Environmental groups suing for Raccoon River water quality


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The Raccoon River in Des Moines (Michael Leland on flickr).

Julia Poska| April 11, 2019

Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Iowa late last month over degraded water in the Raccoon River, a drinking water source for 500,000 people.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch are suing the Iowa Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture and  two state environmental boards, according to the Des Moines Register. They are seeking a ban on building or expanding animal feeding operations in the Raccoon River watershed until nutrient reduction compliance for farmers becomes mandatory.

“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.

 

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.

Iowans ask to halt CAFO construction until water is clean


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Large livestock feeding operations often pollute local waterways with organic waste. (Waterkeeper Alliance/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 19, 2017

Local, state and national organizations showed up at the capitol in Des Moines this week to ask lawmakers to halt Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) construction until fewer than 100 of Iowa’s waterways are impaired.

Called Iowa Alliance for Responsible Agriculture, the coalition rallied behind Independent Senator David Johnson of Ocheyedan as he introduced a group of 15 bills designed to tighten environmental regulations on large hog farms. At present, 750 of the state’s waterways are polluted to the point of impairment due to industrial agriculture byproducts.

Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works and member of the coalition, said that industrial agriculture is making Iowa’s “rivers, lakes and streams filthy — filthy with nutrients, filthy with bacteria, filthy with organic matter,” according to the Register.

He added, “Iowans need to push back on this and join together with leaders here in the Legislature to stop the status quo.”

There are 13,000 CAFOs in the state of Iowa and that number continues to grow. The current regulatory document for new hog facilities was developed in 2002 and only requires CAFOs to meet 50 percent of its requirements to be approved for construction.

Senator Johnson’s package of bills would also require CAFO applicants to notify nearby landowners and give county supervisors the power to determine CAFO locations. Johnson said, “It’s time to get tough on the poor siting of hog confinements, including those being built in environmentally sensitive areas, where the smell and sound of someone else’s money is in your bedroom every night.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Reynolds has said that she would consider the legislation if it reaches her desk.

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.

Fresh compost for Iowa Capitol lawn


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Compost will be spread on the west lawn of the state capitol this week. (flickr/Kevin Thomas Boyd)
Jenna Ladd| September 13, 2017

The Iowa State Capitol Terrace lawn is getting covered with layers of fresh compost this week in an effort to improve soil quality and reduce storm water runoff.

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.

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.

Iowa Department of Agriculture provides funding for urban water quality projects


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Clive, Iowa is one of the cities that has received funding from the state to implement a water quality improvement demonstration project. (Kim/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 14, 2017

The Iowa Department of Agriculture’s Iowa Water Quality Initiative awarded grants for 12 new urban water quality demonstration projects.

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 report encourages Iowans to test private well water quality


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Almost 80 percent of Iowans consume water from groundwater sources like private wells. (Iowa Department of Natural Resources)
Jenna Ladd | January 3, 2017

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.”