DM Water Works forced to use nitrate-removal system for first time since 2017

By: - June 9, 2022 2:35 pm

The Des Moines Water Works has been forced to use its nitrate-removal system for the first time in five years. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Water Works)

Elevated nitrate concentrations in its water supply has forced the Des Moines Water Works to begin operating its nitrate-removal system for the first time in five years.

Des Moines Water Works utilizes various filtration procedures to manage issues, including nitrates, with its source water in order to provide safe drinking water to 600,000 central Iowans. The level of nitrate in the utility’s water supply fluctuates, and is attributable to excess nutrients on upstream farmland running off the land and entering Iowa’s rivers, lakes and streams.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Standard for nitrate is 10 milligrams per liter, and the nitrate levels in the rivers and groundwater used by the Des Moines Water Works have recently peaked at more than nine milligrams per liter.

As a result, the Water Works is now making use of its nitrate-removal system.

Ted Corrigan is CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Water Works)

“This is a delicate time,” said Ted Corrigan, CEO and general manager of the Des Moines Water Works. “We are at that point where we are monitoring the nitrate level closely, and it is an hour-by-hour decision on which sources of water to use and how to blend the water source in order to reduce nitrate levels.”

The Water Works’ nitrate removal facility initially began operating in March 1992, but was last used in 2017. Drier conditions the past few years have limited the flow of nutrients into Iowa’s waterways, which has led to lower levels of nitrate in raw source water.

Use of the nitrate-removal system is significant not only because of what it means in terms of water quality, but because of the expense. It can cost up to $10,000 a day to operate the nitrate-removal system, the Des Moines Water Works says.

“While we are able to do the work downstream to remove nitrate to comply with drinking water standards, there is a financial cost to our ratepayers to do so,” Corrigan said. “The real solution is upstream. The landowners there are the solution-holders. They have the ability to make changes to the way they use their land in order to keep nutrients on the land and in the soil, which is where they belong.”

The utility’s nitrate-removal system captures nitrate ions in the water, similar to the way a home water softener removes calcium and magnesium ions. The nitrate-removal waste is then diverted to the Des Moines Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority where it is treated.

The Des Moines Water Works is Iowa’s largest drinking water utility and provides drinking water to one-fifth of the state’s population.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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