Is Iowa’s drinking water safe?
When it comes to my health, I treat my body well, but I’m by no means perfect in my decisions. There are days I have good intentions to exercise while my son naps, but once he finally nods off, I choose to watch another episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives instead. I don’t always follow USDA’s “MyPlate” recommendations, instead filling my entire plate with not-so-whole grains like giant, frosted cinnamon rolls. But I do have one healthy habit: I drink tons of water. In fact, I don’t leave home without my water bottle.
With water being such a beneficial part of human health, it’s important to me, especially as a mom of a kiddo who loves cold water from his sippy cup, that the water my family drinks is clean. So, I can understand when there is alarm over relentless stories that claim Iowa’s water is dirtier than ever, our drinking water isn’t safe or that it will take thousands of years to reach our water quality goals. While I don’t believe them all, do I have cause to worry? Do you?
How much clean drinking water does Iowa have?
The 2018 Public Drinking Water Program Annual Compliance Report put out by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) shows Iowa’s public water systems (PWS), which serve 93 percent of Iowans, deliver an abundance of clean drinking water to Iowans across the state. The report explicitly states, “No waterborne diseases or deaths were reported from Iowa public water supply systems (PWS) in 2018.” This has remained unchanged since these reports began in 1996, and to be sure, I checked with the Iowa Department of Public Health who were also unaware of any illnesses or deaths caused by a public water supply.
This year, 98 percent of Iowans on a PWS regularly received water that met all health-based drinking water standards—the best in a ten-year period! This means in 2018, those systems did not have a single contaminant that was above the maximum level set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). And nitrates were at a ten-year low with only five public water systems out of 1,838 having levels that exceeded EPA standards.
That last fact may contradict what you read about drinking water these days. But consider this: within the last 20 years, the population served by Des Moines Water Works has grown by about 80,000 people who, along with their other 420,000-some customers in the metro area, use about 100 gallons of water per day. This jump in usage means upgrades to infrastructure and technology are needed. Just as farmers harness new technology to aid water quality, many other entities have the opportunity to do the same.
What are the effects of poor water quality on human health?
First, we know water does positive things for the body; it helps our organs function, aids in weight management and improves mental and physical energy. Without water, even adults in comfortable conditions could not last longer than a week.
Because water is vital to life, there are many people weighing into the issue, putting out all kinds of frightening (and frustrating) headlines as some try to generate hype about our drinking water by claiming Iowa generates the same amount of manure from our people and livestock as the 165 million people living in Bangladesh! Young mothers like myself have enough to be worried about without misleading and downright terrible comparisons like that. Reports show Iowans have access to clean water every day—even with Iowa being the number one producer of hogs in the United States. It’s a very different story in Bangladesh, where millions of people lack access to safe water due to bacterial pollution from human fecal matter and arsenic. So honestly, let’s not even go there.
What contributes to water pollution?
This year, Iowa experienced heavy flooding. With that comes a plethora of chemicals and physical objects that pollute and make it challenging for utilities to treat drinking water. Complicating it further, due to the flooding, some Iowa municipalities were forced to pump sewage into rivers to avoid major backups. Yikes!
Even in typical years, Iowa experiences rainfall events that can carry various items and substances across both urban and rural landscapes. In urban areas, stormwater can carry garbage, debris, lawn fertilizers, automotive fluids and more as rain water cannot penetrate quickly enough or at all in urbanized areas. Even outdated or poorly maintained septic systems can allow bacteria to enter drinking water. Sediment from urban environments can also contribute to recreational spots in Iowa being temporarily unusable.
While agriculture is often the scapegoat for water quality, it’s important to note 10,000 pounds of nitrogen exist naturally in every acre of Iowa’s soils, and farmers only apply about 150 pounds of nitrogen per acre for corn, according to Iowa State University (ISU) Associate Professor Mike Castellano. In fact, soybeans, which do not receive fertilizer, still lose the same amount of nitrogen per acre as corn, which is spoon-fed fertilizer through precision application. Good management of nutrients is critical, and farmers know this. That’s why they’re taking on the challenge to control nutrient loss from their fields.
How is water quality being protected in Iowa?
I wish I could give kudos to every single water quality project in Iowa—because when you take the time to soak in all the partnerships throughout the state uniting rural and urban people, it’s overwhelmingly positive. The water quality strategy we have in Iowa, which brings many partners together, has been a national model for other states and focuses on science to help improve conservation practices—and it’s working. An ISU study shows phosphorous loading is down by 22 percent since measurements began in 1980. This goal has nearly been met, and now there’s a significant focus on applying the same concentrated efforts to reduce nitrates.
For example, a mix of more than 130 practices implemented in rural and urban areas have brought great success in Dry Run Creek, including 400 pounds of nitrogen and 4,000 pounds of phosphorous removed every year and 73 million gallons of storm water successfully infiltrated.
Statewide, erosion of Iowa’s cropland is down more than 26 percent in 30 years (meaning less soil is moving into our water). Iowa farmers have restored more than 313,000 football fields worth of wetlands—which on average can reduce 52 percent of nitrates from reaching our water. And in the Raccoon River—a drinking water source for many Iowans—nitrates have trended lower by nearly 25 percent, despite an increase of corn acres. Even trout fishing has returned to parts of the state.
These are a drop in the bucket compared to many positive conservation stories in Iowa. We’re far from done and farmers know that, too. Bottom line: am I scared for my family to drink Iowa’s water? There are systems in place, from utilities testing water and DNR oversight to our comprehensive statewide plan from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa DNR and Iowa State University that give me peace of mind that the water we get straight from the tap is safe for me and my family. And even before drinking water gets treated, there are Iowans out there from all walks of life who are working hard to put a variety of practices in place across the rural and urban landscape to ensure its safety. With all the collaboration being done, I feel we’re all in good hands. Why don’t we all raise an ice-cold glass of water to that?
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