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Law brings cleaner waters, but problems persist in Iowa

Steve Gravelle, CR Gazette –

By 1969, about two-thirds of the nation’s waters were unfit for drinking, swimming, or fishing. In Ohio, the Cuyahoga River repeatedly caught fire, and Lake Erie was declared dead.

Today, two-thirds of American waters are considered safe for recreation, and Lake Erie is a popular sport fishery. But hundreds of Iowa waterways are “impaired,” and addressing pollution from dispersed small sources remains a problem.

The Clean Water Act, signed into law 40 years ago this week by President Richard Nixon, is behind the improvement and remains the basic tool for clean-water watchdogs, said Cedar Rapids attorney Wally Taylor.

“For 30 years I’ve been about the only environmental attorney in the state,” said Taylor. “It’s been a tough road, but I think we’re making some progress.

“When you look at the history, we’ve made huge strides,” said Bill Ehm, administrator of the environmental services division of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “The problems that we don’t have totally resolved, we’ve got mechanisms for.”

Meanwhile, the list of Iowa waters defined as “impaired” under the act continues to grow, to more than 400. The Act requires the DNR to submit the lists every two years.

The 2010 list includes the Mississippi, the Maquoketa, the Cedar, and the Iowa rivers, as well as dozens of smaller Eastern Iowa streams.

“I kind of reel at that sometimes,” said Ehm. “We don’t see those problems come from the point surfaces we used to. Our industries, our communities, are doing a good job on that.”

This summer, Taylor and the groups he represents convinced the federal government to order the DNR to improve regulation and monitoring of large livestock feedlots. States are charged under the Clean Water Act with enforcing its standards.

“The Clean Water Act doesn’t apply as well as it should to the large animal confinement operations,” said Taylor. “Back in 1972 they really didn’t have a handle on that.”


Point-source pollution, the kind released by facilities such as industries and municipal sewage treatment plants, was relatively simple to identify and address, often with funding provided by the act. Non-point source pollution, from sources such as farms, feedlots, and even homeowners’ lawns, is proving tougher to get a handle on.

“The issue now is with non-point sources,” said Ehm. “Those same mechanisms don’t really lend themselves to the non-point sources.”

“It’s due in large part to the large area that agriculture really occupies in our state,” said Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council. “The pollutants that come off the land are really the ones we don’t have such good standards for.”

Responding to a petition filed by Taylor, the federal Environmental Protection Agency found the state DNR hasn’t adequately enforced Clean Water Act standards applying to feedlots with 1,000 or more animals.

The DNR has submitted proposed regulations to the federal agency, which is taking public comment on them through the end of October. Ehm hopes to have final rules by early next year.


Rick Robinson, environmental policy adviser for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said 20-year tracking studies show lower levels of nitrates and other pollutants in rural well water, evidence that conservation efforts are working.

“They’re longer-term trends, is the point, and we have made progress,” Robinson said. “There are still things that can be improved on. We can make better progress but we’re going to have to target our resources.”

Ehm said resources are part of the problem, and the state’s plan to meet the federal goals includes hiring more staff to monitor water conditions and enforce standards. By the Environmental Council’s count, that staff has dwindled from 23 in 2007 to nine this year.

“It’s like an athletic contest,” said Taylor. “You have competition like the free market and businesses competing with each other, but there are rules to the game and umpires and referees to make sure the game is fair.”


2010 : 446

2008: 435

2006: 279

2004: 225

2002: 205

1998: 157

Source: Iowa Department of Natural Resources

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