Like millions of Americans we celebrated the last weekend of summer with a road trip on Labor Day weekend. Our recent tradition has been a getaway with my sisters and our families for what we call “cousins vacation.” This year our trip was to the water park capital of the world - Wisconsin Dells. We had a great weekend of family, food, pools and water slides. The pools were crowded with families all enjoying what was probably that last hot weekend of 2015.
As I floated the lazy river and wave pools for hours, there were a few things I began to notice about the pools. First, it was obvious the park works hard to keep everything spic and span, clean and safe. Probably the most telling sign was the eye reddening, skin irritating doses of chlorine in the water. That smell of bleach water that assures us the water is safe and clean. But there were also some mixed signals. There was the glob of hair clinging around a drain, the chewing gum I stepped in wading into the wave pool, the kid in the inner tube next to me hacking up water back into the pool, and of course there’s always the youngsters like my nephew in water soaked swim diapers in the pool. And I should not forget there were thousands of barefoot people walking hallways, hotel rooms, parking lots, pool lounges, and rest rooms and then walking right into pools. Did I still feel safe in the water? – Yes, just like the thousands of others around me.
Being surrounded by this “clean” water it made me think of the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against the three county drainage districts. We all want and need safe, clean water, however, the rhetoric needs to be put in perspective. The waterworks needs to bring the nitrates in their drinking water to the EPA’s 10 ppm (parts per million) standard established in 1992. That’s a high standard when dealing with surface water from rivers, rather than sourcing drinking water from groundwater. Accusations have been thrown around on who is responsible and what must be done to make it safer.
Most people do not go to a pool or water park expecting clean, fresh water without the additional chlorine treatment. Reasonable people understand that even though the water is pulled from common sources, extra treatment is needed to keep it safe because the amount of traffic and various contaminates that may make it unsafe. A similar and realistic expectation needs to be made for the nitrates in the water flowing into the Des Moines Water Works. There will always be a need for treatment of drinking water. It may be adding chlorine, adjusting the alkalinity, changing fluoride concentrations, improving the hardness, or removing excess nitrates. Even if no agriculture fertilizer was applied, there would still be a need for a nitrate removal system because of Iowa’s natural soil fertility and Midwest weather patterns.
Thousands of people bring their families to Wisconsin Dells every summer to enjoy the water parks and pay absolutely no attention to the little things that add up to water quality. They are reassured by that ever present chlorine smell. Meanwhile, Iowa has thousands of farmers who are paying close attention to the little things they do every day and do their part to improve and preserve water quality in our rivers and streams. Farmers are working hard following the plans outlined in the Nutrient Reduction Strategy to responsibly apply crop nutrients and control run off to improve Iowa’s streams and rivers. Improvements on water quality are coming, but the ultimate results won’t happen immediately. It will come over time as the efforts are multiplied across farms throughout Iowa and the most practical solutions are identified and shared. Farmers need to share the successful stories to reassure Iowans of their water’s quality and safety.
It’s hard for many people to get past the rhetoric and scare tactics being used by the Des Moines Water Works, but my weekend at Wisconsin Dells showed me that most people are reasonable when it comes to their expectations of water. Let’s move forward using that common sense. Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a good place to start.