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Discussion: Iowa's Water Quality and Quantity

posted on January 31, 2008 at 7:36 PM

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.

Beck: 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.


Tags: Iowa pollution water water quality