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Drinking Water Quality Concerns Traced to Upstream Iowa

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September 25, 2008

Des Moines, IA – An Iowa environmental advocacy group is urging state lawmakers to enact tougher protections for the state's drinking water, after high levels of blue-green algae were found in the Des Moines water supply. Staff from the Des Moines Water Works traced cyanobacterial blooms in the Racoon River to Black Hawk Lake, 100 miles north.

Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, says, although the water in Des Moines is safe to drink when treated, that type of algae can make for smelly and bad-tasting water, even at low levels. Her biggest concern is that, at high levels, the toxins can cause serious health problems. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR), she says, currently has no state programs dealing with the sources of pollution in these large watersheds.

"That needs to become more of a priority, because these issues are not going away. They're getting worse and new problems are surfacing every day. The department needs to partner with drinking water utilities in developing programs that will help address these sources of pollution within their watersheds, that are really outside of the control of the drinking water utilities way downstream."

Randy Beavers, Des Moines Water Works interim CEO and general manager, says the cyanobacterial organism needs nutrients to survive, and right now the river's source waters have plenty to feed it.

"In August, we were seeing cell counts of over 30,000 in the river and our experience has been that once cell counts get above 10,000, it becomes problematic for treatment. We always have the potential for taste and odor issues as well. It has just been within the last week that we've seen the cell counts fall below 10,000."

Heathcote says they're not trying to create panic; Des Moines drinking water is treated by state-of-the art equipment and is safe to drink. But, she says, more needs to be learned about these bacteria.

The Des Moines Water Works has been switching the water they draw from the Raccoon River to a secondary source on the Des Moines River.

David Law/Don Mathisen, Public News Service - IA