What's the big deal about water quality? Part 1: Drinking Water

Why is Iowa’s water quality such a big deal these days? Why is it suddenly a priority for the state and why is there such disagreement among lawmakers as to what should be done about the issue?

This post is the first in a multi-part series about Iowa's water quality. Today I introduce you to Iowa's water quality problem and it's implications for our drinking water supply. Future posts will cover water quality's impact on the outdoor recreation industry, impacts to the state's economy, what we can do to fix the problem, how much it's likely to cost, and what it's going to take to move forward.

Let's get started...with some fun pie charts.

The pink sections in these charts are the percentage of water bodies that fail to meet basic water quality standards and which qualify for an "impaired" designation with the EPA. In this 2016 assessment, 58% of rivers and streams and 57% of the assessed lakes and reservoirs were impaired. Another sizable percentage qualified as "potentially impaired" leaving only 19% of rivers and streams and 29% of lakes and reservoirs in the "Fully meets water quality standards" category.

In other words, only one in five rivers and streams and less than one in three lakes and reservoirs in Iowa meet basic water quality standards according to this assessment.

The far right chart looks a little better. That chart represents the wetlands, of which more than half fully meet water quality standards, which is great, until you see how few there are (130 wetlands assessed versus 204 lakes/reservoirs and 1044 rivers streams). Then there's the fact that more than 90 percent of Iowa's wetlands no longer exist. Considering that, I guess it's even better that the ones that do remain seem to perform well. 

Now back to the rivers and lakes. It's not like 2016 was just an anomaly. These numbers reflect a disturbing trend - the number of impaired waters in Iowa is increasing.

Combined, three quarters of our non-wetland surface waters are either impaired or at risk. If these were education trends and the basic standard was high school graduation, only a quarter of our seniors would be walking across the stage. Just imagine that. If that were actually the case, we'd be up in arms. There'd be marches and news coverage and probably a whole lot of federal intervention.

If these were industry trends, only one in four products that rolled off the assembly line would pass quality control. What company would stay in business with that kind of track record?

The cost of clean drinking water

For pretty much as long as any of us can remember, we've never had to worry about the safety of the water that comes from the tap. Turn a handle, get clean water. But for the majority of Iowans, that's only possible because there are facilities that clean that water before it reaches our homes. Then, for those of us on municipal sewer systems, there are facilities that clean the water before sending it on its way downstream. For those services, we pay a monthly utility fee.

Now when was the last time your water or sewer rates decreased? Or maybe the better question is how much have rates increased since 1998 (the first year listed in the graph above)? For most Iowans, it's probably not an unnoticeable amount.

Simply put, it's getting more and more expensive to clean the water we drink and flush. Building and maintaining the infrastructure alone is increasingly costly. The continual degradation of our surface and ground waters adds even more. Point in case: Des Moines Water Works.

Nitrates become a drinking water problem

The state's largest municipal water utility provides water to half a million residents in the Des Moines Metro area. In recent years, Des Moines Water Works has been forced to increasingly run a very expensive system to remove nitrates from its drinking water supply just to keep concentrations below legal limits. Faced repeatedly with that million-plus dollar expense, the utility filed suit in 2015 against drainage districts in upstream counties for unduly contributing to the nitrate pollution in the Raccoon River. The courts eventually threw it out but the litigation certainly put a statewide (and to a lesser degree, national) spotlight on the issue of Iowa's poor water quality.

Learn more about the Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit.

It would be nice to say that Des Moines is the only community running up against these kinds of issues, but unfortunately that's not the case. In the past five years, more than 60 Iowa cities and towns have encountered nitrate problems in their drinking water supplies. What's scarier is that the state estimates the water supplies of about 260 communities - or about 30 percent of the state's municipal water systems - are "highly susceptible of becoming contaminated with nitrates and pollutants." And unlike the state's capital, few of those communities are equipped with the means to effectively remove those pollutants from their water.

According to a database maintained by the Des Moines Register referencing DNR-sourced data, there were over 90 municipal utilities that reported nitrate levels above 5 milligrams per liter in drinking water sources between 2009 and 2014. That's one half the federal limit of 10 mg/L which in itself isn't cause for alarm. What's alarming is the risk of those concentrations going up, especially in communities without the ability to remove those nitrates from the water and where no other source water options exist.

In the interest of brevity, I'm not going to get into the details about the health effects of nitrates in drinking water but here's an article that does. Nitrates, as far as we know, pose little health risk to adults but can be deadly to infants younger than six months.

It's not so much the health risk at issue here (at least not in the case of nitrates). It's the infrastructure cost we'd face if the nitrate levels in our water trend upward and communities across the state are forced to invest in nitrate removal systems like Des Moines has just to keep levels below federal thresholds.

In my own community of Burlington, the local Chamber of Commerce has come out in support of water quality legislation on account of Burlington's $200 million-plus deferred maintenance bill on its own water infrastructure. The city's municipal water utility has struggled to balance fee increases against the fast-rising cost of required infrastructure upgrades. Granted, Burlington's case is less a product of increased pollution (although it does show up once in the nitrate database mentioned earlier) and more a product of the fact that it's an old river town with practically ancient infrastructure. Either way, the cost of upgrading the systems and maintaining state and federal compliance is increasingly prohibitive.

Well water isn't immune

The roughly 300,000 Iowans that get their water from private wells aren't faring much better, according to research reported in the Des Moines Register. A University of Iowa study conducted between 2006 and 2008 tested 475 wells in 93 counties. More than 40 percent of those wells tested positive for nitrates, arsenic, and/or coliform bacteria. Luckily, few of those wells (12, 8, and 11 percent, respectively) tested above limits deemed unsafe by the EPA. While those percentages may seem small, if you consider an average of ten percent of wells are contaminated above safe limits, that's still 30,000 people at risk.

What's more concerning is that the presence of these pollutants in wells is further indication of a larger, more systemic problem: that surface pollution is finding access to groundwater. And if that is in fact the case, considering what's happening with our surface water, there's little reason to believe there will be any improvement in the number of contaminated drinking water sources in the near future.

By the numbers: drinking water sources at risk for one in three Iowans

I wanted to know just how far reaching the nitrate issue in water sources was, so I went through the full list of municipalities noted in the database I mentioned earlier and recorded every town and its corresponding population onto a spreadsheet. Granted, this is likely a low estimation because most utilities supply water to more than just the city or town in which they're located (like in my case, Burlington Waterworks supplies Burlington, West Burlington and the smaller nearby towns; Des Moines Waterworks supplies a large portion of the Des Moines metro area). It's easy to find town populations online. It's not so easy to look up every municipal water utility noted in that database to determine the population of their entire service area. And since I had already put multiple days of research into this one post, I took the easy route.

The result was nonetheless disheartening. More than one million people - one third of the state's entire population - live in towns and cities that reported high nitrate levels (more than 1/2 the federal limit) in their drinking water sources at least once between 2009 and 2014

It's worth noting that these issues are not unique to large urban areas. The cities on the list range from Iowa's largest (Des Moines) to small 130-person towns like Dawson and everything in between. 

I wish I could say the troubles a third of all Iowans face with our drinking water sources is all there is to the water quality debate. Unfortunately, it's not. It's just one that anyone with a water bill can relate to. In fact it's a relatively small aspect - the tip of the iceberg really. As I mentioned at the start of this piece, in upcoming posts I'll discuss the national and global implications of Iowa's poor water quality, what we can do to address it, and what it's likely to cost (beyond what we're already paying in larger utility bills).

Spoiler Alert: We already voted on one part of the solution

In 2010, 63 percent of Iowa's voters approved a constitutional amendment that established the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. As approved by the voters, the Trust is slated to receive the first 3/8 of a penny of the next sales tax increase. And according to the distribution formula written into state code that accompanies the fund (which, unfortunately, is not constitutionally protected), more than 60 percent of the fund's estimated $180 million annual revenue would be used for non-regulatory, voluntary conservation practices that would directly impact Iowa's water quality. 

By law, voters cannot change the sales tax. That requires legislative action. The Trust Fund sits empty because Iowa's lawmakers have yet to approve the requisite sales tax increase despite the fact that seven in ten Iowans support them doing just that

The Trust Fund is no silver bullet. There is no one-size-fits-all, silver bullet solution here. But funding the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund is the only publicly vetted, voter-approved, dedicated funding option capable of generating dollars on a large enough scale to actually make an impact. That it's constitutionally protected, publicly audited, and completely accountable to the people of Iowa only makes it that much more logical of a choice. 

Which is probably part of the reason it hasn't been funded yet. 

I'll probably describe the Trust Fund and how it came to be in more detail in a future post. In the meantime, feel free to learn more about it at www.iowaswaterandlandlegacy.org.