UI researchers say valuable Iowa Grants to Counties Program underused

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UI researchers say valuable Iowa Grants to Counties Program underused

A new report by the University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Contamination (CHEEC) finds that Iowa’s program to protect the drinking water of private well users, while valuable, has not been fully utilized and that there are opportunities to improve and strengthen the program.

The report, done in partnership with the UI Public Policy Center (PPC), examined the state’s Grants to Counties (GtC). The program provides funding to counties for water quality testing for private wells, in addition to providing assistance for the drilling of new wells and the plugging of wells that are no longer suitable for use.

Nearly 300,000 Iowans rely on private wells for their primary drinking water supply. Because private water wells fall outside the jurisdiction of the Safe Drinking Water Act, there are no federal regulations for the quality and routine testing of private well water. Instead, the EPA states that it is the homeowner’s responsibility to ensure the safety of their water.

GtC was created to fill this federal regulatory void and is important for the health of a vulnerable portion of Iowa’s population. However, the new report by CHEEC and UI PPC shows that while the program is valuable and necessary for protecting the public health of Iowans reliant on drinking water from private wells, it is currently underutilized and has yet to achieve the lofty expectations of the Groundwater Protection Act of 1987, which created the program.

“Iowa’s Groundwater Protection Act remains a really important piece of legislation for the state. It recognizes the many challenges that Iowans face in protecting our groundwater resources, from agriculturally derived pollutants and disposal of hazardous waste to the pollutants naturally present in our aquifers like arsenic,” said CHEEC Director David Cwiertny, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Iowa. "To combat these challenges, the Groundwater Protection Act created many new initiatives, including the Grants to Counties program. It also established a source of funding for efforts to ensure that our groundwater remained a reliable resource for the majority of Iowans that rely on it for drinking water, including private well users."

Specifically, the GtC provides money each year for (i) testing private water wells for total nitrate (including nitrite) and total coliform bacteria, at a minimum, with the option to test also for arsenic; (ii) reconstructing private water wells; and (iii) plugging of abandoned private water wells (including cisterns that present a contamination risk to groundwater). Between FY13 and FY18, the state has appropriated an average of $2.8 million annually, with participating counties receiving $23,469 to $36,082 each year.

During this time period the program has also seen some severe underutilization, with between 29–55% of the awarded funds remaining unspent by the participating counties. The researchers found that the counties that spent more of their allocated funds tended to have a larger number of active wells and more readily funded water quality testing, whereas counties with greater underspending often had greater access to rural water and fewer active wells. This is encouraging, as the funds are being spent in the areas that need them the most and for the most socially valuable activities.

“Understanding the drivers behind the utilization of the funds can help this important program perform better in the future and serve more Iowans,” said Silvia Secchi, an associate professor of geographical and sustainability sciences at Iowa.

The study also noted the value of the GtC has provided to Iowa over the past 30 years.  The program has distinguished the state from other Midwestern states through its commitment to funding for protecting private well owners. Few states set aside funds each year to assist private well users.

"This is an incredibly important program that really sets Iowa apart from many other states because it provides a dedicated funding stream to assist private well users from year to year.  For example, in many other states, well users have to pay out of pocket to get their water tested,” Cwiertny said. “The intent of the report is not to cast the program in a negative light but rather call attention to opportunities that exist to strengthen the program and improve public health protections for Iowans that use a private well for their drinking water supply."

The study identified five opportunities for improving the GtC program: expanded testing, prioritization of spending on vulnerable wells, allowing use of funding to assist with remedial actions, improved marketing to increase participation, and closing gaps in the inventory of existing private wells and well users.

"These opportunities are based on Iowa’s GtC program structure,” Secchi said.  “We are also researching if and how other Midwestern states are addressing issues related to well water, and are working to better understand the sociodemographic characteristics of well water users in the state. This could help target the program to their needs."

The researchers’ full report is available here.

For more information, visit https://cheec.uiowa.edu or email cheec@uiowa.edu.

CHEEC is part of the University of Iowa Office of the Vice President for Research, which provides researchers and scholars with resources, guidance, and inspiration to secure funding, collaborate, innovate, and forge frontiers of discovery that benefit everyone. More at http://research.uiowa.edu, and on Twitter: @DaretoDiscover

Media Contact: Strategic Communications Director Stephen Pradarelli, Office of the Vice President for Research, 319-384-1282, stephen-pradarelli@uiowa.edu.