DNR: Eastern Iowa restaurant repeatedly failed to test water

By: - February 21, 2022 4:42 pm

High concentrations of nitrate in drinking water can cause “blue baby syndrome” in infants. (Photo by Peter Cade Stone/Getty Images)

A restaurant in a small eastern Iowa town that has groundwater contaminated by farm fertilizer did not adequately test the drinking water from its well for more than three years, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Newt’s Cafe in Nichols, a town of about 340 people southeast of Iowa City, is required to test the water it serves customers each day for nitrate because the water from its shallow well has had unsafe nitrate concentrations in excess of 10 parts per million in the past.

The contaminant — which can occur naturally in groundwater but can also come from agricultural fertilizer — is regulated because it limits oxygen in the blood of people who drink it. Infants are most likely to be affected by consuming water that is high in nitrate.

Nearby agricultural businesses that have sold fertilizers and other farm chemicals are suspected of contaminating the ground, said Ryan Stouder, an environmental specialist for the DNR.

The cafe has a treatment system that has been effective in reducing nitrate concentrations to a level that is deemed safe by the federal government, but the cafe is required to test its water daily to ensure the system is operating as expected.

The DNR has documented numerous violations of the cafe’s testing requirements dating back to May 2017, according to a recent DNR administrative order. As part of that order, the cafe had agreed to comply with the testing requirements to avoid a fine. Iowa law allows fines of up to $5,000 per day for the violations.

The cafe’s current owners, Al and Roxann Hostetler, purchased the building nearly four years ago, according to county records. Stouder said they hired someone to test the water monthly but were unaware of the daily testing requirements. They also failed to submit the test results to the DNR.

Monthly tests that have been conducted since May 2020 have found that the water treatment system has been effective in limiting nitrate levels to about 1 parts per million, but daily testing has still been sporadic, Stouder said. A recent test on Feb. 2 showed a concentration of 3.8 parts per million.

Nichols has long been troubled by the groundwater contamination that was first discovered in 1997, according to news reports at the time. Its homes and businesses are supplied with water from private wells, and city leaders balked at creating a municipal water system because it would have cost more than $500,000, the Muscatine Journal reported.

In 2015, the drinking water at a local tavern, Burt’s Tap, had nitrate concentrations of more than 24 parts per million, the Journal reported.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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