Environmental Panel Approves New Water Quality Rules


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Josie Taylor | May 24, 2021

An Iowa environmental panel approved new controversial water quality rules last week. Critics are worried it will threaten Iowa’s waterways.

The Environmental Protection Commission, which is a group appointed by the Governor, approved rules on water quality certifications related to permits. They approved heavy equipment that is currently banned to be used in waterways. It also removes wetland loss restrictions. 

Some groups however, like The Iowa Environmental Council believe the new rules will take away important protections for Iowa’s waterways. This council is made up of 80 environmental groups and 500 individual members. This group is also concerned that water quality standards will be easier to violate. 

The Iowa Environmental Council stressed concerns over the Department of Natural Resources because they claim these new rules will limit what DNR can consider when looking at permits. DNR, however, gave a statement to the Des Moines Register making it clear that they still intend to guarantee safe water for Iowans. 

In their statement, the Department of Natural Resources gave support for the new rules passed by the panel. They say these rules will take action to prevent pollution, along with other positive actions.

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.

Mississippi River Gets a D in Water Quality Thanks to Agricultural Runoff


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Nicole Welle | December 24, 2020

A new report from America’s Watershed Initiative revealed a concerning decline in Mississippi River water quality over the last five years by giving its water quality a D, and it placed the blame on uncontrolled agricultural runoff from Iowa and other Midwest states.

Iowa has been one of the Mississippi River’s biggest polluters for years. The Iowa DNR’s ambient stream monitoring showed that the amount of nitrogen polluting the river has doubled over the last 20 years, and the annual load surpassed 1 billion pounds twice in the last four years. This has been disastrous for marine life in the Gulf of Mexico as the dead zone, an area of water no longer capable of supporting marine life due to high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution, continues to average at 5,408 square miles, according to an article in the Gazette.

Iowa’s current Nutrient Reduction Strategy is meant to reduce the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from agricultural runoff entering the dead zone through the Mississippi River, and the state has made progress in some conservation efforts like promoting cover crops, restoring wetlands and installing bioreactors. However, these practices alone have not been enough to make up for the rapid intensification of agriculture in the state. Agricultural runoff continues to increase as farmers apply nitrogen fertilizer over the recommended rate and choose to opt out of voluntary conservation practices without penalty.

Many Iowa environmentalists have called for state government-imposed mandatory regulations to ensure that farmers adopt conservation practices and reduce harmful agricultural runoff into the Mississippi River and other waterways. This would include putting a limit on the amount of manure and commercial fertilizer farmers can apply to their fields and ensuring that water quality standards are met.

Action on a federal level could also improve water quality in the Mississippi River. President-elect Joe Biden has said that he will increase federal spending on incentives for farmers who plant cover crops and reserve their land for conservation, a plan that would improve water quality and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Biden also nominated former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and he is likely to work on improving the nation’s water resources like the Mississippi River and establish a line of federal funding for conservation efforts.

Iowa Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Farm Pollution Case This Week


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Nicole Welle | December 17, 2020

The Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether a lawsuit filed against the state of Iowa for allegedly allowing factory farms to pollute the Raccoon River should go to trial.

Food and Water Watch and Iowa Citizens for Community improvement filed the case back in 2019. The lawsuit claims that state officials and lawmakers are denying citizens’ rights to clean water for drinking and recreation under the Public Trust Doctrine by allowing crop and hog farmers to pollute the Raccoon River watershed, according to an Iowa Now article.

The Raccoon River is the main source of drinking water for 500,000 Iowans, and Des Moines water works is currently forced to run expensive treatment systems to maintain acceptable nitrate and other pollution levels. The river has exceeded federal nitrate limits for safe drinking water on multiple occasions over the past ten years and poses a health risk for for people and wildlife that rely on it as a safe water source. If the case goes to trial, it will urge the court to replace the state’s current policy allowing farmers to implement environmental practices voluntarily with mandatory limits on nitrogen and phosphorous pollution. It would also ask for a moratorium on new and expanding hog confinements to help limit manure runoff into Iowa’s waterways.

The state argued for the dismissal of the case on the grounds that, because the Iowa Constitution places responsibility of farmers’ interests and water quality on the legislature and executives, the court should not intervene in policy considerations on the matter. A judge denied the state’s motion to have the case thrown out back in September of 2019, and the court will likely make a decision on wether it will allow the case to go to trial in the next few months.

Any attempts to regulate agriculture in Iowa have been historically met with heavy opposition. Iowa leads the nation in corn and pork production, but a system that has such devastating effects on the environment and jeopardizes Iowans’ health and safety cannot continue without substantial reform. Environmental groups in Iowa have long called for policy changes that put mandatory limits on agricultural pollution. If this case is allowed to move forward and succeeds at trial, those changes could finally become a reality and move the state closer to to solving its contaminated water problem.

Environmental Group Report Says Two Iowa Companies Have Escaped Enforcement Action for Multiple Clean Water Violations


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Nicole Welle | October 12, 2020

Two Iowa companies have repeatedly reported to state and federal governments that they have exceeded limits set for how much pollution they can discharge into Iowa’s rivers over the past three years, but environmental agencies have not taken action against them.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center blames this lack of enforcement on federal and statewide budget cuts that came as a result of President Trump’s decision to cut spending and staffing needed to enforce the Clean Water Act. Trump shifted responsibility to the states, but many states in the Midwest have also reduced their budgets, according to a Des Moines Register article.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center’s report says that ADM in Clinton and Gelita USA in Sergeant Bluff have violated permit limits dozens of times since 2017 by dumping pollution into the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. ADM spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said that their corn processing plant has struggled to meet requirements over the last few years, but that the company has worked with enforcement officials to resolve the problem. The Environmental Law and Policy Center was unable to find any formal public record of ADM solving the issue, however.

The center focussed on the two companies in Iowa that had the most violations, but they think it is likely that there are other companies in the state escaping enforcement as well. The report states that funding for pollution control in Iowa dropped 19% in 2018. A lack of funding for enforcement could lead to further increases in pollution levels in Iowa’s rivers, a scenario that could put wildlife and communities who use these rivers as sources of drinking water at risk. About 28 million people currently get their drinking water from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

UI researchers recommend improvements to private well testing program


Tyler Chalfant | August 20th, 2019

The University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC) released a report Monday outlining ways in which Iowa’s program to protect drinking water from private wells can be improved. According to the report, the state’s Grants to Counties program has been severely underutilized, with between 29-55% of the funds awarded to participating counties remaining unspent.

The program was created in 1987 as a part of the Groundwater Protection Act to provide funding for testing private wells for contamination, as well as reconstruction of private wells and plugging of abandoned wells. The US Environmental Protection Agency does not regulate private wells or recommend standards for individual wells, though it recommends testing wells annually for total coliform bacteria, nitrates, total dissolved solids, and pH levels. Nearly 300,000 Iowans rely on private wells as their primary source of drinking water.

CHEEC’s report, published in partnership with the UI Public Policy Center, recommends improving the Grants to Counties program by expanding the contaminants tested for, to include substances such as pesticides, manganese, lead, and copper. It also suggests prioritizing the most vulnerable wells and the counties with the greatest need, which have the greatest number of private wells and least access to Rural Water, and are already those that are most likely to better utilize the funding. Funding could also be used to assist with remedial actions, increase marketing for the program, and close gaps in the inventory to more accurately estimate the number of private wells in the state. 

Iowa sees record number of blue-green algae advisories


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Microcystin toxins float on top of water and often look like spilled paint or pea soup. (Oregon State University/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | September 9, 2016

Iowa State Park beaches saw a record number of advisories this summer due to unsafe levels of microcystin, a toxin produced by some types of blue-green algae.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitors the water at state beaches each season from Memorial Day through Labor Day. DNR issued six beach advisories this week for a total of 37 microcystin warnings this year, surpassing last year’s record of 34,  just as DNR officials predicted earlier in the season.

Microcystin is considered toxic to humans when levels are at or above 20 micrograms per liter (ug/L), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Swimming in water that has harmful levels of microcystin in it can cause breathing problems, upset stomach, skin reactions, and liver damage. If the water is inhaled, it has been known to cause cause runny eyes and nose, cough, sore throat, chest pain, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions. Contaminated bodies of water can be especially harmful to pets and children, who are more likely to ingest water.

In total Iowa DNR has issued 185 microcystin beach advisories since 2006, and two-thirds (117) have been in the most recent four years. The blue-green blooms that produce microcystin feed on nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that seep into waterways from pollution sources like agricultural fertilizers, livestock waste, septic systems, and urban runoff. Blue-green algae toxins do not only pose a threat to beachgoers. Last month, Des Moines Water Works detected microcystin in treated municipal drinking water.

While DNR monitors 39 State Park beaches across Iowa for these toxins, many public and private beaches are not monitored. As the total number of beach closures rises each year, Ann Robinson, agricultural specialist at the Iowa Environmental Council said, “This is a wake-up call that more needs to be done to reduce the nutrient pollution coming from the farms, city lawns and urban and industrial wastewater plants that are feeding the algae. If we don’t take action on the scale needed, unprecedented numbers of beach warnings will become our new normal.”

More information about identifying harmful blue-green algae blooms and a chart that outlines dangerous levels of microcystin in Iowa’ lakes dating back to 2006 can be found at the Iowa Environmental Council’s website.

New anti-degradation regulations effective today despite criticism


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A construction site on the Iowa River near Dubuque Street in Iowa City, Iowa. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)

Jenna Ladd | August 12, 2016

Major changes to Iowa’s water quality protection rules are effective today, following a decision by the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) on Wednesday.

The Environmental Protection Commission, an agency that oversees the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), voted to change anti-degradation rules this week despite criticism from two Iowa environmental groups. Under previous regulation, construction projects that would pollute Iowa’s waterways were required to perform a three-part analysis of the project, including a cost-benefit analysis that considered pollution-reducing alternatives.

After a District Court judge ruled that DNR failed to enforce anti-degradation regulation in March, The Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa League of Cities, and the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities petitioned for changes to water pollution standards. Proponents of the changes say that the cost-benefit analysis was too unclear and expensive for businesses looking to build or expand operations. Under new rule, cost-benefit analysis is no longer required.

The Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Law & Policy Center argue that the regulation change fails to consider the environment, ignoring the value of pollution reduction and economic cost of contaminated water. Environmental Law & Policy Center attorney Josh Mandelbaum said EPC rushed the decision, “This is the fastest I’ve seen rule-making move.”

The formation of previous water pollution and anti-degradation rules took regulators two years and involved stakeholders from municipalities, industry, and concerned citizens. In contrast, the establishment of new regulations spans a five month period. Mandelbaum added, “DNR has made no effort to bring stakeholders together to address these changes, and as a result, the final rules have significant problems.”

Federal emergency declaration in Flint to expire soon


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(George Thomas/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | August 11, 2016

The federal state of emergency declared by President Obama for the city of Flint, Michigan will end this Sunday, August 14.

President Obama announced the state of emergency on January 16, 2016 after thousands of Flint residents were exposed to toxic amounts of lead in tap water. The declaration authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to spend up to 5 million in federal money to supply the community with clean water, water filters, and other necessary items. Since January, FEMA has covered 75% of costs associated with providing more than 243,000 water filter replacement cartridges, and about 50,000 water and pitcher filters. After the emergency status ends this Sunday, the state government will be responsible for those costs.

Bob Kaplan, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Acting Regional Administrator, said that while water quality is improving, their work is far from finished, he said, “We won’t be at the finish line until testing can confirm that Flint residents are receiving safe, clean drinking water.”

Researchers at Virginia Tech University spent two weeks in the Michigan city at the end of June testing water samples for lead, iron, and Legionella, a bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease and responsible for the deaths of ten Flint citizens. In a press conference today, the research team concluded that Legionella colonization was very low, and while lead levels have decreased, Flint citizens should still use filters or bottled water until further notice from the State or EPA.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said that rebuilding Flint citizens’ trust in the government is going to require more support from government agencies. She said, “We don’t think we’ve gotten everything that the citizens deserve as a result of what has happened…It hasn’t been enough and it hasn’t been fast enough.” Weaver added, “…the only way people will truly feel comfortable is when we have new pipes in place.”

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.