Midwest drinking water quality symposium draws large crowd


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The symposium’s attendees included students, state legislators, water utility workers, environmental and public health representatives and farmers. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 18, 2017

Approximately 150 people gathered at Drake University in Des Moines for the “Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest-A Symposium” on September 21 and 22. Sponsored by several University of Iowa centers including the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (EHSRC), Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), and the UI Public Policy Center, the event featured thirteen speakers.

Four plenary discussions about topics such as the health impacts of nitrate in drinking water, how to communicate with the public about water quality, unregulated contaminants in drinking water and more.

Complete PowerPoint presentations from the symposium’s presenters can be accessed here.

Drainage districts have power to improve water quality


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One-third Iowa cropland is a part of a tile drainage system, which are regulated by drainage districts. (USGS)
Jenna Ladd | October 12, 2017

A new report out of a non-partisan Iowa City-based research center, Iowa Policy Project, states that drainage districts have the power to improve water quality in the state.

About one-third of cropland in Iowa is tiled for drainage. Agricultural drains channel water, which often carries heavy nitrate loads, from fields into local water waterways. Iowa’s nitrate runoff is a primary contributor to the growing Dead Zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Researchers Sarah Garvin, Michael Burkart and David Osterberg recommended using Iowa’s “quasi-governmental” drainage districts an agent of change. The report explains that the districts have the statutory authority to mitigate nitrate runoff by “requiring water quality monitoring and reporting, wetland conservation and restoration, and mandating the installation of bioreactor at discharge points to reduce nitrate loads.”

The report also points out that under statutory mandate, drainage should be “a public benefit and conducive to the public health, convenience and welfare.” Nitrate levels in water at or below the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 10 mg/L is considered safe for consumption. However, some new research suggests that nitrate levels below this can pose some health threats. In either case, the report reads,”Public health and welfare should be interpreted to mean keeping our waterways free of nitrate pollution.”

David Osterberg, lead energy and environment researcher at Iowa Policy Project, said, “It’s going to require managers of drainage districts to step up at a time when their county supervisors cannot, even if they wanted to, and at a time the state legislature has stood in the way of local authority on industrial agriculture.” He added, “In this case, with drainage districts, the authority to take some steps already exists.”

The executive summary and the full report can be found here.

2017 Iowa Water Year summary released


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The Iowa DNR recently released the 2017 Water Year summary. (Dirklaudio/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 10, 2017

The 2017 Water Year came to an end recently according to a report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The “water year” runs from September 30th through October 1st. Overall, the 2017 water year has been drier and a bit warmer than usual. The statewide precipitation average was about 32 inches, which is roughly 3.28 inches less than usual. Precipitation was around average during the winter months, but fell below normal during the summertime.

Temperatures in the state averaged 50.7 degrees Fahrenheit, which made 2017 the fourth warmest year on the Iowa DNR’s 144 year record. While temperatures were mostly typical during the growing season, they were higher than usual for most of the winter months. This year brought the second warmest November and the third warmest February on record.

The complete 2017 Water Year summary can be viewed here.

Solutions presented for nitrate runoff at Iowa Ideas conference


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Cover crops like rye and clover are alternatives for fall tilling. (Chesapeake Bay Program/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 28, 2017

Experts in fields from agriculture, energy and environment, higher education and healthcare gathered in Cedar Rapids for The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas Conference September 21 and 22.

The two day conference was presented as an opportunity “to connect with fellow Iowans and develop solutions for key issues facing our state.”

Dr. Chris Jones, a University of Iowa researcher and CGRER member proposed one solution that would reduce nitrate runoff in Iowa’s waterways by 10 to 20 percent within one year. The IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering research engineer stated that Iowa farmers should avoid planting crops on flood plains and stop tilling their land in the fall because it makes soil more susceptible to erosion if they want to see a reduction in nutrient runoff.

According to a report in The Gazette, Jones said, “It’s difficult for me to understand why these things continue. If we could do those two things, we would have a 10 to 20 percent reduction in one year.”

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reports that there has been a 6 million acre increase in no-till farmland since 1987.

Chris Jones further discusses the science behind nitrate pollution and what it means for Iowa’s natural resources in episode one of Iowa Environmental Focus’ Nitrate Series.

Drinking water symposium in Des Moines poses tough questions


Jenna Ladd | September 22, 2017

Government officials, college faculty, students of all ages, legislators, farmers and concerned citizens were among the 170 attendees at the Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest, a symposium held at Drake University Thursday and Friday.

Organized by the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, the one-and-a-half day event featured seventeen speakers from across the country and the state of Iowa.

The hypoxic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico grew larger than ever before this year, totaling 8,766 square miles, an area equal to the size of New Jersey. It is well known that nitrate runoff from agricultural fields is largely responsible for rendering this part of the Gulf unable to sustain aquatic life, but how does nitrate in our water affect the humans that are drinking it?

Citing past and current studies, Dr. Mary Ward of the National Cancer Institute noted that while nitrate itself is not a carcinogen per say, it does interact with compounds in the body to create nitroso compounds, which are known carcinogens. Nitroso compounds have been found to be carcinogenic in 39 animal species including all nonhuman primates, even when nitrate concentration in drinking water is less than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L), which is the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for nitrate in drinking water.

The Iowa Women’s Health Study, which monitors the health of 42,000 post-menopausal Iowa women—most of whom drink municipal drinking water—found that women who drank water with elevated nitrate levels for a prolonged period of time had twice the risk of ovarian and bladder cancer. There are some protective measures consumers can take to reduce the likelihood that nitrate will become a carcinogenic once in the body. Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits that are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants can block the formation of cancerous nitroso compounds.

Scientists can also say with confidence that nitrate pollution in drinking water significantly increases the likelihood that pregnant women will give birth to babies with neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, according to Dr. Jean Brender, professor emeritus at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. Dr. Brender also presented findings that suggested an association between nitrate pollution and children born with cleft palates and limb deficiencies during Thursday morning’s plenary session.

A common thread between most nitrate and human health impact studies is that researchers notice adverse public health effects even when nitrate concentration are at 5 mg/L, which is half of the EPA’s 10 mg/L action level.

After lunch, retired director of the Iowa City Water Department, Ed Moreno, provided the perspective of the water utilities, who work to remove contaminants and provide safe drinking water costing an average of just $0.004 per gallon. Moreno emphasized that drinking water treatment is an increasingly technical process that can be difficult to communicate to the public. With so many health risks related to the consumption of drinking water contaminants, who’s responsibility is it to communicate drinking water quality risks to the public?

Moreno said much of the responsibility lies with the public utility, however, he said, “Explaining the risk is a challenge for us. We need partners, public health people, people who are going to say it like it needs to be said,” Moreno added with a chuckle, “We’re engineers, you know.”

Dr. David Cwiertney, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, highlighted the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online, or ECHO, an online database that allows citizens to check their community utility’s compliance with federal environmental regulations free of charge. Cwiertney said, “We should be doing better community education about the resources they have. The internet is a wonderful thing.”

Aside from nitrate pollution, experts in disinfectant byproducts, blue green algae blooms, neonicotinoids, and endocrine disruptors shared their drinking water research at the symposium.

Thursday began with a keynote address from Neil Hamilton, professor of law at Drake University. Hamilton detailed Iowa’s rich history as a nationwide leader in environmental and water quality policy, dating back to the work of Ada Hayden and Aldo Leopold in the beginning of the 20th century. After state legislators failed for the seventh year in a row to approve funding for voter-approved water quality improvement measures, even as Iowans are exposed to heightened risks for cancer and birth defects without it, Hamilton’s closing question echoed loudly in the Drake University conference room, “Has our legacy of leadership become an ephemeral gully of inaction?”

Petition to regulate Iowa’s animal feeding operations denied


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Large livestock feeding operations often result in poorer water quality in nearby waterways. (Waterkeeper Alliance, Inc./flickr)
Jenna Ladd| September 20, 2017

A petition to make it more difficult to build animal feeding operations in the state of Iowa was shot down this week by the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission.

At present, applicants seeking to construct livestock facilities must meet only 50 percent of the state’s master matrix of rules and regulations pertaining to the structures. The petition, filed by two environmental groups, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch, requested that applicants meet at least 86 percent of the matrix’s requirements.

The groups argued that more strict regulation would protect residents living nearby livestock facilities from water pollution and odor. Iowa Department of Natural Resources sided with the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission and recommended against passing the petition. Noah Poppelreiter, an attorney with Iowa DNR, said that the request “goes too far” and would likely be overturned in the court system to the Des Moines Register.

The current animal feeding operation master matrix was developed fifteen years ago by state lawmakers.

Tarah Heinzen, an attorney for Iowa Food & Water Watch, said to the Register, “This vote against strengthening the master matrix is a vote for increasing Big Ag’s profits at the expense of Iowans’ health and environment.” 1,500 Iowans wrote in expressing their support for the petition.

Proponents of the petition pointed out that just two percent of applicants are denied permission to construct livestock feeding operations, which often result in poor water quality in nearby waterways. Last year, 810 water quality impairments in 610 bodies of water were reported in Iowa.

After turning down the petition, Iowa Environmental Protection Commissioner Joe Riding suggested its authors write letters to Gov. Kim Reynolds and legislative leaders asking them to change the matrix.

Potential for nanomaterials to solve environmental problems


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Nanotechnologies are being developed to harvest carbon dioxide and remove heavy metals, pictured above, from water sources. (ETH Zurich)
Jenna Ladd| September 15, 2017

In exciting new research, scientists from around the world are working to develop nanomaterials that can efficiently harvest carbon dioxide from the air and convert it into another useful product.

Nanomaterials are defined as those materials that are smaller than one millionth of a millimeter, or about 100,000 times smaller in width than a human hair.  Arun Chattopadhyay is a chemist at theIndian Institute of Technology Guwahati’s Center for Nanotechnology. “Nanomaterials can convert carbon dioxide into useful products like alcohol. The materials could be simple chemical catalysts or photochemical in nature that work in the presence of sunlight,” he said to Climate Central.

The trouble is, nanomaterials are not yet inexpensive enough for wide-scale application. To this point, Chattopadhyay added, “Nanomaterials could help us mitigate pollution. They are efficient catalysts and mostly recyclable. Now, they have to become economical for commercialization and better to replace present-day technologies completely.”

Researchers in France have developed a nanomaterial that uses sunlight and water to transform atmospheric CO2 into methanol. Although this type of nanomaterial may present a cheaper option, scientists are still struggling to create the particles at a consistent size.

Other types of nanomaterials are being developed to remove heavy metals and dyes from wastewater, clean up oil spills and breaking down organic waste more quickly.