In late summer, I would swim and stream-walk a small section of the Raccoon River. While sedimented for decades now, the water was clear in the shallows. For a few years now, the water is pea-green from edge-to-edge. For decades and worse now, this water has strongly contributed to a vast hypoxia zone in the Gulf.
In the 1980s, I wrote about the wisdom of the river, focusing on the Des Moines River as a living, very open metaphor for the essential streaming dynamic of the universe that is within us as well in the streaming of our body metabolism and thought.
Thursday, July 27, 2017
Is your drinking water safe? Environmental group says the answer may be 'no'
Donnelle Eller, Des Moines Register, 7/26/2017
[Bold emphases in discussion, Kinseth, contaminants list is as end of article ]:
Iowans are drinking contaminants in their water that could raise cancer risks and increase problems during pregnancy — even if their tap meets federal standards, a Washington, D.C., environmental group says.
"Just because your tap water gets a passing grade from the government doesn't always mean it's safe," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.
The group released a national database Wednesday that reviewed 28 million records to provide an in-depth look at contaminants in water coming from nearly 50,000 utilities across the United States.
Iowa's 1,100 utilities reported 89 contaminants to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources over six years. Of those:
Ten pollutants exceed "health guidelines," which are lower, sometimes significantly, than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards. The contaminants primarily are byproducts from disinfecting water, but also include nitrates, radium and chromium.
Four contaminants exceeded federal safe drinking water standards, based on data from January to March. The pollutants were radium, disinfectant byproducts and arsenic.
In addition to increased risks for cancer and during pregnancy, some contaminants can cause damage to the kidneys, liver and central nervous system.
Mark Moeller, an Iowa DNR water supply supervisor, said utilities that meet federal standards are giving consumers safe water.
The federal government systematically looks "at unregulated contaminants that may have a health risk" to see if added protections are needed to "do even better to make our water safer than it is today," he said.
But Craig Cox, a senior vice president at Environmental Working Group, said the federal government is slow to respond to growing research.
"We think the science has advanced, but the legal limits haven't been re-evaluated the way they should be," said Cox, who is based in Ames and leads the group's work on agriculture and natural resources.
Many of Iowa's contaminants are tied to farming, he said.
For example, 71 Iowa utilities had nitrates levels at 5 milligrams per liter — half the federal standard — but research, including at the University of Iowa, shows long-term exposure at lower nitrate levels is associated with some cancers.
"There are so many systems above 5 parts per million, we really ought to get way more focused and serious about dealing with nitrate pollution from farming operations in Iowa," Cox said.
"And the way to really deal with this issue is to get those levels down" upstream "so we’re not relying on utilities," he said.
Cox said many of the communities close to hitting the federal standard are in rural Iowa and have less financial ability to pay for treatment.
"If we don't get these levels down, the real economic harm will fall on these smaller communities," he said.
Iowa lawmakers have struggled to find money to help farmers increase conservation practices that could accelerate work to cut nitrogen and phosphorus losses.
The Environmental Working Group and others also have pushed for government regulations that would force farmers to add some conservation practices, such as buffer strips along waterways.
Iowa farm groups have resisted government oversight, saying each farm is unique and more and more growers are voluntarily adding conservation practices outlined in Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
But Cox said farm-related problems don't end with nitrates.
Also exceeding health guidelines: 11 Iowa utilities had atrazine levels above 0.15 parts per billion.
Another 559 communities had total trihalomethanes — or byproducts from disinfecting water with chlorine or other products to kill bacteria and other pathogens — above 0.8 parts per billion.
Atrazine is a herbicide with a federal limit of 3 parts per billion. Cox said atrazine is an endocrine disruptor and could be damaging to pregnant women, infants and children.
The Environmental Protection Agency limits disinfection byproducts to 80 parts per billion.
"It’s a lose-lose situation for utilities," he said. "They have to disinfect; otherwise, people would get sick … but when they disinfect, the chemicals they use" can hurt consumers' health.
Sean McMahon, director of Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, said the state's rich soils are naturally high in nitrogen. And weather can exacerbate losses.
"Much of that will convert to nitrates as soils get warm and moist," he said. "That's about 150 to 400 pounds of organic nitrogen that converts" naturally annually.
"Some of that can be lost in runoff, as well as can farmer-applied nitrogen," said McMahon, adding that farmers are working with cities — including utilities — to reduce upstream losses.
Environmentalists say nitrates have dramatically increased with the use of nitrogen-containing fertilizer.
"Des Moines Water Works is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems with drinking water from farming," Cox said.
Des Moines Water Works unsuccessfully sued drainage districts in three northwest Iowa counties in2015, claiming underground tiles funnel high levels of nitrates into the Raccoon River, a source of drinking water for 500,000 residents.
The utility, which sought federal oversight of drainage districts and, indirectly, farmers, uses a costly nitrate removal system to stay within the federal limit. It plans to spend $15 million to expand its system to meet increasing nitrate levels.
And after exceeding federal total trihalomethanes limits in 2014, Des Moines Water Works told the Iowa DNR it would invest $16 million in new infrastructure to ensure compliance.
Bill Stowe, CEO of Des Moines Water Works, said the water "we're delivering to our customers meets and exceeds public health standards."
Still, he said, many groups question whether drinking water standards are stringent enough, and the utility supports that discussion.
For example, the utility is testing for cyanotoxins that can result from toxic blue-green algal blooms that emerge in warm, calm nutrient-rich water.
"We're finding cyanobacteria, the blue-green algae, in both rivers" — the Raccoon and Des Moines — used to provide central Iowa's drinking water, Stowe said.
"That's above and beyond anything we're required to do," he said. EPA has no standards for it, but has established guidelines.
The bacteria can make consumers sick. Algal blooms on Lake Erie forced Toledo, Ohio, to stop using its drinking water for several days in 2014.
"There's a lot of attention put on treatment on the water utility, on what we're doing," Stowe said. "But if even a fraction were put on conservation practices upstream to keep it from getting into the watersheds, we'd be a lot better off."
Iowa leaders questioned whether the group's health guidelines have enough scientific backing to raise health concerns.
The Environmental Working Group leaned on the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to set its health guidelines, as well as research at the National Cancer Institute and other research groups.
The group said more federal standards are needed to protect public health, adding that EPA hasn't added "a new contaminant to the list of regulated drinking water pollutants in more than 20 years."
"This inexcusable failure of the federal government’s responsibility to protect public health means there are no legal limits for the more than 160 unregulated contaminants the tests detected in the nation’s tap water," the Environmental Working Group statement says.
Peter Weyer, interim director for the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, said much of the research around water contaminants is ongoing.
For example, he and other researchers are looking at the impact of long-term exposure to low-level of nitrates and have found an association between nitrates and some cancers in women.
But, he said, "the research continues. We're constantly looking at it, asking 'what's going, is it nitrates or something else?' We're trying to figure that out."
Contaminants in Iowa water
Here are the contaminants in Iowa water that the Environmental Working Group says exceed health or federal guidelines, along with the associated health concerns.
Exceeded health and federal guidelines*
Cancer-causing contaminants that form during water treatment with chlorine and other disinfectants.
Some human epidemiological studies also reported an association between disinfection byproducts and an increased risk of problems during pregnancy, including spontaneous miscarriage, cardiovascular defects, neural tube defects and low birth weight.
Health guideline: 0.8 parts per billion
Federal drinking water standard: 80 parts per billion
Radium (-226 & -228)
A radioactive element that causes bone cancer and other cancers. It can occur naturally in groundwater, and oil and gas extraction activities such as hydraulic fracturing can elevate concentrations.
Health guideline: 0.05 picocuries per liter of radium-226 and 0.02 picocuries per liter of radium-228; the concentrations are lower than the detection limit for most water tests.
Federal drinking water standard: 5 picocuries per liter of combined radium.
Exceeded federal guidelines in the first quarter
In addition to trihalomethanes and radium:
Form when disinfectants such as chlorine are added to tap water. Are harmful during pregnancy and may increase the risk of cancer. A group of five haloacetic acids are regulated through federal standards.
Health guideline: Goals set for individual acids
Federal drinking water standard: 60 parts per billion
A naturally occurring mineral that can cause bladder, lung and skin cancer, as well as harm to the skin and lungs.
Health guideline: 4 parts per trillion
Federal drinking water standard: 10 parts per billion (it was lowered from 50 parts per billion in 2001)
Exceeded health guidelines*
Formed when chlorine or other disinfectants are used to treat drinking water. Studies show that chloroform can damage the kidneys, liver and central nervous system.
Health guideline: 1 part per billion
Federal drinking water standard: None; it’s part of the federal standard for total trihalomethanes at 80 parts per billion.
Formed when chlorine or other disinfectants are used to treat drinking water. May increase the risk of cancer and may cause problems during pregnancy.
Health guideline: 0.7 parts per billion
Federal drinking water standard: None; part of the federal standard for haloacetic acids at 60 parts per billion
Formed when chlorine or other disinfectants are used to treat drinking water.
May increase the risk of cancer and may cause problems during pregnancy.
Health guideline: 0.4 parts per billion
Federal drinking water standard: None; part of the federal standard for total trihalomethanes at 80 parts per billion.
A disinfection byproduct that may increase the risk of cancer and may cause problems during pregnancy.
Health guideline: 0.7 parts per billion
Federal drinking water standard: None; part of the federal standard for total trihalomethanes at 80 parts per billion.
Formed when chlorine or other disinfectants are used to treat drinking water and may increase the risk of cancer and cause problems during pregnancy.
Health guideline: 0.5 parts per billion
Federal drinking water standard: None; it’s part of the federal standard for haloacetic acids at 60 parts per billion
A cancer-causing chemical made notorious by the film “Erin Brockovich,” which documented the poisoning of drinking water in Hinkley, Calif. It gets into drinking water as pollution from industrial uses but also occurs naturally in mineral deposits and groundwater.
Health guideline: 0.02 parts per billion
Federal drinking water standard: None, but it’s part of the federal standard for total chromium — chromium-6 and mostly harmless chromium-3 — at 100 parts per billion.
Naturally occurring in water and soil but also can come from ag fertilizer runoff, urban runoff and municipal wastewater treatment plants and septic tanks. Excessive nitrate in water can cause oxygen deprivation in infants, called blue baby syndrome, and increase the risk of cancer for adults, especially with long-term exposure at even low levels.
Health guideline: 5 parts per million
Federal drinking water standard: 10 parts per million
Source: Environmental Working Group
*The health guidelines include data over six years; the federal violations were reported January through March.
Use science and facts to shape future of state's land and water quality
Kamyar Enshayan, Iowa View, Des Moines Register, July 21, 2017
Urgency is a matter of perception.
After massive rainfall in 2008, one early June morning our fire chief updated Cedar Falls city staff and council members on the latest flood conditions; parts of the city were already flooded badly.
“The peak flood elevation is forecast to reach 6 feet higher than the previous highest in city’s history.”
We also learned that we had 24 hours to act to save downtown Cedar Falls.
An emergency was declared immediately. A command post was set up to coordinate an all-city response, school buses lined up to transport hundreds of volunteer residents for sand-bagging, businesses helped with dump trucks carrying sand, major rescue operations began in areas where residents were stranded, certain roads were closed to public. All other plans were put on hold. A massive mobilization effort saved our downtown during that flood.
Urgency is a matter of perception.
A child runs toward a busy street, grown-ups see the urgency and act. In this case, public officials perceived the emergency based on science and evidence — National Weather Service data, a vast network of monitoring stations, satellite and radar data, rainfall data, river gauges, and flood forecast modelling — and acted to protect public safety. There was no arguing, no dithering. Action based on robust evidence.
Now, imagine if at that time a well-financed group ran many ads on radio, TV and newspapers all over the region, and had published opinion pieces in local papers and had placed guest experts on radio talk shows, floating stories that we don’t know for sure if a flood is coming, saying let’s not overreact, and that all this talk of floods is a hoax. Imagine if they suggested that we really did not need the National Weather Service, because it was too much government. What would happen if public officials fell for such falsehoods instead of acting based on evidence?
Similarly, for the past many decades, global agribusiness agents in Iowa have been working hard to make sure Iowa’s public officials and residents do not perceive and do not act on the urgency of polluted streams, the urgency of soil erosion and contaminated drinking water, or the urgency of Iowans' well-being compromised by massive animal confinement operations, or by annual spraying of 35 million pounds of corn and bean pesticides.
They are working hard to tell Iowans that all is well, that we do not need a strong Department of Natural Resources, or investment in Iowa’s soil and water protection. And yet, through math, ecology and health sciences, we have robust and overwhelming evidence of these realities, meaning Iowans are in danger — much like the flood data that compelled Cedar Falls officials to perceive the emergency of the flood and act immediately.
State officials whose duty it is to protect Iowans are not perceiving Iowa’s situation as urgent, so devastation continues, even when we know a better Iowa is possible. If a foreign power had caused so much destruction in our state, we would send in the Marines.
But what if we did see land-degradation as an emergency, pivotal to our economy and the future of our state? I imagine a command post set up immediately for coordinating a massive mobilizing operation in Iowa. It would likely involve ecologists, hydrologists, land owners, farmers, cities, counties, public health officials and others to develop and enact policies that would incentivize and implement the best of what we already know from long-term robust scientific findings: more 4-5 year crop rotation, integration of crop and livestock, more deep-rooting perennials, more biodiversity, more and wider stream buffers, much less corn, far less corn fertilizer, far less pesticides, more cover crops, more small grains, more native Iowa prairie.
We would finally realize that we cannot allow Iowa’s soil and water to be degraded for the sake of foreign trade, and demand that we abandon cheap-corn federal policies that have in effect incentivized water pollution and soil erosion. [italics, Kinseth]
Urgency is a matter of perception. To perceive and act on the emergency of Iowa’s land and water degradation, science and evidence must guide and inform policy decisions, instead of hearsay or purchased political friendship.
KAMYAR ENSHAYAN is director of the University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education.
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
[Your 2 Cents Worth, #11, Des Moines Register]:
To the farmer who complained about Des Moines waste--municipal waste is regulated and treated at customer expense. Farm pollution isn’t. And we Urbanites generously subsidize your crop insurance. You don’t subsidize our insurance.
you don’t subsidize our water treatment to remove your pollution, and you don’t regulate your farm chemical application,
nor do you permit monitoring of application as you deem it as intrusive rather than information to both understand what and where the problem is,
nor do you support legislation to require buffers zones or clear practices such as tilling that have been demonstrated to reduce chemical runoff and soil loss and you actively resist such legislative efforts, and you have supported legislation for criminal prosecution of whistle-blowers who would report animal abuse in factory farms, Kinseth]
Agriculture is beautiful, allowing time for human advancements, but Iowa Ag is caught in a whirlpool of industrialization where there are few options. Everything is mono-ag and massive and chemically-driven even though we live in the best soil and water environment for ag. So you got love ag, but you gotta despise Iowa ag if you care at all about local water and soil, continental impact on sea/oceans, and, finally, feeding the world, from which Iowa ag has stepped so far away. Iowa ag is chemical pollution--like sewage--all for a $$$ to survive--yes, to try to survive in the industrial ag model that has become the norm-- rather than ag tht “feeds the world.”
[and farmers. you have destroyed vast wetlands, Kinseth, and you do not car or feel any responsibility (not to mention the impact on the underlying aquifer] ...
Des Moines Register, Letter to the Editor, 5/9/2017
Dan Heissel .Wetlands are an important Iowa resource
For 27 years, May has been designated as Wetlands Month. Wetlands provide habitats for wildlife to build their homes and provide shelter for their young. Iowa’s wetlands are particularly important because a majority of our endangered species live in wetlands.
Wetlands are among the most valued but least understood of Iowa’s natural resources. The cycling of nutrients and energy of the sun meet here to produce ecosystems. More than 1,200 species of plants live in wetlands, where they clean the water supply and reduce flood risks.
Unfortunately, wetlands are often viewed as wastelands, drained and used for other purposes such as farmland. It is estimated that Iowa has lost more than 90 percent of its original wetlands. Because of this, a nonprofit organization has been set up to help restore lost wetlands in the state, the Iowa Agricultural Mitigation, which works with landowners to restore prior converted wetlands.
We will face many consequences if wetlands continue to disappear. Water may not be as clean for recreation and flooding will become more frequent. Wildlife populations will suffer.
How can you celebrate wetlands this month? Check with your local parks to see if they have scheduled events. Find a wetland in your area and take a walk. Rent or borrow a canoe or kayak and paddle through a wetland.
We encourage you to get out this month and enjoy Iowa’s wetlands. You can learn more about wetlands and how to establish one at www.iowamitigation.com.
Your 2 Cents Worth, Des Moines Register, 7/12/2017:
If we started a new policy of only giving insurance subsidies to farmers who do good conservation, we’d see clean-water farming incerase with dazzling speed. Instead, we pay for dirty-water farming
--Only three percent of rowcrops have cover crops, so pathetic!
[Kinseth: Yes, “good conservation,” but what is that??? Still tiling the land, that is increasing today? What is the chemical reduction or is that the same---fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides? I s there a financial cost related to the amount of fertilizer that is used on the most fertile land in Earth? Ag-pro political groups argue that Iowa farmers are already doing a wondrous conservation job. No sane or sane-rational person will buy such B.S. Farmers in Iowa today are killing the Earth. They cannot afford not to in the ag model that rules the midwest.]