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Newark Lead in Water

Protesters, foreground, confront mounted police with large banners as guests line up to enter the venue outside the MTV Video Music Awards Aug. 26 in Newark, N.J. Police tried to form a line between the protesters and those attending the ceremony.

We tend to take clean water for granted. We shouldn’t.

In our tax-averse nation, the American Water Works Association estimates it will cost $1 trillion during the next 25 years just to maintain and expand existing water systems.

That doesn’t include eliminating lines contaminated by lead or water treatment plant upgrades.

As in Flint, Mich., three years ago with lead at 25 parts per billion (the EPA standard is 15 ppb), residents of Newark, N.J., began drinking bottled water last month rather than using a city system contaminated with “alarming” levels of lead.

More than 13% of the children in New Jersey with elevated lead levels live in Newark, its largest city (population 285,000), which has only 3.8% of the state’s children.

In Rhode Island, nearly 7% of all kindergartners tested positive for blood levels, sufficient to trigger a public health response, according to state officials, and 10% live in Providence.

Three years ago, in the wake of Flint’s problems, a USA Today investigation found that nearly 2,000 of the nation’s 53,000 community water systems tested for excessive lead in the prior four years. Those systems served more than 6 million people, including 350 supplying schools or day care centers.

An estimated 310,000 children — ages 1 through 5 — are diagnosed annually with unsafe levels of lead in their blood.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, even low levels of lead in blood can mean an irreversible inability to pay attention and lower IQ. Children are more susceptible than adults because their blood-brain barrier isn’t fully developed.

Congress responded to the Flint problem in 2016 by overwhelmingly passing the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation and the Water Resources Development Act, allocating $12 billion for water systems. But it was only a drop in the bucket, with states and municipalities — and many small towns — still having to foot big bills.

In the Cedar Valley, Waterloo is considering nearly $100 million in upgrades to its water treatment plant. Cedar Falls either faces a $76 million bill or could conceivably connect to the Waterloo system for $50 million, plus a share of the upgrade costs as well.

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After two water treatment plant upgrade extensions from the Department of Natural Resources, Evansdale has a 2022 deadline to meet requirements on E. coli contamination compliance and expected rules on nutrient reduction (nitrogen and phosphorus from human waste, food and some soaps and detergents).

Its solutions range from temporary fixes of nearly $7.4 million, a $13.8 million new plant or hooking up with Waterloo. Monthly costs could double.

While Iowa’s Republican-controlled Legislature has consistently refused to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Act — a 2010 referendum approved by voters for a three-eighths of a cent sales tax to improve, protect and restore the state’s nitrate-saturated waterways — Iowa still received so-so scores on its water-related services this summer from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Iowa got a “C-“ on wastewater from the ASCE, which stated “significant funding resources” are needed to improve the state’s wastewater treatment practices, including nutrient reduction, and an aging system, despite $896 million in improvements between 2008-12.

Iowa, it maintained, also needs to do a better job of assessing the sources of wastewater — agriculture, storm water or sewer runoff.

The state got a “C” for water quality, which was deemed in “fair” condition, although the ASCE cited some municipal systems for pipes older than 50 or 100 years and “excessive nutrient concentrations,” the need to fund water main replacements and treatment plant upgrades.

An Environmental Working Group study found that high levels of nitrates in Iowa’s drinking water could be contributing to 300 cases of cancer annually in the state.

(As an aside, Iowa has a lead problem, but not necessarily in drinking water. A 2017 study of blood drawn from newborns by the State Hygienic Laboratory at the University of Iowa revealed one in five — urban and rural alike — had high lead levels. Researchers, though, believe lead in paint in pre-1940s housing stock was a factor. According to the CDC, lead could possibly cross the placental barrier of pregnant women, possibly damaging an unborn child’s nervous system.)

Funding upgrades to water systems are daunting and not much federal help can be expected. Cities should also factor in the cost of hiring operators with the necessary expertise. The Des Moines Metro Wastewater Reclamation Authority circumvented that problem by involving 17 metro communities.

Although Evansdale seems determined to go it alone, Cedar Falls should give serious consideration to hooking up with Waterloo. The fewer water fiefdoms the better. For Cedar Falls, it would have the added advantage of turning some odious downtown property into a possible development asset.

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