Iowa faces ‘catastrophe’ as Raccoon River ranks among nation’s most endangered

American Rivers ranks the Raccoon River as the ninth-most-endangered in the country. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)
American Rivers ranks the Raccoon River as the ninth-most-endangered in the country. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Des Moines Water Works will face a “catastrophe” unless Iowa finds a way to reduce farm pollution in the Raccoon River, which last week was named as one of the nation’s most endangered, the utility’s CEO said.

“It is clear, given the ammonia, phosphorus, and thousands of pounds of nitrogen that flow past our treatment plant, that adding any more nutrients to our watershed without addressing the water quality issues is going to lead to catastrophe,” Ted Corrigan said in an interview. 

Corrigan made the comments as the national environmental nonprofit American Rivers added the Raccoon River to its annual list of the nation’s 10 most endangered list at No. 9. The Raccoon faces heavy pollution both from large-scale crop and livestock operations, American Rivers reported. 

“The designation should come as no surprise to anyone,” Corrigan said. “The Raccoon has been contaminated for decades.”

Des Moines Water Works has had to shift water sources in recent years as both the Raccoon and the Des Moines River had spikes in toxic algae that could be related to farm runoff. The rivers also have had high levels of nitrate, largely from farm runoff, which forced the utility to install special equipment decades ago. 

Those two rivers provide much of the Des Moines area’s water.

Corrigan declared the Des Moines River “essentially unusable” for tap water in August. The Des Moines is not on American Rivers’ list. 

Utility can’t engineer its way out of the problem

Water Works is looking into a $25 million to $30 million project to drill shallow wells north of town in an area that would be less prone to pollution. In an interview, Corrigan warns that the utility can’t engineer its way out of pollution trouble long term. 

“Building more and bigger treatment facilities is not the answer. It’s not sustainable,” Corrigan said. The answer is to stop the pollution before it gets to the river in the first place.”

American Rivers said Iowa’s voluntary Nutrient Management Strategy is not working. That document encourages farmers to use conservation practices on their land, often with government aid, but doesn’t require actions through regulations.

As the state gains livestock confinements, the problems are getting worse, American Rivers said.

“The Raccoon River is polluted by more than 700 factory farms that confine thousands of animals,” the nonprofit reported. “Waste from these industrial operations 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 (affecting) millions of people. Iowa’s legislature has given these polluting operations free rein, relying on an insufficient voluntary strategy to reduce agricultural pollution in rivers and lakes. This voluntary approach has failed to reduce dissolved nutrient levels and water pollution, while factory farms continue to expand unabated, with 300-600 new factory farms added to the state each year,” the American Rivers report noted.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch joined in the report.

”The state of Iowa has favored the profits of massive agribusinesses over the interests of Iowans for far too long. We cannot continue to disregard the serious harms of unrestricted agricultural pollution,” CCI organizer Abigail Landhuis said in a statement. 

The Missouri River along Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Kansas was second on American Rivers’ list this year, largely over questions about management by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and flood risks. The Missouri and the Mississippi River along Iowa have made the list in previous years. 

Topping this year’s list of the most-endangered rivers was the Snake River in Idaho, Washington and Oregon due to questions over dams. Also on the list were Minnesota’s Boundary Waters; the South River in Georgia; the Pecos River in New Mexico; Tar Creek in Oklahoma; McCloud River in California; the Ipswich River in Massachusetts; and the Turkey River in Mississippi.

Ag secretary: Environmentalists’ alarm is ‘propaganda’

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig on Thursday labeled as “propaganda” the listing of the Raccoon River as one of the nation’s most endangered. 

“That so-called report was a bit of propaganda, I think,” Naig said of the American Rivers report last week. 

“It was obviously a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization. They can go out and say what they want to, but what they talked about related to Iowa is not based in fact.

“We are moving in the right direction,” he added.

Naig appeared on Iowa PBS’ “Iowa Press,” which aired at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Naig strongly defended the state’s record in addressing farm runoff, which environmental groups for years have criticized as weak, calling for regulations to replace the state’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Naig was quick to note the state has significant work to do to address agricultural pollution.

“We are focused every day in getting more (conservation) practices on the ground,” Naig said. “That is the answer.

“We have a long way to go. I don’t sugar coat it at all,” he added.

Moderator David Yepsen asked Naig if a $100 million-plus plan to create water trails, including whitewater courses in downtown Des Moines, should wait until the waterways are cleaned. 

Naig focused first on the water trails’ promise to improve recreation, help the economy and draw residents to the area.

“I think these water trails are a good thing,” Naig said.  “I think it actually brings some awareness to water quality. I think it’s a quality of life/workforce issue for us as a state. 

“Yes, we will continue to work on water quality,” he added. “We are moving in the right direction.”

Yepsen asked if Naig’s use of the word “propaganda” amounted to a “farm leader just blowing off environmental concerns.”

Naig responded, “Absolutely not.”

Naig added: “It’s a fundraising plea for (American Rivers). They can do that. I’m not saying they can’t. But if you want to talk facts, (there is) a lot of evidence that says we’re moving in the right direction, that work is actually getting done every day on the ground.” 

Des Moines Water Works ensures tap water is safe, as it must be under state and federal law, Naig said. 

He added: “We have work to do on improving water quality.”

This article originally appeared in the Examiner’s sister publication, the Iowa Capital Dispatch part of the States Newsroom network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: [email protected] Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.