Two researchers from Colorado State University and University of Arizona compared temperature, precipitation and water volume in the Colorado River basin from 2000-2014 to historical records dating back to 1896. Since 2000, precipitation in region has decreased by 4.6 percent while temperatures have risen 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages. Utilizing existing climate models, the scientists found that the river’s flow should have only decreased by roughly 11.6 percent since the drought began in the area in 2000. Instead, the river’s flow decreased by 19.3 percent due to the effects of global warming, they said.
“Fifteen years into the 21st century, the emerging reality is that climate change is already depleting the Colorado River water supplies at the upper end of the range suggested by previously published projections. Record-setting temperatures are an important and under-appreciated component of the flow reductions now being observed.”
The Colorado River provides drinking water for 40 million people and irrigates 6,300 square miles of agricultural land. Moving forward, the study’s authors said precipitation in the river’s basin would have to increase by 14 percent by the end of the century in order to mitigate the rising temperature’s effects.
Brad Udall of Colorado State University is one of the study’s co-authors. He said, “We can’t say with any certainty that precipitation is going to increase and come to our rescue.”
A recent study shows that when freshwater ponds warm, they release more methane and are able to store less carbon dioxide.
Researchers at the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University of London warmed a collection of man-made ponds by four to five degrees Celsius over the course of seven years. The first of its kind, the study found that the amount of methane released by the ponds increased by double while the amount of carbon dioxide the ponds could store decreased by half.
Professor Gabriel Yvon-Durocher was the study’s lead investigator. He said, “Given the substantial contribution small ponds make to the emission of greenhouse gases, it is vital to understand how they might respond to global warming.”
Yvon-Durocher continued, “Our findings show that warming can fundamentally alter the carbon balance of small ponds over a number of years, reducing their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide and increasing emissions of methane. This could ultimately accelerate climate change.”
The scientist noted that these findings are different than those normally observed on land, where the effect of rising temperatures lessen over time. In contrast, when ponds warm and release methane, a gas that is known to be 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, they actually exacerbate warming.
Ponds of less than one meter, such as those used in the study, are responsible for the release of 40 percent of all inland methane emissions.
The professor noted, “This accelerating effect in ponds, which could have serious impacts on climate change, is not currently accounted for in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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:
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.”
More than 6,000 Iowans have been exposed to drinking water with levels of lead that exceed the 15 parts per billion the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe.
Following the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan this year, EPA began to investigate how states are monitoring and testing for lead in drinking water. According to a report by USA today, an estimated 4 million people live in communities were testing was performed improperly or skipped all together.
Per federal regulation, utilities with more than 50,000 customers must continually take measures to protect against pipe corrosion, which can cause to lead contamination. In contrast, communities with less than 50,000 people can stop protecting against contamination as soon as levels drop below the federal limit. Data from Iowa Department of Natural Resources show that 13 rural water systems in the state exceeded federal limits in the last six months. An additional five utilities failed to test for lead at all over this period of time.
The EPA requires communities with less than 50,000 people to perform 20 lead tests per water system twice per year. If those tests come back normal, the utility is allowed to test much less frequently: 10 tests at 10 separate locations every three years. Some towns with less than 3,000 residents can qualify to test every nine years. Lead contamination in drinking water can cause lowered IQ, irreversible brain damage, behavioral problems and language acquisition delays, particularly for children. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, there have been no reported instances of children with elevated lead levels in their blood in the most recent 20 years.
Richard Valentine, a civil and environmental engineer at the University of Iowa, said, “I don’t think the regulation is adequate.” Valentine continued, “It’s like saying, ‘It’s OK if only 10 percent of your airplanes crash; you’ve got good safety.’ If you’ve got one failure, you’ve got one hundred (more). You’ve got to find out why, where and sample a whole bunch more times and do something about it.”
The town of Kalona was on the reduced-testing plan prior to lead tests performed in the community this September. Two of the ten private homes tested in the town had drinking water with lead levels that were three times higher than the EPA’s 15 parts per billion limit. Kalona must now double the number of lead tests performed on drinking water. Lead levels also exceeded federal limits in Council Bluffs, Shueyville, Churdan, Blue Grass and Livermore.
The EPA announced late last month that it will be reconsidering its lead regulations. Mary Mindrup is head of the EPA’s Region 7 drinking water management branch, which serves Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.
Mindrup said, “The EPA has always been concerned about smaller systems just because the economics are different…than larger systems.” She continued, “But we want to ensure that regardless of the size of system, everybody is receiving water that is safe to drink.”
Mindrup said that the EPA will focus on improving lead management for small rural communities and increasing water infrastructure funding.
The measure would raise the state sales tax three-eighths of one cent in order to finance water quality measures, outdoor recreation areas and wildlife conservation. Representatives from the health organizations said that the trust fund could reduce Iowans’ risk of chronic health problems like diabetes and heart disease. Richard Deming is a Des Moines doctor who founded Above+Beyond Cancer. He said, “Our organization has seen first-hand the health benefits of vibrant outdoor recreation and the importance of a safe, healthy environment for the body’s overall well-being.”
Iowans voted sixty-three percent in favor of establishing the fund in 2010, but lawmakers have failed to provide funding for the initiative. The health organizations have joined a broader coalition of 75 individuals, businesses, outdoor enthusiasts as well as conservation and farm groups called Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy. The coalition is a subgroup of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. Joe McGovern is president of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation. In a statement, McGovern pointed out that the Iowa Republican majority is caucusing this week. He said, “We want I-WILL to be part of the solution to water quality and outdoor recreation.”
Following the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit, Iowa’s Water & Land Legacy has argued that alternative funding proposals focus too much on water quality improvement. The three-eighths of one cent sales tax would generate $180 million each year. Proponents say about 60 percent could go to water quality, and the remaining funds could be used for wildlife habitat, parks, trails and other conservation efforts.