In a recording of Iowa PBS’s “Iowa Press” Mike Naig, the Iowa Agriculture Secretary, labeled the American Rivers choice for placing the Racoon River on the Endangered Rivers List as “propaganda,” according to Iowa Capital Dispatch.
“That so-called report was a bit of propaganda, I think,” Naig said. “It was obviously a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization. They can go out and say what they want to, but what they talked about related to Iowa is not based in fact.”
In an interview with the Iowa Capital Dispatch, Des Moines Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan said that the designation for the Raccoon River should not have come as a surprise. “It is clear, given the ammonia, phosphorus, and thousands of pounds of nitrogen that flow past our treatment plant, that adding any more nutrients to our watershed without addressing the water quality issues is going to lead to catastrophe,” Ted Corrigan said.
American Rivers, a D.C. environmental advocacy nonprofit, ranked the Racoon River ninth on their Most Endangered Rivers list, according to the Des Moines Register. The Racoon River runs from northwest Iowa to Des Moines and provides drinking water for 500,000 Des Moines metro residents. The river was placed on this list due to about 750 animal feeding operations in the watershed that contribute to animal manure runoff.
Second on the list is the Missouri River, which runs along Iowa’s western border. The Missouri River is on the list due to poor management, which raises the risk of extreme flooding for communities and residents that live next to the river.
Despite Iowa lawmakers investing $282 million in water quality initiatives over 12 years, researchers from the University of Iowa found that nitrogen levels from Iowa continued increasing over the past two decades.
Numerous and expanding hog concentrations in Northwest Iowa’s watersheds are increasing nitrate pollution in Iowa, according to The Storm Lake Times.
In a Storm Lake Times interview with Chris Jones, a research engineer with the Iowa Institute of Hydraulic Research in Iowa City, Jones said, “We know for a certainty right now, watersheds that have the highest density of livestock tend to be the ones with the highest nutrient levels in the streams, like the Raccoon for example…there are areas with more hog confinements than square miles.”
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a nitrate level of 10 milligrams per liter is unsafe to consume, which The Floyd Watershed exceeds. The Floyd River Watershed includes Plymouth and Sioux counties. According to The Storm Lake Times, in 2006, the Floyd watershed contained 189 livestock confinements, and in March 2021, contained 488 livestock confinements.
The watershed with the fifth highest levels of concentration is The North Raccoon River Watershed. This watershed contains Buena Vista, Sac, Calhoun, and Greene Counties. In 2006, this watershed had 261 livestock confinements and now contains 619.
These include a 158% increase and 137% increase of livestock confinements in the Floyd River Watershed and The North Raccoon River Watershed.
Dr. Adam Hoffman, an environmental chemistry professor at The University of Dubuque, is involved with two research projects that found some Iowa waterways were contaminated from excessive use of de-icing products, according to KCRG.
One of Hoffman’s projects involves monitoring the water quality of different spots in Dubuque County quarterly for different chemicals including sodium chloride. In a study, staff members from the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium placed mussels in different spots and measured the survivorship characteristics of the muscles. Hoffman and these researchers found that waterways closer to sidewalks and roads had higher chloride levels which could pose a threat to aquatic life over long periods of time.
To reduce this contamination, people can replace salt with sand or use de-icing products and salt moderately, according to John Klosterman, Dubuque’s public works director, and Hoffman.
Iowa advocates calling for the moratorium on factory farms are urging the Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature to approve their request, according to The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.
Emma Schmit, an advocate for Food and Water Watch said in a virtual news conference, Iowa has, “more than 10,000 factory farms (and) more than 750 polluted waterways…If we want any semblance of an agriculture sector in Iowa left for our grandchildren, we need to take bold action right now.”
Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids along with 18 others have co-sponsored a bill to put a moratorium on the expansion of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations due to threats toward health, air quality, and drinking water.
House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford said the bill was, “dead on arrival” to which his spokeswoman Melissa Deatsch said in The Courier, “The speaker has been consistent on this point: You can’t begin a conversation on this issue with one of the most radical proposals there is.”
Researchers from the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the department of natural resource ecology and management at Iowa State, and the Iowa Nutrient Research Center will study the connection between beaver dams and water quality, according to Aberdeen News.
The research will examine the efficacy the dams have at reducing nitrogen and phosphorous concentrations in Midwest agricultural watersheds.
Central Iowans who have a history with beaver dams or beaver activity on their property are encouraged to contact Billy Beck, an assistant professor and Extension forestry specialist at Iowa State University to discuss potential water quality monitoring related to the research. He can be reached by phone at 515-294-8837 or by email at email@example.com.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released the impaired waters list Tuesday, and the report showed that segments of 750 Iowa lakes and waterways contain pollution levels that fail to meet state requirements.
Almost 60% of Iowa’s lakes, rivers, streams and reservoirs assessed by the DNR over the last five years fell short of state requirements for one or more functions. These include fishing, supporting aquatic insects or recreational swimming and boating. Parts of the Des Moines River, which provides drinking water for 500,000 Iowa residents, and recreational areas like Lake MacBride are on the list, according to a Des Moines Register article.
This year’s list reveals the daunting reality that over half of the state’s waters are polluted, but it also provides some hope for the future. It showed that since 2018, the number of impaired waters in Iowa has decreased by 2.2%. It is not a huge decline, but it is the first time the number has gone down in 22 years. Bodies of water were taken off the list either because conditions improved or the DNR wrote plans to improve water quality.
Solving Iowa’s water pollution problem will require follow-through on those plans, and some environmentalists think waters should only be taken off the list after that happens. Cooperation from farmers will also be crucial since fertilizer and manure runoff is one of the state’s biggest contributors to water pollution. The state reported manure spills as the leading cause of the 97 reported fish kills this year, and farmers have so far been reluctant to take advantage of incentives to take part in conservation practices.
Gov. Kim Reynold’s proposed a tax raise earlier this year that would help fund water quality improvements, but the COVID-19 pandemic has suspended legislative action. Organizations like the Iowa Environmental Council continue to call for an increase in mandatory regulations since the current voluntary compliance system is not doing enough to improve Iowa’s poor water quality, and they hope that the state government will do more to address the issue in the future.
Governor Kim Reynolds plans to revive her stalled Invest in Iowa plan during the legislative session next year, but experts warn that tax money going towards voluntary farm-based projects to improve Iowa’s water quality is not enough to make a difference.
Gov. Reynolds introduced the Invest in Iowa plan as a way to improve Iowa’s business climate and boost the state’s image. The plan would raise Iowa’s sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, lower income taxes, provide mental health funding and improve water quality, according to an article in The Gazette.
The funds for improving water quality would go towards incentive-based farm projects aimed at reducing fertilizer runoff into Iowa’s waterways. However, the plan does not include any accountability measures to ensure that funded projects are actually successful. University of Iowa professor Larry Weber, a co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center and former director of the IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering Institute, said in a panel that adding restrictions is crucial to the plan’s success. He also noted that Iowa’s nitrate load has doubled over the last 20 years even though the state has payed farmers $600 million over that time period for conservation projects.
On top of adding restrictions, many environmental experts also believe the state needs to reduce the rate of agricultural intensification, ensure farmers volunteering for these programs are educated and understand the problem, discourage the overuse of manure and commercial fertilizers and rethink the state’s system for siting livestock confinement operations. Livestock confinements are a big contributor to water pollution, but they are quickly increasing in number in Iowa’s watersheds.
Iowa’s water quality problem is a complex issue that requires multiple solutions. However, these additional solutions would require changes in law that would get a lot of pushback from powerful ag interests that sell seed, feed and fertilizer, so experts like Larry Weber fear that Iowa’s water quality will continue to decline under Gov. Reynolds’ plan.
The Iowa DNR issued advisories for over half of state park beaches this summer due to unsafe levels of E. Coli bacteria or microcystins in the water.
DNR conducted weekly tests Memorial Day through Labor day, and 39 state park beaches had at least one week during the summer where toxin levels were high enough to trigger a warning. They reported a total of 118 advisories over the summer, an increase from the 79 advisories issued in 2019, according to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article.
E. Coli, which indicates the presence of feces in the water, was responsible for most of the warnings. However, elevated levels of microcystins, which caused 12 advisories, can lead to a range of health problems in people exposed to them. These include gastroenteritis, allergic reactions and potentially life-threatening liver damage. Microcystins are produced by certain types of freshwater blue-green algae.
Studies have shown that much of the bacteria and toxins causing the warnings come from manure runoff and contaminates from nearby fields. Sandy beaches also tend to have higher levels of bacteria from manure from geese and other animals. Higher levels of toxic algae blooms, however, can have a variety of causes. Weather, temperature, nutrient availability and other environmental stressors are all factors, according to Dan Kendall, and environmental specialist in charge of the beach monitoring program.
The DNR’s Lake Restoration Program has plans to begin reducing bacteria in some of Iowa’s lakes that have been most heavily affected and continue testing each summer to monitor toxin levels.
The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) received the U.S. Water Alliance 2020 U.S. Water Prize.
The U.S. Water Alliance selected ISA for its solutions that benefit both farmers and the environment. ISA promotes farming practices that help build stronger soils and achieve cleaner water, and the ISA Center for Farming Innovation conducts watershed analyses to help find solutions, according to a KIWAradio article.
Agricultural runoff is the leading source of pollutants in Iowa’s lakes and waterways. Agricultural activities that cause non-point source pollution include plowing too often or at the wrong time, and the improper application of pesticides, irrigation water and fertilizer, according to the EPA. ISA works to educate Iowa farmers about these issues and help them switch to more sustainable practices.
“A special thank you goes out to our farmers leaders who provide oversight and guidance in these efforts,” said Roger Wolf, ISA director of innovation and integrated solutions. “And, of course, our farmer champions and participants in these water quality initiatives. We are unable to do this work without your participation and engagement.”