he Cedar River begins in southern Minnesota, winding its way south through five of Iowa’s largest cities and some of the richest farmland on Earth. Urban impacts, excess fertilizers and hydrologic modification have changed the river, and developed areas face increased flood risks as wetlands that held water back are lost. Efforts are underway throughout the watershed to restore wetlands, reduce future flood damage and improve water quality. Read about some of these projects here.
At the UMRR’s Oct 3 meeting in Cedar Rapids, Tony Nemmers, Natural Resource Technician for Linn County Conservation spoke about wetland and oxbow reconstruction, and other water quality projects underway in Linn County. It really is amazing all that is being done in Linn County. Nemmers’ PowerPoint is available for viewing here, and includes many lovely projects that are improving water quality as well as storing water to reduce flood risks.
On November 8, Linn County’s voters were asked to approve a $40 million dollar water and lands bond referendum, which passed by a wide margin. Ryan Schlader from Linn County told our group about this referendum and what funds raised will be used for. Also at this meeting, Iowa LWV’s provided short reports in a lightning round from leagues in Eastern Iowa about water initiatives in their areas. It was good to have these local Leagues as part of our meeting!
Some of our October Board Meeting attendees:
Mary Ann Nelson, Sue Wilson, Tam Prenosil,
Lonni McCauley and Gretchen Sabel
Congratulations to the 49 individuals who are now trained facilitators in use of the Watershed Game! Last month, LWV Jo Daviess County brought in trainers from the University of Minnesota for two days of training in Galena, Illinois. These trained facilitators will become leaders in the new wave of watershed education that will take place across the Upper Mississippi River Region watershed.
On October 24, members of the ILO from Wisconsin’s Sinsinawa, La Crosse, and Madison Leagues, Illinois’ Galena, Glenview, Rochelle, Sycamore and East Dubuque Leagues and Iowa’s Dubuque and Ottumwa Leagues take the next step in their water leadership work. These trained facilitators will be an essential part of the team in the Rotary-LWV partnership as this work moves into full swing with the January conference “Water – We are all in the Same Boat!” Learn more about this exciting work here.
October 25’s training group was from Jo Daviess County, where watershed-based actions are being undertaken in the Apple Plum watershed to improve water quality through science-based stewardship and evidence-based decision-making. Working with more than 20 stakeholders from around the county, the LWV Jo Daviess and the Jo Daviess County Soil and Water District have worked to develop a plan identifying and assessing issues related to surface and groundwater in the county.
At the 52nd national convention of the League of Women Voters held June 16-18, 2016 in Washington, D.C., LWV Jo Daviess County received the Effective Community Engagement Award for its water resource management plan project. The project was one of four finalists. League members from more than 800 local Leagues around the country voted online to award the honor.
Local issues identified during the two-year planning process fell into three broad categories: 1) storm water management; 2) groundwater management; and 3) water quality. Topography, soils, and geology of the county were found to create challenges in each of these areas. The plan documents consensus on three broad goals with specific objectives and includes a multi-year action plan designed to achieve incremental, sustainable improvements to water resource management across the county.
The plan is now being presented to county township boards, city councils, resort core boards, county board and other organizations. These groups will be invited to collaborate and focus on possible actions to accomplish the goals and objectives in the multi-year action plan.
Find a link to the plan in the “current issues” tab of lwvjodaviess.org.
Bill Stowe, CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works was the featured speaker at First Presbyterian Church in Cedar Rapids on November 4. Iowa is in a water quality crisis. In 2015, more Iowa beaches were closed due to unsafe bacterial levels than ever before, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported a record number of Iowa waterways failing to meet water quality standards (“impaired waters”). Bill Stowe spoke on the central Iowa utility’s mission to provide safe, affordable and abundant drinking water to 500,000 customers and the challenges faced in an agricultural watershed.
The Des Moines Water Works is suing three Iowa County Boards of Supervisors that manage drainage districts with high concentration of nitrates. Those drainage districts discharge tile drainage water into the Raccoon River, the primary water source for Des Moines, Iowa’s capital city. Stowe says, “Our theory is that the drainage districts are point-source polluters under the Federal Clean Water Act and a nuisance under Iowa law.” The case is currently scheduled to go to trial in June of 2017.
Nitrate pollution has been the “topic de jure,” as Stowe called it, since the Des Moines Water Works sued three northwest Iowa counties in 2015, arguing underground field tiles act as conduits carrying nitrates into the Raccoon River, a prime source of drinking water for the utility’s 500,000 customers.
“We’ve had the world’s largest denitrification facility for 25 years — 25 years! — and it’s too small because we’re seeing more nitrate come down the rivers,” Stowe said. The high contamination levels could soon force the utility to build a larger nitrate removal plant at a cost as high as $180 million, he said. The water works set a record in 2015 for the number of days it operated its nitrate-removal equipment, at an operating cost to its customers of $1.5 million.
Stowe makes the point that is that he is in the public health business. Water is not electricity, natural gas or cable TV, this commodity is a public health commodity and it is necessary to keep us alive. It is a public health issue when water quality is disparaged. Public confidence must be a concern. Des Moines’ drinking water comes mostly from surface water – the Raccoon River. Suspended solids, microorganisms, and nutrients are the biggest concerns in the water.
Geologically, the rich soil of Iowa was left by the Des Moines lobe of glaciation in the Ice Age. This soil is naturally very wet and is now drained to support agriculture. Much of the land is laterally tiled in squares with ten foot centers. This means that the water in the Raccoon River contains significant drainage from agricultural fields and the fertilizers that come with it.
Nitrogen levels have been tracked in the Raccoon River for over 100 years. 50 years ago it was relatively low. Iowa’s problems include the worst surface water quality in the U.S. The DNR’s 2015 list of impaired waterways numbered 725, a 132 percent increase from the 313 impaired waterways listed in 2004. There are more beach advisories now than before, and the hypoxic zone is increasing in the Gulf of Mexico. This is a problem that is here today and growing. In 2012, Iowa released its voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which calls for science-based practices to be installed across the state. This calls for a 45% reduction in the amount of nitrogen that is lost to the river. Progress is needed.
The Des Moines Water Works’ lawsuit is being paid for primarily by ratepayers; their Board has appropriated up to $700,000 for the litigation. They also have a small amount from private donors. They have not sought out large environmental or other benefactors, unlike agricultural interests who have a number of large benefactors supporting the county drainage districts.
Background: Stowe is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Grinnell College. He received a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Wisconsin, a master’s degree in industrial relations from the University of Illinois, and a Juris Doctor degree from Loyola University Law School. Stowe sits on the board of directors of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, which comprises the largest drinking water utilities in North America. He is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a member of the Iowa State Bar Association.
November 4, 2016, talk by Bill Stowe at First Presbyterian Church in Cedar Rapids; Reporting by Mary Ann Nelson, UMRR Vice Chair
Bill Stowe Photo Credits:
Our water is in trouble and we are all in the same boat. We need clean water for drinking and industry, and healthy ecosystems to support the life around us. It is time for us all to jump in, learn about what can be done, and get going on doing it!
Here’s a first step. On January 11, the Galena Rotary partners with the League of Women Voters Jo Daviess County to hold a day-long conference at Eagle Ridge Resort and Spa in Galena. This conference, titled “Water, We're all in the Same Boat” will be part of the 30th Annual Galena Rotary Roundtable. National and state speakers will describe water quality issues and solutions, leading to action. Regional workshop presenters will share the plans, policies and practices for successful water resource management in northwest Illinois' Apple Plum Watershed.
As a bonus, on January 10 there will be chance to socialize over wine and cheese while playing the Watershed Game, an interactive tool that helps individuals understand the connection between land use and water quality.
Come and join the team – clean water is critical for all of us!
For more information or to register, visit the conference webpage.