Panel approves contested water rules, eyes dam safety

By: - May 18, 2021 4:06 pm
The Raccoon River in the Des Moines area is among the most-polluted in the state.

The Raccoon River is a main source of drinking water for the Des Moines area. (Photo by Perry Beeman, Iowa Capital Dispatch)

A state environmental panel on Tuesday approved new water quality rules critics said would threaten Iowa’s waterways.

The governor-appointed Environmental Protection Commission approved rules on water quality certifications related to permits. The Iowa Environmental Council, a nonprofit coalition of 80 environmental groups and 500 individual members, had said the rules appear to take away important protections for Iowa’s waterways.

Specifically, the group contended in its formal comments that the changes approved by the panel would remove a requirement that projects near “outstanding waters” get individual certification. The rule changes also appear to allow heavy equipment now banned from waterways, and would remove wetland loss restrictions, the council said. 

The environmental council also warned that the rules appear to set a specific list of conditions available for the Department of Natural Resources to use when considering permits. That could lead to water quality standard violations, the environmental group said.

In response, DNR staffers said a list of required conditions in the rules assures good water quality, and other restrictions on pollution are listed in other code sections.

“The list of proposed conditions was developed to assure protection of water quality standards for a wide variety of permitted activities,” the DNR staff wrote.

The staff noted part of the proposed rule states that during construction and upon completion of the project, actions “must be taken to prevent pollution affecting public health, fish, shellfish, wildlife, and recreation due to turbidity, pH, nutrients, suspended solids, floating debris, visible oil and grease, or other pollutants entering waters of the state.”

The staff added: “While all methods of compliance with water quality standards for all potential projects may not be defined in the list of proposed conditions, those conditions listed do assure compliance with water quality standards.”

At the commission meeting Tuesday, DNR water quality monitoring staff supervisor Roger Bruner said the environmental council’s suggested changes were “outside the scope” of the federal rules. When a council staffer asked him to elaborate at the meeting, Bruner said the changes the environmental council requested included conditions that weren’t directly related to a specific water quality standard, as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA has required that any changes to the rules be tied to a specific water quality standard, Bruner said. The agency took that approach after some other states added requirements to their project certifications that referred to climate change, for example.

After the meeting, Ingrid Gronstal, water program director for the environmental council, said her group was disappointed by the commission’s action.

“DNR could have adopted our proposed changes to ensure compliance with water quality standards, but chose not to,” Gronstal said.

Rathbun Lake

In other action, the commission approved a $427,620 contract with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to continue work to protect Rathbun Lake from pollution.

The work will include conservation projects on local farms to reduce sediment and fertilizer runoff. 

Work at Rathbun began in the early 1990s with the help of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grants. Work has involved 600 landowners and 34,000 acres, DNR reported. That work has reduced sediment runoff by 66,000 tons per year, and phosphorus runoff by 279,000 pounds per year.

Rathbun is a major recreation spot and also provides drinking water for 90,000 customers.

University of Iowa

The commission approved its annual contract with the State Hygienic Laboratory for water quality testing in streams in rivers. The $702,000 contract is the latest for biological assessments that began in 1994. 

Dam safety

The first major overhaul of the state’s dam-safety rules in 29 years won commission approval. 

The new rules would require an emergency action plans for dams that are considered a “high hazard.”

Jonathan Garton, DNR dam safety supervisor, said the proposed changes to be considered after public input would streamline rules scattered across several code sections and bring the state’s rule in line with federal regulations. 

The new rules would make it easier for dam owners to get the required permits, in some cases reducing the number they need. 

A public comment period is expected to lead to a July public hearing and August action by the commission. 

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Perry Beeman
Perry Beeman

Senior reporter Perry Beeman has nearly 40 years of experience in Iowa journalism and has won national awards for environmental and business writing. He has written for The Des Moines Register and the Business Record, where he also served as managing editor. He also is former editorial director of Grinnell College. He co-authored the recently published book, "The $80 Billion Gamble," which details the lottery-rigging case of Eddie Tipton.

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