Cedar Falls fights nitrate battle in drinking water

3 of utility's 8 wells show record levels near EPA limit

Sabine Martin/IowaWatch and Tiger Hi-Line

Meghan and Sean O’Neal, outside their Cedar Falls home in early spring 2017.
Sabine Martin/IowaWatch and Tiger Hi-Line Meghan and Sean O’Neal, outside their Cedar Falls home in early spring 2017.

CEDAR FALLS — Across the street and a few doors down from Meghan and Sean O’Neal’s home, you can see a small, nondescript one-story brick building.

“I have seen that building before,” Meghan O’Neal said. “I never knew what it was.”

The building is Cedar Falls Utilities’ Pump Station 3, one of eight water wells that supply the city’s water system. It has little identification but for a small sign.

O’Neal and her husband are new to the neighborhood, but longtime Neola Street resident Rosann Good wasn’t aware of its purpose, either, nor was Chuck Parsons, who has lived directly across the street from the pump station for two decades.

Knowing where your drinking water comes from is one thing. Knowing what is in your water is another.

Three of Cedar Falls’ wells — 3, 9 and 10 — consistently have recorded high nitrate levels. All three are in the northern part of Cedar Falls and covered by a shallow layer of bedrock, which allows more nitrates to infiltrate.

They stand in contrast to Cedar Falls’ southern water wells, where thicker bedrock layers better confine and protect the groundwater, found a journalism collaboration between the University of Northern Iowa Science in the Media, the Cedar Falls High School Tiger Hi-Line and IowaWatch.

“CFU presently is able to keep its water at legal nitrate levels by diluting the higher nitrate water from the northern city pump stations with the lower nitrate water from the southern pump stations in the pipes,” said Jerald Lukensmeyer, gas and water operations manager at the utility.


Reported levels in the city’s wells reached as high as 9.8 to 9.9 parts per million in five different years from 1996 through 2016, Cedar Falls Utilities records show. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists 10 ppm as the limit for an acceptable level.

Cedar Falls Utilities has records of nitrate testing levels dating to 1966, more than 50 years. In 1966, the highest nitrate reading at a city well was 4.2 ppm, far below the EPA’s limit. It wasn’t until 1992 that the highest nitrate reading exceeded 8 ppm. It has been between 8 ppm and 10 ppm ever since.

A 1999 U.S. Geological Survey study on Cedar Falls water supplies blamed the increasing application of nitrogen-based fertilizer to farm fields as the main cause of high nitrate levels. A 2013 Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship report, “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” said 92 percent of nitrates in Iowa’s water come from runoff largely from agriculture land. The other 8 percent come from wastewater treatment plant discharges, the report said.

“As the runoff moves, it picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters, and groundwaters,” the study explained.

Nitrates can appear naturally in drinking water at low levels. The EPA’s allowable drinking water nitrate level of 10 ppm is the same as 10 milligrams per liter.


A major side effect of high nitrates is blue baby syndrome, known in the medical world as methemoglobinemia and affecting infants who consume a high concentration of nitrates in a short time.

The body in instances like that converts the nitrates into nitrites. The nitrites then react with the oxyhemoglobin, or oxygen carrying proteins in the blood, to form methemoglobin, a protein that cannot carry oxygen. The body becomes deprived of vital oxygen if a large enough concentration of methemoglobin builds up in the blood, giving skin a blue hue. In severe cases, this can lead to digestive and respiratory malfunction.

Some birth defects also have been associated with a mother’s exposure to nitrate in drinking water. These include neural tube defects, limb deficiencies and cleft lip and palate, said Peter Weyer, interim director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa.

Other health concerns related to long-term nitrate exposure in drinking water studies conducted in Iowa have included bladder, ovarian and thyroid cancers, Weyer said.

Despite the effects of high nitrate intake, many argue the acceptable EPA standard of 10 ppm should be raised, Weyer said. Because blue baby syndrome seldom is diagnosed, the argument could be that perhaps a 15 ppm or 20 ppm standard would be acceptable, he said.

“However, the cancer studies we have conducted show that the risk increases for long term consumption of drinking water that has nitrate concentrations at or above 5 ppm, or half the drinking water standard,” Weyer said. He added that other contaminants in water make it difficult to evaluate how mixtures in drinking water affect people.

The Cedar Falls water system’s eight wells are linked to an underground aquifer. These wells supply the water that all city residents drink. Cedar Falls Utilities tests drinking water nitrate levels quarterly. Wells consistently high in nitrates are tested more frequently.

Lukensmeyer, at Cedar Falls Utilities, said well No. 3 has been shut off at various times so that its nitrate level doesn’t exceed 10 ppm.

Despite the potential nitrates threat in Cedar Falls’ water supply, residents have faith in the water system.

“I kind of trust Cedar Falls Utilities that they are doing a good job with that,” Neola Street resident Rosann Good said.


Some states have passed laws with bipartisan support to curb farm chemical runoff. Minnesota requires buffers that aid the growth of perennial vegetation as far as 50 feet along rivers, streams and ditches, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s website.


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However, new water quality management has failed to gain serious footing in the Iowa Legislature, even following a recent federal lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works, an independent utility that provides water to 500,000 people in the Des Moines area.

The lawsuit said drainage from three Iowa counties in the Raccoon River drainage district contributed to high nitrate levels in runoff that the water company had to clean for drinking. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in March saying the state had to resolve the problem, not the drainage district.

“I was very disappointed with what occurred this year,” said state Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo. “We’ve been working backwards.”

The question plaguing Iowans and their legislators is how to find a balance between protecting constituents and protecting Iowa’s bustling farm economy. According to the Iowa Farm Bureau, agriculture and its relative industries contribute $112.2 billion into Iowa’s economy and create one in every five jobs in the state.

Republicans have supported the agriculture industry, while various groups such as County Conservation Commissions promote sustainable agriculture and pollution prevention.

County conservation commissions have been working with farmers across Iowa to stimulate the installment of cover crops, establish buffer strips and implement no-till methods to improve the conservation of soil and the quality of water.

“We know that the amount of tilling has gone up across Iowa at an incredible rate, which draws the water down and accelerates the amount of nitrogen that is leached out of the soils into the watersheds,” said Dotzler, who received a biology degree from the University of Northern Iowa before becoming a legislator. “You can’t blame a farmer. Tilling will give you about a 5 percent yield increase.”

Treating water for nitrate levels is costly. Yet ignoring the contaminant, which comes at no immediate price, threatens the long-term quality of Iowa’s water, those arguing for water quality legislation said.


Little public awareness of water quality issues in the Cedar Valley that makes up the Cedar Falls-Waterloo metro area may be preventing changes, too. Conversation about nitrates is minimal, as are public calls for reform or pressure on elected officials to make water quality a hot-button issue in the Iowa Legislature.

“Having clean water is very important to Iowa’s growth opportunities. We will have a difficult time attracting families to consider living in Iowa if our water is not viewed as not safe for drinking,” said state Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls. “We can do more to convince legislators that we need to make this a priority.”

This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

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