A wastewater pipe break near Birdland Park in Des Moines caused about 2 million gallons of untreated wastewater to leak into the Des Moines River on Tuesday, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. This leak did not affect drinking water.
The station has an overflow pipe that discharges directly into the river. An estimated 3,500 gallons of diluted wastewater flowed through it each minute. Tom Atkinson, a senior environmental specialist for the DNR, said this likely happened due to cold temperatures, although leaks are most common when there’s heavy rain.
The leak created a murky plume in the river, but the environmental effects were muted because the river is so large. DNR does not believe that any fish were killed due to the leak.
Des Moines, along with other cities in Iowa, combine sewer systems, meaning they transport wastewater and stormwater runoff in the same pipes. Such systems are prone to leaking untreated wastewater into waterways.
A project to separate the systems is expected to finish this year, according to the city’s website.
Chemicals known as PFAS, commonly called “forever chemicals”, were found in treated drinking water that goes to homes, businesses and schools in parts of West Des Moines. The contamination was discovered by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR is testing water in at least 59 cities at their sources and after treatment for human consumption. West Des Moines, the sixth-largest city in the state, was the only city to have detectable levels of two prominent PFAS in its treated drinking water, according to early results obtained by Iowa Capital Dispatch.
Based on the recent DNR test results, at least three of West Des Moines Water Works’ groundwater wells have the two most-studied PFAS, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). It’s unclear why the wells have the chemicals.
The chemicals have been commonly used in nonstick cookware and stain-resistant clothes and furniture. Groundwater contaminations in Iowa have been previously identified near airports, which have used firefighting foams that have the chemicals. To learn more about PFAS more generally, click here.
Concerns about the chemicals have grown in recent years because researchers have shown they can cause cancers and are widely distributed in the environment. The vast majority of people in the United States are believed to have detectable amounts of PFAS chemicals in their bodies.
On Thursday, November 18, the Iowa Environmental Council will hold a two-hour Bright Ideas 2021 event to discuss sources of clean energy in Iowa, like solar and wind power.
The event runs from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in Des Moines but has satellite, group-viewing options in Iowa City and Waterloo. Attendees also have the option to watch a livestream that doesn’t allow participation.
The featured speaker is Destenie Nock, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. She plans to address energy equity.
The in-person locations include a brunch. The cost to attend ranges from $25 for online viewing to $65 for the Des Moines location. Students and young professionals will get discounts.More information is available here.
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.
A Des Moines city design panel approved plans for a $28 million conversion of Des Moines’ Scott Avenue dam into a fishing and kayaking area on Tuesday.
The Scott Avenue conversion is the largest of four major projects planned for water trails development downtown and is one of the first to use portions of a $25 million federal grant arranged by Central Iowa Water Trails and the Des Moines Metropolitan Planning Organization.
The project is a part of the $100 million-plus plan to improve safety by replacing or changing low-head dams while improving recreation. While the biggest project at the Center Street Dam will be voted on later, the other approved projects are at the Prospect and Birdland parks and near Harriett Street.
Plans for the Scott Avenue project add three “drop-offs” for kayaking, a fish passage, seating in areas near the river and a secondary dam to improve safety. At Tuesday’s meeting, discussion was focused around using limestone, granit, or other natural materials, such as planting prairie and lawn grass for stabilization and decor.
Work on the project is expected to take two years, beginning in July 2022.
The U.S. military found high levels of perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contaminating water at Air National Guard bases in Des Moines and Sioux City earlier this year.
The Des Moines Water Works, along with representatives from the local, state, and federal governments, formed a working group to better understand this contamination and the effects it may have on drinking water.
In 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established a health advisory for PFAS contamination in drinking water at 70 parts per trillion. At some sites, the levels were nearly 200 times that number. So far no PFAS have been found in the drinking water near these cities, though more testing is being conducted to determine if the contamination has spread to area wells.
PFAS were once found in several consumer products, from carpets to clothing to paper packaging, but they were phased out of production between 2000 and 2006. However, they are still used in a variety of industrial processes, as well as in firefighting foams used at airfields, including these Iowa bases.
Studies have shown these chemicals can adversely affect immunity, cholesterol, liver tissue, certain hormones, and the development of fetuses and infants, as well as increase the risk of some cancers.
Though a few communities have been exposed to PFAS through contaminated water, most people are exposed to them through consumer products and food. Because of this, virtually everyone contains some level of PFAS in their blood, but scientists have found these levels to be decreasing over time.
On April 22, people around the world celebrate Earth Day, spending time cleaning, greening and appreciating the life-giving planet we too often take for granted.
Iowa, of course, will join in on the party. Read below about Earth Day events cities in Iowa will host next week, as well as some activities you can do individually to make a difference.
Des Moines: Festivities in the state capital will begin this weekend. On Friday, Des Moines Parks and Recreation will host an Earth Day Trash Bash, where registered teams will pick up trash around the city. Everyone is welcome to join in on the kick-off party and several other events hosted Friday and Saturday as part of the bash, including a Downtown Earth Day Tour through the science center, botanical garden and riverwalk. A number of other events on Saturday and Monday include wildlife restoration, crafting and stream cleanup.
Cedar Rapids: The city’s 10th annual EcoFest will be on Saturday, April 20. The day’s events include performances, presentations, hands-on activities, tours, awards and more. Last year over 4,000 people attended!
Dubuque: The Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium will participate in a nationwide Party for the Planet event Saturday. Visitors attend presentations, meet animals and do hands-on activities to learn about environmental conservation. Participation in the celebration will be included with general admission and free for children 3 and under.
Davenport: Visit the Freight House Farmer’s Market Saturday morning for speakers, demonstrations, music and activities to learn about problems facing the planet and how you can help fight them.
University of Iowa student organizations have been hosting Earth Month events for weeks, and still have more to come. Consider visiting the Student Garden Open House Saturday, April 27 for food and DIY Chia Pets with the UI Gardeners and attending an environmental benefit concert the following night with the UI Environmental Coalition.
If you’d like to celebrate on your own or with friends consider these activities:
Picking up trash in your neighborhood or at a local park
“There’s too much at stake to bet on voluntary practices,” the plaintiffs wrote in an op-ed for the Register. “We want to force elected officials to think about a food and farm system that works for farmers, workers, eaters and the environment, not just industrial interests.”
Runoff of fertilizer and manure from farms contributes to harmful algae blooms, which leech toxins into local waters and create a lifeless Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. The environmental groups say the state has failed to uphold the “Public Trust Doctrine,” which states that the government must protect certain natural resources for public uses, like drinking and recreation. As of now, tried-and-true nutrient reduction strategies like planting cover crops are incentivized but not mandated for farmers.
Others, like the Iowa Soybean Association CEO and the Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, told the Register the “potentially divisive” lawsuit disappointed them. For many, this case recalls the 2015 Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit against drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, which attempted to force compliance with federal clean-water standards for “point-source” polluters but was ultimately dismissed.
While Iowans rejoiced over spring-like weather this week after a long, brutal winter, flooding caused by rapid snowmelt and heavy rains has threatened communities across the state.
Iowa weather services have been reporting higher-than-average risks for major flooding this spring since late February, and many outlooks have only increased within the last week, according to the Des Moines Register. The risk is most pronounced along the Mississippi River, where a Quad Cities survey found the risk of flooding through May to be 95 percent last week. The National Weather Service says flooding in the Quad Cities could break records.
The National Weather Service issued a flood watch Wednesday morning that will last until at least this evening across most of the state. In some areas the watch will extend into next week. Below is information on flooding and alerts throughout the state as of this morning.
Major flood stage was reached in Waterloo, Maquoketa and DeWitt as of Thursday morning. Moderate flood stage was reached in many areas Wednesday, including Kalona, Atkins and Augusta (IFIS).
Yesterday, Cedar Rapids expected a “moderate flood stage” when the Cedar River crests early next week. Officials said this should be fairly insignificant for residents. The city had already reached moderate flood stage as of Wednesday night (Gazette/IFIS).
An ice jam raised alarm in Ottumwa Wednesday morning, though it only caused minor agricultural flooding (Des Moines Register).
Squaw Creek in Ames reached major flood stage Wednesday afternoon. As of Thursday morning, all areas were at or below moderate levels (IFIS).
An ice jam collapsed a bridge in Johnston Wednesday evening. The trail leading to the bridge had been closed prior to the collapse (Des Moines Register).
Des Moines Public Works closed parts of George Flagg Parkway and Fleur Avenue. These could remain closed for days (WHOtv).
An ice jam in the Raccoon River flooded rural communities in Dallas County (Des Moines Register).
Western Iowa was hit worst of all. As of Thursday morning, eight communities from north to south were at major flood stage (IFIS).
The Boyer River in Hogan and the West Nishnabotna River near Avoca reached major flood stage Wednesday afternoon. A Red Cross station was set up in Avoca for those displaced from homes (kwbe/IFIS).
Underwood in Pottawattamie County lost function of its sewer lift system Wednesday. Residents were asked to stop flushing toilets temporarily (kwbe).
Harrison County Emergency Management ordered a partial evacuation of Missouri Valley Wednesday night. As of 9:20pm, 2,600 people were underwater (Des Moines Register).
Several roads have been closed as well. Check 511ia.org for current closures.
Take care around even shallowly flooded areas, especially when driving. Remember that while newly-purchased flood insurance takes 30 days to go into effect (and will therefore not help you this week), Iowa’s flood season has only just begun.
A tiny Iowa town may soon get an unprecedented expansion. Diligent Development wants to build Iowa’s first “agrihood” on 400 acres just south of Cumming, bringing food and outdoors living to the center of a relocalized community.
According to the Des Moines Register, which featured Diligent’s plans yesterday, over 200 such communities already exist elsewhere in the U.S.. Agrihoods bring the country closer to the city, integrating food production and nature into suburban areas without spreading neighbors too far apart or committing them to a fully rural lifestyle.
The Register reports that the Cumming agrihood could bring over 1,800 new residents into the 400-person town with mixed housing; apartments, condos, townhomes and single-family homes would all surround a large organic vegetable farm. Farmers would sell through subscription-based services or at local stands, and residents would maintain smaller community gardens as well.
Residents would have easy access to parks and green space too, as the Great Western Trail. The community would also feature a craft brewery, an orchard and retail space.
Cumming is 20 minutes southwest of Des Moines, close to Interstate Highway 35 and Iowa Highway 5. The development would cost about $260 million and is awaiting approval by the Cumming City Council.