Water Quality in Iowa

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 18, 2021 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, our guests include Ted Corrigan, CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, and Larry Weber, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa, who leads the Iowa Watershed Approach and is co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center and former director of IIHR. They discuss water quality and water supply issues across the state. 

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Clay Masters, morning host and reporter for Iowa Public Radio. 

Program support provided by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.


(music) Iowa water quality has been a defining topic in this state for decades. We sit down with a pair of Iowa experts to discuss our water related issues on this edition of Iowa Press. (music)  Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com. (music) For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, June 18 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: Iowa's water quality has dominated local, national and sometimes international headlines in recent decades. As our state confronts the drought conditions of 2021 we have gathered a pair of Iowa water experts to discuss it. At the Iowa Press table is Des Moines Water Works CEO and General Manager Ted Corrigan and Larry Weber, a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. He also co-founded the Iowa Flood Center and leads the Iowa Watershed Approach, a five-year statewide research project on flooding and water quality. Gentlemen, welcome to you both. Thank you for making the time to be here today, we appreciate it. Thank you, David. Great to be here. Yepsen: Joining our conversation across the table is Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. Masters: I want to get to you, Ted Corrigan, first. On Friday we have heard that the Iowa Supreme Court will not move forward with a lawsuit taken by a couple of groups dealing with agriculture pollution on the Raccoon River. That is one of the sources for water at Des Moines. Water Works. How do you move forward with the status quo, the way things are? Corrigan: First of all, let me just say we're disappointed that the suit won't move forward. We think that water quality in Iowa is important and it deserved the discussion. But moving forward we see a wide path between litigation, which that was, and legislation, which we think it's going to take, a wide path that gives us a lot of opportunity to move the question forward to begin the implementation of practices that will really help at least springboard the water quality situation in Iowa and that is where we're going to be. Masters: Larry Weber, what was your reaction to that? Weber: Well, the same. And although I do think we have two paths forward, one litigation and one legislation, we need to start moving down the path. I think that is the biggest challenge in Iowa is that we've had a lot of talk and the talk has been going on now for a decade or more and we're just simply not making the progress that Iowans should expect to receive. Masters: And on the topic of litigation, your predecessor, the late Bill Stowe, had a lawsuit that really kind of got the attention of everyone across the state that was meant to try to get more regulation on farm fields across Iowa. Do you feel like you're mending fences now with you at the head of Des Moines Water Works? Corrigan: You know, Des Moines Water Works had tried for 30 years to elevate the discussion about water quality in this state and not very successfully, I might add. The lawsuit was the right thing at the right time, it was needed to kick start that conversation and it did just that, even though it was eventually dismissed. Now, while I tend to believe that we won't make the progress we need to make without public policy change and that may not happen without litigation, the time is now for following that other path, collaboration, opportunities to continue that conversation and get the process started. Masters: Was that lawsuit necessary to keep the conversation going and to be where you are now? Corrigan: No, I think it was the right thing at the right time with the right person. Bill was a lawyer, as you know, he was a legal mind. He could see the benefits and the value that could bring even if not successful. We're on a different path today. Henderson: Larry Weber, people thinking about water in Iowa today may think we don't have enough of it. How dry is it? Weber: It's dry. I mean, it's certainly dry. We're seeing low flows all across the state that will impact water quality, it certainly impacts water availability. Sometimes our droughts will propagate through the state beginning in Southwest and Western Iowa up through Central and Northeast Iowa. We're dry across our state right now, the entire state. And the real challenge is that we don't really see much break coming and this is awful early for these dry conditions. For us to be at this state in June does not play very well for the rest of the year. Henderson: You said it impacts water quality. How? Weber: Well, with water quality sometimes we get some flushing effect. When we have very high flows there is some dilution effect that happens when our streams are at very high river flows. We will see under these drought conditions the plants simply not taking up the nutrients and other applied commercial fertilizers and manure that have been applied to the landscape throughout the spring. They're sitting there static and stationary in the landscape and when we do get rain and the water starts to flow and our tiles flow again we will likely see a real large movement of nitrates coming out of our farm system. Henderson: Ted Corrigan, you're asking consumers, the 500,000 Iowans who depend on the Des Moines Water Works, to conserve. How is that going in the early days? Corrigan: It's going fairly well. We did ask on Monday for our customers to cut back lawn watering by 25%. And we've seen about a 5 million gallon per day reduction day over day if we compare Monday to Monday and Tuesday to Tuesday and what not. So we’re headed in the right direction there. But the river is headed in the wrong direction. And so as we try to pursue our mission of providing clean, safe drinking water we may have to ask for further reductions later in the year. Henderson: So, do you ever get to the point of water rationing? And if so, how do you police it? Corrigan: We have a multistage plan at Des Moines Water Works and the ultimate stage is water rationing. It is a fairly complex process of monitoring what folks used during the spring or late winter and comparing what they use and billing accordingly. It's fairly complicated and we certainly hope we don't get there. Henderson: When was the last time it was ever implemented? Corrigan: You know, it's a four stage plan. This is only the second time we've ever been in Stage 1. We've never been to Stage 2. Yepsen: Are other water systems across the state doing similar things and making similar requests? Corrigan: Some are. Many of the water systems across the state rely on groundwater, especially the smaller communities. In Des Moines we just don't have the option to use groundwater because we deliver almost 90 million gallons on a peak day and the aquifers in Central Iowa just can't support that. So other surface water utilities I'm sure are beginning to ask their customers to cut back across the state. Yepsen: So what do you do when someone sees their neighbor watering their lawn at noon? Why is the enforcement mechanism here? Corrigan: At this point we are in a voluntary stage of our water -- Yepsen: Shaming them. Corrigan: Well, we leave that to their neighbors. But we're in a voluntary stage and we have asked for 25% reduction, we have asked for people to water wisely, which would mean not at noon. But if they're still watering, as far as we know they're using the 75% that they're still able to use. That's where we are. Masters: So what is the drought's implication then on people who get their water from a well, from an aquifer, versus a river or surface water? Larry Weber? Weber: Well, the stresses on our entire water resource are really tied together. And so we have groundwater recharge that happens from our surface waters. In rural Iowa, some parts of the state are very reliant on rural water systems, they have decisions to make as well. Many of those rural water systems they have taken away some of the wells off of some of the farms because they are so deep and they were expensive to drill and we have combined them into rural water systems that now provide a wonderful service to the state. But they too may have to make decisions about whether they are using water for communities, water for industries or water for livestock. These systems are so coupled together. Thankfully we have a little more resilience in our groundwater. That water has taken tens of thousands and in some cases millions of years to accumulate in those deep aquifers. But it too will be stressed. And so those resources, although ample today, will not be endless. We will have to start thinking about what do we do at the end of the turn of the century, especially as these floods and droughts become more prevalent in our state? Henderson: Turning to maybe I guess the predicament that the community and city of Flint found itself in, Ted Corrigan, how likely is it that there may be some community in Iowa that may have to disrupt their production or supply of public drinking water because it has been contaminated with lead or some other kind of contaminant? Corrigan: It's difficult for me to say what might happen around the state. The situation in Flint was very unusual where they were trying to save money and reverting to a former source. I think the key here is that at Des Moines Water Works we're committed to providing safe, clean water to our customers. And we are very careful about the process that we use. We have a multi-barrier approach that we use, we have a tried and true approach and we don't intend to change that. I think that is typical in the water industry. I really think the Flint situation was unusual and I don't anticipate that we're going to see something like Flint, Michigan in Iowa. Masters: We want to move onto something about regulation here. We hear a lot about nitrates in the water. I guess backing up, what are some of the biggest issues as far as water quality goes in the state of Iowa before I get into my question about regulation. Ted Corrigan? Corrigan: Sure. For Des Moines Water Works, some of our biggest issues related to water quality are nitrate, as you already mentioned, cyanobacteria and now the toxins that those produce. Those are all related to nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorous that are used in the production of agricultural products and then find their way through the leaky systems that exist on the landscape into our surface waters. Masters: Larry Weber, anything to add to that as other just statewide issues with water quality in the state? Weber: No, those are certainly the main issues. I think, as Ted mentioned, we have a very leaky system. And part of that leaky system is also moving livestock manure that gets applied to our landscape twice a year, once in the fall after the crop comes out and once again in the spring before the crop goes in. And because agricultural drainage makes really good sense agronomically in terms of crop production it dries those soils out ad provides a very quick pathway for that livestock manure to also come into our streams. Masters: And you regularly hear from the agricultural industry that it is regulated enough. Is this an enforcement issues? Larry Weber, do you want to answer that? Weber: No, I don't think it's an enforcement issue. I think it's bad policy. I think we have bad policy and bad practice in this particular area. As it relates to livestock manure, our master matrix that is supposed to provide a framework across the state for how we cite animal feeding operations simply isn't restrictive enough. We have just an overwhelming expansion of pork production and livestock production under roof. That is creating an incredible amount of manure as waste. What was once seen as a very nice organic and valuable resource to be putting on our land and helping support our crop production now is really a waste product that we simply are having a challenge in finding enough land to spread that manure. And so it is being over applied and in that over application it ends up in our rivers, lakes and streams. Yepsen: Larry Weber, I want to follow up with Kay's question about Flint, Michigan. What do you think? Is that a situation like happened in Flint, is that ever likely in Iowa or possible in Iowa or something we ought to be concerned about? Weber: Well, again, in Flint and to make that correlation, that was a distribution and treatment system where the challenge was there. Here we're talking in Iowa our bigger challenges are the distributed non-point source commercial fertilizer, manure and other toxins that are coming off of the land. Yepsen: Mr. Corrigan, I want to go to a large question. We've had this deadlock in this state, urban, rural, fighting over water. I wonder if all this stimulus money that is coming into our state and local governments provides us a way to cut the knot, if you will, and try something new. I noticed Polk County is building bioreactors, the county government is going out to landowners and building these bioreactors. Basically as I understand it you just pour water out of a tile through a bunch of wood chips and it cleans it up. Ted Corrigan, should other counties in Iowa be offering to do the same thing? Or why shouldn't Polk County be going up to counties and farmland owners upstream of the Raccoon River and say hey, we'll spend some stimulus money and build you some bioreactors here? Corrigan: Polk County has found a very innovative finance and delivery model for those conservation practices and those practices were not particularly popular with landowners because they didn't provide a lot of benefit to the landowner in terms of soil health or productivity or anything else. There wasn't a lot of uptake. Polk County has found a very innovative model so they cut through the red tape, if you will. We think that that could be potentially very valuable as it moves up the water shed if other counties could serve as the financial agent, take those funds, coordinate the construction of multiple facilities at a time. Wherever the funding comes from we can talk about whether public funds should be used for that or not. But I think it's a great way to jumpstart the practices as we were talking earlier. Yepsen: Larry Weber, governments are awash in this stimulus money, it's going to get spent for something. Most of the time it's one shot deals. What about this? Is this an opportunity around the state to be building water cleaning infrastructure? Weber: It is, to one extent. And through our Iowa Watershed Approach project we're building about $40 million of these practices across the state. And as we expected when we started that program, we have more landowner interest than money available. So we have $40 million. Our estimate to be able to treat the water and reduce the flooding in the state though is $5 billion needs to be invested, with a B, $5 billion in water quality, another $5 billion in flood damage reduction. So we need $10 billion. That is a big lift. But if you think about it in the terms of if we could spend $200 million a year, divide $200 million into $10 billion that is 50 years. So like we have changed the way soil comes off the land in the last 50 years, we could change the way water and nutrients come off the land in the next 50 years. But we need the political will to do it. Henderson: Larry Weber, you mentioned flooding. Not a lot of people are talking about that today in the middle of a drought. But what sort of policy would you recommend at the state and federal level because we're going to get flooded again? Weber: We are going to get flooded again. And what we have seen over the last 20 or 30 years is we saw those episodic floods in 1993 and 2008 and 2011 along the Missouri River and then again just 8 years later 2019 along the Missouri River. So we're seeing these episodic floods, they're happening more often. We're also seeing these 100 year and 500 year droughts in the same year or within a few years of those same floods. And so we're seeing this cycle of more extreme events. One of the things that we feel very strongly about is that in Iowa of the roughly 25 million acres of ag land that we have in the state 400,000 acres of row crop are in the 2 year floodplain. We need to get out of the 2 year floodplain with row crop production. In 2019 following the devastating floods along the Missouri River, the federal government through USDA provided about $36 million in emergency wetland and wetland reserve program funding for Iowa. In that year in a voluntary program we had over $260 million of acres voluntarily walk into the FSA office and say, pick me. Because the funding was limited in Iowa to $36 million, $224 million of acres of land went right back into production. That is 3,600 acres came out of production, 22,400 acres went right back into production. One of the greatest benefits we could do for flood damage reduction and water quality improvement would be to reduce the amount of agricultural row crop production in the 2 year floodplain. Yepsen: But how do you do that? Do you mandate it? That's not going to fly in the legislature. Weber: Well, in this particular case, I just said we had $260 million of acres came in voluntarily. If we would have been allocated that resource we could have taken 26,000 acres out of production. That would have a huge impact. It stays in private land ownership, they can still use it, they can hunt on it, they can fish on it, they can use it for recreation and wildlife. There's all sorts of better beneficial uses of that land than row crop production. Henderson: Ted Corrigan, David mentioned the state being awash, pardon the pun, in federal stimulus money and there is also a debate at the federal level about infrastructure and included in that is water infrastructure. If your utility is the winner of the lottery and gets money from the federal government for infrastructure, what do you use that money for? Corrigan: It's a great question. It depends on what was eligible. But we have a couple of categories of infrastructure. We have aging infrastructure. We have a bubble of infrastructure that was installed after the war, if you will, that could be replaced. We also have about 20,000 lead service lines in Des Moines that we're dealing with, which we would love to replace, privately owned by the homeowner, but still we would love to use those. We are also in the process now of looking to install shallow ground water resource, radial collector wells, if you will, to help us with the water quality challenges that we face more and more often, a more protected source, a better source to ensure that we can continue. Henderson: Explain what that is. Corrigan: Along the rivers in Iowa in most places there is typically deep deposits of sand and gravel and those sands and gravels are saturated. They are wet. And so some of the best water that we have available to us is in that sand and gravel. We build facilities, shallow wells with laterals that project out into that sand and we can collect that water. It is very clean compared to our surface water resources. Masters: You had said that litigation, not the right way to go right now. You talked about more collaborative efforts in the state to keep the water clean. What do you those collaborative efforts look like? Corrigan: We've got a couple of efforts underway here in Des Moines, one of them that I am particularly pleased with is what we are calling a landowner academy. We have realized that we have literally thousands of customer who drink our water, live in the metro and own ag land up in our water shed. They don't farm it, they lease it to someone else and there is a real opportunity there for them to structure their lease in a way that helps preserve the value of that land, build soil health and at the same time provide conservation in terms of water quality. So that is an initiative that we're working on. We're going to sponsor that. We're working with Peoples Land Management, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Heartland Co-op, jointly to sponsor that in an attempt to change that practice. Henderson: Larry, what do you think? Weber: Yeah, so similar to Ted's comment, in the Iowa Watershed Approach project we're working in eight water sheds from the Upper Iowa all the way down to the East and West Nishnabotna, so from one corner of the state to another. And in that program we work with locals to create a water shed management authority, so they are the group that really defines what goals they want to put into their water shed plan. We then work on a water shed plan and hydrologic assessment. In all those cases we have funding for implementation and so we hire a project coordinator whose job it is to wake up every day and make the water shed a better place. They interact with landowners. We cite farm ponds and wetlands and reconnected floodplains and grade control structure and then we use our monitoring equipment and mathematical models to quantify the benefit of those practices for flood damage reduction and water quality improvement. And so that is a model that has worked for Iowa. It would work for the Raccoon and the Des Moines River water sheds. We have had people from North Carolina and Louisiana and Texas all come to Iowa just to learn more about this Iowa Water Shed Approach. Yepsen: Mr. Corrigan, a few years back you had the Des Moines Water Works was flooded. Criticism was made at the time that the Water Works did not have the infrastructure that it needed to protect against the threat that it faced. Do you have the same problem today on the reverse side of this, you don't have enough infrastructure there to provide all the water that people want and need? You have known for a long time that the Des Moines River was a source, I've heard this talk about building infrastructure off there. Why hasn't that been done and isn't it time to get going on some of that? Corrigan: The cost of building enough infrastructure to ensure that we could provide all of the water that anyone would ever want to irrigate their grass as much as they want in the depths of a drought would be astronomical, hundreds of millions of dollars. So we have taken the approach that we will manage demand in those periods of extreme drought through managing irrigation. And the reason we have take that perspective is that during a drought most people don't want to water their lawns, in fact, most people can't afford to water their lawns during a drought. So those who do choose to and can are demanding enormous quantities of infrastructure that in the off years when it's not a drought we all end up paying for the operation and maintenance of that. We think it's a resource usage issue, it's an equity issue and we have decided to manage based on irrigation. Henderson: I don't know, several weeks ago the State Ag Secretary Mike Naig was on this program and he said that a national group that had qualified two Iowa rivers as endangered or I can't remember that the wording was, he called that propaganda. And so you have folks on one side of this debate about water quality who say criticism of the farming community is propaganda and you have groups like the Farm Bureau very heavily against something called the Waters of the U.S. rule from the Obama administration. Who out there, Ted Corrigan, is able to navigate, bring people together and find some sort of common ground here? Or is this just going to be a fight that is perpetuated? Corrigan: I think if there is anything that ties us together in the state of Iowa it is our rivers. They flow through the countryside, they flow through the urban areas, they flow on out of the state. I've never met a producer, and I have met with a lot of them, who said I don't care about water quality and I don't care if I'm contaminating downstream. I think the answer here is leadership. We really need the state to come to the table and implement the plan that already exists, the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Forget about this voluntary approach, it's too hard, it's unfair. Let's -- Yepsen: Excuse me, I want to let Larry have just a final comment. Weber: Well, it's leadership but not only at our state level, at our federal level. So we need leadership through USDA and through farm policy because any regulations that we put on Iowa farmers should be equally applied to our neighboring states. And so we need leadership in our state but we absolutely need leadership in our federal USDA, farm policy and farm bill. Yepsen: I'm out of time and I apologize for having to cut you off but we're out of time. Thank you both for being with us. And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us. (music) Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.