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Release: Dec. 4, 2001

UI researchers receive grant to study water quality in agroecosystems

IOWA CITY, Iowa –- A team of University of Iowa researchers has won a three-year, $394,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study water quality in the Iowa River and the Des Moines River watersheds. They also plan to research federal laws, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, so that the law is better able to take into account differences within and between watersheds.

Raj Rajagopal, professor of geography in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the principal investigator on the project, says that it is expensive and ineffective for all communities to test for the same set of contaminants, regardless of seasonal, geographic and other differences.

"People ask me, 'Is my water safe?' I tell them, 'It depends,'" he says. "It depends upon the land use around the source of your water, the topography, the time of year and other factors. The quality of water in the Des Moines River is not the same as it is in the Iowa River and both change over the course of the year. I don't think we want a 'one-size-fits-all' policy for water quality testing."

Although periodic tests under the Safe Drinking Water Act check for about 83 different constituents in water, he says that monthly or weekly tests for perhaps five or 10 suspected constituents, depending upon the history of the geographic area, would be more cost-effective and more complete.

"For example, you don't go to your doctor just once in your lifetime and ask her or him to run 10,000 tests. Instead, you go for yearly check-ups where your doctor conducts only those tests appropriate to your age, health history, family health history and other factors," he says. "Water quality testing can be similarly designed to meet the needs of specific communities and administered more often."

Perhaps the biggest challenge to bringing about change in water quality testing is convincing various groups of professionals that change is both possible and desirable. To that end, his team plans to research and develop the fields of science, technology, policy, integration and education in the context of water quality protection in Iowa watersheds. In particular, they will use geographic information systems (GIS) to locate water quality sites in Iowa, compile the data in an electronic map, and make the information available to the public and elected representatives for policy-making actions.

"We're going to bring scientists, technologists and policy-makers together," says Rajagopal, whose colleagues in the study are David Bennett, assistant professor of geography; Ed Brands, doctoral student in geography; and David Osterberg, associate professor of occupational and environmental health and geography. The study includes the formation of a three-year steering committee consisting of members of the Iowa House of Representative, the EPA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and other offices, university scientists, and consumers.

"Federal law -- the Safe Drinking Water Act, in particular -- currently requires that Iowa test for some chemicals that have never even been used in the state," Rajagopal says. "We're hoping to develop a water quality testing strategy that treats everyone appropriately, that is equitable and economical, but looks for different risks in different areas. As a result, our representatives may need to rewrite the laws or design flexible approaches to function within existing laws."