Agricultural runoff puts Iowa's Raccoon River on list of 10 most endangered nationally, group says
Runoff from livestock facilities and farm fields poses a “grave threat” to the Raccoon River, a major drinking water source for 500,000 Des Moines metro residents, placing it among the nation’s 10 most-endangered waterways for 2021, a new report says.
It’s the first time the Raccoon River, which runs from northwest Iowa to Des Moines, has been placed on the annual Most Endangered Rivers list from American Rivers, an influential Washington, D.C., environmental advocacy nonprofit that has been producing the list since 1986.
“We’re sounding the alarm because pollution in the Raccoon River is putting drinking water supplies and public health at risk,” said Olivia Dorothy, American Rivers’ Upper Mississippi River Basin director.
The Raccoon River ranked ninth.
The group also placed the lower Missouri River, which forms Iowa’s western border and also flows through Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, second on the national list. The group said poor river management raises the risk of extreme flooding for the river’s communities and residents.
As for the Raccoon River, the group pointed to waste from about 750 animal feeding operations in its watershed that it said “is spread on fields, often at rates that exceed the soil’s ability to absorb it. The manure runs off into rivers and streams where it contributes to a clean-water crisis.”
Mike Naig, Iowa’s agriculture secretary, called the report propaganda, adding that it “does nothing to advance water quality in Iowa or downstream.”
“We’re focused on doing meaningful, impactful work alongside real partners who are taking action to put water quality practices on the ground,” Naig said in a statement.
The state adopted the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy eight years ago to reduce by 45% nitrogen and phosphorus levels in Iowa waterways that flow into the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The contaminants contribute to the dead zone at the Mississippi’s mouth in the Gulf of Mexico, an area unable to support aquatic life. Last summer, the dead zone was nearly the size of Delaware.
In 2018, Iowa lawmakers further agreed to pump $282 million into water quality initiatives over 12 years. The funding includes $156 million to help farmers adopt practices such as growing cover crops and building bioreactors and to restore wetlands, measures that can keep excess nutrients from polluting Iowa’s lakes and streams.
The Iowa Pork Producers Association said its members are taking “real on-the-ground actions” to protect Iowa water quality, including investing in saturated buffers, denitrifying bioreactors and wetlands, all of which cut nutrient loss from farm fields.
Last year, the state said Iowa farmers were using cover crops on about 1 million crop acres, had constructed or were developing nearly 100 nitrate-removal wetlands, and had built 27 bioreactors and 13 saturated buffers, among other practices.
Group says Iowa’s voluntary approach has ‘failed spectacularly’
Despite the state’s voluntary nutrient reduction strategy, University of Iowa research has shown that nitrogen levels in waters flowing from Iowa have continued to increase over the past two decades.
American Rivers said Iowa’s voluntary approach to addressing agriculture pollution is “fundamentally inadequate and has failed spectacularly.”
Parts of the Raccoon River have been on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ impaired waters list for years, primarily due to high levels of nitrates and indicator bacteria, which signal that E. coli or other harmful bacteria are present.
High nitrate levels in water if not removed through treatment can be fatal for babies less than 6 months old. Phosphorus and nitrogen also contribute to toxic algal blooms that can sicken people, pets and livestock. And E. coli and other bacteria in water can cause diarrhea and respiratory and other illnesses.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources declined to comment on the American Rivers report Monday.
Des Moines Water Works unsuccessfully sued officials in three northwest Iowa counties in 2015, saying underground drainage tiles funnel nitrates and phosphorous pollution into the Raccoon River. The utility sought to have drainage districts, and indirectly farmers, regulated under the federal Clean Water Act as a “point source” of pollution, much like businesses and manufacturing plants.
A court ruled that Water Works had no standing to sue the drainage districts, since they were unable to address the utility’s harm.
The Des Moines utility spent $4.1 million 30 years ago to build what was then one of the nation’s largest nitrate removal plants to ensure the water it produces is safe to drink. In 2017, the utility considered spending another $15 million to double the plant’s capacity.
“People sometimes think because the lawsuit went away, our water quality issues went away. But they have not,” said Ted Corrigan, Des Moines Water Works’ CEO.
High nitrate levels remain an issue, but the utility also has concerns about other pollutants, including microcystins, toxins from blue-green algae blooms. Last year, Water Works struggled for 110 consecutive days with elevated microcystin levels in the Des Moines River. The utility was able to use water from the Raccoon River, but its levels were extremely low due to drought conditions.
Des Moines Water Works has asked the U.S. Geological Survey to assess sinking alluvial wells in the sand and gravel along the Des Moines River, which would generate water with fewer pollutants.
“When you have two river sources and one is unusable, that’s a challenging situation,” Corrigan said.
The Raccoon River’s water quality also has come under scrutiny as part of a $117 million proposal to develop water trails on eight of Iowa’s leading streams and rivers. Canoeing, white-water rafting, fishing and other recreational activities on Central Iowa’s Water Trails are expected to draw $104 million in tourism spending in the first five years after they open.
American Rivers, in its report, specifically pointed to what it said was failure by Iowa officials to adequately oversee confined animal feeding operations — called CAFOs — and joined a state and national call for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to “investigate, monitor and enforce” federal clean water regulations to “safeguard public health in the state.”
Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch, among other groups, have asked to meet with EPA’s Region 7 leaders after the Biden administration appoints a new administrator. Region 7 includes Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri and nine tribal nations.
Adam Mason, Iowa CCI’s state policy program director, said the coronavirus public health emergency last year contributed to Iowa’s water quality problems. Gov. Kim Reynolds lifted restrictions on the amount of manure that could be applied to Iowa farm fields and on the number of animals CAFOs can accommodate.
“We can’t get concrete answers on the plan to bring those facilities that were overstocked back into compliance,” Mason said. “That’s a huge concern.”
Last year, pigs, cattle and other livestock backed up on Iowa farms after thousands of meatpacking workers became sick with COVID-19, causing plants to temporarily close. Producers destroyed thousands of pigs, turkeys and other livestock, unable to send them to slaughter.
Iowa DNR said Monday that producers temporarily were allowed to double the number of animals in CAFOs, but that the lifting of restrictions ended in December. Also, producers were allowed to spread more manure on fields, due to increased herd sizes, but were required to update their manure management plans.
Iowa CCI, along with other state and national environmental groups, has unsuccessfully pushed the Republican-led Iowa Legislature to place a moratorium on new livestock operations while the state reworks rules for overseeing CAFOs.
Levees cited as problem in Missouri River flooding
American Rivers also said the lower Missouri River, deepened and narrowed for barge traffic, needs more room to allow for natural flooding and to support endangered wildlife.
“The lower Missouri River from Sioux City to St. Louis is artificially confined by hundreds of miles of levees that have destroyed the dynamic features of the river,” American Rivers said, resulting in the loss of habitat.
The piping plover, the interior least tern and pallid sturgeon have been placed on federal endangered or threatened species lists.
Farmers, homeowners and community leaders along the Missouri have pushed for more flood control efforts, including having more water released from the reservoirs earlier in the year to prevent spring and summer flooding. The Corps manages the river’s flow using six dams and reservoirs in Montana and the Dakotas.
“We aren’t any closer to addressing the flood management challenges on the Missouri,” said Dorothy of American Rivers.
Flooding along the Missouri in 2019 caused an estimated $3 billion in damages in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri.
The Missouri was on the endangered rivers list last year as well, along with the Upper Mississippi River from Minnesota and along the Wisconsin, Iowa and Illinois borders.