Water quality: It's a challenge, and it's urgent

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Mel Schlachter, guest columnist

For most all this year’s warm weather my kayak has lain on the garage floor, a haven for web-building spiders. I guess it will stay there a while longer. A friend of mine who participated in that wonderful Iowa Department of Natural Resources river cleanup program Project AWARE on the Des Moines River, recently got out of the hospital after a scary river-caused illness.

He contracted a virulent bacterial infection called Leptospirosis while working in the river, through a cut in his hand. He and the hospital were close friends for a week. This infection comes via animal waste. The odds are good that upstream confined animal feeding operations (CAFO’s) were the culprit, either from direct manure spillage or field runoff following a heavy rain of CAFO manure applied as fertilizer. The way my shins are banged up and knees skinned, I would be an attraction for any bacteria drifting by, so for boating in the near future the kayak stays where it is.

We hear a lot these days about another hazard, nitrates in surface water from field runoff. Some municipalities (famously Des Moines and its suburbs) use treated river water for public consumption. An outdoorsman and I attended a recent consortium sponsored by the State Hygenic Lab, where we learned from a UI researcher the chemical changes that nitrates in your drinking water undergo as they react first to the chemicals in your mouth, then those in your gut. His conclusion — by the time the gut is finished reacting with the nitrates, they have become carcinogenic. And he said we are vulnerable to this process at a much lower level of exposure than what regulators have believed.

It is fair to say that a growing number of citizens — those who like their recreation and their drinking water but also ag producers and government officials at all levels — have concern about the public health ramifications of our current lake and stream conditions. Nobody wants it this way. Nobody. While we don’t need to engage in more finger pointing; we do need “second mile” collaboration among all stakeholders for effective solutions. The situation is urgent. For my river-going friend it was dire.

Nor should we settle for one group “externalizing” their problem, that is, creating a hazard and sending it downstream for someone else to deal with. Your mom should have taught you that you make a mess, you clean it up. Most municipalities have been catching up with much better sewage treatment facilities. Some still need to disconnect stormwater overflows from going through the sanitary sewers, and some are working to slow down stormwater runoff in their neighborhoods — a real change in construction philosophy.

What’s left? About 85 percent-90 percent of the water quality problem, connected to the way we grow crops and raise animals. To say it again, we need to bypass the blame game and collaborate on solutions that will involve all those affecting the life of our creeks and rivers, setting goals with dates and accountability and resources. People who do, or would, enjoy water recreation need to put their shoulder to the solutions, too. After all, I want to get that kayak out of the garage. I also want my grandsons to swim in the river and eat the fish they catch.

• The Rev. Mel Schlachter is a resident of Iowa City and a friend of the Iowa River.

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