New reports on Iowa water argue that nitrate and bacteria levels in private wells have increased for more than a decade, while water quality funding has remained grossly inadequate.
The two reports were released Wednesday.
Water Quality Spending
A report by the not-for-profit Iowa Policy Project took a look at the state’s spending commitment to water quality and sought to identify funding levels needed to make “meaningful progress” on nutrient pollution reduction.
The report found that, despite the 2013 adoption of the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, water quality spending from Iowa’s general fund dropped off post-recession and has yet to return.
Funding peaked in fiscal 2009 at more than $45 million, but dropped to less than $30 million in fiscal 2012. The number since has climbed back up to about $43 million last year.
Meanwhile, the report notes that federal and state funding on nutrient reduction in Iowa reached $512 million in 2017-18. The majority of that went to Conservation Reserve Program payments.
“When you compare that to what the state is spending, you really see how little commitment we really have,” said David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project.
The report does note last year’s $282 million water quality bill — the first bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds. However, that bill is spread across 12 years, making for about $24 million per year.
The report notes the need for water quality funding is “in the billions of dollars.”
“It really shows this 2018 bill is small potatoes in regard to where we need to be,” said Natalie Veldhouse, Iowa Policy Project research associate.
What’s more, Iowa’s share of the nutrient load in the Mississippi and Missouri river watersheds has increased between 2000 and 2016.
Osterberg said a sales tax on fertilizers, which can increase nutrient levels, could be a source of additional funding.
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“Money doesn’t solve everything, but no money is not going to solve anything and that’s what we’re seeing, is not enough money,” Osterberg said.
Contaminants in Wells
A joint report released by the Environmental Working Group and the Iowa Environmental Council analyzed state records from 2002 to 2017. The study found that in private wells that were tested, the average nitrate levels grew from 3.1 parts per million in 2003 to 5.7 ppm in 2013.
“The state’s own data show that agricultural pollution of drinking water in Iowa is worse than most people have previously thought,” Anne Schechinger, study author and senior economic analyst at EWG, said in a news release. “Wherever Iowans test for these contaminants, they have a pretty good chance of finding them.”
According to the report, as many as 290,000 Iowans use private wells for drinking water, yet only 55,000 wells have been tested for nitrates and/or bacteria in the last 16 years. Of those tested, more than 40 percent tested positive for coliform bacteria at least once.
The Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces water quality rules, does not require testing on private wells.
The report aligns with similar findings in a 2016 Iowa Watch series on water quality, which found that:
— 49 percent of wells had detectable nitrate; 12 percent had levels higher than the EPA’s public drinking water standard of 10 milligrams per liter.
— 43 percent of wells had total coliform bacteria; 19 percent had enterococci, a bacteria found in feces that can cause infections in wounds or in the urinary tract; 11 percent had E. coli.
Contaminants such as bacteria don’t necessarily pose an immediate health concern, but can indicate the well is susceptible to outside contamination, such as agricultural runoff, the Iowa Watch report notes.
High nitrogen levels can pose health risks to infants by causing blue-baby syndrome, which affects the blood’s ability to carry oxygen.
In addition to nitrates and bacteria, some Iowa homes struggle with arsenic levels in their water.
A 2017 U.S. Geological Survey report found that more than 35,000 — or 6 percent — of the roughly 591,000 domestic wells in Iowa likely have arsenic concentrations above 10 parts per billion, or the maximum level set by the EPA.