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Iowa waterways rank among most polluted in a study

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A new analysis says Iowa's waterways are among the most polluted in the nation, leaving the state's rivers smelly, depleted of fish and containing high levels of health-threatening organisms.

Iowa ranks among the nation's highest in levels of fecal bacteria, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, according to an analysis by The Des Moines Register. Nitrogen and phosphorus, contained in crop fertilizers, feed algae blooms that suck oxygen from lakes and rivers, while the bacteria can cause illness.

The state recently enacted water quality rules to help meet federal Clean Water Act requirements set in the 1970s. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources also is looking for ways to cut the runoff pollution that would force improvements at some sewage-treatment plants.

According to an Iowa State University study, Iowa ranked at the top in fertilizer pollution among the Corn Belt states. The state's streams contained concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus - fertilizer ingredients that speed the natural death of rivers and lakes - among the highest in the world.

The level of pollutants in Iowa's streams registered 50 percent higher than the others in the Corn Belt, and 18 times higher than the U.S. median.

The nitrogen pollution in Iowa, combined with that of its corn-growing sister, Illinois, are shown on a U.S. Geological Survey map to contribute to a summertime "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico. The two state's count for up to 35 percent of the nitrogen washing down the Mississippi River watershed, The Register reported Friday.

Phosphorus is another problem, with average levels in Iowa streams being triple the national average.

An EPA report showed that Iowa streams had the top 53 of 675 nitrate readings.

Kristie Reck, a native Iowan who has lived in several other states, said some states, such as South Dakota, are keeping their waters cleaner, and safer.

"In Iowa, water is seen more as a resource to be used up and used as dump for agriculture," said Reck, 37. "The attitude in South Dakota is the waters are beautiful and accessible and you can see through the water, and there is no odor."

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