Across the Watershed: Whose Water is it?

CEDAR FALLS,  IA - DECEMBER 12TH, 2018 - BY COLE FOX

        The Environment Protections Agency issued a news release on December 11, 2018 announcing its plans to rollback what the Obama administration defined as “Waters of the United States,” raising alarm in the Cedar Valley. Since 2002, environmental initiatives and grants have invested toward improving Dry Run Creek and its watershed across the area, but the new proposals could lead to private landowners and companies reversing these efforts. 

Images show flood waters from a saturated watershed inundate pathways and the low laying banks of the Cedar River in Cedar Falls.
Images show flood waters from a saturated watershed inundate pathways and the low laying banks of the Cedar River in Cedar Falls.

The agency wishes to “provide clarity, predictability, and consistency” for the “regulated community” regarding which waterways the Clean Water Act protects, according to the press release. The agency’s new proposals would loosen regulations on waterways which may seem insignificant, but environmental activists warn entire watersheds can be affected.

 

Danielle Dick-McGeough, a communication studies scholar at the University of Northern Iowa, specializes in environmental performance activism. An academic who studies how people communicate and interact environmental issues, shared her concerns regarding the consequences of these future policies,

 

“Big-industry agricultural practices affect water and we need to find solutions that allow our state to thrive without risking Iowans.”

 

The proposal is stated as a “second step” continuance of President Trump’s Executive Order from February 2017, “Restoring the Rule of Law, Federalism, and Economic Growth by Reviewing the ‘Waters of the United States Rule.” Though 


the agency vows to protect the nation’s navigable waterways, there looms the economic exploitation of land and waterways that the federal government is no longer vowing to fully protect. 

 

“This is an issue of environmental justice. We ask, ‘Who is responsible for run-off and ground water? Who lives in wasted environments? Who is paying to clean this up?” stated Dick-McGeough. 

 

Dry Run Creek’s watershed sprawls across over 15,000 acres of land, 44% of which is urban landscaping, and 56% rural. The groundwater present under the bedrock of the watershed also supplies the much of Cedar Falls’ population with drinking water.

 Cedar Falls Utilities’ power plant rest adjacent to the banks of Dry Run Creek in Cedar Falls
Cedar Falls Utilities’ power plant rest adjacent to the banks of Dry Run Creek in Cedar Falls
Cedar Falls’ water tower proudly displaying one of University of Northern Iowa’s title. This tower stands virtually in the center of Dry Run Creek’s watershed.
Cedar Falls’ water tower proudly displaying one of University of Northern Iowa’s title. This tower stands virtually in the center of Dry Run Creek’s watershed.

 In 2002, the creek was listed as an impaired waterway, then again in 2008, for lack of diversity, lack of aquatic life, and bacteria infiltration. With government funding and grants, the Black Hawk Soil and Water Conservation District has aimed to partner with city and rural landowners in its Dry Run Creek Watershed Improvement Project. 

 

The community organization has implemented several practices to preserve and improve Dry Run Creek, including permeated pavements, bioretention cells, rain gardens, and other stabilizing practices in urban areas. Erosion and bacteria, such as E. Coli, accumulate on the bed of the creek, suppressing the local ecosystem’s ability to produce abundant plant and wildlife. 

 

Poor drainage infrastructure in Cedar Falls still threatens Dry Run Creek, despite efforts to preserve the waterway.
Poor drainage infrastructure in Cedar Falls still threatens Dry Run Creek, despite efforts to preserve the waterway.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested in the Cedar Valley to protect Dry Run Creek from deteriorating infrastructure and drainage practices affecting the waterway and its ecosystem. Along with updating urban infrastructure and practices, the Dry Run Creek Improvement Project partners with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and supports rural conservation projects. The project promoted the United States Department of Agriculture’s “No Tillage November … #DoNotDisturb” initiative, promoting agriculture practices that protect Iowa’s soil, as well providing access to aid from Natural Resource Conservation Services.

     

Dick-McGeough’s scholarly work investigates how all people live together, consumping and wasting, through performance. 

     

“It’s important to communicate around climate, the environment, and agriculture. We can talk about working through debate without it being personal,” she says, "we can think about our ethics of being wasteful without creating hierarchies.”

       

The Environmental Protection Agency’s lift on regulations, however, poses threat to the conversation by creating flexibility for how states regulate and protect watershed. Leaving these resources vulnerable can be catastrophic considering who may take advantage.

 

Water from ephemeral features, groundwater, ditches, all of which may now go unprotected by the federal government, 

High lake levels take over the shores at George Wyth State Park, across the Cedar River from the mouth of Dry Run Creek.
High lake levels take over the shores at George Wyth State Park, across the Cedar River from the mouth of Dry Run Creek.

flows to homes across the city of Cedar Falls, into Dry Run Creek, into the Cedar River, the Mississippi, ultimately ending in the Gulf of Mexico. Without protections and regulations on what may no longer be considered “waters of the United States,” urgent actions taken to preserve not only Dry Run Creek, but the nation’s water, face large hurdles ahead.