Troubled waters

April 16. 2007 4:30AM, The Gazette

By Cindy Hadish

Toxins, nitrates, phosphorous and untreated sewage containing viruses, bacteria and other pathogens inundate the Iowa River, according to a report released today that ranks the river third on the Most Endangered Rivers in America list for 2007.

The report marks the first time an Iowa river has made the list, published annually the past 22 years by the advocacy group, American Rivers, to call attention to waterways facing challenges.

New Mexico’s Santa Fe River ranked first. The Mississippi and Missouri rivers have previously been listed.

About 32 percent, or 98 miles, of the 309-mile Iowa River is impaired, said Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council.

“It’s our namesake river,” she said. “We’re not necessarily saying it’s the most polluted river in the state, but it’s emblematic of so many of Iowa’s rivers.”

The river begins near Iowa’s northern border, meanders through the central part of the state and flows through Iowa City before going into the Mississippi River.

Iowa Department of Natural Resources experts agree that more can be done for Iowa’s rivers, but question the listing of the Iowa River.

“We don’t typically think of the Iowa River as having any special problems,” said John Olson, DNR environmental specialist in watershed monitoring and assessment.

The report notes the Iowa River and its tributary, the Cedar River, have 15 segments included on the state’s list of impaired waters.

Main pollutants causing impairments are nitrates, fecal bacteria and sediment that originate from farm fields, livestock farms, industries and town sewer systems, according to the report.

“Iowa is far behind in implementing and enforcing the Clean Water Act to reduce and eliminate pollution being discharged into the rivers,” the report states.

Heathcote said Iowa has had 35 years to comply with the Act, passed in 1972.

State agencies routinely issue permits allowing new or increased pollution loads to be discharged into rivers without reviewing impacts on river water quality, she said.

Olson and others disagreed.

Adam Schnieders, who develops water quality standards for the DNR, said Iowa is updating standards to come in compliance with the Act, but the process is complicated and involves review by the Environmental Protection Agency, which can be slow.

Two of three major priorities have been completed, but Iowa’s antidegradation policy is still undergoing review.

Goals of the antidegradation policy are to ensure that no activity will lower water quality to support existing uses and to maintain and protect higher quality waters.

“We have to consider economics for a small town that can’t afford that treatment plant upgrade,” Schnieders said. “We’ve got to be practical at the same time as we protect water quality.”

Mary Skopec, supervisor of DNR’s watershed monitoring and assessment section in Iowa City, agreed with the report that improved funding would help the DNR in monitoring and assessment.

The department’s budget has been flat-funded the past several years at the same time EPA funding for water quality programs has fallen, resulting in a decline the past five years, she said.

One problem Skopec cited that could benefit from increased oversight is the 100,000 or so septic tanks that are improperly tiled directly to streams statewide, including to some waterways that go into the Iowa River.

Still, she said residents shouldn’t fear drinking water that’s been treated by municipal systems.

Iowa City’s drinking water is not pulled directly from the Iowa River, but from the riverbank, where it is filtered by sand.

Skopec said high nitrate levels are a concern in both Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, which obtains its drinking water similar to Iowa City, but from the Cedar River.

Scott Gritters, DNR fisheries biologist, said the Iowa River actually fares better than the Cedar River in terms of diversity of freshwater mussels, which are sensitive to pollution and an indicator of water quality.

A decline in the mussel population, including the endangered Higgins eye pearly mussel, was cited in the river report, although Gritters said reasons for the decline have not been determined.

Gritters said he was embarrassed when mussel experts from throughout the Midwest surveyed the Iowa River in Iowa City in 2005 and 2006.

“The trash that came down the river was just frightening,” he said. “Soda cups looked like leaves that had fallen from the trees, there were so many.”

Steps Iowa could take to improve water quality include using buffer strips and increasing setbacks of industrial and farm uses from streams, Gritters said.

“I think we can do better with all our rivers in the state,” he said. “It’s not a hopeless situation.”