The Des Moines River, Haunted by Toxic Discharge and Manure

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Michelle Hesterberg

Environment Iowa Research and Policy Center

Des Moines, IA – Today on the shores of The Des Moines River, Environment Iowa held an event to release “Ten Scary Facts about Iowa’s Waterways,” a new factsheet which compiles 10 of the most frightening realities about pollution in the area’s most iconic waterway. The group was joined by Craig Cox, Senior Vice President with the Environmental Working Group and Tayler Chicoine, leader of Iowater at Grinnell College.

“For more than a decade, loopholes in the Clean Water Act have allowed the Des Moines River to become a witch’s brew of pollutants,” said Rosalie Curtin, Campaign Coordinator with Environment Iowa. “President Obama has the power to make fishing and swimming in the Des Moines River a lot less scary. Today, we are urging the Obama administration to ensure that Iowa’s Waterways are protected now and for future generations.”

The Halloween-themed event comes on the heels of the EPA’s announcement to move forward with a rulemaking to restore Clean Water Act protections to streams and wetlands across the country. The rule could close loopholes that leave nearly 62% of Iowa’s streams and the drinking water for more than 667,000 Iowans at risk of unchecked pollution.

“Agricultural and industrial pollution ruins the foul canals that we call creeks,” said Tayler Chicoine, Leader of Iowater. “Water is a common resource and through individual behaviors and pushes for action in policy change, we need to take credit for our poor water management. It may be impossible to return our water bodies to the pristine conditions that Aldo Leopold described years ago, but we can still help change this negative flow for future generations.”

The most terrifying facts revealed today include:

  • Factory farms across the country generate 500 million to 1 billion pounds of manure laden with nitrogen, phosphorus, hormones, and pathogens each year that pollute our waterways. This is three times more waste than the U.S. human population creates.
  • Only 3 percent of monitored waterways in Iowa are considered in “excellent” condition, with 72 percent classified as very poor, poor, and fair.
  • The Des Moines River alone holds 620,710 pounds of toxic discharge.

What’s even scarier is what’s at stake: For most people in Iowa, Iowa’s waterways mean canoeing, swimming, or simply relaxation. More importantly, Iowa’s waterways provide drinking water for 667,428 Iowans.

“It is time to face facts — decades of relying on landowners to volunteer to cut pollution hasn’t worked,” said Craig Cox, Senior Vice President with the Environmental Working Group. “There is no evidence that water quality has gotten better since 1999. We need smart and narrowly targeted regulations that curb the most damaging farming practices.”

The EPA is taking public comments now, and will hold a public meeting in mid-December to gather information on the science connecting our smaller streams and wetlands to larger bodies of water. Thousands have already submitted public comments calling on the Obama administration to move forward to close Clean Water Act loopholes.

“Voluntary programs must be far better targeted and provide a much larger and secure source of funding and the staffing to get the job done. Precisely targeted regulation coupled with a strengthened voluntary program would set Iowa on a path toward cleaner water for our children and ourselves,” Cox added.

“Environment Iowa thanks members of Congress like Senator Tom Harkin and Representatives Bruce Braley and David Loebsack for standing up for clean water,” Curtin said. “Support in Congress is critical to preventing further efforts to weaken Clean Water Act protections and helping the Obama administration restore protections to waterways that feed the Des Moines River.”

“It’s time to give the Des Moines River the Halloween treat it deserves – protection from polluters,” said Curtin. “We thank the EPA for taking the first step forward to protect our waters. The Obama administration should finish the job and ensure that the Des Moines River and all our waterways will be less scary for future Halloweens.”