New report reveals prevalence of well contamination in Iowa


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Click here to explore new findings on well contamination from the Environmental Working Group and Iowa Environmental Council. 

Julia Poska| April 25, 2019

If you own a private well in Iowa, it’s likely contaminated with dangerous bacteria, nitrates or both, according to a new report from the Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Working Group.

“Wherever Iowans test for these contaminants, they have a pretty good chance of finding them,” the report’s primary author, economic analyst Anne Schechinger said in a press release.

The report was released yesterday as an interactive map, using dots in three colors to indicate the relative levels of contamination between counties based on state testing from 2002 to 2017. Because the EPA does not require testing for private wells, the vast majority of Iowa’s private wells are never tested. Only 55,000 of Iowa’s estimated 290,000 wells were tested during the study period.

Over 40 percent of those wells contained fecal coliform bacteria, considered unsafe in any amount. Twelve percent had nitrate levels above the EPA’s 10 parts per million safety standard. Twenty-two percent had nitrate levels above 5 ppm, which recent studies have linked to increased risk of numerous health problems, according to the report. The average nitrate level rose to 5.7 ppm over the years of study.

Over that entire period, eight counties tested fewer than 10 wells, meaning this report tells an incomplete story. Findings indicate that those counties, which appear the cleanest on the map, may actually be among the most at risk.  Only one-third of wells were tested more than once. Those that were tested repeatedly often showed continued contamination, indicating lack of action.

 

Despite criticism, water quality bill heads to Governor’s desk


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Iowa is a main contributor to nutrient pollution that renders enormous parts of the Gulf of Mexico completely lifeless. (Michael Leland/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 25, 2018

A long-awaited bill to improve water quality in Iowa is set to be approved by Gov. Reynolds soon, but critics say it does not go far enough.

Scientists who have been working to curb nutrient runoff in Iowa’s waterways since 2010 through the Nutrient Reduction Strategy have publicly estimated that it would cost billions of dollars to adequately address Iowa’s water quality problem. Senate File 512 falls short, allocating $282 million to water quality improvement over the next twelve years. The plan draws money from an existing tax on tap water that used to go into the state’s general fund and gambling revenue that was once used for infrastructure projects.

Republican John Wills of Spirit Lake spearheaded the bill’s passing. According to the Register, he said, “The bill builds upon the successful implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy and provides for long-term and sustainable funding. This is just the beginning, not the end.”

While the measure passed the House of Representatives 59-41, both Republicans and Democrats criticize the bill for not going far enough to clean up Iowa’s nearly 700 impaired waterways. Republican representative Chip Baltimore of Boone, Iowa said “I don’t know about all of you, but I did not come down here to check a box. Just because the words ‘water quality’ are in the title of a bill does not make me proud to vote for it so that I can put it on a postcard when I go campaign.”

Iowa’s largest environmental coalition, the Iowa Environmental Council, released a statement criticizing the bill. In the statement, the organization’s Executive Director Jennifer Terry, said, “Our legislature today chose a failed business-as-usual approach to cleaning up our polluted lakes and rivers.” She continued, “The legislation passed today lacks a scientifically-proven watershed approach, lacks funding for adequate financial and human capital, lacks required water quality monitoring or assurance of public access to data about Iowa’s water quality.”

The coalition calls on Republican Gov. Reynolds to veto the bill.

Midwest drinking water quality symposium draws large crowd


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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.

Drainage districts have power to improve water quality


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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.

Solutions presented for nitrate runoff at Iowa Ideas conference


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Cover crops like rye and clover are alternatives for fall tilling. (Chesapeake Bay Program/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 28, 2017

Experts in fields from agriculture, energy and environment, higher education and healthcare gathered in Cedar Rapids for The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas Conference September 21 and 22.

The two day conference was presented as an opportunity “to connect with fellow Iowans and develop solutions for key issues facing our state.”

Dr. Chris Jones, a University of Iowa researcher and CGRER member proposed one solution that would reduce nitrate runoff in Iowa’s waterways by 10 to 20 percent within one year. The IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering research engineer stated that Iowa farmers should avoid planting crops on flood plains and stop tilling their land in the fall because it makes soil more susceptible to erosion if they want to see a reduction in nutrient runoff.

According to a report in The Gazette, Jones said, “It’s difficult for me to understand why these things continue. If we could do those two things, we would have a 10 to 20 percent reduction in one year.”

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports that there has been a 6 million acre increase in no-till farmland since 1987.

Chris Jones further discusses the science behind nitrate pollution and what it means for Iowa’s natural resources in episode one of Iowa Environmental Focus’ Nitrate Series.

Drinking water symposium scheduled for September


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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.

Climate change likely to cause surge in nutrient runoff


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A small portion of a hypoxic dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay. (Chesapeake Bay Program)
Jenna Ladd| August 4, 2017

A recent study found that increased precipitation due to climate change will lead to markedly increased nutrient runoff.

Nitrogen rich fertilizers are widely used by U.S. farmers. Many times, more fertilizer than crops can use are applied to the land and the excess runs off into local waterways, eventually draining into the ocean. Excessive nutrient enrichment, also known as eutrophication, decreases available oxygen in the water and kills off aquatic species, resulting in “dead zones.”

Warmer temperatures associated with climate change are expected to continue producing heavier rainfall, thereby increasing nutrient runoff by up to twenty percent by 2100. Anna Michalak, a professor of global ecology at the Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford and one of the authors of the study, told the New York Times, “When we think about climate change, we are used to thinking about water quantity — drought, flooding, extreme rainfall and things along those lines. Climate change is just as tightly linked to issues related to water quality, and it’s not enough for the water to just be there, it has to be sustainable.”

Researchers concluded that the Upper Mississippi Atchafalaya River Basin, the Northeast and the Great Lakes basin are likely to see the largest increases in nutrient runoff because these areas of the country are already creating hypoxic dead zones. Climate change will likely compound these effects.

While the study focused on the continental U.S., the researchers did apply their model to parts of the world most similar to it. They found that large areas of East, South and Southeast Asia will likely see nutrient runoff surges similar to those in the U.S. Given that some people in these regions depend on surface water to survive, the impacts of nutrient pollution there may be especially lethal.

Cover crop planting on the rise, but still used by just a small fraction of Iowa farmers


Iowa farmers planted 600,000 acres of cover crops last year. (flickr/CAFNR)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 14, 2017

Iowa farmers planted 600,000 acres of cover crops last fall. This is an increase of over 60,000 acres, but covers just 2.6 percent of the 23.4 million acres of corn and soybean crops in the state.

Various state and federal conservation programs provided funding for 353,000 of these acres, including a cost-share program through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, as part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative to meet the needs of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Cover crops provide land with a vegetative cover during the months that crops are not actively growing, between the harvest and replanting. This helps to reduce the amount of nutrients that are washed into Iowa’s water bodies from agricultural lands, ultimately protecting the water quality. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, cover crops can reduce the amount of nitrates leaching from the soil by 35 percent, and they are the the most effective practice for retaining nitrogen in the soil.

Washington County leads the state with the most acres of cover crops planted, followed by Cedar and Iowa counties, Wallaces Farmer reports.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey told Wallaces Farmer that he is encouraged by the increase in the practice.

“It’s obvious with the interest we’ve seen over the past few years that farmers are seeing the benefits that cover crops provide,” Northey said to Wallaces Farmer. “Cover crops are an important tool to help improve water quality and soil health in Iowa, and it is great to see an increasing number of farmers use this practice.”

Soybeans may play bigger role in nitrate levels than previously thought


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IIHR’s water-quality monitoring network has generated interesting data that contradicts some widely-held beliefs regarding corn and soybeans and their impact on nitrate in Iowa’s streams. (IIHR)
Jake Slobe | September 28, 2016

New research shows that soybeans may play a key role in the transport of nitrate from farmed fields to the stream network.

As Iowa farmers have planted more acres of corn to meet the increasing demand, many models predicted that nitrate concentrations in Iowa streams would increase as a consequence. However, a new study conducted by the UI’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering group and the Iowa Soybean Association, published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, challenges many of these predictions.

As the amount of corn planted increased and the amount of soybeans decreased, fertilizer application increased by 24 percent in the watershed. Surprisingly, the nitrate levels in the river saw no increase and in some cases saw slight decreases.

The study evaluated 7,000 water samples in the Raccoon River Watershed from 1999- 2014 and had access to fertilization data for 700 fields in the watershed. The result from the study has led researchers to believe that nitrate levels are less dependent on corn production than previously thought.

IIHR —Hydroscience & Engineering researcher Chris Jones says that clues to the reduction in nitrate levels can be found in the differences between corn and soybean  growth, soil chemistry, and the decay of other crop residues. Conversely, the dead and decomposing soybean plants can increase the amount of nitrate in the soil vulnerable to loss.

“We know we can’t just focus on fertilization of corn. We need a systems approach to improve water quality. It also demonstrates the power of monitoring water quality. Without this data, we could easily have missed this important and counter-intuitive conclusion.” 

As a result, Jones says he believes that declining amount of soybeans planted may have reduced the cropped areas most susceptible to nitrate loss, more than compensating for the increased fertilizer inputs on corn production.

 

Study links contaminants from rural well water to birth defects


(Darin/Flickr)
(Darin/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | May 4, 2016

Water contaminants found in some rural agricultural areas could be linked to birth defects in pregnant women, according to a recent study co-authored by a University of Iowa researcher.

Peter Weyer, associate director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the UI, along with Jean Brender, professor emeritus at the Texas A&M School of Public Health, studied water sources for pregnant women in rural areas of Iowa and Texas. The researchers found the presence of atrazine, nitrate and arsenic in well water samples.

Nitrate, commonly used in fertilizer, has been linked to neural tube defects, oral clefts, and limb deficiencies while atrazine, also used in fertilizer, can cause abdominal defects and gastroschisis. Arsenic contamination was found to be more of an issue in Texas where it seeps into water sources through the bedrock and if consumed by pregnant women can cause developmental problems in fetuses. While each of these compounds individually have been tied to birth defects and other health complications, the effects are unclear when two or more of these compounds are found in a single water source.

This recent study builds on work published by Weyer and Brender in 2013. Their 2013 study looked specifically at nitrate pollution in water and its links to birth defects. The researchers studied water sources for pregnant women in Iowa and Texas and used data from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study.

In both studies, the researchers recommend that before becoming pregnant, women should have wells tested for contaminants. If contaminants are found in a well women should consider other sources such as bottled water.