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Distilling the facts on water quality

Distilling the facts on water quality
I read with great interest the recent Des Moines Register story, “Record nitrate levels in Raccoon, Des Moines threaten Des Moines-area tap water.”  The simple truth is, there’s not one regulation that would have prevented the current spike in nitrates from the Raccoon River watershed, short of outlawing crop production in Iowa.  That’s exactly why the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship and the Department of Natural Resources have drafted the Iowa Nutrient Strategy, a science and technology-based approach to assess and reduce nutrients to Iowa waters and the Gulf of Mexico. It will target efforts to reduce nutrients in surface water from both point and nonpoint sources in a scientific, reasonable and cost effective manner.

Weather patterns of extreme drought and extreme rainfall are taking their toll in Iowa and all watersheds see the impact.  During dry and cool periods like last fall, there is relatively little, if any, conversion of anhydrous ammonia to nitrate and movement of it from the soil or farm fields. Movement of nitrate is expected as the soil warms, especially after the first major rain events following a drought, such as we’ve seen since late April.  Of course, last fall was dry, so we did not see movement of nitrates to streams going back to September 2012, which is the usual concern in Iowa.

This spring turned out to be wetter than normal, with some areas seeing several inches of rainfall in a single day, resulting in the recent 14-day nitrate spike we are seeing right now.  A new record for Iowa April average precipitation was set this year at 6.52 inches, twice the normal about of rainfall and comfortably beating the old record of 6.25 inches, set back in 1999.

The good news is that the Des Moines Water Works “treated water quality” is safe for people to drink and use, according to current data on the DSM Water Works website.  Considering Iowa’s proud first-in-the nation crop production status, it’s also a sign of progress that this is the first time in six years that the nitrate removal plant has even been used.  Clearly, if we all do our part, farmers, homeowners, businesses and communities, we will all have a positive impact on Iowa’s watershed, keeping Iowa’s water safe to drink today, and for future generations.

Written by Rick Robinson. Rick is environmental policy advisor for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation.