Company wants to export Iowa water to thirsty western states

Proposal to sell more than 2 billion gallons would set a record for Iowa water exports

Parched land. (Photo by Getty Images)

A controversial Clayton County sand mining operation wants to ship water from two Jordan Aquifer wells on its property to undisclosed, drought-stricken western states in the largest export of water the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has considered. 

The state geologist and a key state lawmaker raised questions about the permit application from Pattison Sand Co. of Clayton. The firm is most known for producing fine sand used in oil and gas fracking. Now, the company wants to sell more than 2 billion gallons of Iowa groundwater per year  to customers in other states in tanker cars via rail.

That would be enough water to supply the main Des Moines water plant for 20 days. It is just under the 2.2 billion gallons used by all entities in Polk County in a year, according to DNR.

A Pattison spokeswoman, human resources director Courtney Severson, said the company is in the early stages of considering the project. She did not respond to emailed questions Wednesday and Thursday. Company founder Kyle Pattison did not respond to an email Thursday. 

DNR spokesman Alex Murphy said the state staff expects to decide soon whether to grant the permit request. 

Water use permits are evaluated based on protecting “beneficial use” under state law. That means DNR looks to prevent waste, to promote conservation and to make sure enough water is going into streams to protect flows, the DNR website reports.

Murphy said if Pattison’s request is granted, the withdrawal would be the largest on record involving water sent to other states. Only small amounts of Iowa water now leave as rural water systems serve customers just across the borders. 

“The DNR has not had a proposal of this scope or magnitude before this,” Murphy said. “No major out-of-state transfers have been proposed” before this, he added.

In the application for a state permit, Pattison officials said the water would be a secondary drinking water source for areas in the west that are fighting a 19-year drought and have wells that “no longer can be recharged,” or refilled by rain. 

The proposed export of Iowa water  “is an attempt to prevent economic collapse of a region,” Pattison noted in its DNR permit application.

Company officials told DNR the water would be sold in at least two states that have struggled with drinking water supplies.

The wells in question were approved by DNR for other reasons and are already installed, Murphy said. 

Pattison has been in the news in recent years due to dust complaints from neighbors and frequent violations of worker safety regulations. From 2005, when the operation started in a cave previously used for storage, to 2016, Pattison had more workplace violations that any other U.S. sand operation, according to a Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism analysis of Mine Safety and Health Administration records, the nonprofit news operation IowaWatch reported.

State geologist Keith Schilling (Photo courtesy of University of Iowa)

State geologist Keith Schilling of the University of Iowa, who is involved in projects assessing the Jordan Aquifer’s ability to meet demand, told Iowa Capital Dispatch the permit application “definitely needs additional study.” He was unaware of Pattison’s proposal.

“You can’t just take that water without there being an effect in the rest of the state,” Schilling said. While the aquifer near Pattison refills quickly because the Jordan layer is near the surface there, the water is 1,000 to 1,500 feet deep in the central part of the state, Schilling noted. He doubts Pattison’s plan would have a big effect, but added that state officials should consider that carefully.

The Jordan Aquifer, shown in yellow, is a key well water source across the state. A Clayton sand mining operation wants to send water from its Jordan wells to dry western states by rail tankers. Map courtesy of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources

The water central Iowa utilities draw from the Jordan is anywhere from 100,000 to a million years old and only a tiny part of the newer water in the layer comes from rain locally. Most of it comes from Minnesota and northeast Iowa, but the trip through the vast underground rock layers to other parts of Iowa takes more than 10,000 years, Schilling said.

State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, said the proposal concerns him. He said he considers it more evidence that getting rid of the DNR’s state geologist office and replacing it with Schilling’s work at the University of Iowa leaves some questions unanswered.

“The state of Iowa recently (2018) eliminated its state geologist position, due to DNR budget cuts,” said Hogg, ranking member of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee. 

“I am concerned that we are not adequately tracking and assessing use of our deep groundwater resources. We urgently need to restore funding so that our state can provide proper management and supervision of our water resources,” Hogg said.

Scientists consider Iowa water-rich, but the state developed a long-term water plan with special attention to the Jordan Aquifer when ethanol plants and hog operation began to test supplies in some areas. Use of the Jordan has been rising in the state overall, DNR records show, but the most recent analysis of Clayton County showed less water being drawn there than in the past. 

Des Moines Water Works stores treated water in Jordan wells to serve Microsoft’s West Des Moines operations. West Des Moines Water Works has several Jordan wells from which it draws water to treat. Jordan wells continue to be used around the state.

As of 2018, Iowa had issued 208 permits for various entities to withdraw water from Jordan wells which typically are more than 1,500 feet deep.The Clayton wells are only 100 feet deep because the Jordan is near the surface in that part of Iowa and in parts of Minnesota.

Most of Iowa’s newest Jordan wells have been for meat processing, dairies, ethanol production, and livestock confinements, the state reported.