Iowa City Press-Citizen: Schnoor Raises Concerns Over Shrinking Jordan Aquifer

Web Note: Jerry Schnoor, holder of the Allen S. Henry Chair in Engineering, professor of civil and environmental engineering, faculty research engineer at IIHR--Hydroscience & Engineering, and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, contributed to this Iowa City Press-Citizen news report.

 

By Donnellle Eller
Iowa City Press-Citizen/Des Moines Register

Rapidly growing industrial and residential use of the Jordan aquifer is prompting Iowa environmental leaders to consider new restrictions to better protect the massive underground water source.

The Jordan aquifer provides drinking water to about a half-million Iowans, as well as water that is critical to industries that range from data centers to food processing and ethanol production.

The recommendations are designed to warn users that Iowa's now-rich water levels could decline enough in the years ahead that they could hinder job creation and economic development efforts if not managed carefully.

"We know at some point we can't keep pumping it down and pumping it down," said Todd Steigerwaldt, manager of the Marion Water Department and leader of the task force looking at the issue. "We know there is additional cost — it's more energy, which is money; and at some point, the lower we pump that water, the poorer the water quality would become."

The Jordan aquifer runs underneath most of the state, ranging from 2,500 feet underground in southwest Iowa to near the surface in northeast Iowa. But Iowans also rely on other, shallower aquifers, rivers and lakes for water.

The aquifer also provides water to parts of six other states, including big metro areas such as Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago.

Some major metro areas outside of Iowa that use the Jordan aquifer are already running into trouble. In the Minneapolis area, for example, signs of shrinking groundwater already have appeared, from declining lake levels to wells running dry and damaged trout streams.

"Here it's like we've gotten a note that we need to change our oil. In other states, the red check-engine light is flashing," said Michael Anderson, a senior environmental engineer at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. "We want to deal with this before it becomes a big problem."

Group to consider new protections

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission is expected to consider recommendations Wednesday that could require conservation and alternative water sources for cities, businesses, universities and other aquifer users that exceed certain limits.

The state natural resources agency is expected to determine levels that could trigger local and state action. The first tier would require no action and is where most users would fall, the second tier warns that high demand could require conservation and other action to prevent levels from getting too low in years ahead, and a third tier would stop further drawdown, based on documents outlining the recommendations and interviews with task force and state officials.

At this point, no aquifer users would fall into the third, most dire, tier, experts say.

Aquifer users that could land in the second tier of heavy-demand areas — potentially in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Fort Dodge areas — will likely be placed on alert that restrictions are possible in the years ahead, state experts say. Cities such as Marion and Fort Dodge already tap other aquifers to meet growing water demands.

"There are urban areas where we've seen rapid declines in water elevation, and they've accelerated a little bit faster in the past 10 years," said Mike Gannon, a hydrologist for the Iowa Geological Survey. He also points to the Mason City area as one that has seen increasing water demand, especially since the recession's end.

"It's not everywhere across the state, but there are places where we see groundwater mining — where we're removing a lot of water more rapidly than is being recharged," Gannon said. "Iowa is a water-rich state, but it has limits."

That mining concerns Jerry Schnoor, an engineering professor at the University of Iowa.

"The Jordan aquifer is threatened by current water uses," and conservation is needed, said Schnoor, also co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research at the university. "The recharge is slow, because the aquifer is deep, and pumping rates have increased, due both to industry, including biofuels, and residential growth in municipalities."

Water use climbs 72% since 1970s

Last year, Iowa families, businesses and other users pulled nearly 26 billion gallons of water from the aquifer, a 72 percent increase from the 1970s. Use has climbed, in part, because of the ethanol industry, which came online in Iowa in the 1990s.

Biofuels make up about 15 percent of the aquifer demand in Iowa; other industrial use, about 12 percent; and the rest comes from municipal water utilities, which can also include industrial users, a state report on the aquifer shows.

Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, said the industry's water use has "fallen pretty dramatically" in recent years, both to cut production costs and to address concerns about conserving the aquifer's reserves.

"We're very concerned about the sustainability of the Jordan aquifer," Shaw said. "You don't want a situation where it's not sustainable. It would put you out of business."

Bob Libra, the state's geologist, said the recommendation should clarify when users are drawing too much water from the aquifer. In 1977, state leaders set a rule that users couldn't draw down the aquifer more than 200 feet from where well levels were then.

In some spots, that's not a problem, Libra said, but in other areas, it's too much. "We want reasonable but sustainable use of the aquifer," Libra said. "This takes out some ambiguity" from the 1977 rule.

New technology and modeling, for example, show cities such as Fort Dodge, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids could be on paths that lead to required conservation and reduced use.

"We can say, 'It looks like you'll hit that tier two level in 15 years,' " Libra said. " 'Do you want to start knocking back on your use of the aquifer now? Is there conservation you can use? Are there other sources of water you can use?' "

In Linn County, for example, businesses and cities using the Jordan could look to other sources. Cedar Rapids uses aquifers that run along the Cedar River and not the Jordan.

Fort Dodge's plans hinge on water

Dennis Plautz, CEO of the Greater Fort Dodge Growth Alliance, said the city has been investing in improving its access to water. The city has seen about $600 million in investment from Cargill and CJ Bio America and hopes to build on that. Cargill produces ethanol and livestock feed; CJ Bio American uses a byproduct from Cargill to make a protein used in feed.

It's the beginning of a bioscience campus, which, if it replicates a Cargill complex in Blair, Neb., could bring a $7.2 billion economic boost to the region over four years, a study shows.

Fort Dodge is working closely with the state natural resources agency, because water is key to such an expansion.

Cargill, CJ and Valero, an ethanol plant, more than doubled the city's use to a total of about 8 million gallons per day. The city pulls from the Jordan and the Mississippian aquifers.

The recommendations should help cities and businesses avoid water crunches — and spikes in cost — that could dampen economic development efforts, said Libra, the state geologist. "Cities need jobs, industries need cities, and they all need water," Libra said. "This is a work-together moment."

Aquifer 101

200: About how many businesses, cities, universities, ethanol plants and other users in Iowa tap the Jordan aquifer for water.

345: How many wells in Iowa are connected to the aquifer, with some users having multiple wells.

26 billion: How many gallons of water Iowa used from the aquifer last year.

300,000 to 500,000 years old: Age of the water.

2,500 feet: Depth of the aquifer in some places. The water can take centuries to work its way down through rocks and dirt. The aquifer is mostly contained underground in Iowa, but in some of the six other states it covers, it lies closer to the ground surface.

Aquifer recommendations

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission is expected to consider 33 recommendations from a task force that Gov. Terry Branstad appointed. Among the recommendations is a call for three tiers of wells:

• Tier One: Existing Jordan wells that are not yet to a level of concern based on current and proposed annual water use and drawdown reports. Most wells are expected to fall in this tier.

• Tier Two: "Source water protected areas," where experts are concerned that the aquifer is being "over-pumped," said Todd Steigerwaldt, manager of the Marion Water Department and leader of the task force looking at the issue. The concern is based on modeling, usage and other data.

Based on water consumption and growth, Fort Dodge, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City could fall into this tier in the years ahead. The state could eventually require water users to seek alternative water sources and look at conservation practices, both for businesses and residential users. Failure to take action could result in loss of permission to use water.

• Tier Three: Wells have reached "drop dead" or critical levels at which no further drawdown would be allowed. Requirements would include reduced use and aggressive water conservation.

Why it matters

• The Jordan aquifer provides water to about a half-million users in Iowa, and it's being drawn down in some areas of the state faster than it can recharge.

• Cities, businesses and other users could be required to find alternative sources of water that could increase costs for consumers.

• Cities could impose conservation requirements for homeowners, for example, to limit watering lawns, gardens or flowers during summers — or pay more for the privilege.

• Worst-case scenario: Economic development and job growth could be restricted if water access is reduced.