Report outlines economic benefits of clean water in Iowa


32502118803_368fbe2081_o
Trees are reflected in a clear Iowa pond. (Richard Hermann/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 21, 2018

A recent report from Iowa State University argues that removing nutrient pollution from Iowa’s water would provide economic benefits for the state.

Economists with ISU’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) first summarize the cost of nutrient pollution in Iowa’s waterways. They write that forty-nine public water systems treat water for nitrate pollution either by using nitrate removal equipment or blending the water; these systems serve more than 10 percent of Iowa citizens. The report estimates that Iowa’s public water systems have paid $1.8 million to treat nitrate in the water since 2000.

Smaller communities and rural areas are disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of polluted water. Many small town public water systems do not have the resources to purchase costly nitrate removal equipment and as a result, may not be able to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality regulations. Private wells go largely unregulated, so consumers are responsible for picking up the water treatment costs. Findings suggest that as many as a quarter of Iowa’s wells have unsafe nitrate levels in them.

The report also comments on the lost revenue from water recreation income for the state. The number of beaches and waterways under advisory or closed each summer because of harmful algae blooms, which are fed by nitrate, continues to grow. Economists estimate that improving water quality in Iowa’s lakes by meeting Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals would increase recreational benefits for all Iowans by $30 million per year.

Iowa Legislators recently passed a bill that will allocate $282 million to water quality improvement projects in the state over the next 12 years. Critics recognize, however, that scientists with the Nutrient Reduction Strategy have estimated that it will cost billions of dollars to adequately remove nutrient runoff from waterways in Iowa.

To read CARD’s full report, click here.

Midwest drinking water quality symposium draws large crowd


DSC_0065
The symposium’s attendees included students, state legislators, water utility workers, environmental and public health representatives and farmers. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 18, 2017

Approximately 150 people gathered at Drake University in Des Moines for the “Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest-A Symposium” on September 21 and 22. Sponsored by several University of Iowa centers including the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (EHSRC), Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), and the UI Public Policy Center, the event featured thirteen speakers.

Four plenary discussions about topics such as the health impacts of nitrate in drinking water, how to communicate with the public about water quality, unregulated contaminants in drinking water and more.

Complete PowerPoint presentations from the symposium’s presenters can be accessed here.

On The Radio – Petition to strengthen regulation for livestock operations denied


dairycowslg
A confined dairy feeding lot in northeastern Iowa. (Iowa State Univesity)
Jenna Ladd | October 16, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how a recent attempt to strengthen regulatory standards for livestock facilities in Iowa was shut down by the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission. 

Transcript: A petition to make it more difficult to build animal feeding operations in the state of Iowa was recently denied by the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Under current law, applicants seeking to construct livestock facilities must meet only 50 percent of the state’s master matrix of rules and regulations pertaining to the structures. The petition, filed by two environmental groups, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch, requested that applicants meet at least 86 percent of the matrix’s requirements.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources sided with the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission and recommended against passing the petition, both groups said that the proposed changes would be too stringent. Proponents of the petition pointed out that just two percent of applicants are denied permission to construct livestock feeding operations in the state of Iowa.

The current animal feeding operation master matrix was developed fifteen years ago by state lawmakers.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Drainage districts have power to improve water quality


ditch3
One-third Iowa cropland is a part of a tile drainage system, which are regulated by drainage districts. (USGS)
Jenna Ladd | October 12, 2017

A new report out of a non-partisan Iowa City-based research center, Iowa Policy Project, states that drainage districts have the power to improve water quality in the state.

About one-third of cropland in Iowa is tiled for drainage. Agricultural drains channel water, which often carries heavy nitrate loads, from fields into local water waterways. Iowa’s nitrate runoff is a primary contributor to the growing Dead Zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Researchers Sarah Garvin, Michael Burkart and David Osterberg recommended using Iowa’s “quasi-governmental” drainage districts an agent of change. The report explains that the districts have the statutory authority to mitigate nitrate runoff by “requiring water quality monitoring and reporting, wetland conservation and restoration, and mandating the installation of bioreactor at discharge points to reduce nitrate loads.”

The report also points out that under statutory mandate, drainage should be “a public benefit and conducive to the public health, convenience and welfare.” Nitrate levels in water at or below the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 10 mg/L is considered safe for consumption. However, some new research suggests that nitrate levels below this can pose some health threats. In either case, the report reads,”Public health and welfare should be interpreted to mean keeping our waterways free of nitrate pollution.”

David Osterberg, lead energy and environment researcher at Iowa Policy Project, said, “It’s going to require managers of drainage districts to step up at a time when their county supervisors cannot, even if they wanted to, and at a time the state legislature has stood in the way of local authority on industrial agriculture.” He added, “In this case, with drainage districts, the authority to take some steps already exists.”

The executive summary and the full report can be found here.

Drinking water symposium scheduled for September


Screen Shot 2017-08-21 at 1.02.58 PM

Jenna Ladd| August 23, 2017

A symposium examining issues related to drinking water in Iowa and across the U.S. is set to take place in Des Moines next month. Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest: A Symposium will feature presenters from Iowa as well as nationally-renowned speakers.

The event’s agenda includes panel discussions concerning the human health impacts of nitrate in drinking water, new and emerging drinking water threats, and communicating about water quality with the public, among other topics. The symposium is co-sponsered by the The University of Iowa Environmental Health Sciences Research Center and the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination along with Drake University.

What: Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest: A Symposium

When: September 21 from 8 am to 5 pm, September 22 from 8 am to 12 pm

Where: Drake University, Des Moines

Those interested in attending the symposium can register here.

Oxbow restoration improves water quality, habitat


34582967146_e2af6e916e_h
An aerial view of existing oxbows along a waterway in Northern Iowa. (G. Witteveen/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 25, 2017

Conversations about water quality improvement on agricultural land usually include talk of terraces, wetland restoration and curbed pesticide application. One strategy, oxbow restoration, is often left out.

Prior to European-Americans converting Iowa’s prairies into cropland, most of the waterways that flow through the state regularly took long twists and turns. In order to maximize agricultural space, farmers straightened creeks in the 20th century. IIHR researcher Dr. Chris Jones said that this causes water to move quickly downstream, increasing nutrient runoff, erosion and the likelihood of flooding downstream.

Jones is one part of an effort to restore an oxbow in Morgan Creek Park in Linn County. In an interview, he explained that oxbow restoration is a cheaper conservation method because most oxbows were located on land that is not usable for farming anyway. He said, “It’s very cheap habitat—$10,000 to $15,000 to restore one of these.”

Jones, along with UI Dr. Keith Schilling and graduate student Bryce Haines, hope to measure the water quality benefits of oxbow restoration. The researchers have installed water level monitoring wells near the project on Morgan Creek, the first of its kind in eastern Iowa. Linn County Conservation has reintroduced native plants to the area, which is close to one of the park’s hiking trails. Jones said, “It’ll provide opportunities for people to look at birds.”

Schilling has already seen the positive impact oxbow restoration can have on a watershed. His research team restored an oxbow along White Fox Creek in the Boone watershed last year. Schilling reported that the oxbow removed 45 percent of the nitrate flowing into the stream from surrounding farmland, which is equal to what one might expect from bioreactors or wetlands.

Schilling and Jones agree that oxbows provide a multitude of benefits. “Oxbows can provide a triple benefit of habitat, flood storage, and stream water-quality enhancement,” Jones said, “And all for not much money.”

To read IIHR’s full report on the project, click here.

On The Radio – How should Iowa measure its water quality?


screenshot
Data from the Iowa Water Quality Information System showing nitrate levels in Iowa.
Jake Slobe | November 28, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses an emerging debate about the best way to measure water quality in Iowa.

Transcript: A debate has emerged over the best way to measure the success of water improvements in Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A big part of Iowa’s efforts to improve its rivers, streams and lakes centers on farmers adopting conservation practices spelled out in the state’s ambitious Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which seeks to slash nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the state’s waterways by 45 percent.

However, an emerging and controversial debate is occurring about how the state should measure whether spending on water improvement is working.

Environmentalists, water advocates and scientists want Iowa to rely on real-time water-quality monitoring, building on the state’s existing work to measure how well the state’s conservation efforts are working.

In general, farm groups would rather the improvements be measured by counting how many acres of cover crops, grassed waterways and other conservation practices have been put in place, presuming that the more Iowa has, the better its water quality will be. They are working with Iowa State University scientists on a plan to precisely track conservation gains.

The problem is that neither of these methods guarantee Iowa will be able to quickly measure whether water quality is actually improving. This is because farm practices that cut nitrate and phosphorus levels will likely take more than a decade to produce results in major Iowa rivers and lakes.

For more information about Iowa water quality improvements, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the UI Center for Regional and Environmental Research, I’m Jenna Ladd.