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.
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.”
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.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is leading the project in partnership with the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with technical assistance from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship urban conservation program. Work crews will blow dark colored compost on the lawn west of the Capitol building. While the mixture of organic material and manure will be visible at first, it will mix in with top soil within a few weeks, according to a statement by the DNR.
“Soil quality restoration is something that people can do in their own backyards as well to improve the water quality in their neighborhood creek or other local water body. It also makes their yard look great, too,” said Steve Konrady of the DNR’s Watershed Improvement Program. He added, “Some communities in Iowa offer assistance to homeowners for this practice, and this Capitol Terrace project is a great opportunity to demonstrate the practice to Iowans, and to work to improve state lands and waters, and cleaner water downstream.”
Des Moines residents that live and work in the area need not worry about any foul odor. “Truly processed compost should be odorless — almost like a potting substance,” Konrady said to The Register.
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.
The funds, totaling $820,840, will be met with $1.18 million dollars in matching funds and other in-kind donations. Gov. Terry Brandstand founded the Iowa Water Quality Initiative in 2013. Since then, 45 water quality demonstration sites have been established in addition to this year’s twelve new urban sites.
Gov. Brandstand said, “We know this is a long-term problem that we need to address, and by having a growing source of funding, we think we can speed up the progress that’s being made.”
The water quality demonstration projects will include improved stormwater management, permeable pavement systems, native seeding, lake restoration, and the installation of bioretention cells, among other measures. The cities selected include: Slater, Windsor Heights, Readlyn, Urbandale, Clive, Des Moines, Emmetsburg, Denison, Spencer, Cedar Rapids, Burlington, Waterloo and Ankeny. Upwards of 150 organizations from participating cities have also contributed funds to support the projects. In the last year, $340 million dollars have been spent to improve water quality in Iowa, including both state and federal money.
Meanwhile, a bi-partisan water quality improvement bill is making its way through the Iowa legislature. The plan, called “Water, Infrastructure, Soil for our Economy,” proposes a sales tax increase of three-eighths of a percent over the next three years while also “zeroing out the lowest [income] tax bracket” to offset the sales tax increase. The bill would finally provide funding for the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Fund, which was supported overwhelmingly by Iowa voters in 2010.
Representative Bobby Kaufmann is a Republican supporter of the bill. Kaufman said, “This is a sensible, balanced approach to finally combat Iowa’s pervasive water quality issues while not raising the overall tax pie for Iowans.” A minimum of 60 percent of the trust fund dollars would support proven water quality measures as provided by Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
Kaufmann said, “The need is there. The desire to fix water quality exists. This provides the funding to get the job done.”
IowaWatch’s 2016 investigative work titled, “Crisis In Our Wells” is a multiple-part special report which explores Iowa’s rural well water contamination problem.
According to the report, an estimated 288,000 people rely on private wells for their water supplies. However, rural well water quality is not regulated, so many well owners may not know what is in the water they’re drinking. IowaWatch spent much of 2016 testing for nitrogen, bacteria, arsenic and lead in southwest Iowa private wells, and found that a large number had high nitrate and bacteria levels.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health standard for nitrate contamination is 45 milligrams per liter. IowaWatch, which is a nonpartisan, non-profit news organization, tested 28 wells in May and June. Eleven of the tested wells had nitrate levels above 45 milligrams per liter, with one rural home’s water coming in at 168 milligrams per liter. Some wells contained trace amounts of arsenic and lead, while fifteen wells had unsafe bacteria levels.
County sanitarians that perform tests for these contaminants told IowaWatch that they often have trouble convincing homeowners that testing well water is important. Sherry Storjohann is an environmental health specialist that has been testing wells in Crawford and Carroll counties for a quarter century.
Storjohann said, “What’s out of sight is out of mind.” She explained, “I have so many people with hand-dug wells that say they’ve got the best tasting water, the clearest water, the coldest water. Yet, what they realize after they test is just how unsafe that water is.”
Recent research from the University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination found that nitrates in drinking water can lead to birth defects among pregnant women, certain types of cancer and thyroid problems. Bacteria in drinking water is not necessarily harmful to residents but can be a sign that the well is open to outside contaminants such as agricultural runoff, vermin or septic system leaks. The health risks associated with low levels of lead and arsenic are unknown, but the EPA sets those contamination limits at zero.
In 1987, Iowa legislature established the Grants to Counties Program as a part of the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. The program provides funds to county health departments to provide well-related services to residents. All of Iowa’s counties, except for Marshall county, participate in the program. Funds for the program are generated by fertilizer and pesticides taxes and are split equally among counties each year. The money can be used for total nitrate, coliform bacteria as well as arsenic testing in private wells.
Carmily Stone is bureau chief of the Bureau of Environmental Health Services at the Iowa Department of Public Health. She said, “Some counties don’t spend all of their money, and some counties go through their money rather quickly.”
Spending can vary for several reasons. Some counties have more rural water unities while others have more private wells, other counties simply do not have enough public health employees to provide services to everyone. Beginning in 2016, Iowa legislature added a mid-year funding reallocation for those counties that do not spend all of the Grants to Counties money.
Stone said, “We will look at the spending patterns of the counties. If there are counties that have already spent their money, that’s awesome. We want them to spend it all. But if there are counties that still have money left, then we will look at that and say, ‘Okay, how much money is still here?’ If there is quite a bit of money still sitting there, then we will consider a reallocation plan.”
Stone said that those funds leftover are given to counties that have spent all of their money for the year.
Despite the availability of free testing services and health risks associated with contaminated water, environmental health specialist Storjohann said that some people do not consider the issue a priority. Storjohann said that her parents and grandparents never tested their private wells. She said, “They were of the adage: ‘We’ve been drinking it this long, you know. It’s never harmed us.”
Storjohann continued, “I’ve gotten to the point now in the last number of years where I actually send out a personal letter to homeowners trying to explain our services, hoping to generate that interest and make them understand the good service this is and what we can provide and that this is all for their benefit.”