Water Quality

Kristofor Husted/Harvest Public Media

Farming in the fertile Midwest is tied to an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. But scientists are studying new ways to lessen the Midwest's environmental impact and improve water quality.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forecasts the so-called "dead zone," an area of sea without enough oxygen to support most marine life, to grow larger than the size of Connecticut, or roughly 6,000 square miles.  

Peggy Lowe/Harvest Public Media

Standing on a platform above the eastern bank of the Missouri River at the Kansas City, Missouri, Water Services intake plant is like being on the deck of a large ship.

Electric turbines create a vibration along the blue railing, where David Greene, laboratory manager for Kansas City Water Services, looks out across the river. Water the color of chocolate milk is sucked up and forced through screens below, picking up all the debris the river carries downstream.  

Amy Mayer/IPR

On a gray day, just as the rain begins to fall, Roger Zylstra stops his red GMC Sierra pick-up truck on the side of the road and hops down into a ditch in Jasper County, Iowa. It takes two such stops before he unearths amid the tall weeds and grasses what he’s looking for.

"Here is one of the tiles," he says, pointing to a pipe about six or eight inches in diameter. Water trickles from it into a culvert that runs under the road after flowing through a network of underground drainage lines below his farm field. "That's where it outlets."

Brian Seifferlein/Harvest Public Media

Living in the Platte River Valley in central Nebraska means understanding that the water in your well may contain high levels of nitrates and may not be safe to drink.

"When our first son was born in 1980, we actually put a distiller in for our drinking water here in the house," says Ken Seim, who lives in the Platte Valley near the town of Chapman, Nebraska. "And at that time our water level was 12 parts per million."

Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

Contaminated drinking water isn't just a problem for Flint, Michigan. Many towns and cities across the Midwest and Great Plains face pollution seeping into their water supplies. A big part of the problem: farming and ranching.

Clay Masters / IPR

There’s been a lot of talk in Iowa about water quality. From failed attempts by the legislature and the governor to come up with new funding, to the state’s largest water utility suing three rural boards of supervisors in northwest Iowa. That area of the state is part of a region called the “prairie pothole”. It stretches from Canada, down through the Dakotas, northern Montana and western Minnesota as well.

In North Dakota, much of this habitat is still intact and conservationists are concerned about the health implications of a landscape looking more like Iowa.

Rick Fredericksen/IPR file photo

A new study supports planting perennial grasses on current cropland as a way to reduce nutrient loss from farm fields.

 

Majicdolphin / Flickr

What happened in Flint, Michigan is only one of several high profile incidents of public health crises arising from drinking water contamination. In fact, according to Siddhartha Roy, who was part of the team that discovered high lead levels in Flint, “There are millions of lead pipes,” and “we have them in virtually every city in the U.S.”

Rob McLennan / Flickr

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is expecting another summer boating season full of toxic, blue green algae blooms. There were a record number of beach closures in 2015 in Iowa, and the DNR is expecting this year to be the same or worse. 

The blooms release microcystin, which is a toxin released by cyanobacteria. The toxin can kill pets and cause rashes and flu like symptoms in humans.

As the weather heats up this week, Mary Skopec, beach monitoring coordinator for the Iowa DNR, says that we’ll likely start to see algal blooms that lead to beach closures.

Clay Masters/IPR

This week IPR News is taking a look at water quality in the state.

Iowa Lawmakers, farmers and environmentalists continue to debate the best way to curb water quality issues, following an unsuccessful attempt to fund more projects this legislative session.

Clay Masters / IPR

This week IPR News is taking a look at water quality in the state.

A state cost share program designed to help Iowa farmers install nutrient reduction practices on their farm is entering its fourth year.  Lawmakers and the governor struggled this legislative session to come up with a way to spend more money on water quality in the state. In the last three years, the state has awarded $12 million on 45 different projects.

Clay Masters / IPR

This week IPR News is taking a look at water quality in the state.

Joyce Russell/IPR

Governor Branstad and the top Democrat in the Iowa Senate exchanged harsh words Monday over the legislature's failure to approve a plan for water quality improvements before adjourning last week.    

Governor Branstad's proposal to tap school infrastructure dollars to raise billions of dollars for water quality fell flat.  

On a bipartisan vote, the House passed a bill to divert money from other state programs but the bill was not debated in the Senate.  

Branstad says Majority Leader Mike Gronstal wasn't serious about doing something about water quality this year.

Des Moines Water Works Blog

The Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against three northwest Iowa counties over nitrates in the water sparked debate in the Iowa House today.   

A rural lawmaker wants to expand representation on the Water Works Board of Trustees.

He says that’s in part because of the lawsuit alleging drainage districts in Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties are responsible for high nitrate levels in the Raccoon River.

Rep. Jared Klein (R-Keota) wants urban and rural areas surrounding Des Moines to have a seat at the table if the Water Works raises its rates. 

Ocean Biology Processing Group at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Flickr, Creative Commons

First established in 1970, Earth Day is celebrated worldwide on April 22nd every year to celebrate and support the protection of the environment. Has it worked?

Ralph Rosenberg, Executive Director of the Iowa Environmental Council, says Earth Day has evolved from raising awareness, to sparking action, to returning results.

"There's an urgency now," says Rosenberg. "People have seen some progress in 46 years, but we do need to see awareness and action year-round."

John Pemble/IPR

After high hopes for action at the statehouse this year on water quality, it appears that lawmakers will soon be adjourning without reaching consensus on how to pay for the cleanup of Iowa rivers and streams. 

So far the Republican House and Democratic Senate have not been able to agree on a funding plan for water quality improvements.

The governor, the House, and the Senate each had competing funding mechanisms for cleaning up the water.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) says the three interested parties are like ships passing in the night.

Peter Dutton/Flickr

Iowa’s largest public school district is testing its water for lead contamination. There are no state requirements for schools to routinely test their water supplies, but following reports of high levels of lead in school drinking water supplies around the country, Des Moines Public Schools decided they’d test all of their school buildings. Phil Roeder with the district says the average age of its schools is 65 years. He says all of the buildings have been renovated at some point.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/flickr

A bill to appropriate historic levels of funding for water quality passed the Iowa House last night by a vote of 65 to 33. 

Democrats argued it may not be enough to keep the federal government from taking over enforcement of clean water in the state.     

The bill was approved after six hours of private meetings and two hours of public debate. 

Joyce Russell/IPR

The Iowa House continues working on legislation to fund water quality improvements at what some are calling historic levels.   The House bill would appropriate $750 million over the next 13 years, what Governor Branstad calls a good start.  

Nitrogen levels in the Raccoon River have prompted a lawsuit from the Des Moines Water Works.  Mike Delaney with the Raccoon River Watershed Association and the Sierra Club says the public needs to know how much nitrogen is in their watersheds.

Reji/flickr

Republicans in the Iowa House Monday added more money to their water quality initiative, proposing to spend nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars over the next 13 years.  

But experts estimate that meeting goals for nitrates in the water will cost as much as five-and-a-half billion dollars.

“We have a severe water quality issue in the state of Iowa,” said Rep. Kirsten Running-Marquardt (D-Cedar Rapids).   “Especially with nitrates.”

Dean Borg/IPR

As Iowa legislators search the state’s budget for money to fund water quality projects, an Iowa environmentalist believes it may be on grocery store shelves.

Ralph Rosenberg, Executive Director of the Iowa Environmental Council, estimates a five-cent tax on plastic bottles containing water and other beverages could bring the needed money to the state.

“We’ve heard it may raise as much as $20 to 25 million a year,” Rosenberg told reporters Friday, following taping of an Iowa Press program on water quality at Iowa Public Television.

Anders Adermark/flickr

A Republican-sponsored water quality bill passed by a wide margin in a House committee today in spite of reservations from Democrats.  

The bill takes existing tax revenue, and commits it to cities trying to get pollutants out of their drinking water.  

Iowans who live in cities pay a tax on metered water.  The bill would direct the tax to a special fund for water treatment upgrades.   

But Democrats say farm chemicals and other contaminants will still be in Iowa waterways.  

Jo Naylor

Governor Branstad had harsh words today for Iowa’s public schools who want a penny sales tax extended to benefit school infrastructure projects.

The one-cent sales tax is set to expire in 2029.   Schools use the money to back up bonding for everything from building repairs to technology upgrades.  

The governor wants to extend the tax, but he wants some of the revenue diverted to water quality.

At his weekly news conference, Branstad lashed out against schools for opposing his plan.  

Carl Wycoff

Water quality is certainly an important topic in Iowa, but can it also be sexy and funny?

Jennifer Wilson thinks so, and she set out to prove it in her first novel, Water. The book takes on water quality and politics in Iowa, and it takes place against the familiar backdrop of Des Moines and Northeast Iowa.

On this Talk of Iowa interview, Charity Nebbe talks with Wilson about the book and its unconventional path to publication with t-shirt company RAYGUN. RAYGUN owner Mike Draper also joins the conversation to talk about the collaboration.

Photo Courtesy of Rita Dvorak

In 2015, Iowa had a record number of beach closures due to blue green algae blooms. That, in addition to a lawsuit filed against three northwestern Iowa counties, is bringing increased attention to water quality in the state.

USDA

A Republican lawmaker in the Iowa House who works in environmental protection in his day job has a new plan for paying for water quality, but his fellow Republicans have nixed the idea.  

Water quality is on the agenda at the statehouse this year because of a proposal from Governor Branstad to use some school funds to clean up Iowa waterways.

Representative John Wills of Spirit Lake works for the Soil and Water Conservation District in Dickinson County.  

Photo by John Pemble

Governor Branstad’s proposal to pay for millions of dollars in water quality improvements now has some competition in the Iowa House and it’s coming from the governor’s fellow Republicans. 

Branstad wants to extend a penny sales tax for schools that is set to expire. 

The tax currently goes into a special fund for school infrastructure.  

Under Branstad’s plan, some of the growth in the fund would be used to clean up Iowa’s waterways.  

House Education Committee Chair, Republican Ron Jorgensen, says he needs more information on the governor’s proposal.

Photo by John Pemble

There were signs from the statehouse today that Governor Branstad’s new water quality initiative may face a tough slog in the legislature, in both the Republican House and the Democratic Senate. 

The Governor wants to take part of a state sales tax intended for schools, and spend it instead on water quality.  

Republican House Speaker Linda Upmeyer says some House Republicans don’t support that.

“I don't think anyone favors having a pot of money without a plan,” Upmeyer says.  “We want to make sure we’re doing it smart.”

Iowa Public Radio / Clay Masters

Iowa's governor wants to kill two birds with one stone.

Gov. Terry Branstad says by extending a sales tax increase enacted in 2008* to 2049, schools will get an additional $10 million annually for things like technology and infrastructure projects. He projects that the state will also raise nearly $4.7 billion in this period to address soil and water conservation issues related to agriculture.

courtesy of Alex Braidwood

Have you ever wondered what a healthy lake sounds like?

Iowa based sound artist Alex Braidwood has. While he was working as an artist-in-residence for the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory Regents Resource Center, a biological field station and nature preserve in Northwest Iowa, he devised a way to listen to the water.

He’s taken data being collected by a buoy floating in Lake Okoboji about water temperature and oxygen levels and has assigned each of the data points tones.

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