(Taken from the
DNR's January/February 2002 Iowa Conservationist)
Iowans rely on water every day, whether it
be for drinking, bathing and washing, or for recreating such as boating,
swimming and fishing.
With all those uses, surely someone is
keeping tabs on the quality of our water resources? Someone who knows what our
water should look like?
That's the focus of Iowa's Ambient Water
Monitoring Program. The mission of the program is to collect baseline, or
background ("ambient") data on the condition of Iowa's surface and
groundwater resources, so their health can be tracked over time. It also ensures
appropriate information is available to guide resource management policies and
decisions. The process must be ongoing and continual, because it is difficult -
if not impossible - to draw conclusions regarding the health of our waters based
on a single year's data.
Ambient water monitoring can be compared to
an annual physical examination. If your family physician knows what your health
has been in the past, it will be easier to notice any changes, and then fix any
ailments that arise. Similarly, when the DNR knows what the quality of a given
water body should be, it is easier to identify impairments and develop solutions
for existing water quality issues.
The mission of the ambient program is
sometimes difficult to understand. "Oftentimes, people don't understand
that our program is meant to gather information," said DNR research
geologist Mary Skopec. "They understand what they see in the news - there
are high bacteria levels at this beach or there was a fish kill in this river.
The immediate response is, 'Why aren't you cleaning this up?'"
The program does in fact share information
with regulatory areas of the DNR, for instance, often with administrators of the
Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) program - whose job is cleaning up
impaired waters in Iowa. The TMDL approach can be compared the tests a physician
would perform if you were to come to him or her and complain of a specific
problem. If you complained of "stomach pains," the doctor would ask
pointed questions and run targeted tests to diagnose the cause of your pain.
TMDL administrators determine the cause of water problems in the same manner; a
general problem is recognized, and intensive, focused measures are used to
identify its source.
The job of ambient monitors, however, is
not to regulate nor clean up contaminated water sources. "If we find a
problem that needs attention, of course we inform the appropriate people,"
Skopec added, "but that is not our primary purpose." The ambient
program allows the state to test not only those waters identified as impaired
but also those not known to have any problems. This way, an accurate picture of
the total water quality across Iowa can be achieved.
DNR water quality monitoring in the past
has been minimal, due primarily to lack of funding. Surface water monitoring
began in the early 1970s on a handful of sites clustered mainly around the
state's larger urban areas. Several sites were added in 1986, when the program
was revamped in an effort to improve monitoring efforts in non-urban areas, but
even with these improvements the state's monitoring was inadequate. (These new
sites were measured on a rotational basis so only 11 were checked yearly, in
addition to the 16 original sites tested monthly.)
The DNR received about $123,000 annually in
federal funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to complete
the early surface monitoring. EPA also footed the bill (approximately $50,000
annually) for biological monitoring from 1994 to 1999. That changed in 1999.
Thanks to support from Gov. Thomas Vilsack and the Iowa Legislature, the ambient
program was awarded its first state funding in the 2000 fiscal year. The
Legislature has since approved additional funds, to significantly expand the
state's ambient monitoring program. In fiscal year 2002, $2.5 million was
devoted to that end.
The program is now running full-steam
ahead. Working in cooperation with the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory
(UHL), the DNR now monitors 79 ambient stream sites and 10 city sites (located
upstream and downstream of 10 larger cities in Iowa) on a monthly basis, and has
expanded its biological monitoring. Biological testing involves DNR and UHL
scientists sampling fish and small aquatic and organisms. The presence or
absence of these creatures, and the numbers found, can indicate how healthy a
stream actually is.
The DNR has also contracted with Iowa State
University to conduct a five-year study of the condition of Iowa's lakes - 132
total. Each lake is sampled three times per year and already, old beliefs have
been dispelled. Professionals have long assumed Iowa's shallow lakes were mixed
by wind and, therefore, uniform in temperature. Results from the first year of
study in 2000 show many lakes are in fact thermally stratified, meaning their
temperatures can vary by several degrees from top to bottom. The 2001
Lakes Report, with second-year results, should be released soon.
Like the new lake findings, much is being
learned about bacterial levels at Iowa's state park beaches. Beach monitoring
has been conducted for only two years and already it has been the subject of
many editorials, and no doubt numerous coffee-shop conversations. Bacteria the
DNR tests for - E. coli, enterococci and fecal coliform - are indicator
bacteria, or bacteria that will not necessarily make you sick, but can indicate
the possible presence of other disease-causing organisms. "If our bacteria
levels are high, there might be other unsafe organisms in the water, and there
might not. But, to err on the side of caution, we sometimes must caution
swimmers of the possible risk from exposure, and in some instances, the DNR has
decided to close a beach," said Rick Langel, a research geologist with the
ambient program. DNR Parks staff sample 35 state park beaches every week for
bacteria from May through September. "The bacterial levels in the vast
majority of samples collected during 2001 were safe," said Langel. (Read
the new 2002 Policy on beach monitoring.)
Individuals concerned about water quality
may be interested in the DNR's IOWATER, the citizen water-monitoring program, an
important component of the ambient program. Established in 1998, IOWATER
receives 10 percent of the ambient waters budget, which has helped train more
than 1,000 citizen volunteer monitors. The program is extremely flexible:
monitors decide when, where and how often they monitor. "The DNR cannot be
everywhere, all the time. Citizen data helps to fill in the gaps (of
professional data)," noted Rich Leopold, IOWATER coordinator.
Thanks to the expanded ambient monitoring
program the DNR and another of its many partners, the United States Geological
Survey (USGS), can now sample more places than in the past. The current
groundwater quality network includes 90 municipal wells monitored on a rotating
basis. During 2001, samples from all 90 wells are being analyzed for various
nutrients, herbicides, metals, volatile organic compounds and radionuclides. The
water is also being age-dated. Determining a water's age shows its
Plans call for the drilling of additional
well nets sites (a group of two or more wells at one location, drilled at
different depths) to create an ambient groundwater monitoring network. Between
two and five well nest sites will be developed on an annual basis. Each well
will be analyzed for mineral content and common parameters assessed annually.
Pump tests and geophysical tests will assess aquifer characteristics.
Development of monitoring wells will provide important information for the
overall management of groundwater in Iowa and aid homeowners and municipalities
in search of water sources.
Although monitoring itself is very
important, it is perhaps even more so to properly manage the data collected
through monitoring. Data makes it possible for the DNR to measure changes and
identify trends in Iowa's water resources. Once collected, data is uploaded into
STORET, an EPA database, implemented and managed locally by the DNR. The public
can obtain the data online from various monitoring activities through a special
Web interface. Upgrades to this interface are underway, including interactive
graphic and charting capabilities, interactive mapping applications and
immediate access to the latest data. The database will also serve as a
"clearinghouse" so other public data (such as from other state
agencies, organizations or municipalities) can be uploaded, and accessed by the
public through the system.
"We're really just getting started
(with the ambient monitoring program)," said DNR research geologist Lynette
Seigley. "We have so many projects that can be done - that need to be done.
This is just the tip of the iceberg."
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