Water Quality and Supply
On this edition of Iowa Press, Ted Corrigan, CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, and David Cwiertny, professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center of Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa, discuss water quality and water supply issues.
Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette and Clay Masters, lead political reporter and host for Iowa Public Radio.
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Improving water quality and having enough water to meet demand. We'll discuss those issues and more with Des Moines Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan and University of Iowa professor David Cwiertny, on this edition of Iowa Press.
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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, October 20th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.
I think we'd all agree that water is life since the human body has about 55 to 60% water. We're going to talk about Iowa's water, the supply, and quality issues with our guests today. Joining us on this edition of Iowa Press are Ted Corrigan. He is the CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works. And David Cwiertny is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa. That's a mouthful. Glad I got through it.
And you did. You did great. Thank you so much for having me.
Thank you both for being here.
It's a pleasure to be here.
Also, joining the conversation, Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.
So, gentlemen, we've had drought conditions in Iowa for an extended period now, and we're seeing as a partial result of that and other factors, some communities are having water supply issues. David Cwiertny we'll start with you. Just from a big picture view. How serious is the issue out there?
So we've been in a pretty long extended period of drought. I think I just looked at the drought monitor, most recently updated. There's about a quarter of the state in extreme drought. It's over on the eastern portion of the state. I think when it comes you're characterizing the challenges correctly. You worry about water supply issues when you're not getting the rainfall to fill the surface waters, which are your lakes and rivers and reservoirs.
And then you worry about groundwater wells that are the aquifers not recharging like they used to, and then wells being strained to be able to draw the demand they need. There are quality implications beyond the quantity implications. You know, with drought usually comes greater warmth and that can lead to different types of contaminants that you have to worry about in your water supply.
I know Des Moines worries a lot about Microsystems that come from nutrients that are more likely to form when you have high temperatures and then, you know, we talk a lot about, you know, climate change driving some of this weather. Climate change and pollution need to be viewed as amplifying stressors that when we have drought, there's less water.
We still have the same types, amounts of chemicals that we're putting into that water, but less water there leads to higher concentrations and sometimes greater need for treatment, which also stresses how water systems need to provide for their communities.
And Ted, I want to come to you, too. But real quick, David, to follow up on that. One of the communities we reported on was Belle Plaine that had a very serious issue and they're now using an emergency well, and the city administrator there told us that they consider themselves the canary in the coal mine, that this could happen anywhere.
Is that your assessment as well?
I think that's fair. I think there was other really good reporting this week by Danielle Eller recently about Osceola, who's looking at using things like indirect potable reuse, where they're going to use treated wastewater to refill the reservoir. It would take years to get to that point because you need rather sophisticated treatment. But I think lots of communities are looking at how they can augment their existing supply or find alternative supplies, which is why we really need to take really good care of the resources we have and not have impaired supplies that then can't work.
There's one other important point, and that's private well users. So Iowa has somewhere around 300,000 Iowans that rely on private wells. Many of those are shallow inside and say the alluvial plains and the rivers and creeks as those start to dry up, then you have homeowners that are on their own because those fall out of most state and federal oversight needing to secure water supplies.
And we hear anecdotal tales of residents in northwest Iowa who have had their wells run dry. And we're just beginning to think about what that means for the quality and the reliability of, well water for private, well consumers.
Ted Corrigan from Des Moines Water Works perspective, how is the water supply issue?
It's something we're certainly keeping an eye on, especially as we're into the fourth year of pretty significant drought. Our entire watershed, which is the area that collects water for the rivers that we use, is in at least abnormally dry conditions. And parts of the watershed are in severe drought. The river is low, the Raccoon River is very low.
But fortunately for us, this time of year, our demand drops off. We're producing about 50 million gallons of water per day. The Raccoon River is still flowing several times that. We have a low head dam that we're able to put up and create a pool, and we're doing okay. In the summertime, we tend to use about twice that much water.
And so if the drought continues to deepen, it could become a challenge for us as we move into high demand periods in the summer and we see lower river flows at the same time. Luckily for us, we've been planning for these kinds of situations for many, many years. We have now an intake on the Des Moines River which gives us a backup to the Raccoon River.
We actually own storage capacity in Saylorville reservoir through an agreement with the state and the Army Corps of Engineers so that if there is extreme drought, we can actually ask for them to release water for our specific use here in the city of Des Moines. But it's something that we need to keep an eye on and we need to manage regionally to ensure that we have the water we need here in central Iowa.
The nutrient reduction strategy has turned ten years old this year, and the nutrient reduction strategy for those not paying attention at home is a plan that was put forward ten years ago by then Governor Terry Branstad, as well as the state, the university, Iowa State University, kind of a list of different things that farmers can do to try to help reduce nitrogen phosphorus runoff from their fields.
We've been looking at it at Iowa Public Radio with a series over the last few weeks, and there was a quote that's resonated with a lot of our listeners that if from Keith Schilling at the University of Iowa saying, if this is a road map, a lot of farmers still have that road map in the glove box as we look at ten years since that was implemented.
Dave, how have you seen water change, if at all?
Yeah. So I appreciate that quote from my colleague Keith. He had a couple of other really good points that this is sort of the water quality we should be expecting for the amount of agricultural intensity we have in the state. And so I'd start by saying that the first thing we need to do is monitor progress based on water quality measurements.
Right. And so using the available data on the ISU dashboards, it doesn't seem to be that we're making significant enough progress, particularly in light of the ultimate goal from the Gulf Hypoxia task force of a 45% reduction by 2035. They also sent an interim goal of 20% by 2025. And so we don't seem to be seeing that. And when you look at, say, the flow weighted nitrogen loads that are leaving, not a lot of change over the periods that's there, even though it's only been updated to about 2021.
You know, there's a few other things that I'd like to say about this is that we need to start thinking about how to have conversations about water quality in Iowa that don't just begin and end with the nutrient reduction strategy. When we take a look at how our water bodies are impaired under the Clean Water Act, the biggest source of impairments for our rivers and streams for recreation is bacteria.
When we look at what our impairments are for our lakes, it's turbidity, which is a measure of the clarity of the water, which incidentally, high turbid water makes it easier for bacteria to thrive. You know, we've got communities that are struggling with nitrate and drinking water, about 60 of them that are vulnerable or so we've got private wells that struggle with nitrate and drinking water.
The nutrient reduction strategy wasn't laid out as a plan on how to ensure safe and sustainable and resilient drinking water supplies. We would probably do something differently if it was about making sure communities like Des Moines didn't have to worry about nitrogen management. So, you know, there is should be urgency here because we're not making the progress we need to be making.
But I think we need to expand the conversation to other challenges that we have and not just, you know, think about what do we need to do to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus. That's important. But more holistically, how do we improve water quality in the state? Because there's plenty of indicators that our water quality is poor.
Ted, how would you come at that as running the largest water department in the state of Iowa?
Well, to answer your fundamental question, we are not seeing changes in source water quality that we can point to and say there. That's the success that we're seeing from the nutrient reduction strategy. But I think David makes a great point, and that is that the nutrient reduction strategy was not developed to try to improve source water quality for drinking water systems.
It's a totally different target that they're shooting at. But from our perspective, there are there's a lot of science in the nutrient reduction strategy that would help improve water quality from a drinking water perspective as well. A lot of practices there, a lot of things that can be done and would help. They're just not being done at the scale that they're going to have to be done.
We're going to have to accelerate the process dramatically if we're going to see any kind of meaningful difference in the next ten or even 20 years from our perspective.
Yeah. I mean, there was a recent study that came out that the Associated Press highlighted that I think in Iowa and other surrounding Corn Belt states, 7% have implemented cover crops.
I mean, that's a very small number. And cover crops are a way of trying to lock more of the nutrients in the soil and so on. So, I mean, just the thing that I hear a lot of just from farmers that don't want to do this is just the amount of red tape or the lack of wanting to try something different.
I guess how do you incentivize something when there is so much kind of pushback on it?
So I think one thing you could look at, there are programs, right? Like you hear a lot about batch and build right now, which is something that started in Polk County, which was looking to try to alleviate some of that red tape. And so if you look at the merits of what they're trying to do with the batch and build, it is about sort of changing the way in which those conservation practices are financed, the money routes through the county.
It's then thinking about how you scale it up to multiple places in the watershed. And so Polk County has been sort of touted. There's a lot of good press around what Polk County has done. It's now been extended through IDALS to other counties. So I think there's ways that you can implement these more quickly and people are demonstrating that now.
I guess I have if you look at that program, a large percentage of what's also paying for that is cost share. I think most of the conservation practices are being paid almost up to 100% through IDALS and maybe county matching funds. And so it's the same old thing that if there's if there's money going in, that's taxpayer money to support these conservation practices.
There should be we should be making sure that they're performing as they should, that we're seeing the returns and water quality. So I think the science is there. It's like what I think Keith Schilling said that as well. It's this isn't an issue of science. It's about adoption. And how do you get folks to change their behavior to adopt more of these?
And I you know, there might be a need for more oversight and regulation, not just giving, you know, cash to do this, to incentivize it.
And for people at home. IDALS is the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, just in case they didn't catch the reference.
Yeah. Ted, anything that you would add to that?
Yeah, absolutely. I think that David's right, trying to incent the programs for making them easier. Where Des Moines Water Works are involved in a number of initiatives, including Polk County's Batch and Build. We're trying to support that and help it expand up into our watersheds. We've also partnered with Polk County in the city of Des Moines and the Department of Agriculture on a cover crop seeding initiative where we actually purchased a cover crop seeding machine and we partnered with a local co-op to begin planning cover crops in our watershed as something that they're trying to build a business model around so that, you know, if we can get the trusted ag retailers to build a business model around a practice that we think will be helpful, that should incent people, farmers, producers to use those practices. We're also looking at a wetland project where we're trying to identify places where wetlands would be possible and appropriate, cut through the red tape, provide the financing, align that for the producers, because it's a challenge if you have to identify the spot on your own property and find the right partner in the federal government and align the funding and pay the cost share yourself and coordinate the construction.
Whereas if we can get to the point where counties are doing that for producers in their county or IDALS or whoever is helping them, I think we could really see an uptick in those practices too.
Ted, you produce water that meets EPA standards and winds up in in my faucet.
There's a discussion about whether those standards should be revised. And we've seen recently a ten year research study from the Nebraska Medical Center that found maybe a correlation between pediatric cancer in Nebraska children and nitrates in the water. What's your view on how those EPA standards should be updated, if at all?
Well, my view as a water utility professional is, is that we need to meet the standards that EPA promulgates. And honestly, we leave it to them to do the science and understand what the implications are and what the standards should be and work with us. I'm not a doctor. I don't have that kind of expertise.
I hesitate to say whether I think the standards should be lower. But what I can say is that we struggle to some degree with meeting the standard at ten milligrams per liter. If it's lowered to five, that's going to be a costly standard for us to meet in a difficult standard for us to meet. And it brings everything that we just talked about really into clear focus that we need to be addressing the nutrient problems in the state of Iowa, so that if that should happen, we're even capable of producing water that would meet that new standard.
Dave We've also seen news stories where Iowa has a cancer rate that is the highest in the country.
Yeah, So I think according we've been talking to the cancer registry a lot at the center that I direct, the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination. I think we're second in the United States behind Kentucky, and we're one of just a few states, maybe only a couple, that has been increasing year on year. And so there has been a lot of interest in sort of what are what's the cause, what's the underlying cause for our poor performance in this in terms of cancer incidence?
I think we're beginning to realize we need to do more in this space to look at available data. It's easy to jump to conclusions that there's this link between the environment and cancer. We really need to look at the available data and do that work. We're beginning to try to do that at the University of Iowa by getting groups like the Cancer Registry, my center, other groups on campus to start trying to put our heads together and see where there might be some need for additional study and to look like what they're doing in Nebraska.
I'll say that on nitrate, you know, there is a good body of literature that's been showing through epidemiological studies. And so that's where you're using sort of looking at community based health and then looking at sort of descriptors in that community like water quality to find associations. That it could be you see things like increased risks of cancer and birth defects, chronic effects from nitrate below ten.
The EPA is now looking at that. There's a new review that's going on that was just reinitiated. It was supposed to be started in 2017 and was put on pause. They'll start looking at nitrate and drinking water and whether there's a need to start accounting for it as potentially a cancer risk.
We talk a lot about the nutrient reduction strategy, but then I think this gets to a point you were making earlier, David, that there's other issues beyond just, you know, nitrogen in Iowa's water. Issues like PFAS and E coli. I was hoping you could kind of shed a little bit of light on those. And start by, because I didn't write that down. Shame on me. What is PFAS?
Okay, so we can start with PFAS. And this is something. I say it PFAS. So it stands for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which is almost as bad as the name of my center. And it's a family of chemicals and so it causes some confusion, we sort of abbreviate the whole family as PFAS. And so this could be I think there's 4 to 5000 chemicals that we know about that are just made up of a particular group of chemicals, carbon and fluorine.
And what we now are learning about it is that that's a very stable combination. It just doesn't break down. So they get referred to as forever chemicals. But we built these chemicals this way because they bring favorable properties. So they're used in a lot of like nonstick pans and water repellent clothing and anti, you know, Scotchgard and things like that.
It's also used in a lot of firefighting foams. And so one of the first places we started seeing in Iowa challenges with PFAS was around our Air National Guard bases. And so Des Moines had an issue, Sioux City out on the west portion of the state. We also had been doing work at my center looking near airports and private wells and the eastern Iowa airport.
We'd been sampling south of there and found a cluster of wells that has high levels. The long and the short of why we care about them is they're problematic for a variety of public health reasons down at really low levels, probably lower than we've ever regulated anything before to what we call nanograms per liter levels. Whereas when we talk of nitrate, we're talking of milligram per liter levels.
And so several orders of magnitude less. We're going to have communities that are affected by this. And we've been trying to bang the drum that I think there's going to be a lot of private wells and near areas like landfills, airports, firefighting training stations that we need to be trying to do outreach to to help them test and get access to treatment, because I think there'll be vulnerabilities there that won't have the capacity of, say, like a Des Moines water works to address the problem if they find it.
Yeah. Ted, I want to ask you about a story that's been circulating the last several years just with the Central Iowa Water Works. The Des Moines Water Works is looking to partner with other suburbs in the area. We've seen Altoona and Bondurant, two Des Moines suburbs, back out of this idea. Where do things stand with that and what does that say when there are two metro suburbs that don't want to be a part of it?
You know, we've been working on this for a number of years. It's basically a cooperative governmental entity that will manage source treatment and transmission of drinking water for the metro area. And the last couple of years, we've been working pretty diligently on a agreement that would allow the 13 communities that purchase water wholesale from Des Moines Water Works to partner together and collectively oversee that operation.
We're very close. We actually have asked communities in the Metro to pass what we call a we're calling a resolution of intent here before the end of November. Already, Ankeny, Clive, Polk City and Des Moines Water Works have passed that resolution of Intent. Bondurant and Altoona have decided that it's better for them to produce their own water. And that's fine.
They have different circumstances than most of the other communities here in the Metro, but we're hopeful that we will see all of the other communities who are potential members pass that resolution of intent here in November and then either near the end of the year or early next year, they'll the agreement will be ready, will be executed by all those communities.
And really, that's the beginning. There's a lot of work to do there before it actually gets up and running as an entity. But I think we'll see Central Iowa Water Works come to be.
What's in it for the consumer?
You know, a lot. The three primary reasons we're doing this relate to best management of the available water resources. And we just talked about that in terms of drought. It's so much better for us to manage these available water resources cooperatively and collectively than to start fighting over them. Number two is fairest and most equitable distribution of the costs.
If we build it together, we can build it bigger, which is cheaper, and we can all share the costs savings there. And the third reason is resiliency. We currently have a network that has three treatment plants that are all connected together by a grid. That grid supplies water to all of the communities who purchase water from Des Moines Water Works.
If we build that build upon that, we can make an either even stronger system as opposed to individual communities building their own independent treatment plants that have to stand alone and have to provide the water that they need without the much larger system to support it.
So much to talk about, just real quickly. A lot of small towns need to improve their wastewater treatment plants. What do they do? Because it's really hard to get grants or, you know, a consumer base that can handle the enormous cost of those.
So many various challenges that those smaller communities have. But that's a perfect example of why we want to build a regional system. We want to come together. In Des Moines, we've already done it on the wastewater side, also. Here, what we're doing in Des Moines is trying to do that on the drinking water side to benefit everyone. Those smaller communities have real challenges when they don't have that opportunity to partner with other communities.
Just a couple of minutes left here, gentlemen. We have a data center in the state that is a huge water user. We have pipelines that are being proposed, carbon capture pipelines, that would be huge water users if they were to come to be. And there's myriad projects in various stages of approval there. I'm just curious, David Cwiertny, with these huge water users, is that a sustainable thing long term? I mean, we're talking about water supply issues already and we have these things that a lot of people think are good for Iowa in a lot of ways. But does it concern you?
Sure. I think, you know, I think the future is be getting less and less predictable. Right. I think when we think about changes that are coming due to climate change and not being able to rely on resources we once had and grew very comfortable with and built infrastructure around, you read a lot about the data hubs and the volume they use and they're using that and cooling primarily, but that's still going to become an issue because the water is usually leaving warmer than it is when it comes out.
And even if they put it back in the environment, it's been altered. And we know that warmer water holds less oxygen to support ecosystems and cooler water. And so there will be challenges in quality for it. They will certainly be challenges in quantity. I think we need to be thinking holistically about how we prioritize our water use in a watershed, how we think about making the best of sharing available resources and managing it cooperatively.
And we need to have an eye towards a future that's uncertain, unfortunately. We need to account for the fact, you know, when I moved here in 2011, I moved here from Southern California. I did research on water reuse, and everyone was like, you won't need to do that here. You're in a water rich state. And I think we're finding that those norms that conventional wisdoms aren't really holding up in the reality of what we're seeing with the extended drought.
I want to touch really quickly here, too, just on there was a lot of news around the water sensor network with the legislature last session. Where do things stand with that right now and how can people use that tool?
So I'm not directly affiliated with the sensor network. It's managed by IIHR, which is an institute that I'm affiliated with. I know that some funding was made available through some agreements with Iowa State where to maintain the sensor network for i believe this year and I'm assuming it's a fiscal year, so we'll be able to deploy it again starting next year.
I think beyond that, I don't know that the future is entirely certain. I know that we're working hard to find opportunities to maintain it, and if anything, I'd be advocating for expanding monitoring and not decreasing it. Not only do we need to do a good job of tracking how we're doing on nitrogen, there's a lot more we need to be monitoring for. The chemicals, the bacteria, other things that we could be collecting a much more holistic picture of our water quality challenges.
We have many more questions, but we are out of time for this discussion today. Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us.
It's a pleasure.
Thank you for having us.
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