EPA begins demolition at Des Moines Superfund Site


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 21, 2021

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began tearing down contaminated buildings at the Des Moines Superfund site, on Monday. 

The 43-acre site has been chosen for the development of a professional soccer stadium, hotel, businesses and residential areas. At the site, groundwater pollution with the cancer-causing solvent TCE had prompted the EPA to begin removing hazardous substances and update the 35-year-old groundwater treatment system in June 2021. 

The project is one in a series that were approved to receive a portion of $100 million in state aid aimed at creating jobs and infrastructure development, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority

Previously owned by Dico Inc. and Titan Tire Company, the site was used to manufacture pesticides, steel wheels, and tires. Operations resulted in the release of trichloroethene (TCE), 1,2-dichloroethene (1,2-DCE) and vinyl chloride into the groundwater before remaining vacant for over 25 years. 

In February, a court approved a settlement between Dico Inc. and Titan Tire Co. resulting in the city taking over the property. With the Superfund law used in the settlement, the EPA is able to enforce a “polluter pays” principle which holds Dico and Titan accountable for cleanup and oversight costs. $3 million of the $11.5 million in settlement funds will pay for the EPA’s demolition of the buildings and replacement of the water treatment system. 

Demolition is expected to take a month.

U.S. House Will Vote on PFAS Regulation


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Josie Taylor | July 19, 2021

PFAS chemicals, often referred to as forever chemicals, which have been found in many places in Iowa, are not currently regulated federally. Members of Congress, along with Biden administration officials at a conference on Wednesday explained that they are trying to start regulation for toxic chemicals found in water, like PFAS, starting with a vote in the U.S. House this week. 

Two representatives from Michigan, Reps. Debbie Dingell and Dan Kildee, said that House Democratic leaders will introduce the PFAS Action Act of 2021. This has the goal of reducing Americans’ exposure to the toxic chemicals in air, water and consumer products.

Rep. Dingell’s bill would define PFOA and PFOS chemicals as hazardous substances, which would make it so federal cleanup would have to occur. This clean up would likely start on military bases. 

There are currently no EPA regulations that restrict manufacturers and companies from releasing PFAS chemicals into the environment.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency is currently in the process of regulating PFOS and PFOA.

“We recognize PFAS is an urgent health challenge,” Regan said. “We’re committed to working with all stakeholders to protect the health and safety of all of our communities.”

The bill introduced this week would also identify nine industries for which EPA must set standards. These industries are: organic chemicals, plastics and synthetic fibers; pulp, paper, and paperboard; textile mills; electroplating; metal finishing; leather tanning and finishing; paint formulating; electrical and electrical components; and plastics molding and forming.

Des Moines Water Works plans to drill wells in search for clean water


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 7, 2021

The Des Moines Water Works is now considering drilling wells to find clean water. After years of lawsuits and legislative lobbying, the utility has been unable to keep farmers upstream in order to reduce runoff. These efforts have cost Water Works $18 million to treat the polluted river water over the last two decades. Resulting in the utility now planning to spend $30 million in order to drill wells which will mix in pure water when the nitrate levels rise seasonally. 

Major cities are often discouraged from taking such a dramatic measure, as reliance on wells for large populations would quickly deplete the groundwater. Comparatively, small communities may often use wells but surface sources such as rivers and lakes, supply 70% of the freshwater used in the U.S. 

Nitrate levels in central Iowa have become so bad that Des Moines Water Works’ CEO Ted Corrigan said to Iowa Public Radio “for 110 days last year [Water Works] could not use the Des Moines River as a water source…That is shocking.” 

Since many Iowa farmers are unable to privately invest in ways to filter out chemicals and public funding through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is limited, the utility has few alternative options. 

Water Works has paid the U.S. Geological Service $770,000 to analyze drilling sites north of the city, according to The Gazette. Thereafter, the utility will have to work with state and federal agencies to get the permits to build the wells. 

Lake Darling Faces Continuing Bacteria Problems Despite $12 Million Restoration


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 6, 2021

Once the pinnacle of Iowa perennial lake improvement, Lake Darling now reports one of the highest amounts of swimming advisories in Iowa. 

Despite a $12 million restoration concluded in 2014, Lake Darling has had problems maintaining its renewed water quality. A study by the Iowa Environmental Council found Darling had 30 beach advisories for fecal bacteria and nine for algae toxins between 2014 and 2020. In a rare discovery for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Darling was found to have violated three state swimming standards in a single round of tests last week. Only seven other lakes received “swimming not recommended” warnings.

The restoration of Lake Darling began in the early 2000’s after Iowa DNR tests for bacteria found high levels of animal waste due to the local area’s high concentration of hog confinements. Animal bacteria and algae toxins can result in intestinal and other illnesses in humans, especially those with weakened immune systems. However, many of these concerns seemed to be put to rest due to the restoration. In 2007, the Iowa DNR even published an article titled “Lake Darling: A snapshot of success.

In an interview with the Iowa Capital Dispatch, Alicia Vasto, the associate water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, said the increase in algae toxin microcystin has been a major concern. Vasto noted the beginning of July is very early in the season for microcystin advisories, however the precipitation patterns and drought increases the difficulty to draw conclusions. 

Water Conservation is Being Requested Despite Rain


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Josie Taylor | July 5, 2021

Recently the Des Moines area has received rain, causing a lower demand for water. Despite this good news, next week there will likely be more heat and less rain, which could cause more strain on Des Moines Water Works. Des Moines Water Works had a high demand this summer because of the dryness Iowa is experiencing.

Des Moines Water Works pumped 89 million gallons on June 9. Two days later it was closer to 90 million gallons but luckily rain came. The rain brought demand down to 86 million, which is still high. The record is 96 million gallons, which occurred in 2012. 

On June 14 Des Moines citizens were asked to conserve their water when possible. This brought demand down by about 5 million gallons a day. 

Demand for water got down to 50 million gallons a day in late June after multiple rain showers. This did not last long, and by Thursday, July 1 it was up to 73 million gallons a day.

Ted Corrigan, Des Moines Water Works CEO, told Iowa Capital Dispatch that Water Works will continue to ask their customers to try to avoid watering their lawn, and to follow a watering schedule. Their goal is to cut down lawn watering by 25 percent.

Utility workers also installed flashboards on the Raccoon River in hopes to raise the water level because the river has been running low recently. The Raccoon River is a large source of water in the Des Moines area.

UI Professor Explains Forever Chemicals


Josie Taylor | June 28, 2021

University of Iowa professor, Dave Cwiertny gave a presentation via Zoom to a CGRER member. He explained PFAS chemicals in drinking water, which are also referred to as forever chemicals. He gave an explanation for what they are, why people should be concerned, and what can be done now.

Professor Cwiertny near the beginning of the presentation tells us why PFAS exists in the first place. PFAS is a man-made chemical that does have some desirable traits. They have oil and water repellence, temperature resistance and friction reduction. They are used in non-stick cookware and fire fighting foams. Areas near fire fighting locations, like airports, landfills or near food processing locations are at a higher risk of being exposed to PFAS chemicals in their drinking water. Here you can view the PFAS cycle.

PFAS chemicals are something to be concerned about because they can cause problems, specifically for pregnant women. Exposure to PFAS chemicals can cause low birth weight, preterm birth and other problems.

If you have an unregulated private well, you should check if you are near a location that has history of PFAS contamination. Free testing could be available through Iowa Grants to Counties. If you have public water, contact your provider and ask about their plans testing for PFAS chemicals through the Department of Natural Resources.

If you have extra concerns or questions you can contact Professor Cwiertny through his email (david-cwiertny@uiowa.edu) or by phone (319-335-1401).

Poor Water Quality Costs Iowa Millions in Annual Tourism


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 22, 2021

This week, The Cedar Rapids Gazette is hosting a series of virtual panels on water quality issues as a part of the Gazett’s Iowa Ideas 2021 virtual conference. Tuesday’s panel, “A Recreational View: Ecotourism” will focus on the growing role water quality plays on recreation and tourism.

2020 has set records for lakeside and outdoor vacations; in Iowa 16.6 million people visited state parks especially those near rivers, lakes or streams according to IowaWatch.org. One of the most popular sites, Okoboji lake in northwest Iowa, reports $300 million in the annual economic impact of tourism. However, as over half of Iowa’s state park beaches had at least one swim warning, it is unsurprising the cities around Okoboji were some of the first in the state to pass ordinances requiring environmental and infrastructure preservation around the lakes to improve water quality. 

More than 60% of Iowa’s rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs are currently considered impaired due to harmful levels of bacteria and algae fueled by runoff of manure and fertilizers according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The disparity between usage and water quality has resulted in around $30 million lost in annual tourism from Iowans who would pay more to visit cleaner lakes and rivers according to a 2018 Iowa State University study. Respondents ranked agricultural runoff as the biggest contributor to poor water quality, followed by livestock manure. 

Other Iowa Ideas events this week will feature conversations about controlling water pollution and share ideas on solutions. Panels and discussions begin at noon Monday through Friday with different guests daily. Free registration is open for the event on the Iowa Ideas website.

UI Professor Talks About Drought on Iowa Press


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Josie Taylor | June 21, 2021

On Friday, University of Iowa professor Larry Webber, along with Des Moines Water Works CEO, Ted Corrigan were interviewed on Iowa Press. They both answered questions about water quality in Iowa, and more specifically how the drought is affecting water.

Corrigan and Webber were both calm during the interview, and did not act scared about Iowa’s future. They were disappointed at times, but held out hope. 

The interview was started by asking Corrigan and Webber about the recent news that the Supreme Court would not move forward with a lawsuit that was brought forward by a couple of groups dealing with agriculture pollution on the Raccoon River. They both expressed disappointment. Professor Webber said “we’ve had a lot of talk and the talk has been going on now for a decade”, and now we need progress. 

Both interviewees were asked if they believed there would be a Flint, MI type of situation in the near future. Both men shut that thought down quickly. They said that Iowa is not experiencing anything like Flint, meaning Iowa does not have drinking water contaminated with lead, and they reassured that Iowans are taking this seriously. 

Corrigan shared that Des Moines was asked to cut down on their water use, and that the citizens of Des Moines did that. He said that they have seen a 5 million gallon reduction in water from day to day. He holds out hope that Des Moines will not get to the place of needing to ration water completely. 

Webber ended the interview by sharing that he believes federal leadership is needed in times like this. He wants more leadership in USDA in order to help farmers handle a drought effectively. 

Des Moines Water Works Urges Customers to Conserve Amid Drought


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 15, 2021

Des Moines Water Works has asked customers to voluntarily conserve water as drought and near-record water demand strains supply. 

On Monday, the utility asked metro residents to reduce their lawn watering by 25%. The utility has a capacity of 110 million gallons a day however, when demand reaches past 90 million the system risks water pressure problems. On June 9, Water Works pumped 88.6 million gallons, now the second highest peak since 2012 when 96 million gallons were pumped. 

In an interview with the Iowa Capital Dispatch, CEO Ted Corrigan noted if it doesn’t rain soon, the utility may need to ask for a 50% lawn watering reduction. This is only the second time during Corrigan’s 31 years at Water Works that the utility has asked customers to voluntarily reduce water usage. The last time a cutback was encouraged was in 2012. 

Water Works has had to lower its usage of the Des Moines River due to toxic algae issues which re-emerged a month early this year; making the river unusable. The current main source of tap water, the Raccoon River is running at 7.5% of its median flow.

Over the past decade, Iowa has spent over $40.6 million at six locations to treat and prevent algae toxin outbreaks. Nationwide, this issue has become a $1.1 billion issue according to a study by the Environmental Working Group

The request impacts Des Moines, West Des Moines, Johnston, Urbandale, Clive, Norwalk, Pleasant Hill and Ankeny city residents. 

Iowa water quality program receives extra funding near end of legislative session


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Elizabeth Miglin | May 25, 2021

The Iowa state legislative session ended on Thursday with water quality bills taking center stage and receiving mixed responses. 

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig touted the 10-year extension of a state water quality program which will provide an additional $320 million in funding for water quality projects. Most of the funds will go to paying farmers for soil conservation and reducing chemical runoff projects; however, providing wildlife habitats and recreation will also be supported by these funds. 

As Naig emphasized, this funding upholds the Iowa environmental goals adopted in 2013 known as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The recommendations were expected to cost $89.3 million to $1.4 billion a year when adjusted for inflation. However, the Iowa Environmental Council noted that of the $500 million spent in Iowa on federal conservation programs in years past, only $17 million was focused directly on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. 

The funding of Iowa water quality programs greatly impacts other national water quality issues such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, with Iowa farms being a main source of pollution. The gulf is one of the nation’s most important shrimping areas but seasonally becomes lifeless due to algae blooms fed by fertilizer. 

Questions have arisen if the additional funding for the state water quality program will be enough due to other state environmental programs being underfunded. This includes the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund which is currently penniless due to the expectation the fund would be filled by state tax increases. However, Gov. Kim Reynold’s 1-cent sales tax increase, known as the Invest in Iowa plan, was paused due to COVID-19’s economic impact on Iowa.