State clean water mandates urged
Nitrates levels are detected as close to twice the safe limit for drinking water in some river basins
DES MOINES – Clean-water advocates Tuesday called for state-mandated action to reduce pollution levels in Iowa waterways, saying voluntary efforts are not working and threaten the safety of Iowans’ drinking water.
Josh Kublie, campaign coordinator with Environment Iowa, said his statewide, citizen-based advocacy group gathered more than 5,000 signatures urging state action to set standards for farm runoff, create a “polluter pay system,” and establish a plan with real timetables and goals to clean up Iowa’s lakes, streams and rivers.
“Iowans want polluters to pay for the damage they’re doing,” Kublie said at a news conference on the Capitol steps where he presented the signed petitions to Sen. Dick Dearden, D-Des Moines, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee. “There is no time to wait.”
However, Tim Albrecht, spokesman for Gov. Terry Branstad, said Iowa has embarked on a proactive, science-based nutrient reduction strategy that has enlisted all stakeholders in a voluntary effort that has just commenced and will need some time to produce results.
“This isn’t a problem where you can just flip a switch and magically have clean waterways,” the governor’s spokesman said.
“It’s entirely too early to pass judgment,” noted Albrecht, who said the new approach is far better than a “heavy-handed” bureaucratic effort that impede one of the state’s most important economic sectors. “The voluntary approach that the governor has put forward eliminates that gotcha mentality and instead has all of our stakeholders working together to insure that Iowa’s waterways and land is kept in good shape.”
However, Bill Stowe, leader of the Des Moines Water Works, said his system has seen “an alarming” spike in nitrate levels since April that are straining the ability to provide safe drinking water to 500,000 central Iowa customers and costing more for purification efforts. He said legal action against federal and state regulators may be necessary to force them to meet their statutory responsibilities.
“Iowa’s lakes, streams and rivers are dying. We’re seeing record numbers of farm chemicals from runoff in our water,” said Stowe, who blamed federal EPA and state executive-branch officials for a lack of leadership in dealing with pollution levels in Iowa waterways. “Simply pretending that there is not a problem or that self-regulation will deal with it is a solution that is doomed for failure, and failure in this case means directly threatening our safe drinking water.”
Garry Klicker, a Davis County farmer who has 120 acres of hay and pasture land, said having voluntary compliance for industrial farm runoff would be as effective of having Iowa motorists regulate their own speeds on the highway. In the meantime, he said, Iowans are paying the clean-up costs.
“Why should 3 million Iowans have to pay for the destructive polluting practices of a very few thousand?” Klicker asked.
Dearden said enhanced efforts to curb pollutants entering Iowa’s waterways are overdue, but he doubted much would happen during the 2014 legislative session with control split between Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate.
“We need to keep the issue on the top burner. We need to keep talking about it,” Dearden said. “Mandatory restrictions on runoff this year -- I don’t see it happen, but we can keep the issue out in front of the voters.”
Nitrate levels close to twice what is considered the safe limit for drinking water are being detected in the Des Moines and Racoon river basins, said Deborah Neustadt, Iowa Chapter leader of the Sierra Club, but similar conditions are being experienced with the Turkey-Maquoketa, Cedar and Upper Des Moines basins as well.
Although nitrates -- which have been linked to birth defects, cancer and miscarriages – do appear naturally in the environment, Neustadt said, the primary source of nitrates in Iowa comes from fertilizers and manure.
Albrecht noted that 2013 saw significant rainfall amounts through June and he cautioned against setting policy on the basis of a year that appears to be “an anomaly.”
“This needs to be looked at over a long period of time. This is a process that is just beginning and one that takes into account all stakeholders rather than just coming down with a heavy handed approach on the farmers who are driving this state’s economy,” he said.
Albrecht called the nutrient reduction strategy a science-based, voluntary strategy that works with stakeholders, including farmers, to make direct efforts to reduce nutrients that enter waterways in a practical and cost-effective manner.
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