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Des Moines Water Works Advances Plans To Build New Wells In Light Of River Pollutants

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The Des Moines Water Works has struggled for years with agricultural pollution in the rivers it uses for drinking water. Now the utility is considering building new wells to lessen its reliance on the rivers.

The Des Moines Water Works is advancing a plan to build a set of new alluvial groundwater wells in order to lessen its reliance on rivers that have been polluted with agricultural runoff for years. A utility official says the approximately $30 million investment is needed because the rivers are considered increasingly unreliable and unsafe.

Nitrates are not the only contaminant that the Des Moines Water Works is dealing with. In recent years, harmful algae blooms have increasingly become a concern as well, producing toxins called microcystins that left water from the Des Moines River essentially unusable for almost a third of last year.

‘Shocking’ levels of contaminants left Des Moines River unusable for months

Des Moines Water Works CEO and General Manager Ted Corrigan says the increase in the blooms, brought on by high nutrient levels and warm temperatures, is part of why the utility is considering build new alluvial groundwater wells, to lessen its reliance on surface water from the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers.

“If you look at the total load of nutrients, if you look at the cyanobacteria blooms in Saylorville Reservoir and the microcystin concentrations at our intake in the last two years, they're shocking,” Corrigan told IPR. “And they should be very concerning.”

“And it’s a reason why we’re looking at spending $30 million to build wells,” he added, “because for 110 days last year we could not use the Des Moines River as a water source for the Des Moines metro area. That is shocking.”

"For 110 days last year we could not use the Des Moines River as a water source for the Des Moines metro area. That is shocking."
-Ted Corrigan, CEO, Des Moines Water Works

In recent history, the utility which provides drinking water for some 500,000 central Iowans has relied on water from the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers as its main sources. While easier and cheaper to access, these surface water sources are highly susceptible to pollutants that run off of Iowa’s farm fields, requiring extensive and expensive filtration to reduce the levels of nitrates and other contaminants that are linked to a slate of health concerns in order to meet federal standards.

The Iowa Geological Survey is currently conducting an evaluation of potential well sites which is slated to be finished by the end of the summer. The DMWW would then have to work with state and federal agencies to get permits to build the wells.

Changes of philosophy at DMWW

In 2015, under the leadership of the previous CEO and General Manager Bill Stowe, the DMWW sued drainage districts in three counties upstream over the nitrate pollution in what was an unconventional and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle.

An attorney with a reputation as a bold environmental advocate, Stowe died in 2019. Corrigan served in an interim capacity before being selected to be Stowe’s successor last year.

Four years after the lawsuit was dismissed, Corrigan says he doesn’t see the utility getting in another legal fight in the near future. But he also doesn’t see how the rivers’ water quality problems get solved without litigation or legislation, both of which would be sure to draw an intense firefight from the state’s agricultural industry.

Iowa’s agriculture secretary dismissed a recent national report highlighting ag pollution in the Raccoon River as “propaganda”, though he added there is still a "long ways to go" to reduce nutrient runoff in the river.

Corrigan says his alternative to litigation and legislation is to invest in the alluvial groundwater wells, which are more expensive to build, but are better protected hydrologically, drawing on aquifers underground that are insulated by layers of rock and sand. He pushed back on the idea that shifting away from surface water is a means of dodging Iowa’s political fights over water quality.

“I don't like to look at it as sidestepping the problem,” Corrigan said. “But the fact of the matter is that we have to be able to provide safe drinking water to our customers today and tomorrow and five years from now and 10 years from now. And I don't have any reason to believe that the surface water quality problems in the state are going to be resolved five years from now.”

“[People] sometimes think that if we're not suing anybody, we don't care about water quality anymore. And that's just false [...] We need to continue fighting. But we also have to be realistic.”
-Ted Corrigan, CEO, Des Moines Water Works

He says the shift towards alluvial groundwater would represent a philosophical change in the utility’s approach to its water sources. Another philosophical shift of sorts is underway under Corrigan’s tenure as well; unlike Stowe, Corrigan says the utility should no longer be “the tip of the spear” for the state’s environmental movement.

“[People] sometimes think that if we're not suing anybody, we don't care about water quality anymore. And that's just false,” Corrigan said. “We're always going to need that river water. And we need it to be clean and we need to be safe. And we need to continue fighting. But we also have to be realistic.”

Corrigan hopes for more statewide monitoring of “forever chemicals”

In an interview with IPR, Corrigan also highlighted the utility’s efforts to proactively monitor for the substances known as “forever chemicals” which have been linked to a host of health concerns. Last month the utility announced it had detected low levels of the chemicals called PFAS in its tap water. At 6.5 parts per trillion, the levels are far below the federal government’s recommended limits, but underscore the importance of further monitoring.

PFAS are a class of man-made chemicals that have been used in a host of consumer products for decades. Prized for their water and oil-resistant properties, the chemicals were designed to not break down. Instead, they accumulate in the environment and in the human body.

Researchers across the country have documented extensive plumes of the substances fanning out from manufacturing sites, airports, military bases and landfills, where the substances have seeped into the soil and water.

The chemicals have been used in everything from shoes to cooking pans and pens to personal care products. Exposure to PFAS has been linked to a range of health concerns, including certain cancers, kidney and liver complications, and some developmental and fertility issues.

"We have to be able to provide safe drinking water to our customers today and tomorrow and five years from now and 10 years from now. And I don't have any reason to believe that the surface water quality problems in the state are going to be resolved five years from now."
-Ted Corrignan, CEO, Des Moines Water Works

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has plans to conduct a round of PFAS testing, taking samples from more than 50 sites across the state, including 37 public water systems.

Corrigan called the state’s plan a good step, but said it’s just the beginning of what he says should be a much broader push to understand the scope of any PFAS plumes in Iowa.

“I think it’s a reasonable first step. I definitely don’t think it will be the be all and end all of PFAS sampling. I think you’ll see us doing a lot more PFAS sampling in the state as time goes on,” Corrigan said. “But they really just need to get a handle on what the scope of the problem is.”

Public water systems the DNR plans to test for PFAS:

  • Central Water System
  • Milford Municipal Utilities
  • Spirit Lake Waterworks
  • Clarinda Water Plant
  • Corning Municipal Water Department
  • Council Bluffs Water Works
  • Creston Water Supply
  • Greenfield Municipal Utilities
  • Panora Water Works
  • Des Moines Water Works
  • Lamoni Municipal Utilities
  • Leon Water Supply
  • Montezuma Municipal Water Supply
  • Osceola Water Works
  • Rathbun Regional Water Association
  • Winterset Municipal Waterworks
  • Burlington Municipal Waterworks
  • Iowa-American Water Company – Davenport
  • Keokuk Municipal Water Works
  • Ottumwa Water Works
  • University of Iowa Water System
  • Cedar Rapids Water Department
  • Manchester Water Supply
  • St Ansgar Water Supply
  • Graettinger Municipal Water Supply
  • Hawarden Water Supply
  • Sioux City Water Supply
  • Harlan Municipal Utilities
  • Missouri Valley Water Supply
  • Shenandoah Water Department
  • Ames Water Treatment Plant
  • Colfax Water Supply
  • Tama Water Supply
  • West Des Moines Water Works
  • Kalona Water Department
  • Muscatine Power & Water
  • Wapello Municipal Water Works