Iowa's drought law may get a closer look this year

Experts say rules may need update for new industries

An irrigation system waters beans on a farm owned by the Amana Society Farms on Tuesday, July 24, 2012, near East Amana. Crop irrigation would be among a list of water uses that would be restricted if Iowa would enter a water emergency. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)
An irrigation system waters beans on a farm owned by the Amana Society Farms on Tuesday, July 24, 2012, near East Amana. Crop irrigation would be among a list of water uses that would be restricted if Iowa would enter a water emergency. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

A state law that could decide what water users face shut-offs or restrictions as the drought continues into 2013 may be in need of updating as the odds of using it increase, observers say.

The 1985 law allows the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to implement a priority water allocation system. The system would specify the order in which different classes of customers, from large industries to ordinary households, would be required to cut water consumption.

Conservation can’t be required until a shortage of water is imminent, and priority allocation is not allowed until the DNR has determined there is an “H20 impairment.” It can only be implemented after requiring emergency conservation measures to be taken by existing water use permit holders.

The odds have never looked better that the law could invoked as a nearly nationwide drought enters its third year in the Midwest.

“We’re worse off than we were a year ago when people like myself were starting to say, ‘We need to get a better handle on these things,’?” said Bob Libra, Iowa’s state geologist.

The DNR has been inclined to let local water authorities restrict usage when necessary rather than invoking the law because cutting off water supplies would entail considerable economic consequences and generate political fallout, according to Michael Anderson, a senior environmental engineer for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources who tracks the state’s water resources.

Anderson described the state’s “priority allocation restrictions” law as “kind of an 800-pound hammer for the problem.”

Nevertheless, as the drought gets worse, the need for coordinated and concerted effort could spur the state to use the law.

Any of four events could trigger the DNR to take action.

• A governmental unit or 25 individuals could petition for implementation of a priority allocation plan.

• The governor could proclaim a disaster emergency because of drought.

• The DNR could determine, along with Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management, that there is a local crisis affecting water availability.

• A natural resource agency, including the University of Nebraska’s National Drought Monitor, could flag the imminent arrival of a drought of local or state magnitude.

In practice, Anderson said a governor’s task force has been given the task of monitoring the drought and advising the governor, who will have the last word on whether the state imposes water restrictions.

The task force meets about every two weeks in the state’s Emergency Operations Center during the hot weather months, and less frequently in the winter. It includes key officials from the DNR, the Iowa Department of Agriculture, and Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

The task force will consider information ranging from the widely used University of Nebraska National Drought Map to data and reports from state, federal and local agencies.

A fresh look

Confidence in the law and the state’s readiness to implement it isn’t exactly 100 percent.

Linda Kinman, watershed advocate and public policy analyst at the Des Moines Water Works, believes it’s time for a fresh look at the law.

“We’ve encouraged a state-level review that we feel is really needed,” Kinman said. “The whole business structure of the state has changed (since last revision in the 1980s), and water usage has changed greatly since then.”

State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, after hearing from some local water supply officials, is having legislation drafted that would update the law to provide funding for the DNR to educate water agencies statewide about how to implement water conservation plans.

Hogg also wants the Iowa General Assembly to review the water allocation priorities to see if they need to be updated. He suggested some major trends in water usage, such as the emergence of the biofuels industry as one of the state’s largest water users.

Entire industries have emerged in Iowa since the law was written. They include the Iowa wine industry, microbrewery industry and the renewable fuels industry, which has become one of the state’s largest water users.

“For me, the question is do we have the right water priorities,” said Hogg.

Cutting back

About 15 public water supply providers in the state last year imposed water allocation restrictions or asked for voluntary conservation, Anderson said.

Most of the drought measures were taken in northwest Iowa, which is still in “exceptional drought” conditions, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Average streamflow levels in Iowa were only about 60 percent of normal for the 2012 water monitoring year, and streamflow in December remained less than 24 percent below normal in the Cedar, Raccoon and Skunk River basins, according to the DNR.

Shallow groundwater levels measured in all nine of the United States Geological Survey’s system of climate wells in Iowa decreased in 2012, and water levels in two wells decreased by a foot. One well in Marshall County dropped almost seven feet over the past year.

The Des Moines Water Works implemented voluntary conservation in the summer of 2012. Kinman said the agency was pumping over 90 million gallons and day, and it dropped to less than 60 million gallons a day within a matter of days.

The Cedar Rapids City Council was warned in November that the drought will persist into 2013, potentially affecting city water supplies. Interim Utilities Director Steve Hershner urged the city to update its own water emergency law, pointing out that it was very dated.

The City of Coralville asked residents late last summer to conserve water and “we got a very good response,” City Administrator Kelly Hayworth said. The city’s wells have since replenished about halfway back to their normal level, and the city is drilling two new wells for reasons not directly related to the drought that will help it out next summer.

Iowa’s priorities for restricting water (first to last)

• Water conveyed across state boundaries

• Water used for recreational or aesthetic purposes

• Water used for irrigation of general crops (hay, corn, soybeans, oats, grain, sorghum or wheat)

• Water used for irrigation of specialty crops (all other crops)

• Water for manufacturing or industrial purposes

• Water for generation of electrical power for public consumption

• Water for livestock production

• Water for human consumption and sanitation supplied by rural water district,s municipal water systems or other public water supplies.

• Water for human consumption and sanitation from a private water supply.

Source: Iowa Code 

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