Cedar Rapids Gazette: On Guard--Iowa Officials Work to Protect Our Lakes, Streams and Rivers

By Mitchell Schmidt
Cedar Rapids Gazette

Since the lid blew off last year on Flint, Mich.’s drinking water contamination crisis, eyes nationwide have shifted to their own sinks and showerheads.

Both state and local officials say being vigilant has and will continue to prevent a situation such as Flint’s taking place here in Iowa.

Those with Cedar Rapids’s municipal water plant for example, which churns out millions of gallons of water a day, made moves decades ago ensure that area residents are safe from a lead-related issue like Flint’s. But David Cwiertny, a University of Iowa civil and environmental engineering associate professor, added that Iowa’s water needs constant oversight.

“Maybe lead won’t be our issue here in the state of Iowa, maybe it will be something else like nutrients,” Cwiertny said. “We just have to make sure we’re being proactive, working together, aligning everyone’s interests and making sure water resources are given top priority so there’s never any breakdown in the quality or the trust of delivering it to the residents of Iowa.”

While the majority of Iowa drinking water comes from underground aquifers, groundwater sources are connected to the state’s many lakes, streams and rivers.

Most contaminants in Iowa water can be traced back to the state’s many watershed zones, which pick up nutrients, chemicals and runoff from nearby fields or urban areas.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the majority of water quality issues stem from nonpoint source pollution, which occurs when rainfall, snowmelt or irrigation water runs over land and deposits pollution into watershed areas.

For Iowa, most nonpoint source pollution comes from soil, primarily agricultural land, but also from urban areas — construction sites, roads and parking lots.

The UI’s Cwiertny said nitrogen and phosphorous are some of the leading nutrients found in Iowa water. Such contaminant levels are regulated through federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements.

Unsafe levels of nitrates, for example, can influence the body’s ability to get oxygen into the blood supply.

Many of the nutrients commonly found in Iowa water can be traced back to one of the state’s top economic drivers — agriculture.

“I think most of the major challenges to our surface waters, and then to our groundwaters — because it’s one connected cycle — come from the heavy agriculture production in the state,” Cwiertny said.

There’s also an ecosystem impact. Nutrients, spread to help crops grow, also reach organisms in Iowa waters and streams to as far south as where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico.

The nutrients can create large algae blooms, which cause low oxygen levels and ammonia toxicity that can harm fish and other aquatic animals.

Cwiertny said a balance between water quality and agricultural practices has been an annual discussion Iowa’s Legislatures, but the conversation seems to be getting a little more focus every year.

“People have a pretty good idea of what could be done in terms of conservation practices to address the nutrients issue,” he said. “I think you’ll find folks from very progressive farming organizations agree that those are useful practices.”

The challenge largely comes down to cost, he added.

Treating the water

In Cedar Rapids, source water is pulled from wells constructed in sand and gravel deposits along the Cedar River. The system — called an alluvial aquifer — allows for natural sand filtration before the water reaches the city’s two conventional lime-softening facilities.

Tariq Baloch, water utility plant manager, said city water quality efforts start at the aquifer.

“We do our best to protect our well raw water source and make sure it’s lined properly and constructed properly,” he said.

Taking aquifer water and making it safe for home consumption is a multi-step process that includes aeration, softening, filtration, disinfection, fluorination and distribution.

The plants in Cedar Rapids can churn out between 30 million and 50 million gallons on any given day.

While Flint’s woes were tied to lead contamination, Barb Wagner, Cedar Rapids utilities water quality specialist, said Cedar Rapids officials have been keeping a close eye on lead and copper for decades.

Extensive studies began in the 1990s, along with the addition of a special corrosion control treatment chemical that essentially coats the inside of all water pipes from the plant to kitchen sink.

“Nothing in treatment has changed in the last 25 years,” she said, adding that the city’s water has remained at safe levels for at least two decades. “We have a pretty good handle on what is normal for us.”

Wagner said Flint’s situation made for a reminder of the importance of vigilance and preparation.

“I think if it did anything, it reinforced the fact that we’re doing the right thing by being proactive,” she said. “We’re looking ahead 10, 15, 20 years at what’s coming and what we need to do.”

While the water plants’ job is to ensure the water they take in is clean by the time it reaches residents, Steve Hershner, Cedar Rapids utilities director, said it’s important to make efforts to prevent those contaminants in the first place.

“We have a very robust program from a source water treatment standpoint, but we recognize the need to look upstream into that watershed,” Hershner said.

A lawsuit filed in March 2015 by Des Moines Water Works officials against three northwest Iowa counties also has the potential to place more local discussion on Iowa water and contaminants. The suit contends those counties are legally responsible for nitrate contamination in the Raccoon River and the costs of mitigating it. To go back to Cwiertny’s point, that’s because it’s all the same water.

“It’s all interconnected, and I think that’s the challenge and opportunity of it,” the UI associate professor said. “You can’t really change one aspect or the way we manage our water resources without expecting reactions somewhere else.”