Story by Catherine DeLong
After I completed my undergraduate degree, I decided to put off adulthood one more year, and joined Americorps in the Southwestern US. It was a great decision. For half a year I worked to create trails in national parks and forests across Arizona, Utah and California. As a Midwesterner, the Southwest was an eye-opening landscape with its enterprising juniper and pinyon pine trees clinging to bright red buttes and hoodoos. It’s very likely that in the Southwest I truly started to understand the value of water.
Our Americorps troop would set out from Flagstaff, Arizona to locations like Dixie National Forest in Southern Utah. We would park our van and start loading up each person with enough water and food to last seven days, plus all the tools and camping equipment needed to do our work and shelter us. This is also where I learned that water is heavy. Each of us was responsible for carrying our own water, enough supply for seven days of hard labor in arid country, usually at high elevations.
I remember returning from these trips to the creature comforts of chairs and soft carpet. I also remember the wonder of turning on the tap and seeing perfectly clear water come out, and the extravagance of a hot shower.
In Iowa, where I now work as the Water Quality Program Manager for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, we do not often suffer from water limitation issues, although we’ve certainly seen increasing instances of weather whiplash giving us both drought and flood conditions in the same year. Instead, Iowa and other Midwestern states are famous for their water infrastructure to remove water from the landscape through agricultural drainage tiles and ditches.
While water in Iowa is usually plentiful, it is not always clean or safe, particularly if you own a private well. Private wells in Iowa are a regulatory desert, meaning they are not subject to protection under the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act, nor do they have water quality criteria. There are statewide regulations surrounding private well construction, maintenance and filter systems, but ensuring the safety of the drinking water is entirely up to the landowner.
In Iowa, 230,000 or 7% of the population rely on private wells as their main source of drinking water. From 2018-2020, colleagues at Iowa State University administered a survey to fourteen counties in Iowa that have high nitrate in their drinking water. Nitrate, which is odorless and tasteless, is the dissolvable form of nitrogen that is deposited in our waterways and water systems from agricultural fields (where the dominant cropping system only provides actively growing roots to absorb the nitrate-rich soil water four to five months out of the year), septic systems and feedlots. High levels of nitrate has been linked to “blue baby syndrome” which reduces the ability of blood to carry water throughout the body, as well as thyroid disease and colon cancer.
After receiving over 10,000 responses to our survey, we learned that only about 20% of Iowans test their private well water once per year, which is the EPA and the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation. Focus groups with private well owners and listening sessions with county health employees taught us that the reasons for avoiding testing ranged from “it hasn’t killed me yet” to concerns about the cost of dealing with a contaminant.
In 2022, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach plans to unveil a private well program that Iowans can participate in through their local county Extension offices to learn about their well, test their water, and interpret results. We’re hopeful that educating Iowans about their private well will also help them become further engaged in water quality across the state.
On those cold winter days in Iowa where the temperature doesn’t rise above 12 degrees, and I’m on my third Zoom call, I do look back with nostalgia (that only time can give you) on my time hiking gallons of water up arid inclines. The work was hard, but the views made it worth it. In Iowa, I admit, the views aren’t as picturesque, but I’m consoled that I’m helping to protect my own water supply, as well as the water quality of all Iowans.
Catherine DeLong, Iowa State University
Catherine DeLong is the Water Quality Program Manager for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She works statewide to bring people together to share resources, ideas and perspectives about water quality, and to help Iowans understand the role they can play in the future of Iowa’s water. She has an MS degree in Soil Science and Environmental Science from Iowa State University, a BA in International Relations from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and has experience at all levels of conservation, having previously worked for the county-level Soil and Water Conservation Districts as well as an international non-profit serving conservation professionals.