Des Moines is facing extreme measures to find clean water

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Des Moines Water Works representative Bill Blubaugh looks at water samples taken from the Raccoon River in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Every day, the utility analyzes samples from the Raccoon River and others from the nearby Des Moines River as it works to provide drinking water to more than 500,000 people in Iowa’s capital and suburbs. (AP photo / Charlie Neibergall)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) – In the twilight just after sunrise, Bill Blubaugh parks his Des Moines Water Works pickup truck, grabs a water spoon and some plastic bottles, and walks down a boat ramp to the Raccoon River, where he shovels up samples from one Waterway that cuts through some of the most intensely farmed land in the country.

Each day, the utility analyzes what’s in these and other samples from the nearby Des Moines River as it works to provide drinking water to more than 500,000 people in the Iowa capital and its suburbs.

“Some mornings it smells like ammonia when you go down,” he said. “It’s worrying. I’m down here every morning and take care of the water. “

Water Works has tried for years to force or persuade farmers upriver to reduce the runoff of fertilizers that leave rivers with sky-high nitrate levels, but lawsuits and legislative lobbying have failed. Now she’s considering a drastic move that big cities typically don’t: drill wells to find clean water.

Small communities and individuals use wells, but large US metropolitan areas have always relied primarily on rivers and lakes to supply large amounts of water. Surface springs provide about 70% of the freshwater in the United States, since dependence on wells for large populations would otherwise quickly deplete aquifers.

However, the Des Moines utility company plans to spend up to $ 30 million drilling wells to mix pure water when the rivers have particularly high levels of nitrate from agricultural runoff, likely in the summer.

After spending $ 18 million on a system to treat the polluted river water over the past two decades, it’s frustrating to spend millions more on something other cities can’t imagine, utility officials say.

“I’m looking at it in disbelief,” said Ted Corrigan, the CEO and general manager of Water Works.

Des Moines has become an extreme example of the clean water conflict between agriculture and cities in farm states with minimal regulation.

Iowa is the nation’s leader in the production of corn, soybeans, eggs, and pork, and all of these agricultural premiums result in enormous amounts of chemical fertilizer and animal waste getting into the waterways. The state’s 23 million pigs produce waste equivalent to 83 million people – more than 25 times the state’s human population, according to University of Iowa research engineer Chris Jones.

Most of this fertilizer, along with chemical fertilizers, is spread across Iowa’s 26 million acres of farmland.

The natural and chemical fertilizers have helped Iowa increase its corn and soybean production by about 50 percent over the past 30 years, but much of it ends up in Iowa’s waterways, particularly in areas of north central Iowa leading into the Des Moines and Raccoon flow into rivers. That’s because the area’s farmland is relatively flat and relies on drainage systems known as tiles that don’t filter excess manure through the soil, but instead pour it quickly into streams, resulting in high levels of nitrates and phosphorus .

While there are many agreements on how chemicals can be filtered out, such as by exiting buffer zones and planting catch crops like rye when the soil was otherwise bare, the state’s farming lobby has opposed binding rules and Iowa lawmakers have preferred a voluntary approach, which has not yet resolved the problem.

Waterworks and other groups have filed lawsuits calling for stricter measures, but the judges have decided to leave the matter to lawmakers.

Recently, utility officials have been concerned about increased algal blooms caused by a combination of fertilizer runoff, high temperatures, and slow flowing water. Algae contaminated rivers cannot be used as drinking water. Nitrates can cause blue baby syndrome, in which infants lose the ability to properly process oxygen into the bloodstream, causing their skin to turn bluish in color.

“The question was … ‘What’s next with these challenging surface waters we’re dealing with?” Corrigan asked. “Are we just going to have a series of multi-million dollar processes that make our treatment process more complex and expensive?”

Water Works is now paying US Geological Service $ 770,000 to evaluate drill holes north of the city.

Brian LeMon, vice president of the Minneapolis-based Barr Engineering Company, said he knew of no other major city with such high levels of nitrates. The much larger Minneapolis / St. The northern Paul metropolitan area has no similar problem with water abstraction from the Mississippi, in part due to the less intensive agriculture and livestock production upstream, the required buffer strips, and the greater volume of the river.

“Nitrate removal isn’t cheap,” said LeMon, whose company advises Des Moines Water Works’ planning process.

Mike Naig, Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, acknowledges the drainage problem but supports the state’s voluntary Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which uses limited state and federal funds to pay for water quality projects on farmland. Workers are now installing buffers and taking other measures in Polk County, where Des Moines is located, but even proponents admit that a significant difference would require filtering runoff at thousands of locations, potentially costing billions of dollars.

Dave Walton, who grows soybeans and corn in eastern Iowa, said farmers should do their part to reduce nitrates, but every farm is different and regulations are not consistently effective. He said preventing runoff was costly and would require public-private partnerships that would likely last decades.

“If a farm is to be sustainable, it needs to be profitable year after year,” said Walton. “Asking a farmer to invest in something that doesn’t make a profit in a time he was” doesn’t make a profit anyway, it’s just a moot point. “

Timothy LaPara, an engineering professor at the University of Minnesota, said almost every city faces some complications in ensuring safe drinking water, but Des Moines’ problem requires an unusual solution.

“Nitrates don’t usually reach the levels you see in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers,” he said. “Central Iowa has some of the worst quality water you will find.”

A thermometer displays the temperature of a water sample taken from the Raccoon River in Des Moines, Iowa by Des Moines Water Works employee Bill Blubaugh on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Every day, the utility analyzes samples from the Raccoon River and others from the nearby Des Moines River as it works to provide drinking water to more than 500,000 people in Iowa’s capital and suburbs. (AP photo / Charlie Neibergall)

The Des Moines Water Works logo can be seen on the shirt of employee Bill Blubaugh as he collects a sample of water from the Raccoon River in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Every day, the utility analyzes samples from the Raccoon River and others from the nearby Des Moines River as it works to provide drinking water to more than 500,000 people in Iowa’s capital and suburbs. (AP photo / Charlie Neibergall)

Des Moines Water Works representative Bill Blubaugh sets off to collect a water sample from the Raccoon River in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Every day, the utility analyzes samples from the Raccoon River and others from the nearby Des Moines River as it works to provide drinking water to more than 500,000 people in Iowa’s capital and suburbs. (AP photo / Charlie Neibergall)

Des Moines Water Works employee Bill Blubaugh will collect a water sample from the Raccoon River in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Every day, the utility analyzes samples from the Raccoon River and others from the nearby Des Moines River as it works to provide drinking water to more than 500,000 people in Iowa’s capital and suburbs. (AP photo / Charlie Neibergall)

Des Moines Water Works employee Bill Blubaugh will sample water from the Raccoon River in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Every day, the utility analyzes samples from the Raccoon River and others from the nearby Des Moines River as it works to provide drinking water to more than 500,000 people in Iowa’s capital and suburbs. (AP photo / Charlie Neibergall)

Des Moines Water Works employee Bill Blubaugh marks a water sample taken from the Raccoon River in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Every day, the utility analyzes samples from the Raccoon River and others from the nearby Des Moines River as it works to provide drinking water to more than 500,000 people in Iowa’s capital and suburbs. (AP photo / Charlie Neibergall)

Des Moines Water Works employee Bill Blubaugh makes his way to his truck after collecting a water sample from the Raccoon River in Des Moines, Iowa on Thursday, June 3, 2021. Every day, the utility analyzes samples from the Raccoon River and others from the nearby Des Moines River as it works to provide drinking water to more than 500,000 people in Iowa’s capital and suburbs. (AP photo / Charlie Neibergall)



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