Soil erosion in Iowa is a large concern as millions of tons of Iowa’s soil runs off tilled fields and into the rivers across the state each year.  Since soil erosion has now been identified as a leading cause for phosphorus losses in soils, Iowa is not only losing tons of topsoil per year, but also losing appreciable amounts of phosphorus as well.

Microplastics In Farm Soils Have Adverse Effects On Wheat Crops


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Thomas Robinson | September 8th, 2020

Microplastics in soils have recently been linked to increased cadmium uptake and root damage in wheat plants.

Researchers at Kansas State University have demonstrated that crops grown in the presence of microplastics are more likely to be contaminated with cadmium than crops grown in the absence of microplastics.  Cadmium is a heavy metal that is known to be carcinogenic and is commonly found in the environment from industrial and agricultural sources.  The researchers also found that microplastics were able to damage the roots of the wheat plants by clogging soil pores and preventing water uptake.

Microplastics are fragments of plastic products that are 5 millimeters or less in length, which is about the size of a sesame seed.  The influence these particulate plastics have on the environment and human health is still not well understood, and they are a growing environmental concern.  While most of the attention microplastics have received is in relation to the amount found in the oceans, a study published in 2016 demonstrates that microplastics actually accumulate more on land surfaces. 

Unsurprisingly, there have been microplastics found in Storm Lake, Iowa.  These pollutants can be found almost everywhere in the world which suggests we need a better understanding of microplastics and their effect on the environment. We also need to make changes to our behavior to prevent further pollution on top of what plastics have already been deposited across the globe.

Des Moines Water Works Calls For Water Conservation In Face of Drought


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Thomas Robinson | September 1st, 2020

Des Moines Water Works is struggling with low water levels and poor water quality leading to calls for water conservation.

Des Moines Water Works, is asking city residents to change their lawn watering schedules to help alleviate high water demand and an abnormally low supply.  The utility is asking that customers who live at even-numbered addresses water their lawns on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while odd numbered addresses water on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Residents are also asked to water before 10 am or after 5 pm to avoid water evaporation from their lawns. 

Iowa is facing serious drought conditions across most of the state which has resulted in low river levels in many of Iowa’s waterways.  Des Moines Water Works uses two rivers, the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, as the primary source for the city’s water.  Low river levels on the Raccoon river are making it difficult to pump water into the city’s treatment plant. To address the issue, flashboards were installed near the Des Moines Water Works’ treatment plant to raise the river level.

Under normal conditions, the water utility would be able to draw from the Des Moines River as well to meet water demands. Unfortunately, the Des Moines River is currently suffering from a toxic algal bloom that has limited the amount of water drawn from that river.  Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) can contaminate waters with toxins, like microcystins, which can cause vomiting, stomach pain, and even pneumonia.

Annual Report Shows Decreased Phosphorous Load And An Increased Nitrogen Load


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Thomas Robinson | August 25th, 2020

The 2018-2019 Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) report, released in late June, details that while phosphorus loads in Iowa’s waters has decreased, nitrogen loads have increased.

Within the past year, Iowa has seen phosphorus loads decrease by 18% because of land use change and conservation practices.  Unfortunately, nitrogen loads increased by 5% over the same time period suggesting that Iowa is not doing enough to reach the goals established by the INRS.  Additionally, the INRS reports that funding has increased by $48 million dollars for a total budget of $560 million.  That budget is used to educate communities and farmers about how best to reduce nutrient pollution such as cover crops or riparian buffer strips

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2013, is a collaborative effort by state agencies to evaluate and decrease the amount of nutrients that pollute Iowa’s waterways.  The overall goal established by the strategy was to reduce annual loads of nitrogen and phosphorus that leaves Iowa by 45%.  Iowa’s nutrients are a concern because Iowa contributes a significant amount of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Mississippi river.  These nutrients result in widespread hypoxia caused by algal growth spurred by the influx of nutrients.