Northeast Iowa farm co-op fined thousands for chemical discharge


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Eleanor Hildebrandt | October 20, 2021

A northeastern Iowa farmers’ cooperative agreed to pay a $6,000 fine for a discharge of ammonia.

Last year, the illegal discharge drained into a creek that feeds into the Turkey River, according to Iowa Capital Dispatch. The river is more than 150 miles long and flows into the Mississippi River. The pollution killed fish and other species present in the river. The dead fish tipped off a local fisherman who notified authorities in July 2020.

A state investigation followed that traced the pollution back to a drainage ditch in the region. The anhydrous ammonia drained into a water storage area at the Three Rivers FS Company. The company agreed to pay the fee without denying or admitting they were at fault.

The quantity of the fertilizer contamination is unknown at this time. The fertilizer was highly attracted to water and the Turkey River. According to an Iowa Department of Natural Resources order in September, Three Rivers consistently pumped snow melt and rainwater into the water storage area. Following the pumping, the water flowed into the creek.

Since the original ammonia leakage, Iowa DNR Environmental Specialist Jessica Ragsdale told the Dispatch the company has altered their practices .

UI Flood Center Created an Interactive Flood Map


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Josie Taylor | September 6, 2021

Northeastern Iowa experienced flooding last weekend. On Sunday, August 29, the Cedar River quickly rose following heavy rainfall. Minor flooding was then seen in Cedar Falls at Tourist Park. 

Park Manager Lori Eberhard with the Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources said, “Trails are still underwater and there’s going to be a number of them that are going to be underwater for a few days”, in regards to Tourist Park. 

Luckily for Iowa, the University of Iowa Flood Center has an interactive map to help Iowans understand flood forecasts in their area. This tool updates every few minutes making it easy to predict flooding. 

Gabriele Villarini, an associate professor with the The University of Iowa’s hydraulics laboratory, uses the tool to study the rise of floods.
Villarini said, “There is no login, very easy to access, and you can think of it as your one-stop-shop for all of your hydrometeorological needs”. Any Iowan, now matter their understanding of flooding, or their income can utilize this user-friendly tool.

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. 

Des Moines Water Works Detects Toxic PFAS in Drinking Water


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Nicole Welle | March 29, 2021

Des Moines Water Works recently detected low levels of PFOS, a toxic chemical found in multiple human-made products, in finished drinking water in Des Moines.

PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) is part of a large list of compounds called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances), which are commonly found in products like popcorn bags, pizza boxes and clothing. These chemicals repel water and oil, and they are commonly called “forever chemicals” since they do not break down and stay in the environment for a long time. PFAS levels detected in Des Moines drinking water were at 6.5 parts per trillion, which is well below the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 ppt. However, even low levels are a concern and have triggered further investigation, according to a Des Moines Water Works announcement.

PFAS chemicals are known to pose threats to human health and the environment. The EPA has connected them to cancer, low birth weight, immune system problems and thyroid issues. While the levels detected in Des Moines’ drinking water are low, a lot more testing is required before specialists can fully understand how PFAS are affecting Iowa’s water supply.

Des Moines Water Works has reached out to the Iowa DNR, the Iowa Attorney General and Iowa’s Congressional delegation to ask for help in resolving the issue. The Iowa DNR plans to test 50 locations they consider highly vulnerable to pollution for PFAS contamination. The federal Department of Defense is also conducting tests to follow up on high PFAS contamination previously detected in groundwater near the Des Moines and Sioux City airports.

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.

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.

DNR Denies Grocers’ Move to Pull Back on Redemption Center Rules


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Nicole Welle | October 5, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources denied the Iowa Grocery Industry Association’s petition to change rules on where customers can exchange cans and bottles for deposits last week.

The current law requires retailers who sell cans and bottles to accept them back unless they can refer customers to a local redemption center. The trip to the redemption center must take ten minutes or less, and Iowa grocers are working to change the rule from a ten-minute trip to a 15-minute one way drive. This would reduce the number of stores in the state required to take back cans and bottles for redemption and force customers in some areas to drive a longer distance.

The Iowa DNR denied the petition in part because grocery store customers who would be affected by this change across the state have not had a chance to be heard on the issue, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article. Many supporters of the current Bottle Bill, like the nonprofit Cleaner Iowa, praised the decision, noting that Iowa already has very few redemption centers that are accessible to large numbers of people. Grocery stores are the most popular and convenient place to redeem bottle and cans for most people.

The grocer’s association filed another petition on Tuesday and said that it would look into alternative actions moving forward. The new petition filed with the DNR is seeking to force other retailers who also sell bottles and cans, like gas stations and hardware stores, to also abide by the current rules. The petition includes a long list of retailers who the association believes are ignoring the law. The DNR has yet to make a decision on this issue.

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.

Iowa DNR Proposes Budget Increase for Lake Restoration and Water Trails


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Nicole Welle | September 14, 2020

The Iowa Natural Resource Commission endorsed a budget for the DNR with increases for lake water quality projects, water trails and park infrastructure.

The Department of Management ordered the Iowa DNR to use the current budget as a baseline for the 2021-2022 proposal. DNR complied by doubling the budget in those three areas while keeping spending the same elsewhere. Most of the money in the budget comes from fees and grants rather than the state’s general fund, according to a DesMoines Register article.

All of the budget increases will come from the state’s gambling tax receipts if it is approved by the legislature. If the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission approves the current proposal, it will become a baseline for Gov. Kim Reynolds’ next proposal for the department.

Some raised questions about how an increase in the budget would affect possible cuts caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. DNR Director Kayla Lyon said that she has not heard of any across-the-board cuts at this time, but it is possible that departments will have to consider reductions in spending later on.

The new budget will be submitted to the Department of Management by Oct. 1.

DNR Sets Stricter Water Quality Thresholds for Iowa Beaches


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Nicole Welle | June 15, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) decided to follow stricter standards this summer for the amount of toxins found in the water at public beaches.

Microcystin is a toxin produced by cyanobacteria in algae blooms in Iowa’s lakes. It poses health threats to humans and animals that swim at beaches with high levels of the toxin and can cause abdominal pain, blistering, pneumonia and vomiting if ingested. Dogs have also died from being exposed to it, according to an Iowa Environmental Council news release.

In 2006, Iowa DNR began using a threshold of 20 micrograms per liter to issue beach advisories. However, they decided to lower it to 8 micrograms per litre this year after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended it.

The DNR currently monitors only a small percentage of Iowa’s recreational beaches, but they were able to issue a number of advisories and temporarily close beaches on Lake Macbride, Spirit Lake and Lake Rathbun last year when microcystin levels exceeded the threshold. The number of advisories issued this year is likely to be much higher than past years under the new guidelines.