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Iowa reports 622 impaired water segments, a 2% increase

DES MOINES — Iowa will report water impairments on 622 river, lake and wetland segments to the Environmental Protection Agency as part of its biennial summary of water quality, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources said Thursday.

That’s a 2% increase over the 608 reported in the 2016 report.

The federal Clean Water Act requires states to compile a report every two years.

The 622 water body segments on this year’s list had 831 impairments up from 818 in the previous report, DNR officials said.

An impairment means a segment of a water body doesn’t meet established quality standards. It doesn’t mean a river or lake is highly polluted, said Roger Bruner, supervisor of the DNR water monitoring and assessment program.

He characterized most impairments on the list as “fairly minor” and said people still use impaired rivers and lakes for everyday recreation without impact.

“An impairment can be thought of like you going to the doctor and finding out you have elevated cholesterol. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die but means you should be aware of it and work toward improving that,” he said.

The most common river impairments in Iowa include the presence of bacteria and fish kills, for which the most common cause is animal waste.

Iowa, with more pigs and egg-laying chickens than any other state, constantly struggles to balance water quality interests with those of the powerful agriculture industry which resists mandatory measures to control water contamination.

The state’s current agriculture policy pertaining to water quality is primarily a voluntary nutrient reduction effort in which farmers may choose to implement practices that reduce erosion and farm runoff.

The most severe problem for lakes is algae growth, often the result of nutrients such as phosphorous from fertilizer washing from corn fields. Iowa also leads the nation in corn production.

Environmental activists Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement said the new report is evidence that the state isn’t doing enough to improving water quality.

“This is one more sign that the state’s nutrient reduction strategy is a complete failure. The report fails to differentiate the magnitude of impairments in many of Iowa’s waterways. But the reality is that any impairment is unacceptable.” said Cherie Mortice, retired teacher and Iowa CCI member from Des Moines.

The group and Food & Water Watch filed a lawsuit earlier this year alleging that the state has violated its public trust obligation to protect the Raccoon River by failing to limit the pollution running off industrial agriculture operations. The 31-mile tributary of the Des Moines River is a primary source of drinking water for about 500,000 central Iowa customers of Des Moines Water Works.

The lawsuit, which asks the court to order the state to adopt a mandatory clean water plan and moratorium on new hog farms, is currently before the Iowa Supreme Court on an appeal.

A spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Agriculture said there are water quality improvement projects happening all over the state.