End Iowa's "don't ask, don't tell" approach to water quality

High levels of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in the Raccoon River forced the Des Moines Water Works to switch to a secondary source in August.

You would think that a problem affecting the state's largest water treatment facility would grab the attention of the state Department of Natural Resources. The U.S. Department of Interior's official definition of "natural resources" mentions "Land, fish, wildlife, biota, air, water, ground water, drinking water supplies and other such resources belonging to, managed by, held in trust by, appertaining to, or otherwise controlled by the U.S., any state or local government [...]."

But you would be wrong, because the Iowa DNR didn't bother to look into what caused the Raccoon River's elevated levels of cyanobacteria. Instead, Des Moines Water Works staff, aided by the Iowa Soybean Association and Agriculture's Clean Water Alliance, traced the algae bloom to Black Hawk Lake in Sac County:

Experts say the algae can cause rashes, intestinal illnesses, even death.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is charged with monitoring water quality throughout the state.

Agency officials said they believed that the waterworks operation had monitoring under control, and noted that no one asked them to investigate.

Why should the DNR wait for someone to ask them to investigate high bacteria levels affecting the drinking water of Iowa's largest population center? The article goes on to say:

Susan Heathcote serves on a state commission overseeing the DNR and follows water quality issues for the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council. She said the agency should have shown more interest in a problem that has become more common across Iowa.

"It's kind of don't ask, don't tell," Heathcote said. "We know there are issues, but we aren't being proactive to warn the public. You need to investigate why it was occurring. It should have been an urgent issue."

By the way, Des Moines area residents weren't the only ones affected by the DNR's failure to identify algae blooms at Black Hawk Lake:

Levels in the west-central Iowa lake near Lake View, recorded just after the Labor Day weekend, were seven times more than an internationally recognized benchmark for safe swimming.

State law charges the Iowa Department of Natural Resources with monitoring water quality and protecting Iowans from such outbreaks. Yet no one from the agency warned swimmers to stay out of the 925-acre Sac County lake, which has several beaches and campgrounds.

The Iowa News Service had more details in a story picked up by a lot of radio stations last Thursday:

Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, says, although the water in Des Moines is safe to drink when treated, that type of [blue-green] algae can make for smelly and bad-tasting water, even at low levels. Her biggest concern is that, at high levels, the toxins can cause serious health problems. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR), she says, currently has no state programs dealing with the sources of pollution in these large watersheds.

"That needs to become more of a priority, because these issues are not going away. They're getting worse and new problems are surfacing every day. The department needs to partner with drinking water utilities in developing programs that will help address these sources of pollution within their watersheds, that are really outside of the control of the drinking water utilities way downstream."

Randy Beavers, Des Moines Water Works interim CEO and general manager, says the cyanobacterial organism needs nutrients to survive, and right now the river's source waters have plenty to feed it.

"In August, we were seeing cell counts of over 30,000 in the river and our experience has been that once cell counts get above 10,000, it becomes problematic for treatment. We always have the potential for taste and odor issues as well. It has just been within the last week that we've seen the cell counts fall below 10,000."

Here's the deal: those nutrients that Beavers cited as a food source for the bacteria get into the water because of runoff from conventional farms.

When Heathcote mentioned "these sources of pollution within their watersheds, that are really outside of the control of the drinking water utilities way downstream," she was talking about conventional farms.

We will never significantly improve water quality in Iowa until we start regulating the agricultural methods that send too much pollution into our rivers and lakes.

I wish I could say that I'm optimistic about the DNR ending the "don't ask, don't tell" approach to water quality. The Iowa Environmental Council wants the legislature to do more on this issue, but our elected officials don't want to point the finger at the largest source of pollution in our water: the agricultural sector.

I am involved with the Iowa Environmental Council. If you are concerned about our natural resources, support this non-profit by becoming a member or attending the council's upcoming annual meeting on October 17, which will focus on clean water.

Alternatively, Iowans could just stop whining and learn to love smelly drinking water and unswimmable lakes. After all, Iowa is an agricultural state and anyone who doesn't like it can leave in any of four directions.

  • Rac River

    Man, I love Raccoon River Brewing Co. but it's pretty sketchy to learn about the bacteria.

    While I think that it's kind of unsettling to learn about those algae blooms, I think we're still OK when it comes to drinking water.

    Most U.S. cities (including, I think, Des Moines) chlorinate their water systems and have been doing it for 100 years.  This kills practically all of the bacteria so that when you consume it, it's safe.

    Guess we should be thankful that our water is chlorinated if the supply system is so sketchy.

    • we're ok because Water Works switched

      and is taking water from the Des Moines River.

      I talked with someone last week who works at Water Works. They can kill cyanobacteria with chlorine, but when the bacteria die they release a toxin that creates an unpleasant taste and smell. That's the main reason Water Works stopped drawing from the Raccoon River.

      The long term health effects to humans are not known, but these algae blooms are definitely bad for aquatic life.

      Anyway, it appalls me that the main water treatment facility itself had to investigate the source of a major cyanobacteria outbreak. I know the DNR is underfunded, but come on, do your job.

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