Iowa’s Water Problem Is No Myth, It’s a Warning

An algae bloom caused by nitrate pollution on Iowa's Big Creek Lake, located northwest of Des Moines, in summer of 2012.

The next time you find yourself jugfishing along the Mississippi River, or lying in your hammock on your old house boat in southern Louisiana where the freshwater hits the salt, pump up the old Coleman lantern and throw open your tattered old copy of D'Aulaires' Greek Myths, and read the story of Cassandra. You do remember, don't you? The beautiful prophet whose ears were licked clean by snakes, so that she could hear the future? No matter how accurate her predictions (including the destruction of Troy by way of the super-warriors hidden inside the gift of the Trojan horse) nobody ever listened to her. Ever.

Sometimes, that's how a conservation reporter feels, too.

Perry Beeman of the Des Moines Register reports that the Des Moines Water Works, the drinking water supplier for around a half-million people in central Iowa, is operating the world's largest nitrate-removal water treatment plant in an effort to provide clean water to its customers in the face of record-breaking levels of nitrate pollution pouring into the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. The pollution is agricultural fertilizer run-off, firehosed into the rivers by all the channelized creeks, drained former wetlands and tiled fields in the region.

Funny, isn't it, how when we scorn our responsibilities to the natural systems that support our every aspiration, the bills just keep going up, the losses just keep coming? The water treatment plant, the Register reports, was built in 1992 at a cost of $4 million. It costs $7,000 a day to operate.

From the Register story:
_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, said Water Works General Manager Bill Stowe. He added that the nitrates primarily come from crop fertilizers, and that better field drainage systems have worsened the situation.
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_"We are off our playing field. We haven't seen this before," Stowe said.
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_"The issue is the quality of the water in the Raccoon and the Des Moines. This trend is absolutely off the scale," Stowe said." It's like having serial tornadoes. You can deal with one, you can deal with two, but you can't deal with them every day.
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"The state's Nutrient Reduction Strategy, with its emphasis on the voluntary measure, clearly isn't working," Stowe said. "And our ratepayers are paying significantly to remove nitrates."

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy was a voluntary plan originally intended to help address the nitrate pollution that was flowing downstream and causing the monstrous Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. But the faraway Dead Zone is the least of the worries of Iowa residents now, as nitrate levels on the rivers soar to more than double the standard set for safe drinking water by the EPA. Such pollution is linked to a variety of illnesses, as described in this story about California's struggles with the problem: The story points out that high nitrate levels in drinking water have been linked to thyroid cancer, skin rashes, hair loss, birth defects, and fatal blood disorders in infants.

Not to sound callous, but for those of us who fish and hunt, such illnesses and deaths are the canaries in the coal mines of our world. We already know that you cannot drain the wetlands, plow under the last native grasses, and pour anhydrous ammonia along channelized creeks without dire consequences to, at first, fish and wildlife, and then, naturally, to us all. We hunters and fishers already know this: you cannot destroy your environmental capital without racking up huge and ugly debts. We are the witnesses. We are the Cassandras of our time.

As to the voluntary nature of the plans to solve the problem, according to the Des Moines Register story, "Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey has said the voluntary measures are the best bet for action, because they avoid court challenges that regulations bring and avoid 'one size fits all' solutions."

If Iowa's Agriculture Secretary is so concerned with the potential cost of lawsuits, we might ask him to consider the price tag of a lawsuit drawn up by a coalition of the Gulf states, for pouring down upon them the nitrates that feed the algal blooms and destroy their fisheries and tourist attractions and water quality.

When we refuse to take responsibility for our actions and we hurt and cost others, somebody pays. In this case it is the rate payers hoping like heck that the water they pay more for will not give their kids thyroid cancer. It's the hunters and fishermen who can't eat the fish they catch, or who find no ducks or pheasants to hunt and so abandon the lifestyle and no longer buy the licenses. It's the poisoned people and fish downstream, and the commercial fishermen in the Gulf who go bankrupt. Eventually, people will grow tired of paying for and being sickened by others' pollution and the lawsuits will fly. Before that happens, though, the losses will mount.

It's not easy, being a Cassandra. When you read the myth, there by the lamplight, with the cicadas droning and the fish splashing off the bow, don't skip the part where Cassandra goes stark raving mad.

Credit: Photo courtesy Iowa Environmental Council