High Quality Waters At Risk From Proposed Manure Plan


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | March 2nd, 2021

A proposed plan for a manure application has come under scrutiny for the potential harm it could cause in some of Iowa’s high quality waters.

Supreme Beef, a cattle company in northeastern Iowa, has applied to spread cow manure in a 30 mile area around their operation near Monona IA.  Critics have warned that the plan may threaten water quality in the region, and pose a risk to the brown trout, a popular Iowa fishing attraction.  The plan proposed by Supreme Beef has been targeted for the likelihood for manure overapplication as well as a failure to include required conservation practices.

The area where manure would be spread is close to the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, an area where brown trout reproduce, which presents a threat to water quality because of northeastern Iowa’s karst topography.  Karst topography is characterized by easy groundwater flow, which means that any manure seepage or contamination from the surface could easily influence the water quality of the region. Iowan’s in the area have needed to address similar issues previously, particularly for private well owners.

Currently the DNR is accepting written comments for the plan until March 8th before they will issue a decision for Supreme Beef’s manure application.

Iowa GOP Senators Move to Cut Tax Exemptions for Forest Reserves


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Nicole Welle | February 15, 2021

GOP members of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee voted last week to advance a bill that would reduce tax breaks for Iowa forest reserves.

Currently, landowners qualify for a 100% tax break on land made up of forests as small as two acres. The new bill would reduce the forest reserve tax break to 75% of the property value, require a minimum of 10 acres to qualify and place a five-year limit on exemptions. GOP senators who introduced the bill argued that it could prevent landowners from cheating the system, but Democrats criticized its timing as Iowa fights chronic water pollution and continues to recover from the derecho that destroyed 25% of the state’s trees last August, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids criticized Republicans for pushing a bill that could interfere with derecho recovery. Lawmakers have made little effort to help landowners recover, and increased taxes would only add to the burden of recovery costs, Hogg said. Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott also opposed the bill, saying that Iowa’s limited forest helps reduce water pollution and supports the state’s wood industry.

Iowa’s woodlands currently support a $4 billion forest industry. Because woodland owners have to wait until a tree is mature enough to cut it down, the tax breaks help alleviate the costs of growing and maintaining their trees in between harvests. Without the current exemption, some woodland owners could be forced to replace some of their trees with row crops. This crop conversion could accelerate soil erosion and increase water pollution in the state, according to the Des Moines Register.

If passed by the Senate, the bill’s language would require the Iowa DNR, rather than the agriculture department, to verify that land qualifies as a reserve. However, the bill does not allocate extra money to the DNR, and the state did not conduct a financial study to estimate the added cost.

WOTUS Rule Changes Could Potentially Harm Iowa Farmers Says Iowa Ag Secretary


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Thomas Robinson | January 26th, 2021

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig says that if the Biden administration follows through with plans to change the rules of the Waters Of The United States (WOTUS) provision in the Clean Water Act, Iowa farmers could pay the price.

While exact details of the coming changes to WOTUS rules are unknown, it is likely the Biden administration will return components back to where they were under the Obama administration.  Secretary Naig’s reservations have been labelled by as a “political hoax” since the Clean Water Act already excuses much of the regulation on non-point sources of pollution such as agricultural fields. 

The discussion around the WOTUS rule centers on what can be defined as a “navigable” body of water.  A navigable water is defined as a water that is affected by tides, or has been used for transport in the past, present, or future.  The Trump Administrations changed the WOTUS rule in April, 2020 to improve the clarity for what waters are considered “navigable”, however, the changes failed to add any clarity and likely resulted in a lessening of water quality protections.

The issue of non-point source pollution in Iowa has made the news before when the Des Moines Water Works sued multiple drainage districts over their pollution of the Racoon River. The utility hoped that tile drainage from fields could be regulated as a point source rather than a non-point source and help alleviate the strain nitrogen pollution was placing on their operations.  The suit was dismissed after the court ruled the drainage districts could not address the injuries incurred by the utility while also ignoring whether drainage systems are point source pollutants.

Kim Reynolds Pauses Invest in Iowa Act Program for the Second Time


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Nicole Welle | January 11, 2021

Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Thursday that she is once again pausing the Invest in Iowa Act, a proposal that would fund environmental and mental health programs, due to the effects of COVID-19 on the economy.

Reynolds originally shelved the proposal late last session after the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted the economy. She said that the program’s one-cent sales tax increase would be ill-advised during a time of economic uncertainty, and she still holds that view. Reynolds has said that she would rather follow up on tax cuts made in 2018 so Iowans can “keep more of their hard-earned money” and cited concerns about the pandemic’s effect on employment and the economy, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch previously reported that lawmakers from both parties have opposed the plan, so the Invest in Iowa Act is likely to stall without major revisions if Reynolds ever decides to act on it in the future. Some Republican lawmakers have discussed adjusting tax breaks to create funds for some of the work outlined in the act, but the Invest in Iowa act’s future is unclear.

Reynolds’ original Invest in Iowa proposal would have funded Iowa’s Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund and improved the state’s mental health programs, and reductions in income and property taxes would have offset the one-cent sales tax increase. Iowa voters overwhelmingly approved the trust fund in 2010 and hoped that it would help to solve Iowa’s water quality issues caused by agricultural runoff and other pollution. However, it is in desperate need of funding as the sales tax increase required to fund it has never reached the debate floor.

The Invest in Iowa plan would have created $171 million a year for water quality, outdoor recreation, and conservation projects. It also would have allowed counties to shift mental health funding from local property taxes to the sales tax. However, Reynolds did not discuss alternative sources of funding for water quality or conservation projects when she announced that she would pause the program on Thursday, and she said that she is currently looking for alternative sustainable funding for mental health services.

Mississippi River Gets a D in Water Quality Thanks to Agricultural Runoff


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Nicole Welle | December 24, 2020

A new report from America’s Watershed Initiative revealed a concerning decline in Mississippi River water quality over the last five years by giving its water quality a D, and it placed the blame on uncontrolled agricultural runoff from Iowa and other Midwest states.

Iowa has been one of the Mississippi River’s biggest polluters for years. The Iowa DNR’s ambient stream monitoring showed that the amount of nitrogen polluting the river has doubled over the last 20 years, and the annual load surpassed 1 billion pounds twice in the last four years. This has been disastrous for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico as the dead zone, an area of water no longer capable of supporting marine life due to high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, continues to average at 5,408 square miles, according to an article in the Gazette.

Iowa’s current Nutrient Reduction Strategy is meant to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from agricultural runoff entering the dead zone through the Mississippi River, and the state has made progress in some conservation efforts like promoting cover crops, restoring wetlands and installing bioreactors. However, these practices alone have not been enough to make up for the rapid intensification of agriculture in the state. Agricultural runoff continues to increase as farmers apply nitrogen fertilizer over the recommended rate and choose to opt out of voluntary conservation practices without penalty.

Many Iowa environmentalists have called for state government-imposed mandatory regulations to ensure that farmers adopt conservation practices and reduce harmful agricultural runoff into the Mississippi River and other waterways. This would include putting a limit on the amount of manure and commercial fertilizer farmers can apply to their fields and ensuring that water quality standards are met.

Action on a federal level could also improve water quality in the Mississippi River. President-elect Joe Biden has said that he will increase federal spending on incentives for farmers who plant cover crops and reserve their land for conservation, a plan that would improve water quality and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Biden also nominated former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he is likely to work on improving the nation’s water resources like the Mississippi River and establish a line of federal funding for conservation efforts.

Iowa Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Farm Pollution Case This Week


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Nicole Welle | December 17, 2020

The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether a lawsuit filed against the state of Iowa for allegedly allowing factory farms to pollute the Raccoon River should go to trial.

Food and Water Watch and Iowa Citizens for Community improvement filed the case back in 2019. The lawsuit claims that state officials and lawmakers are denying citizens’ rights to clean water for drinking and recreation under the Public Trust Doctrine by allowing crop and hog farmers to pollute the Raccoon River watershed, according to an Iowa Now article.

The Raccoon River is the main source of drinking water for 500,000 Iowans, and Des Moines water works is currently forced to run expensive treatment systems to maintain acceptable nitrate and other pollution levels. The river has exceeded federal nitrate limits for safe drinking water on multiple occasions over the past ten years and poses a health risk for for people and wildlife that rely on it as a safe water source. If the case goes to trial, it will urge the court to replace the state’s current policy allowing farmers to implement environmental practices voluntarily with mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. It would also ask for a moratorium on new and expanding hog confinements to help limit manure runoff into Iowa’s waterways.

The state argued for the dismissal of the case on the grounds that, because the Iowa Constitution places responsibility of farmers’ interests and water quality on the legislature and executives, the court should not intervene in policy considerations on the matter. A judge denied the state’s motion to have the case thrown out back in September of 2019, and the court will likely make a decision on wether it will allow the case to go to trial in the next few months.

Any attempts to regulate agriculture in Iowa have been historically met with heavy opposition. Iowa leads the nation in corn and pork production, but a system that has such devastating effects on the environment and jeopardizes Iowans’ health and safety cannot continue without substantial reform. Environmental groups in Iowa have long called for policy changes that put mandatory limits on agricultural pollution. If this case is allowed to move forward and succeeds at trial, those changes could finally become a reality and move the state closer to to solving its contaminated water problem.

Lead in School Drinking Water: Opportunities for Improving Public Health in Iowa’s Schools


With permission from Amina Grant

Thomas Robinson | December 15th, 2020

In a legislative presentation Tuesday morning, David Cwiertny, Director of CHEEC, and Dr. Michelle Scherer, a professor at the University of Iowa, presented their work on lead in Iowa’s drinking water. 

CHEEC, the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, has worked with schools around the state to assess the amount of lead in drinking water through their Grants to Schools program.  The program provides $10,000 for schools to sample every drinking water outlet, and then take steps to address any potential lead or copper contamination.  On average, they’ve found it only takes $2,800 for testing and remediation suggesting that more can be done for Iowa’s schools without breaking the bank.  Cwiertny emphasized the large cost to benefit ratio seen for lead interventions, where for every $1 invested there is around a $10 benefit.  Unfortunately, COVID-19 has created concerns about school drinking water as stagnation can increase lead and copper levels in drinking water. As schools begin to operate drinking fountains again there may be an increased chance for lead and copper exposure.

Dr. Michelle Scherer discussed her research group’s efforts to test drinking water from both municipal systems, as well as private wells in Iowa.  Recent work by graduate students Amina Grant, and Danielle Land has found that some Iowans are potentially being exposed to lead in their drinking water.  Shockingly, they found that potentially 65,000 Iowans had drinking water that exceeded the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).  Dr. Scherer’s take-away message was that we need to know more about the challenge facing Iowa.  She emphasized that in home lead and copper testing needs to be more prevalent and available to properly evaluate the issue. Similarly to work being done in Illinois, Iowa needs to map lead service lines (LSLs) so that consumers can be made aware of potential exposures. Currently the Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that public health interventions need to happen at 5 microgram per deciliter blood lead levels in children and Dr. Scherer suggested that in the face of recent work these interventions should happen at lower blood lead levels. To better address the lead challenge facing Iowa both speakers stressed the importance of filter first legislation that could help reduce lead exposure in children.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead as there is no safe level of exposure without potential health risks.  In Iowa, 1 in 5 newborns have elevated blood lead levels, and there is no difference between rural and urban populations.  Traditionally, lead is thought to come from paints, air, and soils, however, it is becoming more apparent that drinking water is a prevalent source for lead exposure.  Lead in drinking water is difficult to control and regulate since most contamination comes from the distribution system and not providers.  Currently, there are many different guidelines and regulations for lead contamination. Unfortunately, Iowa is on the back end where water outlets are taken out of service only if lead levels exceed 20 ppb, which is 4 times the level accepted for bottled water (5 ppb).  Iowa needs a health based lead regulation that can be used by consumers to evaluate whether their drinking water is safe, and it isn’t unreasonable for a low level like 1 ppb to be the goal.

TODAY Virtual Event: Erin Brockovich to Discuss Her New Book on Combatting America’s Water Crisis


Image by Gage Skidmore, Via Wikimedia Commons

Nicole Welle | December 7, 2020

Prairie Lights is hosting a virtual event today at 7 p.m. with Erin Brockovich for a special reading of her new book, Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It. Journalist and co-author, Suzanne Boothby, and the UI Director of Graduate Studies in Civil and Environmental Engineering, David Cwiertny will join her in the discussion.

Brockovich is an environmental activist and public speaker. She founded the Erin Brockovich Foundation, a non-profit organization that educates and empowers communities fighting for access to clean water, and is known for leading a successful lawsuit against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company on behalf of hundreds of Californians who were unknowingly exposed to toxic waste in their drinking water. Her efforts became the subject of the 2000 Oscar-wining film, Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts. Brockovich is also the co-author of Take It from Me: Life’s a Struggle but You Can Win and hosts a show on PodcastOne.

Register here to join this free event.

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.