The Iowa Journal #133: Iowa Water Quantity and Quality Original Air Date: January 28, 2008 Iowa Public Television Beck: Next to soil, water is Iowa’s most abundant resource, but is it being lost to neglect and mismanagement? Can Can it be made cleaner and used better? And what will it cost to do that? We’ll take on those questions, next. Funding for “The Iowa Journal” has been provided by “Friends,” the Iowa Public Television Foundation, generations of families and friends who feel passionate about Iowa Public Television programs; and by MidAmerican Energy Company, helping to harness renewable sources of electricity for Iowa customers through their investment in wind power. Information is available at MidAmericanEnergy.com. MidAmerican Energy, obsessively, relentlessly at your service. From river to river, border to border, this is “The Iowa Journal.” Here is Jeneane Beck. Beck: Hello. Welcome to “The Iowa Journal.” With some 72,000 miles of streams and rivers and more than 160,000 acres of lakes, ponds, and wetlands, Iowa has a water source that is the envy of much of the nation. Increasingly though, questions are being raised over the quality of the water and whether it will be as available as it has been to Iowans. We’ll take up those issues in just a few moments. Here now to bring us up to speed on the edge of the news is David Pitt with the “Associated Press.” Dave, thanks for being here today. Pitt: Thank you for having me, Jeneane. Beck: Let’s first start with a news conference the Governor called this morning to talk about Iowa’s economy and the nation. There are fears of recession, and the governor says not necessarily here. Pitt: Right. I think we started the morning with some republican leaders in the legislature poised and ready to take on, I think, the governor and say we need to be more proactive here. I think they were saying – prepared to say that the governor wasn’t taking enough action quickly enough. Actually they had a meeting this afternoon, and they seemed to come out agreeing on at least a few things in principle and the governor agreeing to sign a bill that would alleviate the state taxes that Iowans may have to pay on any federal rebate they may be getting back in the mail. So, you know, they at least worked out one of the issues that the republicans had asked for. There are still some other issues to be worked out, but I think it kind of took some of the teeth out of that rhetoric that we started the day with. Beck: And the governor, I know, in his message in saying, one, you’re right, that I won’t charge taxes – you won’t have to pay taxes on the federal money you might get if a federal stimulus package is approved. But also saying, you know, look, don’t be that worried. He really said the Iowa economy so far isn’t near the national economy. Pitt: And I think he was citing the biofuels industry, which has been quite healthy in the state of Iowa, generating a lot of wealth – revenue. So I think he’s saying, you know, our economy maybe is a little bit better than the national economy in general because we have that very specific part of the economy that’s been quite healthy. And then he also said, you know, the State of Iowa itself has plenty of money in reserves to weather any tough time. So I think he feels, you know, with the wind industry doing well here, the ethanol and biodiesel plants online and producing, the farmers are making lots of money on corn and soybeans these days, it seems. So, you know, I think he feels like the economy isn’t really that bad here yet. Beck: But you did mention republicans aren’t completely satisfied. They would like him to go one step further, and instead of just not taxing the income we might get from the federal government, they want something else. Pitt: Well, I think one of the big issues is that the republicans want the governor to kind of curtail the increase in spending that he’s proposed in his budget, and that seems to be one of the things that stuck with them after the meeting today. I know Christopher Rants, the leader in the House – the republican leader in the House was saying that is something that the governor didn’t address, didn’t say that he would agree with us on. And they were pretty persistent about that, it seems. Beck: Over the weekend, the Supreme Court Justice, Marcia Ternus, issued a commission – said she would start a commission to look at what? Pitt: Well, late in the week last week, Marcia Ternus had said that she would like to appoint a study committee – a task force, basically, to look at the magistrate judge system in Iowa. Each county in Iowa has a magistrate judge which handles a lot of the lower-tier issues that come before the criminal justice system, the misdemeanors – simple misdemeanors and those kinds of things. But they also handle a lot of things like protective orders and small claims and traffic court things. And so I think what they’re saying is that the population has grown in some parts of the state and some of the metropolitan areas. There are some counties that may need, you know, a district court judge or a judge on a different level a little more frequently than they have now. So I think she is just simply saying, let’s have a task force of people in the – judges, lawyers, and people who really are familiar with the system, and let’s take a look at it and see if our magistrate court system needs to be revamped. It’s been the same for somewhat like thirty years, and we haven’t made any changes. So I think she’s just saying let’s take a look at it and see if we need to do something. Beck: One final piece of news -- We don’t have much time left. Over the weekend the Iowa Republican Party named a new executive director, a new head. Pitt: And it’s not a new name. Obviously, Stewart Iverson was the leader in the Senate and a lawmaker for a number of years and left, was it two sessions ago or – I don’t know, a couple years ago. Beck: Yes, it will be two years at the end of this year. Pitt: And he’s coming back to lead the Republican Party, someone who I believe the republican operatives say that can raise some money for the party and pull people today. So it looks like Stewart Iverson is in the position to do that. Beck: Some say this might even be a better suited position for him. He’s a likable guy. He’s good with people and apparently a good fund-raiser. Pitt: That’s what people are saying. I think that’s what they hope. And democrats have raised more money than republicans most recently in the most recent months, and I think that’s something they want to get back on track. Beck: Yeah, he comes in at a tough time for the party. Pitt: True. Beck: Dave thanks so much for joining us. Appreciate it. Iowa’s population is stable, some say stagnant. But more and more it seems to be active and at odds with the natural environment, especially water. In some cases it’s the presence of ex-urbanites moving into rural areas that stress natural resources. In other instances, agricultural practices and increasing new agri-related enterprises like ethanol plants are making demands on communities and resources. In the cities, more pavement means more runoff, taxing treatment facilities. And the runoff diverts water from underground aquifers. Such groundwater is the primary source for drinking water, as well as for agriculture and industry. Long taken for granted, the state’s ample water resource has never faced the multiple perils that it now confronts. Narrator: In Iowa, the land between two rivers, water flows in great quantities. Our rivers, lakes, and aquifers are so common that they’re easy to take for granted. But despite the seeming abundance, care needs to be taken in the political and economic arenas to prevent the mismanagement and neglect that can create scarcity. Iowa needs to glance only a few states west to see how important legal rights to water can be. Seven western states, from Colorado to California, all have intense legal battles over control of water, a scarce resource in highly populated desert regions. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see those states looking to the Missouri and Mississippi River basins for help. Many farmers on the plains of eastern Colorado already are selling their water rights to urban districts. How far eastward the urban west will reach is determined less by engineering and thirst and more by the ability of states like Iowa to manage this important resource. Nearer term the management of waters within the state’s borders is becoming a greater issue. Increasing industrial demands from new manufacturers and processors demand greater quantities of water. A 50-million-gallon ethanol plant might use 150 million gallons of water to make the fuel, more than some small towns are using. In-state legal battles over water rights have already erupted in Kansas and Nebraska. Iowa’s small communities are also being pressed to update municipal treatment systems. Last year the Iowa legislature approved $4 million to help Iowa’s cities with the cost of new wastewater treatment equipment. To put that in perspective, in 1991 the Des Moines Water Works plant spent that same amount to build a nitrate removal plant. It’s the largest such plant in the world, and it’s needed to cleanse Raccoon River water that is laden with nitrate runoff from farm fields. Against current circumstances, projections are global climate change will make Iowa warmer and wetter. But much of the rain will come in torrents and cause occasional flooding. The result is more a flushing than a blessing. Antiquated treatment systems will release untreated waters into streams, imperiling cities downstream as, indeed, they already do in times of floods. Water pollution in Iowa can consist of something as obvious as trash, boatloads and barges full of it, or as unexpected as pharmaceutical drugs passed through human and animal waste. Either way, dirty water can have health consequences if left undeterred. Some of the more common ingredients in Iowa rivers include: nitrates and phosphates from yard and farm chemicals; mercury from industrial waste, including coal power plants; chlorine, bacteria, and microbial like viruses. Some of these substances are more concentrated in waters at certain times of year, and not all of them can be siphoned out. As recently as last November, Iowa has had to warn people not to eat fish taken from the rivers, due to excess mercury in the fishes’ tissues. And it has become more and more common for Iowa’s lakes to be closed due to build-ups of E-coli, fecal coli form, and other harmful elements. For example, on average the Raccoon River in Central Iowa has E-coli exceeding 14 times the EPA's safe limit. The only time the Raccoon is safe is in January, hardly a time when many Iowans are swimming. Iowa’s water news is not all bad news. Volunteers have been testing waters and building a statewide database of water quality. Farm groups are learning how to apply chemicals with better results for both the economy and the ecology of the state. And Americans overall have reduced the amount of water used on a daily basis per person. But even with shimmers of good news, there is no doubt that water issues will continue to float to the top in serious discussions about our state’s future. Beck: Rich Leopold is the Director of the Department of Natural Resources. L.D. McMullen is the recently retired CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works. He now consults on water resource planning with the engineering firm Snyder & Associates. Welcome to both of you. Thanks for being here. Let me start with you, Director Leopold. One of the things the Iowa environmental council was asking for is a comprehensive water plan, something that hasn't been done since the big 1980s. Why is that needed? What would it study? Leopold: it's a great idea and, in fact, it's underway. This last year we appointed a person that's leading a larger stakeholder group looking at that. When you look at a state water plan, you know, I think it's up to the government agencies to take the long view, five years out, fifty years out, where are we going, where do we want to be, looking at a prioritization of our resources. Everybody has limited resources. Let's make a checklist and start checking things off, and also contingency planning. So what happens if there's not enough water, what happens when there's too much water, and trying to decide that with forethought rather than having to deal with it once the situation is there. Beck: Mr. McMullen, you know exactly what happens when there's not enough water or when the water we have is not usable. Is there any recommendations you could make as the state takes on this challenge? McMullen: well, I think it's really critical that they do this water plan. As Rich said, both quantity and quality I think are extremely important. We've done a good job on the quality side from the standpoint of keeping the oxygen in the water. We're not seeing the fish kills that we used to see. We're doing a pretty decent job also of cutting the amount of soil that's ending up going down the river. The next challenge, though, is to get those things that are dissolved in the water, the nitrates, as well as the micro biological contaminants that can have an enormous impact on drinking water supplies. So I think we've -- kind of like in a race of hurdles, we've kind of gone over the first hurdle but there's a bunch more yet to come. Beck: we want to talk about each of those hurdles but let me start with a big-picture question. How much water do we have in Iowa? Is that part of the study or do we know, Director Leopold, how much we have available to us? Leopold: that's a big question. We look at, as you mentioned in the introduction, we have 72,000 miles of running water in the state and we have surface water such as lakes and reservoirs. We have shallow groundwater aquifers that are constantly being recharged. Then we have the deep ground aquifers, which is not being recharged on a human scale of time. So as far as quantity, those are some very relevant questions. Beck: are we going to get to a point, Mr. McMullen, where at some point we're going to -- you know, right now it's abundant enough. We haven't had to do much about the quantity of water we have. But there's a lot of talk about how much water ethanol plants in Iowa use. And we just heard news today that MidAmerican energy, which is an Iowa-based company, was going to build a nuclear power plant in Idaho and decided not to because of the lack of water available to them. I mean is Iowa ever going to be in that kind of situation? McMullen: well, there's really two points to that particular question. Number one is the water rights issue. When you go west of the Missouri river, it's a very clear water rights law that is there. MidAmerica would end up having to buy water rights to be able to operate their power plant. East of the Missouri river, it's riparian water rights, and really the water belongs to the people of the state of Iowa. And then the state determines what is in the best quantity or quality and who gets it. So as a result, it’s not who owns it. If you would draw a line, in my thinking, from northwest Iowa to southeast Iowa, and you go north and east of that line, in the state generally we've got pretty decent water. It may be a little bit more mineralized as far as the groundwater is concerned, but surface waters aren't too bad either. But if you go south and west of that line, it becomes much more difficult, especially in the southwestern part of the state of Iowa, to be able to find large quantities of water that are usable. So it's going to be a challenge for part of the state and the other part of the state is going to do better. Beck: is that in part because of what comes down from north of those waterways or McMullen: well, I think it's twofold. One is its due to the geology of the rocks that are contained in that particular part of the state, as well as the glaciers that came through the particular part of the state. They kind of ended right here in Des Moines, and so you end up with all this new glacieral till that is in the northern part of the state that loves to soak up water and loves to be great for groundwater, and you don't have that south of that. Beck: before we move onto really the quality, one last question on quantity. You talked about water rights and certain laws. Will we get to a point where that becomes a fight in the Midwest? Will we battle that? McMullen: I think it will be a real challenge to try to change from the type of law that we have in Iowa today to go to private. It may be more the reverse direction. What is in Iowa may end up moving a little bit further to the west, but there's a lot of law, there's a lot of money involved, and it's probably going to stay pretty much as it is. Beck: Mr. Leopold, one of the things that Iowa is looking at right now is a new implementation of the clean water act, sort of looking at making sure that we're following those federal rules in the way that we're supposed to be. These standards, we're out assessing hundreds and hundreds of rivers and streams in Iowa, deciding what their use is supposed to be: is this just supposed to be a small creek that runs through someone’s yard that nobody plays in, or is this a water body where kids are swimming and drinking and it needs to be really clean. There seems to be two sides of that, as there are every issue, environmentalists saying everything should be the highest standard possible. Certain cities that are facing expensive upgrades saying let's make sure that water body is being used in the way you you're saying it is. Where are you at with that? Leopold: Well, I think that both sides are probably saying the same things and interpreting it differently. The presumptive assumption in the clean water act is that aquatic life and recreation exist unless proven otherwise. That's called a top down approach. So that's where we start with every perennial and perennial pooled water in our state is the assumption that the highest recreational use and the highest aquatic use exists. When we start with that, then we go out and do the assessments. When we look at the streams -- it's been called downgraded, and I hesitate to use that word because it’s not downgrading. What we're doing is looking at the stream itself and then accessing its uses. So if we say it's a recreational use, what kind of a recreational use: is it swimming and water skiing or is it, you know, kids catching crawdads and putzing around in it? What kind of aquatic life? Does it have naturally producing fish? Is it cold water? Is it warm water? So what we're trying to do is get an accurate scientific assessment of the water body so that we can protect its existing and potential uses. Beck: and I know that when I talk to one of the women at the DNR who is in charge of some of this assessment and monitoring, she'll say, look, while it's called downgrading because we started with this highest possible standard, in many cases we're actually going to end up on something that was a higher classification than currently we were using and we're going to make cities have tougher standards than they do now. But I've talked to many environmental groups that are still concerned that it's not a good enough standard, that only certain waterways will be cleaned up when every waterway should be. Leopold: I used to work for one of those environmental groups. Beck: you did and now they're the ones that are now nipping at your knees. Leopold: I know what their concerns are. Whenever I look at a policy, I look at environmental performance as the final filter. So what's going to happen out there in the field. When we passed these new water quality standards as a state, we accepted from the start a ten-fold increase in recreational protections and a doubling of aquatic life protections across the state. Now, when you treat water, let's say you have to treat for bacteria, and the different standards might be 200 colonies per million or 3,000 colonies. It's statistically insignificant because if it's out of compliance, it's a hundred thousand or it's a million. It's a huge order of magnitude. And when you treat -- when you treat for bacteria, you don't treat to a certain level. You either kill them all or you don't kill any of them. So the practical application as we go out there, this is going to have a lot of impact across the state. We're estimating hundreds of facilities that are going to be affected and have to do something more with water quality standards. Beck: and Mr. McMullen, talking about a hundred facilities that are going to need upgrades, we just saw a picture of the $4-million nitrate removal system at the Des Moines water works, which you oversaw. There are communities as small as Lenox, Iowa, whom I spoke to about the fact that they're probably going to upgrade. The state has offered up $4 million to help communities. But Lenox, a small town, is looking at possibly, just themselves, a million dollar upgrade. How big of a problem is this going to be for cities across the state? McMullen: I think it's going to be a major challenge, not only to meet new drinking water standards or to address drinking water standards that we already have, but also all of the infrastructure that is in the ground, the pipes and the fire hydrants, the valves, the buildings, and everything else that is necessary to provide safe water to the citizens of Iowa is also going to need to be replaced. A lot of people call it the train wreck that's coming because of all of this billions of dollars of infrastructure that needs to be replaced. I think it's going to be a very big challenge, and I don't know that we can rely upon state government or federal government to pick up the tab. I think it's going to be much more expensive for water in the years to come. Beck: and so that means when you say more expensive for water, is it the bill I get in the mail? McMullen: it's the bill that you get in the mail. Right now I think that water is generally undervalued. It's extremely important. It's one of only two things that are required for life. You've got to breath oxygen and drink water. But yet, at least in Des Moines it costs roughly $20 a month. Well, that's pretty cheap for something that's essential for life. So I think we're going to be looking at significantly higher costs. Beck: but when you think about that, while you talk about it being something you need for life, maybe it is undervalued. But if I’m a consumer on a fixed income or I’m a working mother with small children, can I afford for that water bill to double or triple? Leopold: well, and I would respond that it’s very site specific too. I would like to think that we in the DNR do not present the problem without being able to present the solution. So you mentioned the $4-million fund that’s set up for communities that have to have help to meet that spread to meet these new water quality standards. We have many other programs. We have state revolving funds where we have tens of millions of dollars of low- or no-interest loans. We have alternative treatment systems, so you don’t have to build the $4-million plant for every place you go. There are some very low-cost, more nature-friendly solutions that a lot of these communities are going to have to reach. The opposite side of that coin is you can look at it that we were getting by on the cheap for about thirty years. And things are going to go up a little bit, but every state around us has had this experience already years ago. Beck: are we coming to a point – and I know this is a perennial question, but where we say to Iowa’s agriculture industry, you have to change, you have to do something different than you’re doing today, or even in the cities and communities that – you know, when we see large rainfalls, we find out the communities are having to dump sewer and things like that. Are we going to have to put in more strict regulations on either the agriculture industry or cities so that the water is cleaner? Let me start with you. Leopold: okay, it’s coming. And I’ll let L.D. go ahead -- this is going to happen, whether we want to or not. The environmental protection agency in Washington, D.C., sets base standards, and the clean water act goes through different interpretations over time. One of the interpretations we know is coming is nutrient standards. That’s going to affect the agricultural community. We’ve been working very diligently with the agriculture community to minimize its impact, but it will have impact. Beck: Mr. McMullen? McMullen: I agree. I think that agriculture is going to be addressing the nutrient issue, to some degree the microbiological issue, but communities are going to be addressing the microbiological issue. We know whenever we get a heavy rain on the raccoon – or on Beaver Creek or Walnut Creek, they contaminate the Des Moines River and the Raccoon River to a point that it becomes very difficult to treat. But we also are going to be addressing – or having to address pharmaceuticals and estrogen mimicking compounds that we are just starting to learn about now that we know waste water treatment plants don’t remove a hundred percent, just like we as our bodies don’t use up all of the pharmaceuticals that we end up taking. So the future is going to be exciting. It’s going to be turbulent, but I think it will be very rewarding in the future. Beck: well, let me ask you, as someone who drinks the water and doesn’t necessarily buy bottled water very often, how does a consumer know that when they turn on the tap that it’s safe? Should we trust that our cities are sending us a safe product all the time? McMullen: I think that it’s a trust relationship just like you described, that the citizens are trusting that the water utility is doing it right. I think it’s important for water utilities to communicate with their customers exactly what is in the water. It’s required by federal regulation to put out a consumer confidence report annually. People should read that, even though it is in very small print, so that you understand what’s really in there. And if you have questions, ask them, because water utilities are very proud of what they do and are very anxious to be able to find the solutions for their customers. Beck: one last question. Are our waters safe enough at this point? Drinkable? Swimmable? Leopold: well, I would make the distinction her in that our water is safe to drink. What comes out of the tap, we have some of the best drinking water on the planet, and that remains. What we’re talking about in streams, rivers, and lakes are totally different parameters than what’s coming out of your faucet. Beck: Thank you both for joining us today. We appreciate it. That wraps up our program for this evening. Join us again for the next edition of “The Iowa Journal” when we examine what technology is doing to out lives and our culture. Until then, I’m Jeneane Beck. Good night. Funding for “The Iowa Journal” has been provided by “Friends,” the Iowa Public Television Foundation, generations of families and friends who feel passionate about Iowa Public Television programs; and by MidAmerican Energy Company, helping to harness renewable sources of electricity for Iowa customers through their investment in wind power. Information is available at MidAmericanEnergy.com. MidAmerican Energy, obsessively, relentlessly at your service.