DES MOINES, Iowa – Recently tap water in Toledo, Ohio became undrinkable due to blue green algae, itself caused by increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorus (N and P) in Lake Erie. N and P are also a problem for Iowa’s waterways, so what’s kept Des Moines from becoming another Toledo?
“Those kinds of things have not happened here in the same way, and that’s probably in part due to the hydrology that’s here,” says Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. He adds that it’s “certainly due to a lot of folks working on it both urban and rural, and making sure something like that doesn’t happen.”
The recipe for an algal bloom is N and P together; Northey says N is more common in rivers, while phosphorus is more common in lakes. Des Moines Waterworks CEO and General Manager Bill Stowe says there’s another reason Iowa’s avoided a Toledo-incident: algae growth is easiest in a lake.
“Predominantly the warm water and the occurrence of warm water that has both the nutrients of nitrogen and phosphorus in it are very similar in our waterways,” explains Stowe. “We just happen to be drawing from riverine water, which is moving, which is a little different from Lake Erie, which is stagnant.”
But Stowe says the difference is smaller than you might think; when pulling from the Des Moines River, the water is coming from the Saylorville reservoir, which is stagnant. In late July, the Iowa DNR reported that what was thought to be a chemical spill in the Des Moines River north of Saylorville Lake was in fact an algal bloom. Back at the Des Moines Waterworks, in sanitizing water to make it drinkable, Stowe says the source of pollutants is no mystery.
It’s “coming from, in more situations than not in our watersheds, from farm runoff,” Stowe says, “and it could be from row crop farming; that is, from nitrate coming down through the drainage tiles into the waterways, but also in the Des Moines and Raccoon River valleys, we have a significant number of concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs.”
Ostensibly, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is all about algae, in the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxic zone. The strategy encourages Iowa producers to adopt voluntary practices to reduce nutrients heading to the zone, which is now roughly the size of Connecticut. Stowe says the emphasis on the Gulf is too much.
“The hypoxic concern is a legitimate one, and an important one, and it’s realistically the only reason that Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy was ever devised,” says Stowe, adding that “certainly there has not been enough attention on things like nitrate concentrations, ammonia concentrations, algal blooms; all of which are of great concern to us as surface water providers.”
State water funding is drying up; in a Des Moines Register editorial dated August 17, State Representative Chuck Isenhart estimates water quality funding is 80 percent lower than it could have been this year.
Stowe does not subscribe to the strategy’s voluntary approach, of which Isenhart has been a vocal critic, particularly because it lacks numeric criteria for evaluating progress. He says sensible regulation now is a better solution, and encourages farmers to move in that direction.
“Work with us to get started on a realistic regulatory process that doesn’t rely on voluntarism and doesn’t rely on a lack of standards,” Stowe says, “because the day will come when there will be an overreaction, if we don’t get our hands around it now, to the idea that our source waters need to be protected in this state.”
Northey says he expects the process of rehabilitating Iowa’s waters, by its nature, to take a significant amount of time.
“There’s a lot of work to do. It’s not going to be done in a day, or it’s not going to be done in a year, or even ten years,” Northey says, “but we’re in the process of making improvements and I think it will get a lot of people’s attention, the closer those kinds of issues get to home.”
To hear more about Iowa’s water quality from Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey or Des Moines Waterworks CEO and General Manager Bill Stowe, click the audio player above this story.