Green water is costing Iowans millions of greenbacks

July 12, 2021 8:00 am

Union Grove State Park beach near Gladbrook has had issues with algae toxins and fecal bacteria. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Environmental Council)

When I think of Iowa, I think green.

Driving across the state a few weeks ago, I was struck all over again by how, even as drought threatened, the landscape rushing by the car windows was a sea of verdant crops, grassy hills, prairie plants and leafy pockets of forest.

What’s not as apparent from the road is how many places green is crowding in where it doesn’t belong, like our drinking water supplies. Nearly a year ago, we learned that the Des Moines River is “essentially unusable” for drinking water because of toxins from algae.

A national environmental organization earlier this year labeled the Raccoon River one of the country’s most endangered because of toxic algae and nitrates. Des Moines Water Works CEO Ted Corrigan called it a “catastrophe,” as the Raccoon is the major source for drinking water for a half-million Iowans. Iowa’s secretary of agriculture called the report “propaganda,” probably because the report laid most of the blame for the problem on the farm chemicals and livestock manure that are running from those emerald fields into our increasingly sickly green rivers and streams.

Iowans have known about this problem for years and most have seemingly been content to paddle around in that other popular river: Denial.

The latest news emphasizes the shade of green that usually gets Iowans’ attention. Des Moines Water Works, after dumping as much as $250,000 a year into buying water from the increasingly polluted Saylorville Lake, is now considering a $50 million treatment plant expansion, the Iowa Capital Dispatch’s Perry Beeman reported. That’s a lot of green and guess who will have to pay?

It’s safe to say it won’t be the people who are profiting most from the nearly unrestricted fouling of one of Iowa’s most precious resources. Des Moines Water Works’ former CEO, the late Bill Stowe, tried to share the cost with upstream polluters, but the lawsuit he filed in 2015 failed and he was relentlessly vilified for his trouble by the big-money ag interests and their pet politicians.

A separate case against the state of Iowa, filed by environmental groups, alleged the state was violating the public trust by failing to protect the Raccoon River from pollution. The Iowa Supreme Court threw it out last month on jurisdictional grounds. Meanwhile, a separate environmental group put out a report showing that Iowa’s voluntary program for curbing farm runoff, the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, would take up to 22,000 years to reach some of its goals at the current rate of progress. It would be laughable if it weren’t so sad.

Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed a sales tax increase that would have poured new money into water quality initiatives. The plan didn’t pass the GOP-controlled Legislature. But even if it had, Reynolds and Republicans in the Legislature remain unwilling to demand and enforce standards for reducing farm runoff. That’s unlikely to change unless other businesses in the state start loudly protesting the hidden tax that the costs of water treatment are going to impose on them.

Iowans generally have had the luxury of taking water for granted in a way that millions of our fellow Americans no longer can. Rising temperatures and drought are creating an increasingly dangerous and desperate situation across huge areas of the West and Southwest. It’s gotten so dry that some states were willing to pay a sand company to ship out millions of gallons of Iowa water from the Jordan Aquifer. (The Iowa Capital Dispatch was the first to report that last year.) The state shut down the idea, at least for now. But expect the demand to continue to rise. Before long, that sand company may have willing customers a lot closer to home.

We can’t take this resource for granted any longer. Last week, my 79-year-old dad told me he’s been collecting laundry rinse water and hauling it up the basement stairs to water his garden. I admire the conservation but worry about his health.

Like many native Iowans, I have a family connection to the land. I honor farmers and respect the importance of agriculture to our state. I don’t mind if some of my tax dollars help farmers pay for the kind of sustainable practices that we already know work to reduce farm runoff and help preserve water resources for city dwellers like me. I’m willing to spend a little more for sustainably produced food. But where we should draw the line is paying more and more on our water bills so someone else can keep all the greenbacks they save by polluting.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.