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Raccoon River Named a "Most Endangered" River

American Rivers on Tuesday placed the Raccoon River, one of two sources of drinking water for 500,000 central Iowans, on its top 10 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers because of pollution.

“This is not surprising to us – it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone – that the Raccoon River has been named a “most endangered” river,” said Ted Corrigan, Des Moines Water Works’ Chief Executive Officer and General Manager. “The Raccoon has been on the state’s impaired waters list for years, and it serves as a source of drinking water for 500,000 people.”

He continued: “This should be a call to action for our state leadership and those who have the power to create change. We hope this acknowledgement of the ongoing contamination of the Raccoon River will help reinforce our message that action on a broad scale is needed to improve water quality in Iowa.”

American Rivers listed the Raccoon River as number nine on its list, citing threats from upstream confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) and intensive row crop agriculture. The watershed is home to more than 750 CAFOs.

In addition, the river suffers from degraded water quality due to nutrient loss, soil erosion and the flow of other contaminants into the river as a result of land-use practices in the watershed.

Among the things that could be done to improve the river’s condition is to strengthen the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which calls for a 41 percent reduction of total nitrogen and 29 percent of total phosphorus loads for nonpoint sources statewide.

“We’re seeing tens of thousands of tons of nitrogen each year flowing past our facility on the river. The impairments are being added to the river more quickly than the problem is being solved,” Corrigan said. “The Nutrient Reduction Strategy has great science in it. The state needs to fund and implement this plan.”

The nitrogen and phosphorus that flow into Iowa’s rivers and streams cost Des Moines Water Works millions of dollars annually in treatment expense.

Also of concern is that in recent years, the Des Moines River has become unusable for extended periods of time – as many as 110 consecutive days each of the past two years – because of toxic microcystin present in the water. Microcystin is a toxin that can emerge from harmful algal blooms driven by high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus in the river and exacerbated by warm, slow-moving water.

“During these times, we relied significantly on the Raccoon River because the Des Moines River, our other source of water, was unusable for more than 100 consecutive days in a both 2019 and 2020 due to microcystin contamination,” Corrigan said. “The same situation is likely to happen in summer 2021. When you only have two rivers to choose from, this creates a challenging situation for our water production team.”

Des Moines Water Works tried to stop pollution at its source: After decades of collaborating with partners in the watershed, Des Moines Water Works Board of Trustees filed suit in 2015 against the trustees of drainage districts arguing that water polluted with nitrate was being discharged unlawfully into Iowa’s public waterways. The lawsuit was unsuccessful.

“We want to make sure our customers, the public and state leaders don’t lose sight of the issue,” Corrigan said. “We want to make sure people realize there is still a problem with water quality.”

“These are waters of the state,” he continued. “The state needs to take responsibility for improving the quality rather than simply monitoring the quality.”


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