By Erin Jordan, The Gazette
Amana Colonies water customers were alerted last month a Dec. 2 test showed the nitrate level in part of its water system was above safe standards for drinking.
The Amana Society Service Co. still is providing safe drinking water by using three of its six wells.
But the situation raises concern because the society in 2018 invested $4.5 million in a new water system and state and local officials aren’t sure whether the December test result was a one-time problem or a chronic issue.
“We were frustrated, surprised — the whole bit,” said Russell Eimers, the service company’s general manager. “It’s not something any of us expected.”
The service company, a private utility that serves 850 water customers, sent a letter Dec. 3 to residents and business owners and posted a warning on its website and Facebook page to avoid giving tap water to infants or nursing mothers.
Nitrate in drinking water has been linked to infant methemoglobinemia — blue-baby syndrome — a life-threatening condition reducing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, as well as some cancers and thyroid problems.
The Dec. 2 test of three wells in the Amanas’ north water system in High Amana showed nitrate at 12 milligrams per liter. The federal standard for safe drinking water is under 10 milligrams per liter.
The service company has six wells, three in High Amana and three west of Middle Amana.
Water operators already had not been drawing drinking water from one well with elevated nitrate levels, but they thought they had to include that well in monthly blended water tests, Eimers said. Previous monthly tests of all three northern wells were fine, he said, but the Dec. 2 test showed a spike.
“The blended sample result was over the limit, but that’s not what we were delivering to the public,” he said.
A test later in December showed nitrate levels were rising at another of the High Amana wells, so the utility started drawing water just from the three wells in Middle Amana, Eimers said. Tests of water in the Amanas’ water tower have averaged at 4.2 milligrams per liter of nitrate — well within the standard for safe drinking, Eimers said.
Officials don’t know why the nitrate levels increased in late November or early December. Spring usually is the season for elevated nitrate in streams and rivers as melting snow washes fertilizer off the farm fields.
Eimers believes it may be linked to fall application of manure or commercial fertilizer.
“We’re working with the local farms to modify what they are doing,” Eimers said. “Plus, we’re looking at putting in a buffer strip wider than what is required by the DNR (Iowa Department of Natural Resources) for wellhead protection area.”
Rose Danaher, watershed project coordinator for Price Creek, which runs through the Amanas, said the Amana Society is in a unique position in that it owns most of the farmland around the utility’s wells.
“It’s a neat opportunity to fix the problem because you have almost 100 percent buy-in,” she said. “They are going to be paying to take a chunk of land out of production, but it’s to help their own utility.”
The Amana Society paid to have the six wells drilled in 2018 after a study of the best place to get the quality and flow of water necessary for the community, Eimers said. The DNR signed off on the process and permitted the new system.
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The DNR will do a follow-up assessment of the wells’ location and nearby land use, Danaher said. Further protection of the wells through land use changes could be eligible for federal Farm Bill funding, she said.
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