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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom discussed environmental issues affecting Iowans as part of the montly University of Iowa Environmental Coalition Lecture Series Thurday night in the Iowa Memorial Union.
Bolkcom – who also serves as the Outreach and Community Education Director for the UI’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research as well as the Iowa Flood Center – highlighted issues that farmers face with climate change in a state where agriculture drives the local economy.
“Keeping soil where it is is one of our top, if not our top challenge economically, water quality wise, and to address climate,” Bolkcom said.
By “keeping our soil” he is referred to runoff of topsoil which has been exacerbated by extreme weather events. Topsoil runoff and poor fertilizer application practices has also lead to increased pollution in Iowa waterways.
“The challenge for Iowa is we haven’t had the resources and when we have had the resources, we’ve not made the investments,” he said “If you want ag producers to do more conservation we have to come up with some more resources.”
Bolkcom said the state appropriated $4 million this year for resources to address topsoil runoff though more money will likely be necessary to fully correct the issue. He said the state legislature recently changed the state constitution so that next time there is a sale tax increase, three-eighths of a cent would go toward a fund to address environmental issues. Roughly 70 percent of Iowans expressed support for this environmental protection fund which is expected to generate about $150 million per year. Even though the state has not yet raised the three-eighths of a cent, Bolkcom said it would be a “game-changing investment.”
“It would create a bunch of jobs and it would start the work of cleaning up Iowa’s rivers, lakes, [and] streams,” he said. “It would start the work of putting together the kind of infrastructure on farms that we need because it’s going to take 10 or 20 years and our work’s never done.”
In addition to environmental issues affecting farmers, Bolkcom also discussed renewable energy.
“On the mitigation side its about trying to think about ways to produce energy more efficiently and in environmentally sound ways,” he said.
The wind energy industry is strong in Iowa and there has been a recent increase in solar energy as well. However Bolkcom said more can be done to embrace solar energy in the Hawkeye State.
“We’re kind of behind a number of other states. We’re behind a bunch of other countries in terms of the implementation of more solar technology,” he said.
Currently there are tax credits available at both the state and federal level to help businesses and individuals subsidize the cost for installing solar panels. The federal tax credit covers 30 percent of the cost while the state credit is 15 percent. However the federal credit is scheduled to expire at the end of 2016. Bolkcom said at this point its unclear whether the federal credit will be extended beyond 2016 which also leaves the future of the state-level credit uncertain.
“It’s not clear. Will the federal credits be extended? Don’t know. Can Iowa extend its credit in the absence of a federal credit? Yes, it would just be worth less money if it’s just Iowa’s credit but it might still be worth doing” he said, adding that this past year funding was boosted by $3 million.
Bolkcom concluded his lecture by returning to the topic of climate change. He said further focus on and acceptance of the effects of climate change are crucial for the future of Iowa.
“We’ve had this kind of debate where 50 percent of the time is for the 98 scientists that say we’ve got a big problem on our hands and 50 percent of the time to the two scientists that say no we don’t. So I’m fatigued by that and it’s time to move on.”
A 15-year study by researchers at the University of Manchester finds that vitimin B12 could be the key to removing PCBs and other harmful pollutants already released into the environment.
“We already know that some of the most toxic pollutants contain halogen atoms and that most biological systems simply don’t know how to deal with these molecules,” University of Manchester professor David Leys said in a press release. “However, there are some organisms that can remove these halogen atoms using vitamin B12. Our research has identified that they use vitamin B12 in a very different way to how we currently understand it.”
While humans use vitamin B12 to maintain a functioning brain and nervous system, certain micro-organisms and bacterium are able to use it as a detoxifying agent. The rapid reproduction rate of these bacterium means they can remove “a huge quantity of chemical in a few weeks.”