News Feature | August 6, 2014

Iowa Utilities Dumping Nitrates Into Waterways

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome

Iowa Utilities Dumping Nitrates Into Waterways

Many Iowa water utilities funnel what some consider pollution back into environmental waterways. 

"Most of the Iowa water treatment departments that work to remove nitrates from drinking water dump the chemical back into the water supply where other cities will have to remove it," the Associated Press reported

Over the course of a year, the pollution adds up. 

"Des Moines, site of the world's largest nitrate-removal facility, last year dumped an estimated 13,500 pounds of the chemical back into the river, sending it downstream where other cities and towns had to once again remove it," the Des Moines Register reported

It appears this practice complies with federal standards. 

"The federal government mandates that nitrates — the chemical linked to some cancers and the so-called 'blue-baby syndrome' in which infants suffocate — be below certain levels in drinking water. But federal and state officials don't say what has to be done with nitrates after they're removed," the report said. 

Iowa water officials acknowledge that the practice of dumping nitrates for other utilities to clean is inefficient. 

"Symbolically, it's a troublesome issue for me," Des Moines Water Works Director Bill Stowe told the Register. "Frankly, we're saying to the single farmer, 'Please don't do this,' and yet we're imitating the behavior we're trying to avoid."

Des Moines is not alone. "Operators of the majority of Iowa's other 15 nitrate removal systems told the Register they also dump their nitrates back into water or local sewer systems after initially removing them from their town's drinking water supplies," the report said. 

Nitrate pollution is a major issue in Iowa, where over 90 percent of the land is reportedly devoted to agriculture. 

"Last summer, the regional drinking water facility in Des Moines saw record nitrate levels – well above the EPA’s allowable limit of 10 milligrams per liter – in both of its source waters, the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, National Geographic reported

Watershed advocate Linda Kinman called this “the highest levels we’ve ever seen." 

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Image credit: "Iowa County Barns," cwwycoff1 © 2009, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: