Down the Wrong Pipe

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Iowa struggles to maintain clean water supply

by Giada Morresi

In March 2017, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit by the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) regarding the pollution of waterways by upstream agricultural drainage districts. This lawsuit sought to require such entities to obtain federal water pollution discharge permits and pay DMWW over $1.4 million to reimburse the additional cost it has undertaken to remove nitrates in the water. Supporters of the dismissal praised the court’s willingness to side with farmers, but others were displeased with the decision. Due to this decision, the districts are not responsible for paying to screen, monitor or filter the water runoff.

Nitrates in the Water

Nitrates are a salt-based compound that serve as a staple ingredient in fertilizer and are highly soluble. Farmers using fertilizer on their crops run the risk of rain and other runoff pushing these nitrates deeper into the soil and through waterways.

Nitrates pose a health risk to humans because of their ability to render iron atoms useless, making it harder to breathe in oxygen. The greatest risk is held by infants, who are more likely to consume aa amount of water disproportionate to their body weight and therefore intake more nitrates. According to the Des Moines Register, recent studies have shown that there are significant connections between nitrate intake and cancer as well as blue baby syndrome, which is a decreased level of oxygen that can result in death.

The Iowa Department of Public Health has stated that the water is safe to drink and cited the low levels of water quality-related incidents in Iowa as evidence to not worry. However, they also urged Iowans to discuss and debate policies and legislation to ensure their water is protected in the future.

The State of Iowa’s Waterways

In 2016 there were 1 billion pounds of nitrates found in Iowa waterways–the most since the state began to document nitrate levels. This number is also three times the target weight set by the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The ongoing debate around water quality has focused on who is truly responsible for keeping the water clean: either the government or the agriculture businesses and farms.

Regardless, there have been many efforts to regulate the amount of nitrates allowed in the soil and the methods by which they are extracted from water. Water quality is not a new issue to Des Moines or to Iowa as a whole. Recent legislation has captured the attention of local media. According to Google analytics data, searches for “Iowa water quality” increased tenfold from the beginning to the end of January 2018.

When Governor Kim Reynolds signed SF 512 in January, she ushered in a series of new changes concerning water quality. Reynolds, who was publicly committed to protecting Iowa’s water prior to taking office, supported the bill’s task of creating a new water quality infrastructure fund. Nearly $300 million will now be collected, through a combination of resources such as the current tax on metered drinking water, to fund water quality initiatives. This is work that was begun by former Governor Terry Branstad, but was delayed in the Iowa Senate by Democrats. It was eventually picked back up in the 2017 legislative session when Republicans held both houses, and finally made its way to Reynolds’ desk at the beginning of this year.

Aside from monitoring and removing nitrates, the bill also places attention on phosphorus in water. According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, many bodies of water have between two and 10 times the average amount of phosphorus. Algae has also been found in many sewer systems and, like nitrates, is difficult to both locate and remove.

Across the United States

In the federal political arena, steps are being taken to improve water quality as part of a larger conversation on the environment. In March, Iowa Senators Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley introduced the Give Our Resources the Opportunity to Grow Act, also called the Farm Bill. It seeks to redirect federal spending on environmental conservation efforts to ensure that farmers are protected throughout the conversation on ecological protection.

“I’ve actually been out to the different sites, where we’re testing the water that’s going into the wetland for nitrates, and then we test it on the far end, what’s coming out of the outlet. And the difference in nitrates is significant,” Ernst said, speaking of her Farm Bill. “Because the nutrients are able to leach out of the water before it flows out. Those are great projects and they help with flood mitigation as well. So a lot of communities are actually establishing their own up-river wetland projects just to prevent floods.”

What does this all mean for Iowa? Though the water has been proven to be poor quality, there are many elected officials advocating on behalf of Iowan children, adults, and farmers’ right to clean and safe drinking water. Only time will tell, but the recent flow of legislation has shown that true change is only a drop away.

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