What is the quality of Iowa’s drinking water? An individual might suspect that it’s quite low. It’s a farm state with one of the least regulated and most big ag friendly economies. Iowa has a larger population than any state of factory-farmed pigs and egg-laying hens, combined with the highest percentage of farmed land — that is to say a lot of runoff from CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and agriculture. Yet, besides the expected contaminants of nitrates and bacteria, Iowa’s water manages to maintain a national ranking that is in the middle of the pack, not great but not horrible. I guess that is a minor achievement. As Midwestern residents of Middle America, we are used to being average. Admittedly, in terms of personal observation, the taste and smell that comes out of the faucet has vastly improved since the present Iowa City water treatment plant was opened in 2003. Before that, the government used to warn the public to not drink the tap water if they were young, old, sick, or pregnant; and that advice specifically applied to the springtime when the farmers were dumping chemicals on their fields with most of it being washed into the waterways.
As an interesting side note, we have previously heard about a water spring in or near the local Hickory Hill Park that was a Native American campsite along the trail they used (a mysterious place we’ve never been able to locate). But apparently there also was the “Iowa City Mineral Spring works located on Iowa ave,” along which runs Ralston Creek that passes through the park (Daily Iowa State Press Newspaper; Apr 29 1901, Page 4). Actually, it was three springs at the Iowa Avenue property and they were written about as far back as 1841 (History of Johnson County, Iowa). The site was originally owned by Robert Lucas, the Governor of the Iowa Territory. The spring apparently didn’t have soothing qualities, as Gov. Lucas was known to have a temper and almost started a war over a boundary dispute with Missouri, what is called the Honey War. A later owner built over the springs in making it a health resort that didn’t succeed and so there presumably is still a spring in the basement of whichever house that is.
Springs aside, what is the public utility water like these days? In 2020, Iowa City tap water was reported as having exceeded all state and federal health standards in that there were zero violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, for whatever that is worth. On the other hand, according to one website, 3rd party independent testing reports that Iowa City tap water exceeds health guidelines for multiple drinking water contaminants: Bromodichloromethane, Bromoform, Chloroform, Chromium (Hexavalent), Dibromochloromethane, Dichloroacetic Acid, Nitrate, Total Trihalomethanes (TTHMs), Trichloroacetic Acid, etc. Then again, that comes from the official website of a water filtration system retailer. Anyway, one way or another, Iowa City tap water is exceeding — they should give out an award for that.
As a longtime contentious issue, fluoride is added by the local water treatment plant which increases the biological uptake of lead, although lead levels in Iowa City are generally lower, unless you live in an old house in an old neighborhood. On a related note, fluoride is often contaminated with arsenic. In case you didn’t know, arsenic is really bad for your health and is found in much of Iowa’s well water, if for other reasons. One of the disturbing sources of this toxin comes from the decaying corpses that were buried before, a little over a century ago, arsenic was banned in embalming fluid. In Iowa City near a Civil War cemetery, arsenic levels tested three times the federal limit. By the way, the 2019 IC Water Quality Report didn’t test for arsenic. The last time they did test for arsenic apparently was in 2014 and they didn’t detect any — so, maybe there is no reason to worry on that account, assuming you’re not drinking well water near an old cemetery.
There are still other contaminants of concern. As of a few years ago (2019), it doesn’t seem the local government was testing for either PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances; “forever chemicals”) or microplastics. The state government, however, was on the ball; at least on one account. The Iowa DNR did an analysis last year of various locations that included Iowa City. The local tap water didn’t contain any traces of most PFAS and, of the one detected, it was considered at a safe level. It’s still not clear about microplastics that are found in 83% of water globally. It is hard to even find any discussion about microplastics in the water supply of Iowa City and across the state, other than a single letter to the editor in a local alternative newspaper, the Little Village. Other unknown potential contaminants could include pharmaceuticals and no local info came up about that at all, which makes one wonder considering Iowa City is a major medical town with three large hospitals and numerous assisted living residences.
As the tapsafe website put it in an article about Iowa City, “While tap water that meets the EPA health guidelines generally won’t make you sick to your stomach, it can still contain regulated and unregulated contaminants present in trace amounts that could potentially cause health issues over the long-run. These trace contaminants may also impact immunocompromised and vulnerable individuals.” Some of what is unknown is how the diversity of contaminants might interact within the human body, whether in terms of being ingested at the same time or in terms of bioaccumulation over years and decades. Yet it’s not merely a lack of knowledge of the effect but in some cases, from microplastics to pharmaceuticals, it seems we don’t even have info on to what degree they are present — they simply aren’t even on the radar of news reporting, public debate, good governance, environmental regulations, and health guidelines. That is to say, as a society, we have failed to follow the precautionary principle.
This brings us to the possibility of getting one’s drinking water from another source. Besides water filtration systems, the one product that has stood out is Mountain Valley Spring Water, as it has a good reputation of quality and transparency, not to mention many local distributors in the United States who will deliver it to your home at no additional cost; and it’s also widely available in grocery stores. It supposedly is the “Official water of the White House since 1920. . . [when] they made their first delivery of Mountain Valley Water to the White House of President Woodrow Wilson on the advice of his personal physician. Since that period Mountain Valley has been served to generations of US presidents and in the halls of Congress.” And, having been on the market for a century and half, it’s long been touted as clean and healthy; which is supported by various testing of water quality and product safety, albeit it won’t heal all that ails you as advertising copy claimed earlier last century back when healing springs were all the craze.
Consumer Reports had a whole slew of bottled waters tested in 2019, including Mountain Valley. Even though Mountain Valley’s colored glass bottles themselves contain undesirable elements (as is typical of colored glass), the testing seems to indicate none of it leaks into the water contained therein. Glass doesn’t break down or leach chemicals in the way does plastic and hence the microplastics problem — even many expensive high-quality waters in plastic bottles are filled with microplastics; hence plastic bottles as something to concerned about and to definitely avoid. Anyway, the local vendor provides Mountain Valley in the 5-gallon glass jars that appear to be clear, even if colored glass was an issue which it’s not. The only downside to this option is pricing, but then again a high quality water filtration system at thousands of dollars would take years to pay off before it would save you money in comparison to home-delivered spring water. One’s preference partly depends on how much money one has to invest upfront. Still, even the best systems like reverse osmosis don’t actually remove all contaminants and so wouldn’t give you a water as pure as an ancient spring source.
That brings us to another important point, how protected is the source. Besides the plastic issue, the main cause of contamination in bottled waters probably comes from the water source itself. Sadly, it’s not only groundwater, waterways, and wells that are contaminated but apparently also more than a few springs, such as where delicious and popular Topo Chico is procured from in Mexico (some improvements have been made, though far from meeting health guidelines). This might be because many springs contain water that only filtered through the ground for a few months or a few years, and as such they contain some of the contaminants from wherever the water originated. Mountain Valley, on the other hand, is from a spring with water that fell as rain three and half millennia ago during the Bronze Age, long before industrialization. Other springs are even more ancient. One of the worrisome contaminants are the abovementioned PFAS, the specific contaminant at high levels in Topo Chico spring water. Consumer Reports has listed brands according to their PFAS content and they have further discussion about specific brands. They didn’t mention Mountain Valley, but other testing hasn’t found these problematic chemicals.
The lesson for the day: Be careful about what you put into your body! Water is good for your health, until it is not. And quality can be hard to determine, in requiring that you do your due diligence — buyer beware, as they say. This is an area where regulatory bodies have largely failed the public or else been highly inconsistent and at times careless, possibly because of corporate lobbyist pressure (e.g., the lack of regulation of PFAS and the fact that some of the most contaminated products are owned by big biz and highly profitable, such as Coca Cola’s Topo Chico). Once inside you, no one entirely knows what all of these weird substances do to your delicate innards. Be kind to your innards and they will be kind to you. But fail to heed this warning and you will slowly rot from the inside out, as you writhe in agony while cursing the gods for the day you were born. It could happen. One way or another, drink the best water you can reasonably afford as a starting point of health, even if a charcoal filter is the only option in your price range.