A look back: Iowa’s progress toward clean water

In honor of the 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Water Act, the Iowa Environmental Council is taking a look back at our work to successfully implement that important law.  The article below originally appeared in the Council’s newsletter in 2010.

Since 1995, the Council’s public policy advocacy work has helped to protect water quality in a variety of ways—e.g., closing all of the most-polluting agricultural drainage wells in Iowa, birthing a statewide volunteer water quality monitoring program, passing new rules to clean up leaky underground petroleum storage tanks, establishing a state fund for watershed improvement projects, etc. There have been many milestones of progress in our 15 years of public policy work on behalf of Iowa’s water quality. But probably our most difficult and prolonged work has been to bring Iowa into compliance with key elements of the federal Clean Water Act, passed 40 years ago in 1972.

The Council’s work on this began in 1999 when asked to serve on the Iowa DNR’s Water Quality Standards Advisory Group. Fast forward to 2004 when, frustrated with minimal progress and, in some cases, weakening of water quality protections, the Council joined with Iowa Sierra Club, Hawkeye Fly Fishing Association, Environmental Law and Policy Center and Midwest Environmental Justice Advocates to request assistance from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). With the help of the EPA, we were able to work with the Iowa DNR to identify and agree upon three key elements of the Clean Water Act that, if implemented, would improve Iowa’s water quality standards and lead to significant reductions in pollution of our lakes, streams and rivers…

ONE:

Revise Iowa’s water quality standards in order to make rivers and streams safe for swimming and fishing, and for aquatic life.

Until recently, 83 percent of Iowa’s river and stream miles were classified as having a “General Use.” And even though people recreated and fished in these waters, Iowa’s water quality standards for these General Use streams were insufficient to make the water safe for swimming and fishing. Nor did the standards protect aquatic life from toxic pollution. These were clear violations of the federal Clean Water Act.

A persistent campaign, led by the Iowa Environmental Council and its partners, resulted in new water quality standards which more than doubled the river miles in Iowa protected for aquatic life and increased 10-fold the miles of rivers and streams protected for recreational uses. Regulators were required to limit pollution in all perennial streams so people could safely swim in them, canoe on them, and fish in them—without getting sick. A major success!

Unfortunately, by the end of the legislative session that same year, groups representing the regulated community convinced lawmakers to pass a bill requiring the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to first assess whether a stream mile was actually being used for fishing and swimming, before the new standards could be applied. This cumbersome task is still underway today and it is still unknown whether the federal Environmental Protection Agency, who has final authority, will ultimately allow Iowa regulators to exempt certain stream segments from pollution limits.

Be assured, on behalf of Iowa families who want to be able to fish, swim and otherwise safely play in urban and rural streams and rivers, the Council and its partners are monitoring and weighing in on DNR stream assessment decisions.

TWO:

Eliminate the illegal “protected flow” provisions in Iowa’s water quality standards.

Until 2006, approximately 400 Iowa streams were assigned a “protected flow,” an arbitrary water level at which pollution controls did not apply.  The new standards adopted in 2006, described above, also eliminated this loop hole.

THREE:

Revise Iowa’s antidegradation rules to be in compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act. Success!

(See our full story about this issue, posted yesterday.)

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