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South Africa Cape Town Water Crisis

Residents queue to fill containers with water from a natural spring water in Cape Town, South Africa, on Feb. 2. Drought-plagued Cape Town introduced new water restrictions in an attempt to avoid what it calls "Day Zero," the day in mid-April when it might have to turn off most taps. 

We take clean, fresh water for granted. We shouldn’t.

Seventy percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water — 97 percent saltwater, 3 percent freshwater. Two percent of the latter is found in polar glaciers and ice, 1 percent is primarily groundwater, with lakes and rivers constituting only a small fraction.

More than a billion people lack easily accessible water. Another 2.7 billion have a scarcity at least one month annually.

Meanwhile, Iowa’s relative abundance of freshwater is threatened by inaction, even with legislation passed early in the current session that did little more than provide election cover.

We do not want to become as “water stressed” — albeit for different reasons — as many areas facing mounting crises.

“Day Zero” is now July 9 for four million inhabitants of Cape Town, South Africa, who could have taps shut off if reserves hit 13 percent amid a sustained drought. Water use is limited to 50 liters daily, including 90-second showers. Regional governments are hurriedly investing in desalinization plants.

Since 2015, water in São Paulo, Brazil (population 21.7 million) has been occasionally scarce, once with only 20 days’ worth left in its primary reservoir. Armed convoys accompanied water tankers because of looting fears.

Pollution is further compromising inadequate supplies in Beijing, Cairo, Moscow and Mexico City.

In Iowa, the problem is water quality — runoff primarily from agricultural sources (chemical fertilizers and bacteria from livestock facilities), but also industrial — with potentially dangerous elements spilling into rivers and aquifers.

Large municipal water systems have made expensive adjustments, which many smaller towns can’t afford. Private wells could have dangerous — and untested — levels of nitrates, atrazine, arsenic and bacteria.

In December 2017, the state Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Department of Natural Resources and the Iowa State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences developed the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

It estimated a cost of $3 billion to $6 billion to reduce agricultural and industrial pollutants from waterways using thousands of wetlands, hundreds of bioreactors and millions of acres blanketed with cover crops to soak up nitrates.

Instead, legislators in January approved only $282 million over 12 years.

Farmers would get $156 million for cover crops, wetlands, bioreactors, saturated buffers and other practices. Unlike the fervor surrounding educational accountability, no such requirement would exist to assess whether those outlays are effective.

The other $126 million — tapping an existing tax on metered water currently flowing into the Iowa’s general and school infrastructure funds — will help municipalities and towns improve drinking water and wastewater facilities.

Forty percent goes into a Wastewater and Drinking Water Financial Assistance Program. “Disadvantaged communities” will have priority access. That means rural towns such as Harris, population 200, which needs several million dollars alone to improve its sanitary sewer system, according to state Rep. John Wills, R-Spirit Lake, who managed the bill.

Gov. Kim Reynolds recognizes that “passing this long-awaited legislation does not mean the water quality discussion is over. It should ignite a continuing conversation as we begin to implement and scale best practices.”

Don’t hold your breath. Legislators promised more action in this session, but Rep. Chip Baltimore, R-Boone, said he would “be shocked” if it happened.

Yet a long-range solution is readily available without causing duress to the state’s $112 billion agriculture industry, which — as state revenue shortfalls indicates — has had brighter days. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy had sought cooperation from the state’s nearly 90,000 farmers, but at a cost of nearly $1.2 billion annually over 50 years.

In 2010, 63 percent of voters approved the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which would add three-eighths of a cent to the state sales tax, generating $150 million to $180 million annually. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources estimated 60 percent would improve, protect and restore waterways.

But Republican lawmakers cringe at imposing any new tax, even if it ignores the will of the electorate.

The trust fund vote wasn’t an anomaly. Six years later, 74 percent of Linn County voters approved a $40 million conservation bond to fund projects such as wetlands development to protect sources of drinking water and improve the quality of rivers and streams as well as acquiring land for natural floodwater storage.

The average homeowner is paying another $27 annually for safer water.

Legislators need to cast aside ideological blinders after fashioning what Kirk Leeds, chief executive officer of the Iowa Soybean Association, charitably called a “timid response.”

“It’s nibbling around the edges of what’s truly needed,” he said. “While some additional funding continues to point us in the right direction, it doesn’t get us too much further down the road in achieving the kind of results we all know are attainable and necessary.”


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