May 19, 2023 - News

Polk County launches unprecedented river research project

A photo of the Raccoon River.

A view of the Raccoon River in Des Moines. Photo courtesy of Eric Burson

Polk County hired about a dozen scientists this week to help launch a two-year project examining water conditions and the biological health of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers.

Why it matters: The rivers provide drinking water to much of the metro.

  • Plus, regional planners want to transform them into bigger recreational attractions as part of the ongoing $125M Iowa Confluence Water Trails (ICON) project.
  • The project will provide an up-to-date snapshot of the metro's major water sources and will likely be the most comprehensive river review in DSM's history, Polk County Administrator John Norris tells Axios.

Flashback: Metro officials have for years battled pollution and dangerous levels of nitrates that leach into the rivers from things like fertilizers, wastewater treatment plants and septic systems.

  • Des Moines Water Works in 2015 sued three northwest Iowa counties and multiple drainage districts in federal court, alleging they violated the Clean Water Act by not better controlling nitrates.
  • A judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2017, concluding the widespread problems are for the Iowa Legislature to address.

State of play: A $50+ million plan to build wells north of the metro to remediate some of the problems is under consideration as water quality continues to dog the public utility.

Driving the news: This week's agreements between Polk County Supervisors, scientists and several universities are among the first steps for the new Central Iowa Water Source Water Research Assessment (CISWRA).

  • The $1 million project will review existing river data, identify research gaps and create a water quality improvement plan.

Of note: Polk County is using federal pandemic grant money to pay for the project.

What's next: CISWRA scientists and research groups meet next month to develop a research plan, project leader Jennifer Terry tells Axios.

  • A scientific assessment and recommendations will be made in 2025, she says.

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