The people of Wisconsin are concerned about what’s happening to their water. This concern was shown Monday night in Stevens Point, where more than 90 people packed the Pinery Room at the Portage County Library to hear Dr. George Kraft talk about the science and policy debate around high capacity wells – read more about this event here. Dr. Kraft’s presentation was captured in an informal video on Facebook live, visit the LWV UMRR Facebook page and look under”Videos”.
Dr. Kraft is Professor Emeritus from the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. His work has focused on groundwater resource sustainability, particularly about profitable agriculture and water impacts, and is involved in work to modernize Wisconsin’s groundwater pumping management policy and laws. Wisconsin’s Central Sands region is where Dr. Kraft has spent much of his career, and was the focus of his remarks Monday night.
In his talk, Dr. Kraft first talked about groundwater hydrology; explaining the connection between ground- and surface waters. When groundwater levels drop, whether from lack of recharge in dry times or from pumping from wells, surface water resources are also affected. (If the water table drops eight feet, for example, spring-fed streams that intersect the water table will also go down to the same elevation as the water table. The actual amount of drop in surface water levels depends on their normal water level elevation.) Shallower streams like minor tributaries are often dried up, and deeper water bodies will drop in water level. When the amount of cold groundwater entering a stream diminishes, the water warms. Warmer streams longer support trout and other cold-water species, meaning that groundwater depletion leads to ecological change as well.
Dr. Kraft talked about the continued expansion of farm irrigation in Wisconsin’s Central Sands. The number of high-capacity irrigation wells in this area has grown significantly, and resultant drops in the water table level have been recorded.
What is the effect of this? Dr. Kraft showed pictures of lakes and streams where water levels have dropped, which is especially dramatic in dry years. This isn’t just happening in Wisconsin – Minnesota has similar geologic terrains and similar problems. Dr. Kraft talked about the approach that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is taking in the Straight River Groundwater Management Area- read about that here. A second project in Minnesota relating to water use and depletion was reported on in this blog earlier – the Little Rock Creek study.
So, will the irrigation wells run out of water, too? Dr. Kraft said that there’s probably plenty of water for irrigation wells for years to come. Central Wisconsin is a water-rich area, receiving more than 30 inches of rain a year. Groundwater is recharged by the rain, and the aquifers here are deep. The groundwater resource will sustain heavy pumping for the foreseeable future, but the impacts on surface water will continue. It is up to the people of Wisconsin to balance theses competing values.
While Dr. Kraft’s talk focused on water quantity, water quality is also an issue in central Wisconsin. Both are addressed by the Center for Watershed Science and Management at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. Dr. Paul McGinley is the Director of this Center, Dr. Kraft is an emeritus member and Kevin Masarik, a doctoral student at UW Madison, is also part of the team. Another hydrologist will soon be hired to round out the team. Support for the Center’s staff comes primarily from UW Extension, so outreach to citizens, lake associations and others is a major part of their work.
Nitrate contamination is a real problem in Wisconsin, affecting more than 25% of all private wells. Here’s a video presentation where Kevin Masarik explains what nitrate is and explores the effects of nitrate on the environment, drinking water and groundwater. In this video, Masarik discusses data found in Wisconsin’s Well Water Viewer, which can be found at this link.
Wisconsin’s groundwater has been the subject of other posts on this blog. See “Protecting Wisconsin Well Owners and Providing Safe Water” at https://www.lwvumrr.org/blog/protecting-wisconsin-well-owners-and-providing-safe-water and “When it Hits the Fan – Groundwater Quality and Public Health” at https://www.lwvumrr.org/blog/when-it-hits-the-fan-groundwater-quality-and-public-health .
On Thursday, March 8, League of Women Voters of Brainerd (Minnesota) hosted Anna Bosch of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in a discussion of water quality on the Upper Mississippi. (The Mississippi River headwaters are in northern Minnesota and the river travels nearly a third of its length inside Minnesota. When Minnesotans talk about the “Upper Mississippi”, they mean the stretch of the river that flows from the Headwaters to just north of the Twin Cities.) Anna talked about work the MPCA is doing to identify water quality problems and threats in the Upper Mississippi, and to work with local governments to protect and improve water quality. Click here for the document that Anna used as the basis for her talk.
The first 350 miles of the river flow through forests and wetlands. Only 4% of the land is developed in this part of the basin, and 13% is in crop and pasture. Water quality in this area is very good, and the focus of the efforts here are on protecting water quality. Not only is there significant protection to the river offered by the surrounding forests but the river is spring-fed; these groundwater contributions sustain both flow and water quality in the river.
In a previous blog post, we discussed problems with groundwater depletion, stream warming and stream flow loss as well as increasing levels of nitrate in both surface and groundwater. When Anna spoke, she pointed out similar issues in the Crow Wing River Watershed. Here, lands that had been in tree plantations are being cleared and replaced by crops, primarily irrigated potatoes. This conversion removes protection for the river. Cultivating the land can increase sedimentation; fertilizers used on the crops can increase nitrate in surface and groundwater, and irrigation lowers groundwater levels which impacts the flow of groundwater into the river. This combination of changes has significant impacts on the river, and those downstream who rely on it for drinking water. According to MPCA, “for every 10% decrease in forest cover … the cost of water treatment for downstream communities increases by 20%.”
The Upper Upper Mississippi is a river with excellent water quality in the river and most of the lakes in its watershed. It flows through the land of cabins and resorts; recreational fishing and water recreation in winter and summer is a major industry. Land uses here are changing which will result in changes in this river. Numerous challenges face Minnesotans as they balance growth and development with recreational uses and drinking water needs.
The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection estimates that roughly one in five private wells in rural areas of Wisconsin have levels of agricultural pollution that make the water unsafe to drink. On October 31, Wisconsin bills AB 226 & SB 168 was passed by the Wisconsin Senate and sent to Governor Walker for signature. If signed, this bill will make it easier for more households to cover the costs of their contaminated wells or failing septic systems by allowing local governments to provide low cost or no-cost loans to replace these wells and systems. It also increases the maximum grant amount under the state’s Well Compensation Grant program to $12,000. The full text of this bill can be read at this link. The Wisconsin Conservation Voters have been following and supporting this bill.
This bill allows a local government to pay to remediate water contamination problems and then charge the homeowner through special assessments on property taxes.... and no cost is imposed on the party responsible for the contamination in the first place. When asked for comment, Tressie Kamp of Midwest Environmental Advocates says (in an email dated November 6) that “this bill is only a first step toward holding various levels of government accountable for unacceptable numbers of contaminated private wells throughout our state. We specifically agree that the cap on funding does not cover the comprehensive costs to homeowners, especially those who may need to replace their well more than once. We also agree that local government loans, rather than payment from a responsible party, is an incomplete solution. But allowing local governments to make loans to bridge the gap as residents navigate the DNR well compensation program may help people who have immediate costs for getting clean water.”
For more information on the contamination of Wisconsin wells, read our blog post recounting the talk by Mark Borchart, DIrector of the Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment, US Geologic Survey at this link: In his talk, Borchart discusses groundwater contamination in Wisconsin’s agricultural areas. The Wisconsin DNR has information on manure contamination identification on their website here, and is in the process of developing rules to address agricultural contamination of wells finished in the Silurian bedrock areas of Wisconsin. There are other areas of significant contamination, such as in the Brice Prairie area near La Crosse. Given this, should be scope of DNR’s rulemaking be broader?
This two-day "Celebrate the Headwaters" event (described here) began on Sunday, October 1, with us taking the last cruise of the season with Coborn's Lake Itasca tours. We visited and talked about water issues with LWV member and the public on the cruise, then met at the Headwaters for a group photo. On Monday, we held our Board meeting in the morning and at noon were joined by speakers from the Minnesota Department of Health and the nonprofit "Toxic Taters" to talk about nitrate in drinking water. You can watch the education part of the program here. - we recorded it and live-streamed through Facebook Live.
Katie DeSchane was on hand to talk about the work that Toxic Taters is doing in the Park Rapids area. Park Rapids, MN, is the city closest to the Headwaters. Changes in land use, where former tree plantations are being cut and repurposed for irrigated potato farming, is a growing concern. Kathie's group works to raise public awareness of the issue and to help people take action to protect their water supplies. Here are some links: Minnesota Department of Health Source Water Protection; Toxic Taters, and Friends of the Mississippi Headwaters. This last group had a table at our meeting with information on their work on pipelines - read about it in this blog post on the LWV UMRR website.
Mark Borchardt is the DIrector of the Laboratory for Infectious Disease and the Environment, USGS. He has been studying the microbes that contaminate Wisconsin's groundwater, and the impact they have on the health of the people of Wisconsin. He told us that it is important to understand that poop is very political. The two big sources of fecal contamination in water are cows and people, and fecal organisms are found in water throughout Wisconsin. Is this a health risk or a non-issue?
The second marks below can be used to navigate to specific elements of Mark's talk in this summary:
7:30 The Laboratory conducted a study to determine how many people are getting sick from drinking non-chlorinated municipal water. This was the WAHTER study, back in 2007-8. ( Click here for more information. ). They correlated the presence of pathogens in water to the incidence of acute gastrointestinal disease. The incidence of disease far surpasses the ‘allowable’ level of disease due to water borne illness that has been set by US EPA. People who drink water from non-disinfected public water supplies or private wells are much more susceptible to water-borne disease than people whose water is disinfected.
21:00 Based on this study, Wisconsin passed a law requiring all water supplies be disinfected. However, after political change in state government, a law was passed that prohibits DNR from requiring disinfection.
25:00 The septic system at a restaurant in Door County was causing illness. It was a new system; how could this be happening? The answer was that there was a broken seal in the tank that was causing part of the problem, but the other part of the problem was that the bedrock in the area is fractured dolomite which quickly spreads contamination over great distances. Mark's talk tracks the movement of contaminants through the groundwater to neighboring residential wells.
29:40 Kewaunee County still has “brown water events” in the spring and fall that are clearly linked with intestinal disease. Genetic testing has traced the fecal organisms back to both humans and cattle, and this area has a very large number of Combined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). The cattle-source organisms probably spike when manure is being applied, but the human-source organisms are present year round due to the widespread use of septic systems in the area. ( Click here for more information. In this article, one participant asked whether dispensing less liquid manure would reduce well contamination. “You don’t need a scientist for that one,” Borchardt answered. “If you remove the fecal source, you remove the contamination.” )
Des Moines Water Works lawsuit summarily dismissed, closing this chapter but not solving the problem
On March 17, 2017, Judge Leonard T. Strand, US District Court of the Northern District of Iowa, issued a summary judgement in favor of the defendants in Des Moines Water Works versus Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun Counties. The defendants in the case filed a motion requesting the case be dismissed. Judge Strand ruled in their favor.
Specifically, the ruling finds that the drainage districts represented by the three counties do not have the authority to “mandate changes in farming practices to reduce fertilizer runoff or to assess farmers for the cost of removing nitrates from waters flowing through agricultural drainage systems.” You can read the ruling at this link.
For history on this lawsuit, you can read the complaint that the Des Moines Water Works filed in 2015 here.
The January Supreme Court decision can be found here.
If you’d prefer a short summary to reading all these decisions, check out this story on WHOT. Iowa Public Radio has information on this here, and also gets photo credits for the drainage ditch pictures with this post. Click on the pictures for a link to the IPR article.
Next steps? Judge Strand suggested that this is a problem for the Legislature to decide, not the Courts. We will cover further happenings here in this blog.
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.
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.
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:
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