CEDAR FALLS — Across the street and a few doors down from Meghan and Sean O’Neal’s home on Neola Street in Cedar Falls is a small, nondescript one-story brick building.
“I have seen that building before,” Meghan O’Neal said. “I never knew what it was.”
Cedar Falls Utilities’ pump station 3 is one of eight water wells that supply the city’s water system.
O’Neal and her husband are new to the neighborhood, but long-time Neola Street resident Rosann Good wasn’t aware of its purpose either. Nor was Chuck Parsons, who has lived directly across the street from the pump station for two decades.
Three of Cedar Falls’ wells — 3, 9 and 10 — consistently have recorded high nitrate levels over several years. All three are in the northern part of Cedar Falls, where a shallow layer of bedrock allows more nitrates to infiltrate the groundwater.
They stand in contrast to Cedar Falls’ southern wells, where thicker bedrock layers better protect the groundwater, keeping nitrate levels lower, a journalism collaboration of the University of Northern Science in the Media project, the Cedar Falls High School Tiger Hi-Line and IowaWatch found.
“CFU presently is able to keep its water at legal nitrate levels by diluting the higher nitrate water from the northern city pump stations with the lower nitrate water from the southern pump stations in the pipes,” said Jerald Lukensmeyer, gas and water operations manager at CFU.
Reported levels in the city’s wells reached as high as 9.9 parts per million in five different years from 1996 through 2016, CFU records show. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists 10 ppm as the acceptable limit.
CFU has records of nitrate testing levels dating to 1966. At that time, the highest nitrate reading at a city well was 4.2 ppm, far below the EPA’s 10 ppm limit. It wasn’t until 1992 that a nitrate reading exceeded 8 ppm. It has been between 8 ppm and 10 ppm ever since.
The Cedar Falls water system’s eight wells are linked to an underground aquifer. Those wells supply the water all residents drink. CFU tests drinking water nitrate levels quarterly. Wells consistently high in nitrates are tested more frequently.
Lukensmeyer said well 3 has been shut off at times so its nitrate level doesn’t exceed 10 ppm.
Despite the potential nitrates threat in Cedar Falls’ water supply, residents have faith in the water system. “I kind of trust Cedar Falls Utilities that they are doing a good job with that,” Good said.
A 1999 U.S. Geological Survey study on Cedar Falls water supplies blamed the application of nitrogen-based fertilizer to farm fields as the main cause of high nitrate levels.
A 2013 Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship report, “Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy,” said 92 percent of nitrates in Iowa’s water came from runoff largely from agriculture land. The other 8 percent came from wastewater treatment plant discharges, the report said.
A major side effect of high nitrates is blue baby syndrome, known as methemoglobinemia, which affects infants who consume a high concentration of nitrates in a short period of time.
“Some birth defects have also been associated with a mother’s exposure to nitrate in drinking water,” Peter Weyer, interim director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa, said. Long-term nitrate exposure also can lead to various forms of cancer.
Many argue the acceptable EPA’s 10 ppm standard for a safe nitrate level should be raised, Weyer said, perhaps as high as 15 ppm or 20 ppm.
“However, the cancer studies we have conducted show that the risk increases for long-term consumption of drinking water that has nitrate concentrations at or above 5 ppm, or half the drinking water standard,” Weyer said. He added other contaminants in water make it difficult to evaluate effects on people.
Some states, such as Minnesota, have passed laws with bipartisan support to curb farm chemical runoff. However, water quality management has failed to gain serious footing in the Iowa Legislature, even following a recent federal lawsuit filed by Des Moines Water Works.
The lawsuit said drainage from three Iowa counties in the Raccoon River drainage district contributed to high nitrate levels in runoff the water company cleans for drinking. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in March saying the state had to resolve the problem, not the drainage districts.
“I was very disappointed with what occurred this year,” state Sen. Bill Dotzler, D-Waterloo, said. “We’ve been working backwards.”
Various pieces of water quality legislation have been introduced in the Legislature in response to the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. None has passed.
The question facing Iowans and their legislators is how to balance protecting constituents and Iowa’s farm economy.
Republicans have supported the agriculture industry. County conservation commissions have been working with farmers across Iowa to stimulate interest in planting cover crops, establishing buffer strips and using no-till farming methods to conserve soil and water.
“We need to address the water quality issue. Each year that we wait we will just kick the can down the road, and the costs to fix the issue will continue to increase,” state Rep. Bob Kressig, D-Cedar Falls, said. “We can do more to convince legislators that we need to make this a priority,” he said.