Iowa DNR environmentalist to lawmakers: Impaired waters data confusing; problem is real

Iowa in middle of pack nationally in water quality issues

James Q. Lynch
Published: January 28 2014 | 6:50 pm - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 2:48 am in
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A state environmental specialist cautioned lawmakers Tuesday against reading too much into the growing number of impaired waters in Iowa.

Iowa has 480 impaired streams and lakes as defined by the federal Clean Water Act, but John Olson of the Department of Natural Resources said the degree of impairment varies widely.

“Impairment is not a one-size-fits-all-concept,” he told the House Environmental Protection Committee Jan. 28.

However, Olson told lawmakers not to leave his presentation thinking Iowa doesn’t have water quality issues.

Iowa is somewhere in the middle of the pack when the number of impaired waters is compared to other states – significantly more than some, but far fewer than Pennsylvania, which has nearly 7,000, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even that comparison can be confusing, Olson said, because of state-specific water quality standards, methodologies and monitoring, it’s hard to relate the number of impaired waters to actual water quality. As the number of impaired waters increases, the severity of the water quality problems doesn’t necessarily increase, he said.

Rep. Chuck Isenhart, D-Dubuque, agreed lawmakers shouldn’t read too much into the data, “but don’t dismiss the problem.”

He plans to introduce legislation to begin a statewide river restoration program modeled on the DNR’s successful lake restoration initiative. One of the first steps, he said would be to determine how to prioritize those efforts. Impaired waters data would be one factor.

Isenhart was a member of the Iowa Rivers and Waterways Study Committee, co-chaired by Environmental Protection Committee Chairman Lee Hein, R-Monticello. Isenhart would like Hein to co-sponsor legislation initiating the interim committee’s recommendations.

Those recommendations called for the DNR and Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to collaborate on developing a plan building on current efforts to identify river restoration practices. It also recommended the agencies develop demonstration projects with local landowners and watershed groups to provide examples of impaired waters restoration practices.

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