Water Quality in Iowa

May 17, 2013 | | Podcast


Batt: If you take a road trip across Iowa over the coming days, you'll likely witness familiar sights -- farmers planting their 2013 crops.  But while flooding or brought have yet to be a widespread issue, troubling signs have materialized once again. As Des Moines Water Works had historic readings along the waterways.  We've invited a pair of experts from rural and municipal backgrounds.  DNR director Chuck Gipp is a former state legislator from north Iowa. Bill Stowe, a fixture in the city of Des Moines Public Works Department heads Water Works.  Across the table, James Lynch and Radio Iowa News Director, Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Mr. Stowe, Andrew just mentioned nitrate levels.  If you could brief us on what your measurements have shown.

Stowe: Unfortunately the last ten days or so we've seen a trend that's very alarming.  Des Moines draws its drinking water not only for the city of Des Moines but for a half million folks out of the Raccoon River.  We've seen the nitrate levels in both of those rivers at historic highs.  And it's not unusual for us to see one high and the others wagging.  But unfortunately, we saw both at record levels.  So that has greatly concerned about whether we can meet federal safe drinking water requirements.

Henderson: Mr. Gipp, what is your agency doing to prevent this?

Gipp:  First of all, the Department of Natural Resources, we really don't have much legislative authority to impact the water that comes into the Des Moines Water Works, but we certainly have the authority as to what kind of water Bill Stowe puts out.  In this type of case, I think it’s good to go back on to what causes nitrates and the -- and because nitrogen's soluble, it carries those nitrates out in that water, whether it comes through tile lines or run-off. And we had a dry year last year, and therefore the-year-olds weren’t as great with that crop, and it left nitrates that normally would have been taken up into the crop that's harvested.  And because of that, there’s more nitrogen to leaks out. So that's why you have the spikes you see today.

Lynch: Director Stowe, you heard the director talk about the pollution from farm fields, from livestock production facilities. If you were writing regulations for those facilities, what would you recommend? What sorts of things would you put in those regulations?

Stowe: Certainly what we would be interested in seeing would be nutrient strategy with numerics on particularly waterways. We in Des Moines are really at the base of the reasonable care coop water sheds, about 10,000 square miles of area. Environmentalists, we're talking about non-point sources for the nitrates we're seeing. We would want to see specific standards by waterways. Chuck was instrumental in working for standards that were at least suggested if not adopted on lake standards years ago. We would want to see very specific requirements on waterways. We would want to see greater legislation of combined animal feed. But ultimately the problem here is very clear that it's coming from chemical fertilizers, and we believe exacerbated by field tiling, which brings water and the nutrients that's contained in the water more quickly to us as Des Moines residents.

Lynch: Director Gipp, is that reasonable, and is it sustainable?

Gipp: Suggesting a strategy is one thing. Providing for strategy that can be implemented and reduce that is quite another. To that goal, what you see happening in Iowa today, and there’s been critics both for and against it is that Iowa reduction, nutrient strategy reduction that's been proposed. And this is something that’s being encouraged by the EPA.  The EPA has, from the Nancy Stoner memo, encouraging each state to adopt a memo mow. Knowing one size doesn't fit all. And in order to do that, to have Iowa do that to provide for the strategy, when trying to evolve and put together strategy, it was determined early on that we can’t have point source generators, pointing fingers on point source. In return, they point fingers at the point source generators. Because that's basically what happened in the past. You have to have both working side-by-side, knowing that whatever we do contributes to nutrient impacts off our property. So with that in mind, that’s where the nutrient reduction strategy has come forth, with Iowa strategy providing the science on the best practice to achieve that. But both point source and non-point source working collaboratively together. That draft is there. There are critics that say it might not work, but I can tell you this, that what's happened in the past hasn't worked. So because we haven't had them working as companions. So let's give that an opportunity to see how it works. Because it's still going to take, no matter with regulatory process, you still have to implement it.

Batt: You mentioned before about keeping the nitrate levels within federal parameters. Are you worried you won't be able to do that in the days ahead?

Stowe: Very much so. We are walking a very precarious line between being able to meet federal clean water standards, and unfortunately noncompliance. And nitrate is what's causing that. There are a number of factors that go into how we treat and the strategies we use, but we are milligrams we are liter away from violating federal standards. And when that happens, that’s going to be a significant concern to us as managers of safe drinking water for 500,000 Iowans.

Batt: Two parts from that, people living in the city, would be health, and also the cost. This is an additional cost to Des Moines Water Works. What is the actual cost to them? Is it something that's going to hit them?

Stowe: It'll hit them squarely. There are economic concerns and there are confidence concerns. We are essentially in the public health business. We provide something that’s vital to public health. And when there's lack of confidence or confidence is shaken in our ability to do that, that has some significant economic developments to us. But when it comes down to economics we have a $4 million world class facility that costs us to $5,000 to $10,000 a day to operate. But even with those tools, we’re still close to violating a requirement.

Gipp: And it's a requirement we at the DNR do on behalf of the EPA and clean water act. There’s other small cities, in fact we're meeting one this morning about a city whose well water exceeds the MCL for nitrate.  And we give them a certain period of time to get it incompliance. Because as Bill said, it's a health issue.

Batt: And those numbers aren’t large compared to the install cost of the original facility, but do you think the taxpayers should bear that burden of things coming from upstream.

Gipp: Well, somebody's got to bear that, and there's a lot of things we do in society that everybody helps resolve. When it comes back to the strategy, I'll just let you know the figures on that. It’s estimated on the point source side which the DNR has put together, it's estimated that part of the strategy will cost municipalities 130 largest busies, and it spells $1.5billion.So with that in mind, understand that the investment it's going to take for all parts, point and non-point source, it's going to be very substantial. And we've got other things we’ve been about the history of Iowa, whether super fund sites where we as a society determine we have to make an investment in achieving results in that. So yes, it's not just going to be Des Moines Waterworks and residential rate payers here.

Henderson: Mr. Stowe, you look like you’d like to add something.

Stowe: Just to the distinction that might be a little arcane, we keep talking about point adnoun-point sources and the impact on rate payers. Point and non-point essentially becomes piped or agricultural in Iowa, even though field pile is out there. Under the clean water act it’s treated as a non-point. What that means is there's a great deal of regulation on the point side, the urban side or the small town side or suburban side and very little regulation on the agricultural side. NUFRL it's not just water customers that pay for the quality of water that we’re seeing in the Des Moines and raccoon rivers and their degradation. It’s also sewer users who pay significant amounts in trying to chase a federal requirement for point source polluters that essentially again overregulates point source polluters but does nothing for what is the majority source of pollution, water pollution in Iowa, and that’s agricultural non-source. So we have this bizarre situation where we overregulate, rate payers on the sewer and water side and really do very little for the real source of nitrate pollution in particular, or ammonia pollution in Iowa and that’s agricultural non-point sources.

Henderson: Mr. Gipp, federal regulators have threatened to start inspecting Iowa livestock requirements. You recommended about a dozen or more inspectors be added to your ranks in the agency to carry out that function. The governor scaled back the proposal. Legislators are considering bumping it up. Can you assure Iowans the federal regulators aren't going to come in?

Gipp: There was a petition brought claiming that our national elimination discharge program wasn’t sufficient. There was 31 allegations originally brought in 2007, and it was determined by EPA that 26of those had no merit or were already taken care of by the department, which left five. One of those aspects was that they wanted the department of natural resource in order to maintain control of that program, to inspect large and immediate livestock facilities at least once every five years. And in order to do that we asked for inspectors to accommodate that. Originally our staff came up with a number of 1.3 million. We determined the staff would be sufficient by having five and be able to get it done. So that's where the number and the differences came from.

Henderson: Mr. Stowe, you oversee an agency that deals with storm sewers and the aging nature of the connections between the streets and the residents. What sort of investment is needed in a city like Des Moines and the system that handles not the water we see up above but the water that's cruising around below?

Stowe: Essentially, and this gets back to the regulation on point sources and lack of regulation on non-point sources, metro sewer rate payers, and I’m talking about both sanitary and sewer rate payers are looking at about a quarter of a billion dollars in investment to make incremental changes and improvements to river quality. So it's a huge issue from a rate-making standpoint. And ultimately what I think the director and I can agree, is it’s a negligible improvement in water quality. Because again, the pollutant sources are not point sources. The pollutant sources are ag non-point sources.

Lynch: We're hearing that Senator Dick Dearden are going to ask to look at restoration similar to what you were involved in, in the past. What would you hope comes out of that in terms of the water quality issues? What would you hope to see?

Gipp: We think we'd like to take what the positives and the successes of the lake restoration to other bodies of water, understanding that it’s going to be much more difficult. Because in a lake you have a defined water shed and defined size. And therefore you can improve the watershed before it gets into the lake, then restore the lake. And you can see successes much earlier. Rivers are whole different matters simple because of the vastness of the watershed.

Henderson: There are a couple of other issues that relate to your agency pending at the legislature. There was an Iowa Supreme Court ruling to dealt with private hunting property. Do you think that is an issue which requires legislative action?

Gipp: I think it requires some type of legislative fix only because perception becomes reality in some cases. And because of the case, there’s people that now are even going so far as to say we have a snowmobile trail, marked trail on private property, and the property owner is saying that you cannot come, DNR, back onto my property to take up those stakes and markings. I will take them up myself, because they don't want the snowmobile clubs on their property. Their fearful that somebody might get hurt and they get sued. So whether the Supreme Court went as far as some people perceive, the perception is there, so I think we need a legislative fix to restore confidence of landowners.

Lynch: Another issue for the DNR is there’s a plan at the capital to pay out some of the taxpayer overpayment to pay off the debt on Honey Creek State Park. Is that a good idea to pay that off ahead of time? And what do you do with Honey Creek after that? Do you sell it?

Gipp: That's a two-part question. The nature of the way the bonds and the facilities finance doesn't allow us to bay those bonds off till 2016.But what we can do is put money together now and put the money aside that draws interest and immediately pay off. Then you can have different management strategies and how you conduct that facility. And so it's important that if we can have that done, we've asked for that kind of assistance. It hasn't made the cut to this point, but that would then free up the men we're currently paying off those bonds and interest out of what they call apportion of the reap funds to allow that to be used for other meaningful things in water quality.

Lynch: Would one of those management strategies involve selling the park?

Gipp: You need to know that Honey Creek is making money. And I think the evidence of that, in Wayne County, when most of the parts of the county were falling in the recession, Wayne County saw an up tick of sales tax revenue. The only change at that particular time was Honey Creek. So it's a great facility up there, and if given the opportunity to put the profits into improving the facility and advancing the facility, I think that this can be a valuable asset for the state of Iowa.

Batt: Real quick, the big picture of what brought us here on water quality.  I'll ask Mr. Stowe first, what your thoughts are about the positive and negative of this issue. Do you feel like, whether it be state, city, local officials are making the right steps?

Stowe: I'm not particularly optimistic. We have data, over 40 years that shows degradation of the water quality in the Des Moines and Raccoon River. The same is not working. We need leadership on this. We’re very concerned that we’re not seeing the tone of leadership at the state level than we would want to see. Clearly the next step in our view is for federal intervention on this issue.

Batt: And Mr. Gipp, I don't assume you’ll be able to tell this problem in 30 seconds --

Gipp: No, I'm not, but I think the problem that should be identified by a question asked by a legislator is, I was asked by a legislator recently saying what do you think is the biggest environmental issue in the state? And my answer was whether you’re big or small, rich or poor, you need to understand that what you do on your property has an impact off of your property. And if we don't all collectively become a part of the solution, all we're talking about today is just more talk. Everybody’s got to understand what they do has an impact.

Batt: Gentlemen, thank you so much for coming in on issue that so many urban and rural folks in Iowa care about. In just a moment we'll shift gears with a reporters’ roundtable.

Contact the Iowa Press staff online at iowapress@iptv.org.

Batt: We've asked the Des Moines Register’s Jennifer Jacob to join us for a recap of Senator Rand Paul's trip. Jennifer, felt like, not exactly 2013, did it?

Jacobs: It felt like it could have been a month out from the caucuses. It had the energy and feel of a caucus visit. You had C-SPAN airing live. Not a huge hoard of media, but then you had Rand Paul up onstage going full attack against Hillary Clinton as if she were already the Democrat’s presidential nominee. And he overnighted here in Iowa and he had an itinerary very much like a car accident campaign. He met with religious conservatives, so it really seemed like it was something that could have been right ahead of the caucuses, yet the it was just an introductory visit for him. This was just his opportunity to say hello.

Batt: What were your takeaways?

Henderson: It struck me that Rand Paul in some respects is a little bit like Barack Obama, and it has nothing to do with substance. It’s all about style. He had a news conference for a slew of reporters, where he was very professorial. Didn’t have a lot of patience for the media, and that was a little bit on display with Rand Paul because the question that’s been asked of him over and over recently is name one issue in which you disagree with your father. And you can tell that really greats at him when he's asked that question. Yet when he appeared in front of a crowd of more than 500 people, he sort of lit up the room, which shows the different skills that he has, skills that frankly are much more honed than his father’s ever were.

Batt: And James, I mean he is trying to ride the coat tails of the energy behind his father's campaign. But we all know his father did not win Iowa. So are they in this to win this down the road? What are their strategy?

Lynch: I think so. He appeals to many of the same people that his father Ron Paul did. He’s just a better version. He’s not the cranky old man version. He’s smooth. At the dinner on Friday night, he came out from behind the speaker’s podium and stood there more casually. Saturday morning he leaned on the podium and he had on a jacket and tie and blue jeans. So I think he's a much better version, but on substance, much is the same. He appeals to libertarians, social conservatives, the evangelical Christians to a large degree. He’s going for the same audience.

Henderson: But the problem for him is that audience is not sold yet, and it's primarily because he has political skills. At the Republican national convention in Tampa, he was speaking to a room full of people who were supporters of his father. He said, hey, look, people, I’m in the Senate. I’m willing to give on something I don't care as much about to get something that's really important to me. And those people are all or nothing Ron Paul supporters, and to them, that's a little troublesome and it's making them not really drink all of the Kool-Aid in the Rand Paul glass yet.

Batt: And I mentioned, it's not even May 2015.Is this too early. Is there a risk in a burn-out here?

Jacobs: I don't think so. He is not his father, at least not as famous. He’s just not a household name. There are people in Iowa who I ask do you know who Rand Paul is? They don't even know him. So I think he can't be here too soon. I think the conservative activists know who he is, but if he’s going to run for president, Iowans across the state need to know who he is, and they don’t yet.

Lynch: I think one of the challenges he faces too is while he really lit up the room when he took on Hillary Clinton, people didn’t respond at all when he talked about outreach to Latinos, to African-Americans, and broadening the base of the party. So he's going to need to not go inside to try and win a race.

Batt: And Scott Walker is coming next week. We’ll shift gears. Talking about the governor’s race, mentioned that Tom Vilsack was freezing this race.

Jacobs: Yes, we've done so many stories about Steve King froze the race because nobody thought anybody could beat him. There’s that same feel on the democratic side for the governor’s race, if not a freeze, it's definitely a chill, because I know there's at least, there’s one or two candidates who are saying we're interested. But that's about it. And so people are definitely saying, are you going to reveal your intentions sometime soon so the rest of us can decide our intentions.

Batt: The clock was ticking on Steve King, so it's ticking on him?

Henderson: It does because of his role as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.  Plus he’s not as visible when he returns to Iowa as is Steve King.

Batt: Lots of issues. You have a little time till 2014. But that's going to wrap up this edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back with another edition next week. Congressman Latham will be with us. Thanks for joining us today.

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