Header image credit: Cedar Rapids Gazette
The Clean Water Act defines an impaired water body as one that is not meeting a designated use because of degraded water quality. In this circumstance, the state (in our case, Iowa DNR) is required to complete a restoration plan that includes a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL). The TMDL determines the load (amount) of pollutant entering the waterway and where it is coming from, and how much that load needs to be reduced for the water body to meet the water quality standard associated with the designated use.
Because Iowa DNR has refused to support rule-making to establish nutrient standards, Iowa does not have many streams that are impaired for two of the worst pollutants, nitrogen and phosphorus, although almost all streams have been degraded by these contaminants. Until recently, the Cedar River was an exception--it was impaired because of its role as a drinking water source. While no community uses Cedar River water directly, the City of Cedar Rapids draws water from wells that are hydrologically connected to the river, and thus when nitrate is high in the river, nitrate levels in the wells can also be expected to be elevated. As I understand it, the City of CR also uses wells that are less affected by Cedar River nitrate, and as a result city staff have been able to blend volumes from various sources to keep treated water nitrate below the drinking water standard (10 mg/L as N), although there has been reason for concern from time to time that this someday might not be the case. Thus, the impaired status for the river.
In a curious recent development, Iowa DNR recently announced they were dropping both the impairment and the TMDL for the Cedar River (1). DNR stated the original TMDL was unworkable, and that recent monitoring data showed the river to be no longer impaired. Considering that retired DNR staff has stated that higher-ups in the agency have been pushing for this action for years now, DNR's current rationale seems to lack some honesty.
This is especially curious since the U.S. Geological Survey nitrate sensor (deployed just upstream of the city near the town of Palo) has shown nitrate to be quite high this year—47 days above the drinking water standard of 10 mg/L with a maximum reading of almost 14 mg/L in June. DNR is rejecting this data as not credible, an argument that is dishonest at best and sinister at worst. But there it is. Pick your poison, as they say.
There’s a back story leading up to the present that would fill a book and then some, so I’m going to have to call on all my powers to condense this sucker down to 1500 words or so. So here goes.
When I worked at Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) in the early 2000’s, we often wondered why DNR prioritized the creation of the Cedar River TMDL over that for the Raccoon River, which supplied Des Moines and had/has higher nitrate levels. At the time, DNR had written a few TMDLs for some low profile impairments, but was just beginning the task of taking on the big, high-profile streams that were impaired. This was basically like the Hawkeyes opening the season with South Dakota School of Rodeo Management and Wyoming College of Cosmetology to gain confidence for Michigan and Ohio State. We were told at DMWW that the situation for Cedar Rapids was more dire and urgent, and that CR was more at risk, because their water treatment plants did not have nitrate removal treatment while Des Moines did. At the time, the director of the water supply division at CR was a courageous guy named John North who was a strong advocate for better water and for the citizens of the Cedar Rapids. He was not a guy who could be bullied and was not shy about calling out agriculture for its recalcitrance on improving Iowa’s water, not shy at all. In my mind, this advocacy may have been one reason the Cedar River was given a high priority by DNR. But, times change.
In recent years, CR has not followed the North direction and has worked hard to position itself as NDM, i.e. “Not Des Moines” on water quality. Des Moines infamously filed a lawsuit to address nitrate pollution in the Raccoon River, which ultimately failed and left the sparsely populated upstream counties triumphant over BBB (Big Bad Bill) Stowe and left the city vulnerable to accusations of being anti-Iowa by exploitative politicians, especially then-governor Terry Branstad. NDM on the other hand, has been reluctant to offend its agribusiness heavy hitters (Archer Daniels Midland-ADM, Cargill and others) and the farmers that provide them with one million bushels of corn every day, with demands for cleaner water. NDM even invited Cargill to gobble up a just-restored floodplain wetland and prairie in the city for a rail yard (2). No word yet on how migrating Monarch butterflies like boxcars.
NDM has also been a major player (and funder) of the Cedar River Source Water Partnership, a USDA-sponsored Regional Conservation Partnership Project (RCPP). The NDM website (3) says that “The CRSWP is a collaboration among communities and agricultural partners to improve degraded water quality conditions threatening public and private source water supplies.” Current NDM Utility Director Roy Hesemann says that “Cedar Rapids has been recognized nationally for our work to improve water quality. With the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, we helped install real water quality improvement practices with demonstrable benefits. The Cedar River Source Water Partnership will take what we learned from that project and scale up our efforts to improve water quality in the Cedar River.” I know Roy and will say this is all well and good, but bear in mind that aerial imagery shows farmers in just the Middle Cedar watershed (area draining to the river between Cedar Falls and Cedar Rapids and about 1/3 the area draining to Cedar Rapids in total) are every year installing about 1200 miles of new agricultural drainage tile, the primary delivery mechanism for nitrate to travel from farm fields to the stream network. And virtually none of this new tile goes in with remediation like wetlands and bioreactors.
NDM city leaders on that: " "
I clearly remember former DMWW general manager L.D. McMullen saying one thing the water works would never do was pay farmers not to pollute. While agriculture detests the semantics of that statement, you can make the case that federal farm programs have been doing that for nearly a century now. But there's always been something perverse about an end user such as a municipal water supply having to pay a ransom (something I wrote about a while ago) to upstream polluters. When we do that, we tacitly endorse the idea that upstream pollution is unavoidable for farmers and wealthy landowners. This is categorically false.
But, paying the polluters is indeed the path the City of Cedar Rapids has chosen in recent years, although much of the city's contribution has been 'in-kind', i.e. staff salaries to manage the various projects. Apparently tired of hearing people compare them unfavorably with NDM, DM seems poised to head down this path as well (4). It must be said, however, that the path for NDM on this is perilous; after all, their water system still does not have nitrate removal treatment and a well placed, 4” April 2023 rain could quickly make them wish they did. Public notices about unsafe water have a way of jolting the citizenry out of complacency.
About 150,000 people are drinking water from Cedar Rapids' two treatment plants, and as any licensed water treatment plant operator knows (I am one), their obligation is to the water customers and not politicians cosplaying water quality and agency climbers trying to build a resumé at the expense of the public health. In NDM’s case, however, some of their biggest water customers are also the big agribusiness titans doing business in town. Selling a lot of water to the industry that is polluting the citizens’ drinking water supply and then asking the citizens to provide resources for the industry to clean up its act—let’s just say it’s complicated trying to reconcile all the contradictions in NDM when it comes to water. And let's also just admit that having a river that’s not impaired flowing through the city is a wish come true for the cropagandists and some others that are paid to influence public perceptions. Wishin' Accomplished for more than a few folks.
Which brings me back to a couple of things about Iowa DNR. The agency now states that they will look to Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) to protect the Cedar Rapids drinking water supply. This is laughable on its face because the INRS was intended to address Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia, not drinking water protection here in Iowa, and the problems are different for a variety of reasons. Not to mention that Iowa stream nitrate has gotten worse during the span of the INRS. Secondly, the agency’s jurisdiction includes regulation of Public Water Supplies like NDM’s and DM’s and about 900 others in Iowa. This cannot be done effectively without the good faith actions of Iowa’s licensed water treatment plant operators. DNR relies on them to report things honestly, and this includes water testing data. Believe it or not, it is not hard for water operators to cherry-pick data and falsify reports and it has happened on both the drinking water and wastewater end of things. (Side note: someone I trust reviewed this for me before posting, and wondered if I was implying City of Cedar Rapids staff had done these things. The answer is absolutely not.) These treatment plant operators can and do lose their jobs, and in some cases, end up in jail for malfeasance. It should trouble the public greatly that the agency charged with their oversight is now apparently ignoring important data to either cover their backside for a poorly written TMDL and/or so some people can get a cheap win. It seems fair to say that the DNR folks charged with drinking water source protection evidently have learned a thing or two from their colleagues in CAFO enforcement.
So here again, I'm coming down hard on DNR. Admittedly I can't read their minds and I can't know their motives with certainty. But I can observe and discern a pattern the agency seems to repeat time after time: err not on the side of better water or the citizens of Iowa, but rather on the side of what is expedient for them and the polluters. As citizens, WE DESERVE BETTER. I invite anybody to make the case that DNR is a credible regulatory agency for municipal drinking water if they can't hold themselves to the same standards that licensed treatment plant water operators are held.
It is quite possible that NDM will never violate the drinking water standard for nitrate, with or without a Cedar River TMDL. I can also tell you that it will surprise no one in my world if they do violate at some point. At any rate, people should know that there is no regulatory protection of the river now for its designated use as a source of municipal drinking water, and you can ask yourself who this benefits--certainly not the citizens of Cedar Rapids.