Posts Tagged ‘Des Moines River’January 8, 2015
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.
Here’s an exciting opportunity for river enthusiasts! Plan to participate in Iowa Rivers Revival’s “Master River Steward Program” in the Des Moines/Raccoon River Watershed. This will be Iowa Rivers Revival’s second year offering this program. The eight week course, beginning May 14, will focus on riverine systems, including skills to paddle and navigate rivers, restore aquatic habitat, improve water quality, and understand policies related to floodplains, river protection and restoration.
The “Master River Steward Program” will build on a network of river experts in various partner agencies and organizations. It will help adult learners collaborate to protect and improve Iowa’s rivers, so that current and future generations can enjoy these resources. Visit Iowa Rivers Revival’s website to view an outline of last year’s program: http://iowarivers.org/education/river-stewards/.
Registration Cost: Participants will pay a fee of $50 which will include program materials. Participants will be expected to attend each session and there will be “homework” assignments following each class – materials will be provided. Please register by April 30, 2013.
Feedback from 2012 Pilot Participants:
- “Great class, thoroughly enjoyed each and every session.”
- “Great leadership. Great resources/readings. Great speakers. Great group.”
- “Really enjoyed class. Had zero expectations coming in. Was surprised by the amount of river experience/Project AWARE tie in. Really enjoyed meeting such passionate people. Each week gave me something to think about and discuss with co-workers.”
- “This was a fantastic program. I came in with no expectations, but left every night excited to share what I learned with others… Thanks so much for putting this together. I will become active in the stewardship of rivers at a far greater level due to this program.”
For more information and to register, contact:
Rosalyn Lehman, Executive Director
Iowa Rivers Revival
PO Box 72, Des Moines, IA 50301
Iowa Rivers Revival (IRR) is Iowa’s only statewide river education and advocacy organization committed to protecting one of our most precious natural resources – our rivers and streams. Since 2007, IRR has been working to engage individuals, organizations, communities and our government leaders in river awareness, responsibility and enjoyment in an effort to improve and enhance the condition of Iowa’s waterways – ensuring a quality, safe and lasting resource for future generations.
Water from our rivers is “hard,” meaning it has a high mineral content, especially calcium and magnesium. This is because 100 million years ago, what is now Iowa, was under the surface of the ocean, and large limestone deposits are the result. As rain water and snow melt trickles through the limestone, toward shallow groundwater and eventually into our streams, it dissolves mineral deposits. Hardness is reduced in DMWW’s treatment plants using a process called lime softening.
The river water has a high nutrient content, especially nitrate-nitrogen and phosphorous. Some of the fertilizer used for crops is washed away or enters the streams through agricultural drainage tiles. Our super-rich soils also contain a lot of natural nitrogen and phosphorous, which is liberated from the soil during cultivation. The Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers have the highest and second-highest nitrate concentrations of the 42 largest Mississippi River tributaries. DMWW operates the world’s largest nitrate removal facility at its Fleur Drive Plant.
Our rivers have a relatively high level of sediment. Erosion is a natural process that has been greatly increased by both rural and urban land uses. It’s likely that most Iowa streams ran much clearer prior to settlement than in the present day. Loss of native perennial vegetation and increased streamflows because of human modification of natural hydrology, along with changes in land use and climate, are the primary culprits for increased erosion. In addition, levees have divorced streams from their floodplains, increasing river energy during high flows. This helps the stream scour sediment from the stream bed and banks. DMWW removes about 20,000 pounds of sediment (1,400 pounds per million gallons) from the treated river water every day, so the water will be clear and safe to drink.
Although DMWW’s source waters are considered impaired, DMWW is continuously adapting its treatment processes to deliver Water You Can Trust for Life.
Watershed, catchment, and drainage basin are all the same thing: an area of land that drains to a common point. Small watersheds drain into larger watersheds in a hierarchical pattern. For example, the Mississippi River Watershed is comprised of hundreds of other smaller sub-watersheds.
The City of Des Moines is located at the bottom of two large catchments: the Raccoon and the Upper Des Moines River watersheds. These are two of the 42 largest sub-watersheds in the Mississippi River basin. Water draining from more than 5 million acres, from as far away as Jackson, MN, flows through the city. Des Moines Water Works treats water from both rivers to provide Des Moines Area residents with drinking water.
Knowledge of Iowa’s geological history and current land uses are necessary to understand each river and its water quality. Both the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers flow through and drain the Des Moines Lobe Landform. It was here that a glacier covered the landscape only 12,000 years ago. The weather warmed and the disintegrating ice sheet formed the prairie pothole region that was once home to uncounted millions of waterfowl. After the glacier melted, the landscape was colonized by tallgrass prairie and wetland plants that helped form the region’s tremendously rich soil. The rivers ran clear and cold as rain water was naturally filtered through the perennial vegetation.
The early European settlers found the region nearly uninhabitable due to the swampy landscape and swarms of mosquitoes. A few decades after arrival, they realized that the soils formed under such conditions were ideal for the cultivation of corn. But first, large scale drainage was necessary. Networks of porous drainage pipes (now known as tile) were buried to lower the water table and dry out the soil. These were connected to constructed drainage ditches, essentially forming hundreds of new streams where none previously existed. This enormous project was mostly complete by 1920, although farmers continue to connect into and improve the system in the present day.
Constructed drainage and replacement of perennial vegetation with annual crops turned Iowa into the world’s richest agricultural region. But altering the natural hydrological system also had an impact on water quality in Iowa’s streams, this is will be discussed in the next piece in this series.