A rare victory for Iowa water quality

Following a public outcry, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has abandoned an effort to weaken the state’s E. coli water quality standards.

Officials had designed the change with the explicit goal of reducing the number of Iowa waterways deemed impaired. Environmental advocates had warned public health would suffer if the DNR assessed waterways based on average readings of E. coli levels, rather than the highest single measurement of the bacteria.

When the DNR submitted proposed administrative rule changes to the state Environmental Protection Commission this summer, environmentalists were alarmed by a passage in the cover letter from Water Quality Bureau Chief Jon Tack (emphasis added):

The second purpose of this proposed rule is to update the water quality criteria for E. coli by eliminating the existing single sample maximum value. The DNR has determined that the single sample maximum value is overly stringent and is not an appropriate tool for water quality assessment and permitting purposes. The geometric mean E. Coli value will be retained as it is the more appropriate measure and is protective of recreational activity in Iowa’s waters. This change will result in fewer water bodies being listed as impaired by the overly stringent single sample maximum E. coli value.

The proposed language on page 11 of this document read, “The Escherichia coli (E. coli) content of water which enters a sinkhole or losing stream segment, regardless of the water body’s designated use, shall not exceed a Geometric Mean value of 126 organisms/100ml or a sample maximum value of 235 organisms/100ml.”

In other words, a waterway where one sample contained dangerously high levels of E. coli would not be declared impaired, as long as the average level in samples taken over a period of time stayed within an acceptable range.

The Iowa Environmental Council and the Sierra Club Iowa chapter began rallying citizens against the proposed rules in early August. Excerpts from a Sierra Club action alert:

Write to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and say:

• The DNR should stop the rulemaking on E. coli and keep the existing rules for E. coli
• Averaging the tests for E. coli is not protective of human health
• Spikes in E. coli indicated that the disinfection process has not been successful
• Discharging elevated levels of E. coli into Iowa’s waterways can sicken humans, pets, and wildlife
• Manipulating the test results to reduce the number of impaired waterbodies is not acceptable
• Sewage treatment plants and industries that are discharging wastewater with elevated levels of E. coli must be monitored so that their disinfection processes comply with water quality standards every time they discharge.

E. coli is a pathogen that can cause bloody diarrhea, urinary tract infections, anemia, kidney failure, and other illnesses. Some of these illnesses are so severe that they can lead to death. The Environmental Protection Agency has set safe levels of E. coli that can be discharged into Iowa’s rivers and streams while still protecting the health of people who swim, boat, fish, and wade in the water. The disinfection processes that reduce E. coli in wastewater also reduce other harmful pathogens. Therefore high levels of E. coli may indicate high levels of other harmful pathogens.

Instead of reporting violations when a single sample shows E. coli levels are too high, the DNR rule would allow the dischargers to average several samples together. If the average is within the level considered safe, then the discharger has not violated the rules. However those who are recreating downstream are not recreating in averaged waters, they are recreating in waters laced with E. coli and other nasty pathogens. People, pets, and wildlife can become seriously ill after coming in contact with the contaminated water, inhaling water droplets, or swallowing the water. That is why the DNR should keep the existing rules on E. coli.

The DNR shamelessly admits the reason they want to do this is to reduce the number of waters on the impaired waters list. An impaired water is a polluted water. Every two years a revised list is issued, and every two years the number of waters on the impaired waters list has climbed steeply. Currently the Iowa DNR has placed 608 waters on the list of impaired waters.

Once a water is on the impaired waters list, the dischargers and the DNR must work to reduce the pollution. That will require the dischargers to spend money and effort to upgrade and improve their treatment processes. The DNR, facing pressure from dischargers, is trying to bury the tests showing the pollution and is trying to manipulate the data.

More than 700 public comments opposed removing the single sample maximum criteria for E. coli, the DNR reported last week in materials prepared for the Environmental Protection Commission’s December 19 meeting. Consequently, DNR officials decided “to terminate the proposed rule,” the agency told commissioners (page 22).

The Iowa Environmental Council welcomed the news in a December 6 press release:

Last July, IDNR proposed a rule to remove the Single Sample Maximum limit for E. Coli bacteria, which would have significantly decreased public health protections in lakes and rivers that generally have good water quality, but have a history of occasionally high spikes of bacteria that make recreation in the water unsafe on some days. “The change would have resulted in the removal of 29 lakes and rivers from Iowa’s impaired waters list,” said Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council. “The proposed change also would have eliminated the need for IDNR to identify the cause of the impairment and implement a restoration plan to reduce bacteria pollution so that the water is safe for people to enjoy.”

The Iowa Environmental Council and other environmental groups raised concerns about this proposed change and alerted the public. ”Thanks to the overwhelming response from the public voicing their strong opposition, the Single Sample Maximum will remain a part of Iowa’s water quality standards,” said Jennifer Terry, executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council. “IDNR will now continue to monitor for dangerous spikes in E. coli levels when measuring the water quality in all waters Iowans use for recreation.”

The Iowa DNR is far from a vigorous advocate for clean water. A few months ago, the agency laid off its top official overseeing animal feeding operations, after the Iowa Farm Bureau and Iowa Pork Producers had complained that he was “educating county boards of supervisors what their capacity might be in objecting to hog confinement sitings.” (He is appealing to have his position reinstated.)

Still, the DNR’s backpedaling on the E. coli rule is a victory worth celebrating. Organizations commenting on this proposal (page 23) included the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, which never met an environmental rule it didn’t want to weaken or destroy. I can’t think of another time during the Branstad or Reynolds era when public health concerns expressed by hundreds of private citizens carried the day over a business group lobbying for less stringent pollution regulations.

Environmentalists will soon need to fight a bigger battle over cleaning up our state’s dirty waterways. Governor Kim Reynolds wants water quality legislation to be “one of the first bills that I get to sign as the Governor of the state of Iowa.” To that end, Republicans plan to bring a bill the Senate passed last year to the House floor during the first week or two of the 2018 legislative session. The lobbyist declarations tell you all you need to know about whether that bill would accomplish the stated goal: a slew of Big Ag or corporate groups are in favor, while several environmental non-profits are against. A forthcoming Bleeding Heartland post will tell that story in more detail.

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  • Thank you!

    This good post is appreciated. You are so right, this is a rare victory for water. If there is an internal DNR story that we’ll never know, thank you to those within the DNR who helped enable this to happen, as well as to the many Iowa citizens who spoke up.

    And I look forward to your Senate bill analysis.