Don’t try to tell Mike Delaney that the water quality of the Raccoon River – the primary source of drinking water for Iowa’s largest population center – is getting any better.
On a recent canoe trip, the retired college instructor spent a lot of time looking along the riverbed for mussels – a large freshwater mollusk. Many environmentalists believe the mussels are disappearing from rivers due to either nutrient pollution or heavy surging, which prevents them from anchoring in the rivers. Either way, it means there are problems with a river’s water quality.
“I saw only three live mussels, and I was looking for them,” said Delaney, a founding member of the Raccoon River Watershed Association and owner of 60 acres along the Raccoon in Dallas County north of Adel. “It was clear enough and shallow enough for me to see the bottom, but I just saw a lot of sand. There once was a time when the river bottoms were covered with mussels.”
The Association’s 250 members reside, own property, receive drinking water from and/or enjoy recreation on the Raccoon, which provides the vast majority of drinking water for Des Moines and its surrounding suburbs.
Questions about the watershed and the amount of runoff that enters the river have been raised for years. That runoff includes nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, that farmers apply to their crops and that can harm water quality. Portions of the river remain on the U.S. EPA’s list of impaired waters as a result of high levels of nitrates and phosphorus.
The Raccoon’s watershed drains 2.3 million acres of land from 17 counties – or just under 7% of Iowa’s total land mass. The river’s source is in Buena Vista County about 190 miles northwest of Des Moines, has two main tributaries – the South Raccoon and the Middle Raccoon Rivers – and converges with the Des Moines River near Des Moines’ downtown business district.
Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) officials pump an average of nearly 50 millions of gallons of water from the river each day, but must treat this water to remove the continual stream of phosphorus and nitrates that enter upstream – mostly the result of runoff from the thousands of acres of farmland and animal confinement facilities in central and northwest Iowa.
To combat the high level of nitrates in the water, DMWW built the world’s largest nitrate removal system at a cost of about $4 million in the early 1990s. This system is used periodically to keep the drinking water for Iowa’s largest population center within the nitrate guidelines from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Nitrates haven’t been the only the problem over the years. In 2008, high levels of blue-green algae forced the city to switch its source of drinking water from the Raccoon River to the Des Moines River. Those cyanobacteria blooms were eventually traced back to upstream pollution in Sac County’s Black Hawk Lake, 100 miles from Des Moines.
Delaney and other members of the Watershed Association praise efforts by officials to keep Des Moines’ drinking water safe.
“I live in the city, so obviously [drinking water] is something that I will always be concerned about,” Delaney said. “I think the Des Moines Water Works has done a good job … they are able to keep the nitrogen levels within the EPA limits.”
But even though the city can clean the water so it’s safe coming out of the tap, the river itself is still impaired despite efforts by the Watershed Association and others. Farm groups, including the Iowa Soybean Association and Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance, conduct voluntary testing and advocacy for cleaning up the Raccoon.
Members of the watershed association also test the Raccoon’s water quality often and have been finding higher levels of phosphorus and nitrates even though the area has been going through a substantial dry period.
“Not long ago, I got readings very high for nitrates and phosphorous. I am not sure if the will is there to actually do something about it,” said Ray Harden, a Watershed Association member from Perry.
Both Harden and Delaney are skeptical that there is sufficient political will to force more mandatory steps to improve the Raccoon. A plan to improve the watershed has been released, but Delaney said that the current high prices for corn and soybeans as well as a growing number of absentee landowners already is thwarting progress to improve the river.
“You’d think with all of the money that is being made off this land, they would think about ways to keep the land in good health and that they could afford not to plow up so much,” Delaney said. “But it seems to be going the other way. They are plowing up everything and even tearing out existing conservation practices.”
Delaney believes that the only answer is mandatory rules on agricultural practices that would provide ways to slow run-off from heavy rainfalls getting into the river as well as looking to control the use of nutrients and rules on animal confinement facilities.
“You will see continuing and worsening water quality problems unless there are some rules and enforcement of those rules,” he said.
Until that happens, he says, very little can be done to help the river that runs past his “little piece of heaven” – the 60 acres along the river that Delaney converted from row-crops into a natural prairie habitat.
“I never really expected much from the Raccoon because it was always muddy and not particularly attractive,” Delaney said. “But after buying this property and spending some time here, I’ve notice that in the wintertime I can stand on the bank and look right down into clear water.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if the Raccoon could run clear all the time?”