- Associated Press - Saturday, June 20, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A central Iowa water supplier, which had to notify its customers that it exceeded the federal limit for nitrate last week, said it could be weeks before water is safe for babies to drink.

A water sample from Wednesday revealed a nitrate level of 10.7 milligrams per liter in the Boone city water supply. That exceeds the 10 mg/l limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency, which prompted a mandatory notification to 14,000 customers of Boone Water Works. The notice said the city’s tap water was unsafe for babies younger than 6 months.

Infants can develop a condition known as blue baby syndrome, a decrease of the ability of the blood to carry oxygen, from consuming high levels of nitrate. It can be fatal if not treated. The digestive systems of older children and adults can process the nitrate. The EPA, however, considers high nitrate an immediate threat to human health and requires water suppliers to notify customers when limits are exceeded.

Boone Water Works also sells water to Xenia Rural Water District, which also sent notifications to 1,600 customers, Xenia General Manager Gary Benjamin said.

Such notifications can scare people away from tap water, Benjamin said.

“It’s not a good situation from a confidence standpoint,” he said.

Boone, like most public water suppliers in Iowa, has no system for removing nitrate and tries to blend water from various wells to keep under the EPA limit. Without expensive denitrification equipment, water providers have few options other than to tell customers with babies to switch to bottled water or some other source until the nitrate level drops. High levels are likely to last into July, Boone City Engineer Wayne Schwartz said.

The last time Boone exceeded the EPA limit was in 1998, Schwartz said.

Boone gets its water from shallow aquifers running along the Des Moines River, which is with increasing frequency exceeding the EPA limit. Nitrate monitors show the Des Moines River at Des Moines was 18 milligrams per liter Friday. Further upstream river levels were much higher. The Raccoon River at Jefferson was over 23.

“I am so angry that we as citizens cannot depend on our elected officials to ensure safe drinking water,” said Brenda Brink, of Huxley, a Xenia water user and member of environmental activist group Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “Instead of putting up signs warning us not to use water, we need the Department of Natural Resources to go after the polluters. We shouldn’t be paying for their abuse of our water.

Des Moines Water Works, which has dealt with high nitrates for years, is suing upstream counties that oversee agriculture drainage systems that the utility officials believe are responsible for washing nitrate from fertilizer and manure placed on farm fields.

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