In a post on this blog last November, we provided information on the lawsuit filed by the Des Moines Water Works seeking damages from three upstream Iowa drainage authorities. In a response issued on Jan 27, the Iowa Supreme Court responded to four specific questions that needed to be answered for the lawsuit to proceed.
In this response, the Supreme Court found that drainage districts have a limited, targeted role to facilitate the drainage of farmland to make it more productive. For more than a century, Iowa law has immunized drainage districts from damage and injunctive relief claims, and that still holds in this case. The court also ruled that one subdivision of state government (the DMWW) cannot sue another (the drainage districts) under protections afforded by the Iowa Constitution, and that even if they could sue, an increased need to treat nitrates drawn from river water to meet drinking water standards would not amount to a constitutional violation. This means that the drainage districts of Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun Counties will not have to pay damages no matter the ruling in US District Court next June.
Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works, says that the suit will continue, although he’s disappointed, but not surprised, by the Supreme Court response. Analysis by the Des Moines Register reports that this ruling may “take pressure off the state to do something about its flagging water quality”, according to environmentalists. The remaining law suit seeks to require drainage districts to obtain federal permits for their discharges under the Clean Water Act. The Register noted that Iowa had a record number of record number of beach advisories last year, a growing impaired waters list and many toxic blue-green algal blooms. They quote Ralph Rosenberg, director of the Iowa Environmental Council, saying, “The public can’t swim in their favorite lakes or fish in their favorite rivers,” he said. “The urgency, responsibility and accountability issues remain.
According to the Des Moines Register, both environmental and agriculture groups have pushed for the Iowa legislature to raise the state sales tax by 3/8 of 1 cent and dedicate that money to improving Iowa’s water quality and other natural resources. This approach has been successful in Minnesota, although as described here on this blog, a lot more is needed.
Update March 9, 2017: Bill to dissolve the Des Moines Water Works utility can also dissolve the lawsuit: read about it here.
In a counterpoint to the Governor’s talk at the January 27 Water Summit, retired Cargill CEO Greg Page talked about how the measures that have been undertaken so far in Minnesota fall far short of the mark. For example, the $500million in CREP funding will pay to take out of production about .33% of all farmland in Minnesota. Assuming the land that’s retired is the most polluting .33%, this will reduce the nutrient load to the Mississippi by about 1%. Our goal is 40% reduction, so much more is needed. Farmland retirement is not a practical answer for most of the problem; we need to find ways to farm that are much more protective.
Page’s talk was philosophical in nature, saying that change can happen in one of three ways – through edict, order or regulation; through incentives; or through “collective voluntary responses to a shared threat”. He argued that the agriculture community needs to exhibit share values of water protection, and that if significant changes in how food is grown are not forthcoming, there will be more edicts to order change. These changes are beginning now, and the effects are spreading. Through practices like precision agriculture, farmers use less nitrogen now per unit of corn produced than they did a generation ago.
The Governor’s Town Hall Water Summit was held January 27, 2017. In his opening remarks at the summit, Governor Dayton gave a passionate summary of the state of the state’s water, citing Minnesota Pollution Control Agency studies that found that across the state, about 40% of surface water does not meet standards. In some parts of southwestern Minnesota, more than 90% of surface water is not fit for human consumption and does not support wildlife. The Governor addressed the human aspect of pollution, saying that people who are causing upstream pollution are not suffering from that pollution, because it moves downstream to affect others. He told the audience that Minnesotans need to face facts, and look at what legacy we will leave to our children and grandchildren.
The ‘buffer bill’ that was passed in 2015 required that buffer strips be placed along streams and ditches in Minnesota. 50’riparian buffers were required for natural streams, and 16.5’ buffers were required for ditches. The law included deadlines (November 2017 for streams and November 2018 for ditches) and enforcement mechanisms. In 2016, the law was amended to clarify that buffers are required for public ditches but not private ditches. Now, in 2017, a bill has been introduced to repeal the buffer law all together. Governor Dayton vowed that he will compromise no further on buffers, citing reports from the implementing state agencies that good progress is being made and the actual number of farmers who need to take additional actions is relatively small. He says that by giving away private ditches in 2016, he’s compromised enough. The water in private ditches runs into public waters, too. It is all connected.
State agencies (DNR and BWSR) testified in a recent hearing that already about 75-80% of farmland with ditches or adjacent to streams are compliant and have required buffers, and that they believe that the law will be successfully implemented by the November 2018 deadline even though thousands of parcels throughout the state still need to do something about water quality. Governor Dayton’s budget includes funding for farmers who lose valuable farmland to buffers. Also, federal funding for CREP, the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, was recently received in Minnesota that will pay farmers to retire lands in vulnerable areas. Through CREP, $500 million will be spent on farmland conservation in the near future.
The summit was held at the University of Minnesota Morris, with satellite participation at other U of M campuses in the state. You can watch the full summit on YouTube.
University of Iowa's Dr Peter Weyer on cancer and birth defects due to elevated nitrate in drinking water
This episode of the EnvIowa podcast features Dr Peter Weyer, Interim Director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, discussing his recent research on nitrates in Iowa drinking water and their effects on human health. A number of studies suggest links between elevated nitrate concentrations in drinking water and other health issues, including birth defects, cancers, thyroid problems and a variety of other health concerns.
In order to protect against blue-baby syndrome, the EPA’s maximum contaminant level or MCL is set at 10 mg/liter. Since blue-baby syndrome has not been seen as a problem of late, there has been a pressure to raise the limit and allow more nitrate in drinking water. However, there is now a pushback from the public health community to look at the studies that show a definite health risk. One is the Iowa Women’s Health study of 2200 women, over twenty years, drinking water with known nitrate levels. Even with levels of 2.5 mg/liter, there was a 2 - 3 fold increase in bladder, ovarian, and thyroid cancers. When looking at birth defects, there was also a significant increase in spina bifida, limb deficiencies and cleft palate, even given the mothers consumed the water with nitrates only a few months. In all animal studies, it was shown that water with elevated nitrates was a carcinogen.
There are significant public policy implications of this work - listen to the podcast for Dr. Weyer's take on this. Blog post by LWV UMRR's Vice-chair, Mary Ann Nelson, with help from the blog editor.
This problem is a focus of the website Circle of Blue. They say, “Expansive blooms of toxic algae are poisoning drinking water, closing beaches, and creating oxygen-deprived aquatic “dead zones” around the globe. Driven by excess amounts of nutrients washing into waterways from expanding agriculture and cities, the blooms represent a growing water quality crisis that could further deteriorate under climate change.” (Circle of Blue) On this website, there are several stories about algal blooms and human health.
In 2013, the International Joint Commission for the Great Lakes issued a literature review citing problems that can arise from these algal by-products. (IJC) This scholarly research reports that “… many (blue-green algae blooms) produce toxic secondary metabolites, the cyanotoxins, which can cause serious, acute intoxication in mammals (including humans) affecting the hepatopancreatic, digestive, endocrine, dermal, and nervous systems. This report addresses the objective to assess the human health impacts associated with harmful algal blooms (HABs) especially those associated with blooms of cyanobacteria or blue-green algae (cyanoHABs).”
Algae blooms are very common on the Upper Mississippi and its tributaries, which provide drinking water for millions of Americans. Environmental degradation resulting from excessive nutrients is very visible; it is time that we also begin to examine the human health impacts. These impacts have been documented extensively in the Great Lakes region, so we know it can happen here as well.
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