Iowa Nutrient Research Center Studies Excess Nutrients in Iowa Water

Is water quality in Iowa an invisible problem? The risks to human health are significant and costly. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), high levels of nitrates in

drinking water are especially dangerous for babies, pregnant women, and nursing mothers. Cities such as Des Moines are investing in expensive nitrate-removal systems to make drinking water safe, and passing the costs along to residents. Des Moines’ nitrate-removal facility, the largest in the world, cost $4 million to install, and another $7,000 for each day it operates.

Excess nitrates and phosphorus in our rivers and streams also cause serious environmental problems. High nutrient concentrations in the Mississippi River contribute to rampant algae growth in the Gulf of Mexico, which depletes oxygen in the water to the point where marine life cannot survive. This “Dead Zone” in the Gulf is now the size of the state of Massachusetts. Excessive nitrates in municipal water supplies also lead to higher water bills here at home, as cities are forced to make expensive upgrades to their water treatment systems.

The issue of excess nutrients in the water is a difficult one for Iowans. How do we balance the needs of an agricultural economy with the desire for clean water and a healthy environment? According to IIHR Research Engineer Doug Schnoebelen, the best place to start is with good information. “We can make better decisions if we have access to better information,” Schnoebelen says. “It’s just logical.”

The Iowa Nutrient Research Center (INRC) is designed to provide that information, using a science-based approach to improving water quality. Larry Weber, director of IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, a research institute at the University of Iowa College of Engineering, was one of the founders of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, which is based at Iowa State University. The Iowa Legislature established the center in 2013 with $1.5M in first-year funding. The INRC supports research at all three regents’ universities, as well as at several state government agencies.

The INRC has funded 10 research projects for 2014–15 that range from an investigation of farming practices and stream nitrate trends to a pilot study of nutrient trading in a small watershed. Four of the 10 projects involve UI researchers:

·       Modeling of Nitrate Loads and Concentrations in the Raccoon River (Gabriele Villarini, PI)

·       Nutrient Trading in Iowa: A Pilot Study in the Catfish Creek Watershed (Larry Weber, PI)

·       Measuring the Effectiveness of Stacked Nutrient Reduction Practices (Keith Schilling, PI)

·       Scientific and Technological Tools to Implement Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (Doug Schnoebelen, PI)

The backbone of IIHR’s research for the INRC is a network of water-quality sensors deployed throughout Eastern Iowa. These state-of-the-art remote sensors collect water-quality data that are relayed back to the center every few minutes. Researchers are developing an easy-to-use website to disseminate the data to all Iowans.

The new sensors move water-quality monitoring into the 21st century, says Keith Schilling, a research engineer at IIHR/Iowa Geological Survey. “With the sensor technology, now we’re collecting data every 15 minutes rather a grab sample once a month.”

IIHR Assistant Research Scientist Carrie Davis agrees. “I’m just happy we are able to provide the people of Iowa with this critical information,” she says. “It’s a huge step forward.”

Weber says he encourages everyone on the team to work with a sense of urgency, but also to remember that we’re in this for the long-term. Iowa’s nutrient problem has been many years in the making, and it won’t be solved overnight, or even in a decade. It may take 20 years, he says, before Iowa can achieve the 45 percent reduction in nutrient load called for by the EPA.

But Weber says he’s optimistic that with persistence and a willingness to invest, Iowa can improve its water quality. “We’re on the right path,” he says. “And we can quantify that we’re on the right path.”