News Highlights

News Article: Nitrates in Des Moines Rivers Hit Record Levels

Click to download online article: From the Des Moines Register – Online
Des Moines Water Works turned on the world’s largest nitrate-removal facility Friday for the first time since 2007 after levels of health-threatening nitrates hit records in both the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, two main drinking-water sources.

Bill Stowe, the utility’s general manager, said the process will keep nitrates at safe levels in tap water, but he is concerned about the rising costs and difficulty of treating water as nitrate levels climb.

The $4 million nitrate-removal plant, installed in 1992, costs about $7,000 a day to run. So far, the utility is using four of the eight treatment cells where nitrates are stripped from the water. The Environmental Protection Agency had ordered Des Moines to act to remove nitrates after the contaminant exceeded the federal limit in tap water during the early 1990s.

The predicament shows that voluntary conservation efforts on farms aren’t working and do not bode well for the future of the area’s water supply, Stowe said. He added that nitrates, which also occur naturally, primarily come from crop fertilizer. Better field drainage systems have worsened the situation.

Typically, when nitrates rise in the Raccoon River, the Des Moines River remains well within drinking standards. The utility then dilutes the pollution from the Raccoon water with that drawn from the Des Moines.

This time, they are both at record highs — a troubling oddity, Stowe said.

”We are off our playing field,” he said. “We haven’t seen this before.”

Untreated high levels of nitrates in drinking water have been linked to blue baby syndrome, as well as to various cancers and miscarriages. The federal limit is 10 milligrams per liter nitrate in drinking water; both rivers have posted readings in the range of 20 milligrams per liter.

The Raccoon River hit 24 milligrams per liter this week; the previous record was 22. The Des Moines was just under 18; the record was 14.2.

Stowe said some U.S. Geological Survey gauges couldn’t measure the concentrations because they exceeded the meter’s range.

With decades’ worth of data suggesting nitrates are rising in Midwestern rivers, Stowe hopes the situation doesn’t worsen.

Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said the fact that Water Works didn’t need the removal system for the past six years shows that nitrates have been at manageable levels. He added that nitrates left over from last year, when a smaller than usual corn crop didn’t use as much nitrogen, and the record April rains could have caused a temporary spike.

Northey said strategy now focuses more on reducing nitrogen and phosphorus levels than past efforts, which were targeted mostly on soil conservation.

Laurie Johns, spokeswoman for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, said regulations wouldn’t work because farm conditions vary and are best addressed by farmers’ voluntary efforts. No regulation can control record rain, she added.

”With such wild weather swings and 95 percent of Iowa’s land comprised of farmland, there’s not one regulation that would have prevented the current spike in nitrates, short of outlawing crop production in Iowa,” Johns said.

Deborah Neustadt, chairwoman of the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club, said farmers should be required to have nutrient-management plans featuring specific practices meant to curb runoff. That way, they could be held accountable for pollution from their operations.

“Why does the rate-payer have to pay for actions of farmers?” Neustadt asked.

Susan Heathcote, water program director of the Iowa Environmental Council, took a similar view. “Local pollution-reduction goals are critical to motivating Iowa farmers and landowners to make the significant changes necessary to ensure clean water,” she said.

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Act Now: New Funding Opportunity to Encourage Conservation Practices to Protect Drinking Water

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) will provide $35 million in financial assistance to farmers and ranchers to implement conservation systems to improve water quality in 165 small watersheds through its 2013 National Water Quality Initiative.

Please share this news with your networks so they can consult with their 319 coordinators, reach out to state conservationists or county NRCS service center, or coordinate with their local conservation districts to act on this immediate opportunity.

Applications for funding consideration during fiscal year 2013 must be received by Friday, July 12, 2013, and eligible projects may work to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and pathogen contributions from agricultural land. Please note that although the deadline mentions July, we have learned that some states seem to have deadlines in May. Drinking water is mentioned in the announcement as follows, “Communities benefit by having clean waterways, safer drinking water and healthy habitat for fish and wildlife.”

A list of the watersheds is available here. Click here to learn more about the NRCS 2013 National Water Quality Initiative announcement.

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Register for Today’s Free Watershed Academy Webcast on “Using Social Indicators in Watershed Management Projects”

It’s not too late to register for this free webcast on May 1, 2013, from 1:00 to 3:00 pm Eastern time on “Using Social Indicators for Watershed Management Projects.” Working with landowners and managers to find effective and practical solutions to water quality problems is critical to achieving environmental goals. Social indicators provide information about the social context, awareness, attitudes, capacities, constraints, and behaviors in a watershed or project area. Using social indicators can help resource managers and conservation professionals understand target audiences, select effective interventions and evaluate their impacts. At the end of this webcast, participants will understand some basic concepts of behavior change can have the tools to use a framework for using social indicators in nonpoint source management work.

To register, please visit  Webcast materials will be posted in advance.

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SWC Welcomes New Members National Association of Conservation Districts and Smart Growth America

At its April 22nd member meeting, the Source Water Collaborative (SWC) expanded its membership to 25 organizations by welcoming Smart Growth America and the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD).

The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) is the nonprofit organization that represents America’s 3,000 conservation districts and those who serve on their governing boards. Conservation districts are local units of government established under state law to carry out natural resource management programs at the local level. Districts work with millions of cooperating landowners and operators to help them manage and protect land and water resources on all private lands and many public lands in the United States.

“If we truly want to have a long-term impact on the quality of our water resources nationwide, it is critical that we build strong, diverse partnerships at local, state and federal levels,” said NACD CEO John Larson. “This is why we’re so pleased to be joining efforts with the Source Water Collaborative. We recognize that being part of a larger group that advocates and works to achieve the same overall outcomes is essential in these fiscally challenging times, and we look forward to a strong and productive partnership in the years ahead as we focus together on addressing commonsense and meaningful actions to improve water quality across the landscape.”

Since 2001, Smart Growth America has worked in coalitions to make the case for the environmental, social, and economic benefits of smart growth. Smart growth is very simply defined as rural, urban and suburban places with transportation and housing choices near jobs, shops and schools. The strategies communities use to create these places are ideal tools for identifying and protecting environmentally sensitive areas while promoting healthy economic growth.

“We are working with local governments across the country that are re-examining the real costs and benefits of development. They are motivated to reduce costs and protect their assets, but they still need tools and support. We are eager to ‘jump in,’ so to speak, and work with the Source Water Collaborative to make the case for source protection and to more widely distribute all of our organization’s great resources,” said Geoff Anderson, president of Smart Growth America.

The SWC was originally formed in 2006 with the goal to combine the strengths and tools of a diverse set of member organizations to act now and protect drinking water sources for generations to come. More information about the SWC’s members and resources is available on the SWC website at

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EPA’s National Water Program Publishes 2012 Climate Change Progress Report

The EPA has published its fourth progress report summarizing the major climate change-related accomplishments of its national and regional water programs, entitled “2012 Highlights of Progress: Responses to Climate Change.” The report is organized around five long-term, programmatic vision areas which are part of the National Water Program’s 2012 strategy to manage water resources in light of climate change. Click here to read the full 2012 progress report on EPA’s website.

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Utility Training Webinars Available on EPA’s Water Health & Economic Analysis Tool

Throughout March – May of 2013, EPA will be offering a series of webinars on the updated version of its Water Health & Economic Analysis Tool (WHEAT). The tool is designed to assist drinking water utility owners and operators in understanding the potential public health impacts, financial costs, and economic effects of a threat to the local water supply.

Click here to view a calendar of the WHEAT training webinars (“Training Calendar” tab) and to download the software free of charge (“Home” tab).

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Source Water Collaborative Announces 2013 Pilot Programs in PA, WI and WY

As a part of its ongoing commitment to encourage state and local actions to protect sources of drinking water, the Source Water Collaborative (SWC) is pleased to announce its support of three new pilot programs including watershed-based Sheridan, Wyoming; countywide efforts in Lancaster County, PA; and state-wide efforts in Wisconsin (with Rock and Sauk Counties).

The selected pilots have a wide variety of partnerships and unique project champions, including drinking water utilities; county planning commission; USDA (NRCS, Forest Service); universities; state departments of environment, health services, and game/fish; state geological surveys; NGOs (Trout Unlimited, Nature Conservancy); associations representing watershed, rural water, livestock, and conservation interests; and EPA Regional Offices. Click here for more details.

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Nominations to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Accepted Through February 20th

The Environmental Protection Agency is seeking nominations for members to serve on the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which provides advice and recommendations to the agency on environmental justice issues. EPA expects the committee will have six vacancies—two from academia and one each from grass-roots community organizations, nongovernmental or environmental organizations, state and local agencies, and tribal groups. Council terms last three years, and members serve an average of five to eight hours per month, the agency said. EPA will accept nominations through Feb. 20 here. For additional information, contact the EPA Environmental Justice Office at (202) 564-2515.

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AWRA Summer Specialty Conference—Submit Abstracts by Feb 8, 2013

In anticipation of their upcoming Summer Specialty Conference on June 27 and 28, the American Water Resources Association is accepting oral and poster abstract submissions due February 8, 2013. The conference, which will take place in Hartford, Connecticut, carries the theme “Healthy Forests = Healthy Waters” and will examine the value of forests in managing water resources. Abstracts should address several key themes linking healthy forests and healthy waters, all of which are featured on the website.

Click here to learn more about criteria for abstract submissions and to view other key details about the conference.

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EPA Releases Progress Report on Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing on Drinking Water Resources

In light of its national study to understand the potential effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water, the EPA released a progress report on the effort in December 2012. The report summarizes the status of 18 research projects that are part of the overall study and offers updates on chemicals used during fracturing. The study was initiated at the request of Congress in 2010 and looks at the full lifespan of water in the hydraulic fracturing process.

Click here to read EPA’s hydraulic fracturing progress report in full.

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