Iowa water quality raises concern in the Drake community

posted on Monday, November 4, 2019

Guest post by Megan McDowell, Drake University student. Article originally appeared in the Drake Times-Delphic on 11/2/19.

Drake University recently announced it earned a Bronze STARS rating demonstrating Drake’s commitment to environmental sustainability.

Drake could bring that score up even more, if it focused on its one out of seven rating on water within the operations category. 

According to the announcement on Drake’s website, Drake, just like the rest of Iowa, needs to make water management and nutrient reduction an important goal.

“Water quality is one of the most important issues in Iowa,” said David Courard-Hauri, professor of environmental science and sustainability at Drake. 

Courard-Hauri is also a board member of the Iowa Environmental Council, a non-profit organization educating the public about the major concerns Iowa has with water quality and its “impaired waters.” 

Iowa is a highly agricultural state, but water quality problems are ‘due to a mix of things,’ according to Courard-Hauri. 

The high price of corn incentivizes farmers to plant more crops on more land, rather than use conservation practices like buffer strips to help filter out nitrates and prevent them from reaching Iowa waterways.

Iowa also lacks in compliance legislation. The conservation practices in place today are voluntary only.

Then, there is the lack of authority with the ability to enforce any regulations that are in place from the Clean Water Act passed in 1972.

Jerry Anderson, the dean of the Drake Law School, has also worked with IEC and Courard-Hauri on several pieces of litigation. 

Anderson worked on a lawsuit in 1999 with IEC, and at the time, Iowa had never enacted any water quality cleanup plans as established by the Clean Water Act. His work on that lawsuit got the ball rolling on a 10 year schedule for water quality improvement plans.

At the time of Anderson’s lawsuit in 1999, Iowa had approximately 300 impaired waters, but as of 2016, that number had more than doubled to 700. 

“Cleanup plans were important because it helped identify the sources,” Anderson said.

Those plans were a step in the right direction, and they help direct money to programs and plans for action. Too often though, those plans are unactionable.

“You can have laws on the books like the Clean Water Act, but if it’s not enforced or implemented, it doesn’t mean anything,” Anderson said.

A key problem to enforcing those laws is non-source point pollution, which the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has no authority over. 

The consensus at Drake is that Iowa needs to step its nutrient reduction strategy efforts in order to win this battle. Thankfully, some watershed management authorities are taking this seriously.

Peter Levi, assistant professor of environmental science and sustainability at Drake, is studying two such efforts to impact water quality in local watershed areas. Earlier this year, he received grants to perform water quality research, with the help of students, during the next three years.

Levi started his research in June 2019 on the streams in Fourmile and Walnut Creek watersheds. These watersheds are particularly interested in how the stream travels through diverse landscapes in a relatively short time. 

Both watersheds flow from agricultural to suburban to urban areas, giving Levi and his students a look into how water is affected in human dominated landscapes.

Levi is looking to see if “the needle is moving in the right direction,” as both watersheds have water management authorities who have invested money in improving water quality in their streams.

One large project along Walnut Creek planted green areas to help filter out run off, which was a sizeable investment. They are supporting Levi in his research to make sure their efforts are paying off.

“By improving water quality on a smaller scale, it shows it can be done on a bigger scale,” Levi said. 

These two watersheds are playing an important role in the future of water quality improvement. They are being studied in a well-rounded and in-depth way; data is collected at three stations on each stream every 10 minutes by electronic sensors. 

Fundamentally, the waterway’s ecosystem metabolism is being measured physically, chemically and biologically. Data that is collected shows how “the stream breathes,” Levi said. Oxygen levels rise and fall, from morning to night, rhythmically from day to day.

Changes can be exciting to see, said research assistant Taylor Vroman, a sophomore at Drake majoring in environmental science. Vroman was involved in collecting the 90 physical samples per week during the summer.

The rhythm of streams can undergo changes. 

“During storm events, it’s really interesting to see that as well,” Vroman said, reflecting on the disruption a heavy rain can do to the metabolism of the ecosystem in the streams.

One major factor in these swings in water quality is how Iowa developed its land.

“Iowa is one of the most developed states in the country. A lot of people don’t realize that,” said Sophia Siegel, a senior at Drake with an environmental sustainability major and a sociology minor and the senior member of DEAL.

“The way we develop our land impacts our water quality,” Siegel said. “It’s not that farmers don’t want to make improvements; the systems that farmers operate within aren’t set up to be sustainable.”

Every system needs a balance. Iowa has low biodiversity that isn’t natural to helping filter out polluting nutrients and too much land is devoted to maximizing crop yield.

Siegel pointed out the need to focus on engineering solutions and avoid temporary solutions, but at the same time, we can overthink things with science. 

In Iowa, the food production system is set up to be complicated and to make it seem like it’s not connected to water quality.

“No issue is truly separate, the system teaches us that they are separate,” Siegel said. “We need to find a platform for bringing these issues together.”

Siegel said Iowa should focus on a path to be environmentally and socially responsible. A better plan of action would be to take a holistic approach: bring leaders together and equip them with an interdisciplinary framework for approaching Iowa’s water quality problems.

The Drake consensus is that all Iowans and their lawmakers need to make changes in how Iowa addresses water quality solutions, incentivizes farmers and enforces regulation. 

“Changes start with people who are willing to challenge the structure,” Siegel said. 

  1. clean water
  2. nitrate pollution
  3. nutrient reduction strategy
  4. riparian buffer
  5. water quality