Last week, Shelby Nelson threw away around $200 worth of clothes that had been stained with splotches of brown. Her 1-year-old washer and dryer weren’t to blame. Rather, it was the murky water running through her pipes.

For the past two to three years, Nelson has been combating discolored water in her home in Belle Plaine. The shade of brown descending from her faucets depends on the day. Several loads of laundry have been ruined beyond repair, forcing her to go to the town laundromat for washes. She sometimes takes her 4-year-old daughter to her mom’s house in a different town so she can bathe in clear water.

She doesn’t drink the water in her house; she doesn’t cook with it. Water filters and treatments are out of her budget right now. To her, there’s no solution in sight.

“We’ve had it so bad, it looks like we filled our tub with beer,” said Nelson, 30, who has lived in Belle Plaine since 2016. “The nicest way to put it is I’m pissed … I feel like we’re literally living in Flint, Michigan.”

Belle Plaine was once home to a gushing geyser named Old Jumbo, where more than 5 million gallons of water spewed per day from a well in 1886. It took 130 barrels of cement, sand and clay to plug the flow.

Now, the second-largest town in Benton County is at the epicenter of the worst drought on record in Eastern Iowa. In the last three years of drought, Benton and Tama counties are the driest they’ve ever been in a three-year period.

As a result, Belle Plaine is scraping the bottom of its water reserves. It launched a water restriction July 27. Its four shallow wells are producing only 20 percent of their normal capacity, and the 2,300-some residents are now reliant on the town’s deep emergency well, laden with minerals.

Belle Plaine is one of several Iowa towns gasping for water amid the record-breaking drought, falling back on outdated and insufficient water resources. The community — with many members in the low- to moderate-income range — is desperate for reprieve and solutions.

“I was planning on a drought this year, but I wasn’t planning on the worst drought in my entire lifetime or in the last 50 years,” said city administrator Steve Beck. “Belle Plaine is kind of the canary in the coal mine because it’s just — who’s next?”

Path to dryness

The problem started more than a decade ago when a landowner illegally rerouted a stream near the Belle Plaine well field. The waterway is a tributary to nearby Salt Creek, which feeds four city wells with its shallow aquifer.

The flow originally fed into a wetland around the well field, allowing sitting water to percolate through the ground and replenish the shallow aquifer underneath. The landowner constructed a pair of 5-foot berms on either side of the stream to reroute it away from the well field. He put tile drainage under the area and farmed it.

Around 2010, the well field began to dry out — a trend exacerbated by the last three years of drought, which have left Belle Plaine 2 feet short of its normal rainfall amounts. The drier it got, the more stress the well system endured without sufficient recharge.

A dry creek bed is seen near a temporary levee in Belle Plaine, Iowa, on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

“You’re taking the water out, but none’s going back in,” Beck said. “That has caused a systemic problem for us.”

Water levels in the shallow aquifer are now depleted by up to 14 feet, Beck said. The shallow wells, dipping around 35 feet deep underground, have less than 5 feet of water to draw from.

Belle Plaine built an emergency fifth well during its last major drought in 1988. It reaches 350 feet into a deeper aquifer and is typically used during emergencies and droughts to blend with water from the other wells.

Now, amid exceptional drought, it has become the dominant source of water for the town. It’s rich in iron and manganese — secondary contaminants that can alter the taste, odor and appearance of water, but don’t present risks to human health.

Without enough water, Belle Plaine also can’t flush its water distribution system — including its fire hydrants — free of sediment and rust. Belle Plaine usually does it twice a year. In the last six years, it has only happened once.

The city water still meets the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act and is safe the drink, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources confirmed. But, with the combination of minerals and sediment, certain parts of town are pouring discolored water from their taps.

“There’s no way around it other than to wait until the aquifer replenishes,” said Beck, who said he doesn’t drink the discolored water. “We’re just very thankful that we have any water at all, but it’s not good.”

The last well standing is also the only line of defense in emergency situations.

“I don’t want to run the town just off of one emergency well,” Beck said. “It’s not at risk of going dry, but we’re one water main break or one fire away from catastrophe.”

Trying a solution

Each step across the Belle Plaine well field is paired with an audible crunch of dead grass underfoot. The 10 acres are now dry and browning. The path of the serpentine stream that used to wind through the area, feathering water across the landscape, is nearly gone.

But, last week, Beck caught a glimpse of hope for the town: Rain was in the forecast. Much of that water would run off land and slip into waterways. Salt Creek and its tributaries, which had shrunk throughout the drought, could see their water levels rising once again.

To prevent that water from rushing away from its wells, Belle Plaine needed to act fast.

Beck, who is also vice chair of the Middle Iowa River Watershed Management Authority executive board, called together a task force of local and state officials and researchers. They determined the town could build up temporary levees to divert the Salt Creek tributary back toward the well field in time for the forecasted rains. There, water could sit until it soaked into the ground or evaporated.

Marks on a bridge show the level at which water used to move in the Iowa River in Belle Plaine, Iowa, on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. Water levels in the river have receded after three years of drought. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

City public works staffers constructed two levees that were designed to be rudimentary and low-impacts, raising between 2 and 4 feet tall. They are also plugging tile drain lines as they find them to keep water on the field.

“If we get a good amount of rain, that’ll hopefully hold back a couple (million) gallons, I’m hoping for,” Beck said last week.

Looking ahead

From Wednesday to Friday morning, Belle Plaine saw about nine-tenths of an inch of rain, according to the National Weather Service Quad Cities bureau. Another inch or so fell throughout the weekend.

The rain may buy them time. But it won’t be enough to solve the deficit that has been growing for years. Even if the temporary levees successfully retained water, it will likely take weeks for any additional moisture to hit the shallow wells. If drought conditions return, the town could slide back to water insecurity.

Beck wants to solve that — for good.

“In the past, it was like, ‘We just need to get through this drought. We’ll get some rain and be fine,’” he said. “We’re not going to not do anything this time.”

Belle Plaine, Iowa, city administrator Stephen Beck poses for a portrait by the Iowa River in Belle Plaine on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2023. Beck has been working to find a solution to the city’s need for water after three years of drought. (Savannah Blake/The Gazette)

Beck is looking into a treatment or filtration system for the city’s deep well. He also wants to drill one or two more shallow wells, if possible, and then revert the area back to its marshy beginnings.

Belle Plaine has purchased the land surrounding the well field from the original owner and is working with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to start rebuilding the wetland there. The project could create a sustainable water supply that the rural town could rely on in perpetuity, even throughout future droughts.

“We’re going to get through this,” Beck said firmly as he sat in his office on Wednesday. A gentle tapping of raindrops drummed overhead. “But I don’t want this to ever happen again.”

Brittney J. Miller is the Energy & Environment Reporter for The Gazette and a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.

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