Archive for the ‘Water Quality’ Category

April 22, 2016

On Earth Day, Des Moines Water Works Reflects on Resources Spent to Manage Agrotoxins in Source Waters

This Earth Day, as nitrate concentrations in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers continue to rise, Des Moines Water Works reflects on the vast resources spent to manage the persistent agrotoxins in the waters of the state.

Des Moines Water Works continues to meet and exceed regulatory requirements for safe drinking water for 500,000 central Iowa customers; however, not without a cost to our ratepayers.  In 2015, Des Moines Water Works operated its Nitrate Removal Facility for a record-setting 177 days, surpassing the previous record of 106, set in 1999.  Due to the significant costs to operate the facility and the rising nitrate concentration in Des Moines’ source waters, Des Moines Water Works has also invested a significant amount of capital funds in projects for natural nitrate removal or avoidance:

  • The natural denitrification strategies include Water Works Park ponds, former gravel pits near Des Moines Water Works’ L.D. McMullen Water Treatment Plant, and most recently, a constructed wetland pilot project in Water Works Park.  If the one-acre pilot wetland is successful, Des Moines Water Works will consider converting a large portion (up to 80-acres) of Water Works Park into constructed wetlands, with the goal of providing natural denitrification, and ultimately protecting the health of our customers.

In this natural process, nitrate is consumed and converted to nitrogen gas by the life processes of microorganisms.  Although the ultimate source of water is the Raccoon River, this approach maximizes the time the water is in off-river storage and allows the nitrate concentration in the river water to be reduced via biological reduction.

  • To avoid high nitrate water in a particular source water, Des Moines Water Works has also invested capital funds for projects that provide access to water with very little nitrate levels – Aquifer Storage and Recovery (ASR) wells – or water with lower nitrate concentration – Des Moines River – that can be blended with other water sources in order to meet drinking water quality standards.

Des Moines Water Works’ two ASR wells (a third one is currently being constructed) store finished water in wells for distribution to customers at a later date. Although originally developed to smooth out spikes in treatment demand during high customer demand periods, the ASR wells have been utilized to meet customer demand during high nitrate levels.

The Des Moines River Intake facility was constructed to provide additional raw water supply for the Fleur Drive Water Treatment Plant. With the Saylorville Reservoir upstream from the intake, the nitrate concentration in the Des Moines River is almost always lower than the Raccoon River. Access to the Des Moines River provides Des Moines Water Works with another lower nitrate water supply option that was not available prior to construction of this facility.

  • Des Moines Water Works’ newest treatment plant – Saylorville Water Treatment Plant – uses reverse osmosis membranes that removes nitrate from the water, without the use of a side-stream nitrate removal facility.

Ultimately, the best way to reduce nitrate concentration in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers is nutrient management on farms and watershed protection to prevent agrotoxins from directly entering surface waters.  Des Moines Water Works follows this concept by practicing agricultural best management practices on 100 acres of leased farm land on Maffitt Reservoir property, including the use of cover crops and adjusted rental rates for the tenant to install conservation practices.

Des Moines Water Works remains vigilant in protecting the source waters that produce drinking water for central Iowans.  On this Earth Day and every day, Des Moines Water Work is committed to producing water you can trust for life, even with adverse water quality conditions.  Des Moines Water Works asks all Iowans to Think Downstream.

Posted by: Laura Sarcone No Comments
Labels: , , , , , Posted in Source Water, Water Quality January 18, 2016

Water Quality Monitoring and Public Data

As consumers, we think of “nutrients” as something good and even necessary to support maximum crop yields.  But pollution occurs when the amount of nutrients present or applied to land are more than can be used by plants.  Excess nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) that are discharged into our water are wasted resources and pose significant, costly risks to human health and the environment, both here in Iowa and the Gulf of Mexico.

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Des Moines Water Works is required to meet the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s standards for the maximum contaminate level (MCL) in its finished drinking water. The MCL standard for nitrate (a form of nitrogen) is 10 mg/L (or 10 parts per million).  The health risks associated with nitrate contamination above MCL include Methaemoglobinemia, or also known as “blue baby syndrome,” where infants under six months of age who consume water over 10 mg/L may lose the ability to transport oxygen. It is unknown how higher nitrate levels affect the broader population, but researchers are studying potential impacts.  When nitrate concentrations in Des Moines Water Works’ source waters (Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers) are above 10 mg/L, the utility must operate a costly nitrate removal facility in order to meet the Safe Drinking Water Standard for its finished drinking water.  In addition to public health risks to drinking water, nitrate pollution also contributes to the hypoxic conditions in public waters, including the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone.”

Water Quality

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was introduced in 2012 with a stated goal to eventually reduce the state’s contribution of nutrients in rivers, streams and lakes by 45%.  However, in order to see those results many things need to happen – including agricultural accountability, effective monitoring and sustained funding.

Source water quality is a vital interest of Des Moines Water Works, which has been increasingly threatened by agricultural pollution.  Because of this interest, Des Moines Water Works is pleased to recognize progress in water quality research and monitoring of Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams, by initiatives currently being developed by the IIHR – Hydroscience and Engineering program at the University of Iowa, headed by Dr. Larry Weber.  IIHR has been a worldwide leader in hydrology and fluids-related research for nearly a century.  The IIHR is focused on science-based research, independent of Iowa Board of Regents’ bias.

Research at IIHR includes a network of 28 water quality monitoring sites throughout Iowa. State-of-the-art remote sensors provide near real-time data (every 15 minutes), that measure nitrate, dissolved oxygen, water temperature, specific conductance, and pH.  Researchers at IIHR have also developed an easy-to-use web platform, the Iowa Water-Quality Information System (IWQIS), to disseminate and interpret the sensor data.  IWQIS displays near real-time data on nitrate and other water-quality variables from in-stream sensors across Iowa in a user-friendly interface.  This new information makes it possible for all interested Iowans to use a science-based approach when making decisions that affect water quality.  Des Moines Water Works encourages citizens to visit http://iwqis.iowawis.org to view this interactive tool containing real-time water conditions and historical data.

wqi-map2 2

IIHR’s monitoring network will expand to 55 sites in 2016. Coverage will include all the state’s major rivers. For the first time, water quality researchers will be able to quantify many important parameters, including the total amount of nitrate leaving Iowa via the state’s rivers and the effectiveness of specific nitrate mitigation efforts.

Des Moines Water Works remains committed to protecting Iowa’s water by holding agriculture accountable for environmental protection, just like any other business who discharges into Iowa’s waterways.  The water quality monitoring and public data collected and compiled by IIHR and presented by the IWQIS are important steps to assess the condition of Iowa’s waterways, quantify the effectiveness of water quality efforts, and track progress toward meeting water quality improvement goals.  Please support IIHR’s leadership in science-based environmental protection.

 

Posted by: Laura Sarcone No Comments
Labels: , , , , Posted in Water Quality December 1, 2015

Reacting to What’s Flowing Down the River

Cyanobacteria, commonly referred to as blue-green algae, are a serious problem in surface water sources in the United States, including Iowa.  Cyanobacteria grow and multiply quickly where there are high nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) in warm, calm waters.  Blooms create blue to green murky water, visible surface scum and a foul odor. The blooms can spread across the water but tend to accumulate in shoreline areas.

IMG_5714{Cyanobacteria bloom at Big Creek State Park. Photo courtesy of Iowa Environmental Council

While algae blooms are a nuisance, certain forms of blue-green algae can also produce toxins that can make humans and animals sick.  The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitors state park beaches weekly in the summer for the toxin microcystin that is produced by some forms of blue-green algae common in Iowa. Warnings are posted when microcystin exceeds 20 parts per billion (ppb), a guideline established by the World Health Organization for recreational waters. Contact with water with more than 20 ppb of microcystin represents a risk of cyanotoxin associated illnesses including breathing problems, stomach upset, skin reactions, and even liver damage. Inhaling water droplets containing microcystin can cause runny eyes and nose, cough and sore throat, chest pain, asthma-like symptoms or allergic reactions. Pets and other animals that swim or drink the water can be exposed to deadly levels of microcystin.  This year has been favorable for cyanobacterial blooms, with high nutrients and warm waters. Iowa Department of Natural Resources posted a record 34 warnings at state park beaches with high levels of microcystin.

It is important to note that while DNR monitors state park beaches for this toxin, the problem is not isolated to these lakes. Many other public and private beaches not monitored by DNR are also susceptible to blue-green algae blooms.

Cyanobacteria are also known for causing taste and odor problems in drinking water for utilities that use surface water.  When cyanobacteria counts rise, there is greater potential for the presence of cyanotoxins, which raise health concerns related to the liver, nervous system and gastrointestinal system.  Last year, the City of Toledo, Ohio, issued a “do not drink” order. The municipal ban left approximately 500,000 Toledo and Michigan residents without drinking water for three days, which was contaminated by a toxin produced by an algae bloom in Lake Erie.

Currently there is not a federal standard for blue-green algae or their toxins in drinking water; however, a growing number of states are introducing their own guidelines and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has named cyanotoxins as a candidate for federal regulation with recently published guidelines.

Historically, Des Moines Water Works had to send cyanotoxin samples to a laboratory in Florida, and wait up to three days for results.  As a result of the events in Toledo, Ohio, recently released EPA guidelines for cyanotoxins, and the increasing occurrence of cyanobacteria blooms in source waters, Des Moines Water Works has begun a more aggressive testing regimen for the presence of harmful cyanotoxins when elevated cyanobacteria levels are present in raw water sources.  Des Moines Water Works recently invested in instrumentation that will allow staff to monitor for microcystin and cylindrospermospin, per EPA recommendations, as well as two additional known cyanotoxins – Anatoxin and Saxitoxin. Des Moines Water Works now routinely samples three times per week during the warmer months of the year, and more frequently when necessary.

With increased monitoring, Des Moines Water Works has detected cyantoxins in our raw water sources.  While the presence of cyanotoxins has been detected in our raw water sources, the treatment processes have adequately prevented the toxins from reaching finished drinking water.  Des Moines Water Works staff treats for unfavorable tastes, odors, and toxins by dispersing powdered activated carbon throughout the water during the presedimentation phase of treatment.  Chlorination of the water also helps remove or destroy bad tastes, odors, and cyanotoxins.

Strategic water treatment, testing, and federal regulation of cyanotoxins are worthy, but a remedy at the source of the contaminant is more urgent. The only viable option to curtail the presence of algae that causes toxins to infiltrate our drinking water is changing upstream land practices, notably industrial agricultural production.

Short of meaningful and measurable water quality improvements in Iowa, Des Moines Water Works, and all Iowans who wish to enjoy water recreation, have no control of algal and cyanotoxins in the Raccoon or Des Moines Rivers, and must react to what flows into the river intakes. The presence of both elevated cyanobacterial levels and related cyanotoxins in Iowa’s lakes and rivers is another reminder of deteriorated water quality in the state of Iowa – forcing water utilities and water recreation enthusiasts to be on alert.

Posted by: Laura Sarcone No Comments
Labels: , , , , , Posted in Source Water, Water Quality July 13, 2015

Proper Disposal of Prescription Drugs

pill-bottleProper disposal of prescription drugs is important to water quality.  Unwanted  prescription drugs thrown down the drain or toilet can end up in water ways, potentially harming aquatic life, recreational activities and the quality of source water used for your drinking water.

Additionally, leftover medications are highly susceptible to diversion, misuse, and abuse. Studies show that a majority of abused prescription drugs are obtained from family and friends, including from the home medicine cabinet.

Always refer to printed material accompanying your medication for specific instructions; however disposal methods can include:

  • Drop-off at an Iowa Pharmacy Association TakeAway location. Visit www.iarx.org/takeaway to find a participating TakeAway pharmacy.
  • Take unused medications to the Polk County Sheriff’s Office drug drop off box in the field headquarters’ lobby, located at 6023 NE 14th Street, Des Moines.
  • Dispose in the garbage by adding something to the medication to make it unusable or unpalatable (kitty litter to liquid medications, glue to pills, etc.). Package in an obscure container or non-transparent bag and place it in the trash.

 

Posted by: Laura Sarcone No Comments
Labels: , , , , , Posted in Water Quality June 1, 2015

2015 Consumer Confidence Report

Des Moines Water Works is committed to delivering safe, affordable and abundant drinking water to our customers. Safe drinking water is treated water that has been tested for harmful and potentially harmful substances and has met or exceeded drinking water quality standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the State of Iowa. The EPA sets drinking water standards to define the limits of contaminants considered safe for drinking water. These levels are based on studies of the health effects associated with each contaminant and include a sufficient safety margin to ensure that water meeting these standards is safe for nearly everyone to drink. The Consumer Confidence Report is an annual water quality report that helps customers understand the quality and safety of tap water provided by Des Moines Water Works. The current Consumer Confidence Report is now available at: http://www.dmww.com/upl/documents/library/2015ccr.pdf. If you would like a printed copy of the Consumer Confidence Report mailed to you or have any questions about your drinking water, please contact a Customer Service Representative at (515) 283-8700.

Posted by: Laura Sarcone No Comments
Labels: , , , Posted in About Us, Customer Service, Water Quality May 5, 2015

Clean Water Act Litigation FAQ

Drainage DistrictA major conduit of nitrate pollution in the Raccoon River watershed is the artificial subsurface drainage system infrastructure, such as those created and managed by drainage districts. Des Moines Water Works recently filed a federal complaint against the Boards of Supervisors of Sac County, Buena Vista County, and Calhoun County, in their capacities as trustees of 10 drainage districts, for the discharge of nitrate pollutants into the Raccoon River.

Why is Nitrate Pollution a Problem?

  • Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Des Moines Water Works is obligated to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards for the maximum contaminate level (MCL) in its finished drinking water. The MCL standard for nitrate is 10 mg/L. The health risks associated with nitrate contamination above MCL include blue baby syndrome and endocrine disruption. In addition to public health risks to drinking water, nitrate pollution also contributes to the hypoxic conditions in public waters, including the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone.”
  • Des Moines Water Works’ mission is to provide safe, abundant and affordable water to our customers. While Des Moines Water Works has invested millions of dollars in capital infrastructure and has developed strategies to manage high nitrate levels, record nitrate peaks in source waters have threatened and continue to threaten the security of the water supply and the ability of Des Moines Water Works to deliver safe and reliable water, while operating with fiscal discipline.
  • The current denitrification technology is outdated and cannot continue to operate with rising nitrate levels and increased customer demand. Continued high nitrate concentrations will require future capital investments of $76-183 million to remove the pollutant and provide safe drinking water to a growing central Iowa.

Why a Lawsuit?

  • Des Moines Water Works filed a complaint in Federal District Court – Northern District of Iowa, Western Division, on March 16, 2015.
  • The complaint seeks to declare the named drainage districts are “point sources,” not exempt from regulation, and are required to have a permit under federal and Iowa law.
  • The complaint states that the drainage districts have violated and continue to be in violation of the Clean Water Act and Chapter 455B, Code of Iowa, and demands the drainage districts take all necessary actions, including ceasing all discharges of nitrate that are not authorized by an National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit.
  • In addition, damages are demanded to Des Moines Waters to compensate for the harm caused by the drainage districts unlawful discharge of nitrate, assess civil penalties, and award litigation costs and reasonable attorney fees to Des Moines Water Works as authorized by law.
  • Des Moines Water Works’ mission is to provide safe, abundant and affordable water to our customers. Des Moines Water Works is fighting for the protection of customers’ right to safe drinking water. Through this legal process, Des Moines Water Works hopes to reduce long-term health risks and unsustainable economic costs to provide safe drinking water to our customers, via permit and regulation of drainage districts as pollutant sources.
  • Continued insistence from state leaders that the voluntary approach of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is working does not give solace to the 500,000 central Iowans who must now pay to remove pollution from their drinking water.

Why Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun Counties?

  • Buena Vista, Calhoun, and Sac Counties are in the Des Moines Lobe. There are hundreds of drainage districts in these three counties. Under Iowa law, drainage districts are responsible for constructing, administering, and maintaining drainage infrastructure. Within each drainage district, a network of pipes and ditches move groundwater and agricultural pollutants quickly into our drinking water sources.
  • Recent water monitoring by Des Moines Water Works at 72 sample sites in Buena Vista, Sac, and Calhoun Counties have shown nitrate levels as high as 39.2 mg/L in groundwater discharged by drainages districts. This is 4 times the federally required Safe Drinking Water regulatory limit of 10 mg/L.
  • Laws require that “point sources” discharging into rivers must have permits under the NPDES.  Because drainage districts transport nitrate pollution through a system of channels and pipes, they should be recognized and held accountable like every other “point source” contributor. NPDES permits have been successful nationwide in controlling pollution caused by industrial waste and sanitary sewer discharge.
Posted by: Laura Sarcone No Comments
Labels: , , , , , Posted in About Us, Board of Trustees, Public Policy, Source Water, Water Quality March 17, 2015

Water Quality at Home: “Cloudy Water”

Cloudy WaterThroughout the year, Des Moines Water Works receives calls from customers who say their tap water appears milky white or cloudy. In the majority of cases, the cloudy water is caused by harmless air bubbles, but sometimes it can indicate a plumbing issue. Fortunately, determining the cause is as simple as filling up a clear glass with water and setting it on the counter.

  • If the water clears from the bottom of the glass to the top, the water has air bubbles. This reaction sometimes occurs when cold water from underground mains enters warmer pipes inside your home. Since cold water holds more dissolved air than warm water, as water warms, air may be released as tiny bubbles when a tap is turned on. The water is safe to drink, the discoloring is just the result of a harmless reaction.
  • If the water in the glass clears from the top-down, and white or grey particles settle to the bottom, this may indicate a water plumbing issue. Call Des Moines Water Works at (515) 283-8700 and staff will assist in diagnosing the problem and provide a list of qualified plumbers.

For more information on water quality, visit www.dmww.com/water-quality.

Posted by: Laura Sarcone No Comments
Labels: , , , , Posted in Customers, Water Quality March 10, 2015

Board of Water Works Trustees Votes to Pursue Lawsuit Against Drainage Districts

The Board of Water Works Trustees of the City of Des Moines voted today to give direction to Des Moines Water Works staff and counsel to proceed with a citizens suit under the Clean Water Act and Iowa Code Chapter 455B, and other relief against the Sac County Board of Supervisors, Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors and Calhoun County Board of Supervisors, in their capacities as trustees of 10 drainage districts, for the discharge of nitrate pollutants into the Raccoon River, and failure to obtain a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Des Moines Water Works is a regional water utility providing drinking water to approximately 500,000 Iowans, drawing most of its raw water supply from the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Des Moines Water Works is obligated to meet the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standards for the maximum contaminate level (MCL) in its finished drinking water. The MCL standard for nitrate is 10 mg/L. The health risks associated with nitrate contamination above MCL include blue baby syndrome and endocrine disruption. In addition to public health risks to drinking water, nitrate pollution also causes the development of hypoxic conditions in public waters, including the Gulf of Mexico’s “Dead Zone.”

Recent upstream water monitoring by Des Moines Water Works at 72 sample sites in Sac County has shown nitrate levels as high as 39.2 mg/L in groundwater discharged by drainages districts. These extraordinarily high nitrate levels correlate with measurements by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), a scientific agency in the United States government at monitoring sites along the Raccoon River.

“Despite the degraded condition of our source water, Des Moines Water Works continues to produce safe drinking water for our customers.  Our water remains safe for customers because we have invested millions of dollars of rate payers’ money in developing the capital infrastructure to manage high nitrate levels. Record nitrate concentrations in the Raccoon River have threatened, and continue to threaten, the water supply for our customers who rely on Des Moines Water Works for safe and affordable drinking water,” said Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager, Des Moines Water Works.

“Filing this lawsuit comes after years of effort by Des Moines Water Works officials to participate in initiatives that consider the needs of all Iowans. Unfortunately, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy fails to adequately address the interests of the people DMWW serves,” said Graham Gillette, Board of Water Works Trustees Chair. “The Board of Trustees has a responsibility to safeguard the water supply and protect our ratepayers’ financial interest. If it takes going to court to enforce laws written to protect citizen interests, so be it, and if it means working to develop new methods of problem solving collaboration, even better.”

A major source of nitrate pollution in the Raccoon River watershed is the artificial subsurface drainage system infrastructure, such as those created and managed by drainage districts. The drainage systems consist of pipes, ditches and other conduits that are point sources, which transport high concentrations of nitrate quickly by groundwater to the nearest waterway, bypassing natural absorption and denitrification processes that would otherwise protect the watersheds.

“In order for Des Moines Water Works to continue to provide clean and safe drinking water and to protect the state of Iowa and the United States from further environmental and health risks, the discharge of nitrate from drainage districts must be addressed,” said Stowe. “We are not seeking to change agriculture methods, but rather challenging government to better manage and control drainage infrastructure in order to improve water quality within the state. Because drainage districts transport nitrate pollution through a system of channels and pipes, they should be recognized and held accountable like any other point source polluter.”

“Point sources” discharging into water ways have permits under the NPDES.  NPDES permits have been successful nationwide in controlling pollution caused by industrial waste and sanitary sewer discharge.

Both the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers experienced extremely high concentrations in the spring and summer of 2013, fall of 2014, and winter of 2015.  Nitrate levels above the MCL increases the cost of drinking water treatment for more Des Moines Water Works customers. In 2013, when nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers were at a record high, Des Moines Water Works incurred approximately $900,000 in treatment costs and lost revenues. On December 4, 2014, the utility began operating the nitrate removal facility continuously for 97 days – unprecedented in the winter months – for a total of $540,000 in operations and additional expenses. Moreover, record high nitrate concentrations will require future capital investments of $76-183 million to remove the pollutant and provide safe drinking water to a growing central Iowa.

A Notice of Intent to Sue was sent by the Board of Water Works Trustees on January 9, 2015 to the three County Board of Supervisors. The required 60 day notification under the citizen suit provision of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly known as the Clean Water Act) and Iowa Code Chapter, communicated the intent of the Board of Water Works Trustees to sue the three Iowa counties for discharge of nitrate into the Raccoon River by point sources without the permits required by law.

Since the filing of the Notice of Intent to Sue, Des Moines Water Works representatives have met with numerous officials and stakeholders, but no means of resolution of the issues has been proposed.

A defense fund has been established to offset costs incurred with the Clean Water Act legal proceedings. Individuals who wish to make a contribution may do so by mailing contributions payable to Des Moines Water Works, 2201 George Flagg Parkway, Des Moines, Iowa 50321.

Posted by: Laura Sarcone 2 Comments
Labels: , , , , Posted in Board of Trustees, Source Water, Water Quality March 5, 2015

2015 Environmental Impact Awards

Envir. Impact Award LogoIn central Iowa, we are very fortunate to have many organizations that make environmentally sustainable practices a priority. To recognize their efforts and identify the positive impact they make on our communities, the Environmental Impact Awards were established.

Partners Make the Environmental Impact Awards Possible
Des Moines Water Works joins Greater Des Moines Partnership, Center on Sustainable Communities (COSC) and Metro Waste Authority to recognize local organizations and leaders dedicated to sustainability in the Greater Des Moines area. If you know, or are associated with an organization that should be recognized for their efforts, please consider submitting an award application for the Environmental Impact Awards.

Applications Available Online

You can nominate an organization in these areas:

Best water management practices will receive a special honor.

Applications for the Environmental Impact Awards will be accepted until 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11.

2015 Award Recipients Announced on Earth Day
Winners will be announced on Earth Day, April 22. Award recipients will be honored at a luncheon on May 20, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., at the Windsor Heights Community Center in Colby Park.

For more information, contact the Greater Des Moines Partnership at (515) 286-4950.

Posted by: Laura Sarcone No Comments
Labels: , , , , , , Posted in Conservation, Customers, Environment, Water Quality January 8, 2015

Board of Water Works Trustees Issue a Notice of Intent to Sue for Polluted Drinking Water

The Board of Water Works has voted unanimously to issue a notice of intent to sue, under the Clean Water Act and Iowa Code Chapter 455B, to the Sac County Board of Supervisors, Buena Vista County Board of Supervisors and Calhoun County Board of Supervisors in their role as governing authority for 10 drainage districts that are discharging pollutants into the Raccoon River. The affected drainage districts are:

  • Drainage District 32
  • Drainage District 42
  • Drainage District 65
  • Drainage District 79
  • Drainage District 81
  • Drainage District 83
  • Drainage Districts 86
  • Joint Drainage Districts 2-51
  • Joint Drainage Districts 19-26
  • Joint Drainage Districts 64-105

Copies of the notice have also been sent to Governor Terry Branstad; Chuck Gipp, Director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources; Karl Brooks, Region VII Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Gina McCarthy, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Bill Northey, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture; and Tom Vilsack, United States Secretary of Agriculture.

The notice of intent to sue is a 60 day notification under the citizen suit provision of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly known as the Clean Water Act) and Iowa Code Chapter 455B.  The notice communicates the intent of the Board of Water Works Trustees to sue for discharge of pollutants into the Raccoon River by point sources without the permits required by law.

Des Moines Water Works uses both the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers as water sources and has experienced extremely high concentrations of nitrate in both rivers in the spring and summer of 2013 and the fall and winter of 2014.  Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for nitrate is 10 mg/L.  This standard is set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Des Moines Water Works is legally obligated to provide clean and safe drinking water that meets this MCL standard.

Recent water monitoring by Des Moines Water Works at 72 sample sites in Sac County has shown nitrate levels as high as 39.2 mg/L in groundwater discharged by drainages districts. These extraordinarily high nitrate levels correlate with measurements by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), a scientific agency in the United States government at monitoring sites along the Raccoon River.

Water monitoring and scientific analysis have shown that the cause of the high nitrate is the extensive system of drainage infrastructure created and maintained by drainage districts in the Raccoon and Des Moines River watersheds.  These drainage systems quickly transport nitrate by groundwater to the nearest waterway, bypassing natural absorption and de-nitrification processes that would otherwise protect the watersheds.

“Drainage districts are a source of high nitrate concentration in our water supply and the Sac County Board of Supervisors have failed to take any meaningful action to protect downstream users from unsafe levels of nitrate introduced into the Raccoon River,” said Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager, Des Moines Water Works.  “Des Moines Water Works is taking this decisive action to underscore that the degraded condition of our state’s source waters is a very real problem, not just to Des Moines Water Works, but to the 500,000 customers we serve, as well as to Iowans generally who have a right of use and enjoyment of the water commonwealth of our State.  The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a failure. Since its announcement, we have suffered through record nitrate concentrations in both the summer of 2013 and winter of 2014.  It is simply not a credible approach to protect the public health of Iowans who rely on safe drinking water every day. We can no longer rely on voluntarism, rhetoric, and speculation to protect the waters of our state.”

The EPA has set the maximum contaminant level of protection based on the best available science to prevent potential health problems. Nitrate levels above the MCL are a public health risk. Particularly at risk are infants below six months of age who, if left untreated, could become seriously ill or die.

Nitrate levels above the MCL increases the cost of drinking water treatment for more than 500,000 central Iowa consumers. Standard Des Moines Water Works treatment processes do not remove nitrate from drinking water. Des Moines Water Works staff monitors nitrate concentrations in the source waters and activates a costly nitrate removal facility when necessary in order to produce a safe water supply meeting the MCL.  In 2013, when nitrate levels in the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers were at a record high, Des Moines Water Works incurred approximately $900,000 in treatment costs and lost revenues. Moreover, record high nitrate concentrations demand significant future capital investments to remove this pollutant and provide safe drinking water to a growing central Iowa.

“We are not seeking to change agriculture methods, but rather challenging government to better manage and control drainage infrastructure in order to improve water quality within the state. Water quality improvements in Iowa demand accountability for protecting against water degradation by all sectors, including local governments and agriculture,” said Stowe. “Because drainage districts transport nitrate pollution through a system of channels and pipes, they should be recognized and held accountable like any other point source contributor.”

If the named drainage districts do not cease to discharge pollutants without permits or act within 60 days to correct the ongoing violations, Des Moines Water Works will seek relief in federal court under the Clean Water Act and Iowa Code citizen suit provisions.  These laws require that “point sources” discharging into rivers have permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).  NPDES permits have been successful nationwide in controlling pollution caused by industrial waste and sanitary sewer discharge.

Posted by: Laura Sarcone No Comments
Labels: , , , , , , , , , , Posted in About Us, Board of Trustees, Source Water, Water Quality