University of Iowa drinking water exceeds maximum contaminant levels for disinfectant by-products


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Chlorine treatments react with organic matter in waterways to form Total Thihalomethanes, which have been linked to cancer and reproductive problems. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | February 14, 2017

University of Iowa facilities management received notice on February 1 that its drinking water system contains levels of Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM) that exceed the federal drinking water standard.

In an email sent out to University faculty, staff and students on February 9, it was reported that the drinking water tested on average between 0.081 and 0.110 mg/L over the last year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) for TTHM is 0.08 mg/L.

TTHM is a group of four chemicals: chloroform, bromodichloromethane, dibromochloromethane and bromoform. TTHM form when chlorine reacts with natural organic matter like leaves, algae and river weeds in drinking water. In its statement, the University said that more chlorination was necessary this year because higher than usual temperatures led to more organic waste in waterways.

The notice read, “You do not need to use an alternative (e.g., bottled) water supply. Disease prevention specialists with University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics say special precautions are not necessary.”

Chloroform and dibromochloromethane are Class B carcinogens, meaning they have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. TTHM has also been linked to heart, lung, kidney, liver, and central nervous system damage, according to a report by the University of West Virginia.

University officials cautioned, “However, some people who drink water-containing trihalomethanes in excess of the MCL over many years may experience problems with their liver, kidneys, or central nervous system, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer.”

A study by the California Department of Health suggests that even short-term exposure to high TTHM levels in drinking water can have serious consequences for pregnant women. Scientists monitored 5,144 women during their first trimester of pregnancy. Participants who drank five or more glasses of cold home tap water containing 0.075 mg/L or more of TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 15.9 percent. Women that drank less than five glasses per day or who had home tap water with less than 0.075 mg/L TTHM had a miscarriage rate of 9.5 percent.

A reverse osmosis filtration system for the University of Iowa drinking water supply is currently in its design phase. Facilities management expects to have the new system up and running within the next 18 months. Officials say it will help address Iowa’s nitrate problem and filter out naturally occurring organic matter, resulting in fewer TTHM.

Iowa Falls family honored with sustainable agriculture award


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Wetlands can improve water quality and create habitat for wildlife on Iowa farms. (Scott Smithson/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 10, 2017

John and Beverly Gilbert were honored with the 2017 Practical Farmers of Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award at last month’s Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference.

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to “strengthening Iowa farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing.” Each year PFI offers the Sustainable Agricultural Achievement Award to an individual or couple that demonstrates a strong commitment to practicing sustainable agriculture and sharing that knowledge with others, all while fostering community.

John and Beverly Gilbert of Iowa Falls keep a 770-acre farm featuring corn, soybeans, oats, hay, and some annual crops for forage. The family also milks 50 to 60 Brown Swiss cattle and keeps pastured-raised, antibiotic-free pigs that are sold to Niman Ranch.

The Gilberts’ farm borders Southfork stream, a tributary of the Iowa River. They have taken many measures to improve water and soil quality on their land including stream buffers, extensive grass headlands and waterways, and terraces. The farm also features woodland areas, a prairie marsh remnant, and a restored shallow wetland, all a part of the Gilberts’ conservation efforts.

John said, “The mindset has gotten so focused on raising corn and beans that not many understand the potential of this landscape to support people. I have long thought that if we can’t replace the number of people we have farming, there are serious problems ahead for society.”

Wendy Johnson, PFI board member and farmer near Charles City, commended the recognition of the family. She said,

“Their farming system, management and decision-making encompass all that is or should be good about Iowa: its air, water and soil. They protect these elements alongside creating a viable farming business for multiple families. Their farm is what PFI means to me: a sustainable farm on all levels.”

Study finds Iowa groundwater is extracted at unsustainable rate


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The Jordan Aquifer lies beneath most of Iowa; locations with water use permits for tapping into the aquifer are shown above. (Iowa DNR)
Jenna Ladd | February 7, 2017

A recent study found the groundwater in Iowa’s Jordan Aquifer to be much older than previously known, and scientists say that could have implications for water use in the state.

Researchers from the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa in collaboration with Grinnell College, the UI Geology Department and Iowa Department of Natural Resources used isotopic age dating to estimate the age of groundwater in the Jordan Aquifer. The study measured major and minor ions, stable isotopes (d18O and dD) and
the radioactive isotope Chlorine 36 in eight wells scattered across the aquifer. The peer-reviewed journal article explains that the groundwater in northern and central Iowa is somewhere between 70,000 to nearly 180,000 years old.

The study points out that ethanol production in the state relies heavily on groundwater from the Jordan aquifer, which also provides roughly 300,000 residents with drinking water. From 2003 to 2013, annual use of groundwater from the aquifer for ethanol production increased by 7.4 billion liters per year.

Keith Schilling is a research scientist at the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa and the study’s leading author. He said,

“The implications for biofuel refineries and any water use of the aquifer is the realization that the groundwater is very old. It is not going to be recharged in any human timeframes so we should make sure that water from the aquifer is being managed appropriately.”

Beyond the lagging groundwater regeneration rate, the study also notes that increased groundwater pumping can result in detrimental water quality changes such as radium contamination. The authors conclude with a call for new ethanol refineries to steer clear of the Jordan Aquifer and utilize more sustainable groundwater sources instead.

Flint residents sue EPA for $722 million in damages


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Tap water samples used by Virginia Tech University researchers during the Flint Water Study. (Science-based Medicine)
Jenna Ladd | February 2, 2017

Residents of Flint, Michigan are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for allegedly mishandling the city’s lead contamination issue.

The more than 1,700 citizen are seeking $722 million dollars in damages. The plaintiffs argue that the EPA “failed to follow several specific agency mandates and directives” and neglected to determine whether local and state officials were immediately taking steps to address the issue.

The 30-page lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Michigan on Monday. It reads, “This case involves a major failure on all levels of government to protect the health and safety of the public…Local, state and federal agencies and employees, working individually and at times in concert with each other, mismanaged this environmental catastrophe.”

According to the EPA’s own website, lead contamination of drinking water can cause behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia among children. Lead from drinking water can also pass through the placenta resulting in reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth.

The city of Flint, population of 100,000, switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River in 2014, causing lead to leach from the city’s old pipes. A year later, children from Flint were found to have high levels of lead in their blood samples. Researchers from Virginia Tech University concluded that 40 percent of the homes in the predominantly African American city had drinking water that exceeded federal safety limits in September of 2015.

On January 24, 2017, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced that the city’s drinking water tested below the federal limit. Ninety percent of the samples taken contained lead levels of 12 parts per billion or less, well below the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. Still, public health officials recommend that residents continue to use filtered water for cooking and drinking as the city continues to replace its pipes.

This class-action lawsuit follows Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s felony charges against four government officials involved in the public health crisis. In all, 13 current and former government officials have been held accountable for the contamination of Flint’s water.

IowaWatch report encourages Iowans to test private well water quality


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Almost 80 percent of Iowans consume water from groundwater sources like private wells. (Iowa Department of Natural Resources)
Jenna Ladd | January 3, 2017

IowaWatch’s 2016 investigative work titled, “Crisis In Our Wells” is a multiple-part special report which explores Iowa’s rural well water contamination problem.

According to the report, an estimated 288,000 people rely on private wells for their water supplies. However, rural well water quality is not regulated, so many well owners may not know what is in the water they’re drinking. IowaWatch spent much of 2016 testing for nitrogen, bacteria, arsenic and lead in southwest Iowa private wells, and found that a large number had high nitrate and bacteria levels.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health standard for nitrate contamination is 45 milligrams per liter. IowaWatch, which is a nonpartisan, non-profit news organization, tested 28 wells in May and June. Eleven of the tested wells had nitrate levels above 45 milligrams per liter, with one rural home’s water coming in at 168 milligrams per liter. Some wells contained trace amounts of arsenic and lead, while fifteen wells had unsafe bacteria levels.

County sanitarians that perform tests for these contaminants told IowaWatch that they often have trouble convincing homeowners that testing well water is important. Sherry Storjohann is an environmental health specialist that has been testing wells in Crawford and Carroll counties for a quarter century.

Storjohann said, “What’s out of sight is out of mind.” She explained, “I have so many people with hand-dug wells that say they’ve got the best tasting water, the clearest water, the coldest water. Yet, what they realize after they test is just how unsafe that water is.”

Recent research from the University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination found that nitrates in drinking water can lead to birth defects among pregnant women, certain types of cancer and thyroid problems. Bacteria in drinking water is not necessarily harmful to residents but can be a sign that the well is open to outside contaminants such as agricultural runoff, vermin or septic system leaks. The health risks associated with low levels of lead and arsenic are unknown, but the EPA sets those contamination limits at zero.

In 1987, Iowa legislature established the Grants to Counties Program as a part of the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. The program provides funds to county health departments to provide well-related services to residents. All of Iowa’s counties, except for Marshall county, participate in the program. Funds for the program are generated by fertilizer and pesticides taxes and are split equally among counties each year. The money can be used for total nitrate, coliform bacteria as well as arsenic testing in private wells.

Carmily Stone is bureau chief of the Bureau of Environmental Health Services at the Iowa Department of Public Health. She said, “Some counties don’t spend all of their money, and some counties go through their money rather quickly.”

Spending can vary for several reasons. Some counties have more rural water unities while others have more private wells, other counties simply do not have enough public health employees to provide services to everyone. Beginning in 2016, Iowa legislature added a mid-year funding reallocation for those counties that do not spend all of the Grants to Counties money.

Stone said, “We will look at the spending patterns of the counties. If there are counties that have already spent their money, that’s awesome. We want them to spend it all. But if there are counties that still have money left, then we will look at that and say, ‘Okay, how much money is still here?’ If there is quite a bit of money still sitting there, then we will consider a reallocation plan.”

Stone said that those funds leftover are given to counties that have spent all of their money for the year.

Despite the availability of free testing services and health risks associated with contaminated water, environmental health specialist Storjohann said that some people do not consider the issue a priority. Storjohann said that her parents and grandparents never tested their private wells. She said, “They were of the adage: ‘We’ve been drinking it this long, you know. It’s never harmed us.”

Storjohann continued, “I’ve gotten to the point now in the last number of years where I actually send out a personal letter to homeowners trying to explain our services, hoping to generate that interest and make them understand the good service this is and what we can provide and that this is all for their benefit.”

Conservation Reserve Program amended to support new farmers


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Buffer zones curb soil erosion and help to filter nutrients before they enter waterways. (USDA National Agroforestry Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 30, 2016

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has modified a national conservation program in order to support beginning farmers.

Since 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program has paid farmers a yearly rent for removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production. Most contracts last 10-15 years. Previously, if farmers broke the contract early, they were required to return all the rental payments with interest. With the policy change, farmers may now end their contracts early without penalty if they sell or lease the land to a beginning farmer.

Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary Lanon Baccam announced the policy change, which will take effect January 9th, at the Joe Dunn farm near Carlisle in central Iowa. Dunn’s son-in-law, Aaron White, is a beginning farmer on a small acreage near Carlisle.

White said, “I think the biggest obstacle beginning farmers face is land access. This program would help alleviate some of those problems.” Lanon Baccam agreed, he said giving the next generation of farmers a chance at success makes perfect sense.

Signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1985, the Conservation Reserve Program is the largest private-land conservation effort in the country. It is unclear how the program’s stated goal of improving water quality, reducing soil erosion and protecting habitat for endangered species will be effected by putting environmentally sensitive land back into production for beginning famers.

More information about the Conservation Reserve Program in Iowa can be found here.

Report provides inventory of water monitoring efforts in Iowa


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Constructing wetlands is a proven practice that helps to reduce nutrient runoff from agricultural land. (USDA/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 23, 2016

A 2016 report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in partnership with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship summarizes Iowa’s water quality monitoring efforts.

The report, which was also supported by Iowa State University and the University of Iowa IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering Center, provides a complete list of all nutrient-specific water monitoring sites in the state. The first of its kind, it was developed to inform the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy aims to monitor and reduce nutrients delivered to Iowa waterways and subsequently to the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said,

“Iowa has a comprehensive water quality monitoring effort in place that is supported by a variety of partners. Monitoring results were central to identifying the practices highlighted in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and have provided valuable information as we have established priority watersheds. It continues to be an important part of our efforts as we work to increase the pace and scale of practice adoption needed to improve water quality.”

The report outlined all water monitoring efforts according their type and scale:

  • Edge-of-field monitoring
    • Researchers partner with farmers to monitor water quality on the edge of farm fields in order to accurately prioritize nutrient reduction practices.
  • Paired watershed monitoring
    • These are sites wherein the effectiveness of conservation practices are tested on two similar watersheds, one watershed receives intentional conservation measures and the other does not.
  • Large watershed monitoring (950,000 total acres)
    • These sites are either part of University of Iowa’s IIHR – Hydroscience and Engineering management of 45 real-time management stations or Iowa DNR’s 60 statewide sites.
  • Small watershed monitoring (22,500 total acres)
    • Several small watershed monitoring projects are ongoing including 18 established by the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. Many of these projects measure the effectiveness of conservation practices implemented by farmers.

The report also detailed the many challenges associated with nutrient-specific water quality monitoring. Complicating factors can include frequently changing land-use, varying streamflow and precipitation, and a lack of long-term monitoring records.

Iowa DNR director Chuck Gipp said, “While challenges exist, we believe continued nutrient monitoring is critical to understanding what Iowa can do to be successful.” He added, “All partners involved in developing this report know the value of long-term evaluation and are committed to continuing with a science-based approach to nutrient reduction in Iowa waters.”