Toxic blooms for Iowa waters

Iowa’s water-quality issues are likely to become more severe without well-funded mandates that are enacted and enforced.

The Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) recently reported on the first toxic algal blooms of the summer beach season in Iowa. Two state park beaches posted swimming advisories warning people to stay out of the water because of the presence of high levels of microcystin. Microcystin is a toxin produced by blue-green algae, also known as cyanobacteria, that can cause health issues, particularly in children and pets.

As summer water temperatures climb, these closures and warnings will become more commonplace. The Iowa Policy Project first published a report on cyanobacteria in 2009 — a year with only one swimming advisory. The advisories have increased each year since and last year there were 37. (IEC has compiled a history of warnings.)

Cyanobacteria quickly multiply into high-density blooms in the presence of excess nutrients in the water. Several research reports by the Iowa Policy Project (links below) concluded that the most significant contributing factor of nutrients in the Mississippi River Basin is from agricultural runoff. Algal blooms have the potential to not only restrict recreational activities in our waterways, but to obstruct access to clean drinking water. This happened most notably in 2014 when a water treatment plant in Toledo, Ohio, warned its 500,000 customers not to use water from the tap because algae blooms surrounded water intakes at its Lake Erie source. The catastrophic algal bloom prompted the mayor to declare a state of emergency, as the city was forced to find alternative sources of drinking water.

Clean drinking water in Iowa is already threatened because of high nutrient concentrations in our waterways. The recent Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) lawsuit against three counties in north central Iowa highlighted this very problem. The DMWW must spend increasing sums to remove nutrients from the water obtained from the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers — so much it will now build a new nitrate removal facility. The nitrate present in these source rivers is primarily from agricultural runoff coming from the three counties named in the suit.

The magnitude of Iowa’s water quality issues cannot be overstated and the data we have show that these issues are only likely to deepen in severity without well-funded mandates for water quality that not only are enacted, but enforced. Voluntary conservation measures will not clean up our lakes, beaches, rivers and drinking water sources. If Iowa legislators are serious about luring businesses, jobs and families to this state, then it is time to make sure state revenues can support the protection of the very resource that supports our quality of life.

Sarah Garvin, research associate for the Iowa Policy Project
sgarvin@iowapolicyproject.org

 

 

Related IPP Reports:

Scum in Iowa’s Water: Dealing with the Impact of Excess Nutrients,” December 2009, Andrea Heffernan and Teresa Galluzzo

Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm,” September 2010, Andrea Heffernan, Teresa Galluzzo and Will Hoyer

A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution,” July 2014, David Osterberg and Aaron Kline

Saving Resources: Manure and Water,” May 2016, David Osterberg, Nick Fetty and Nathan Wong

 

‘Choose 2’ to reduce water pollution

“Choose 2” is a simple but effective concept, but keeps a voluntary component to a solution to a difficult issue. Isn’t it worth a discussion?

Where Governor Branstad chooses to promote confrontation, Iowa legislators could be looking for an opportunity to stop chronic pollution of Iowa’s lakes, rivers and streams.

The Governor spoke of “war on rural Iowa” after the Des Moines Water Works announced its Board of Trustees voted to issue a notice of intent to sue the supervisors in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties “in their role as governing authority for 10 drainage districts that are discharging pollutants into the Raccoon River,” threatening Des Moines’ drinking water.

There doesn’t have to be “war.”

The answer is first an acknowledgment that the water problems are real and can be addressed without causing great pain — financially or in health — to anyone inside or outside city limits, upstream or downstream.

Supporters of the new Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), which was hailed as a promising effort to improve Iowa water quality by reducing nutrient pollution from the state by about half, plead for more time. A century is enough, say detractors. Agricultural interests have had about that much time to use totally voluntary approaches and nutrient pollution is now a serious problem.

At least part of the answer could well be “Choose 2,” which stems from the July report from the Iowa Policy Project, “A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution.” The IPP report offered six ideas to make a voluntary system better.

The list is not exhaustive, but the proposals are serious and science-based. The “Choose 2” concept is part of the list, and it is simple: Mandate that every producer, farm owner or renter, adopt two runoff-reducing steps — but let the farmer choose which steps.

For the many farmers already taking meaningful steps to reduce nutrient runoff, there is no impact. They have already started to reduce their pollution and can show they have.

Those who are not currently taking any steps, and thereby causing the lion’s share of the problem, would have to do something. But they would get to choose from among meaningful approaches that have been promoted by the Iowa Soybean Association, such as cover crops, grassed waterways, contour farming, terraces, bioreactors and conservation uses for oxbows. Producers could take two actions that best fit their operation, land and economic situation.

The proposal is simple but effective, and keeps a voluntary component to a solution. Isn’t it worth a discussion? Isn’t it better than knowing we’re allowing the poisoning of our water? Isn’t it better than just calling water pollution someone else’s problem and letting it go?

Posted by David Osterberg

IPP-osterberg-75David Osterberg, co-founder of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, is a former state legislator who chaired the House Agriculture Committee and is a professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org.

See our report: “A Threat Unmet: Why Iowa’s Nutrient Strategy Falls Short Against Water Pollution,” at www.iowapolicyproject.org.

See similar versions of this piece as guest opinions in:

The Sioux City Journal, Feb. 5, 2015: “Choose 2” would provide more protection for water in Iowa

The Cedar Rapids Gazette, Jan. 31, 2015: Iowa should “Choose 2” to reduce water pollution

Earth Day: Making policy matter

With good information, local citizens and policy makers can do a better job evaluating a new industry and preparing for its impacts. These efforts will enable the county to protect itself and the tourism industry that Allamakee County residents have nurtured over the years.

It’s good to see public officials looking for sensible policy solutions. When it is Earth Day and the policy is designed to protect the environment, it is especially rewarding.

As Iowa Policy Project research has described, frac sand mining poses environmental, aesthetic and economic threats to one of Iowa’s most picturesque regions. Local officials in Allamakee County are attempting to respond. See this Cedar Rapids Gazette/KCRG-TV story.

Basic RGBThe Allamakee County Planning and Zoning Commission has proposed a very restrictive ordinance to govern any frac sand mining in the county. The county passed a moratorium on any new mining 14 months ago and the P&Z has used the time to gather data to write a new ordinance. A first look at the P&Z proposal includes ideas also found in the IPP report issued in January, Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining. The IPP report suggested local governments in Iowa could use a Minnesota Environmental Quality Board toolkit to consider appropriate local ordinances.

The proposed Allamakee ordinance, among other restrictions, features two important ideas from that resource: setbacks from sinkholes and careful analysis of potential impact of mining given the geology of the area. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette/KCRG story, the ordinance would:

  •    forbid mining within 1,000 feet of a sinkhole;
  •    forbid mining within a mile of a stream or river; and
  •    require that a mining firm must survey the impact of its operations on the geology of the area before any mining can begin.

Citizen involvement brought this proposal to its current stage, a step closer to adoption, with approval still required by the county Board of Supervisors.

With good information, local citizens and policy makers can do a better job evaluating a new industry and preparing for its impacts. These efforts will enable the county to protect itself and the tourism industry that Allamakee County residents have nurtured over the years.

Policy makers have not jumped into a new economic endeavor without making sure the new will not hurt the old.

 

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, Founding Director

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Click here for an executive summary and a link to the full IPP report, Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining, by Aaron Kline and David Osterberg. Kline is an IPP intern from the University of Iowa School of Urban and Regional Planning. Osterberg, IPP’s environmental director, is co-founder and former executive director of IPP.

Hear interview with David Osterberg by KVFD’s Michael Devine on The Devine Intervention, April 24, 2014.

Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining

As this industry becomes more active in Iowa, local officials and community members need to be aware of the potential effects it could bring to their lives and the local economy.

Frac sand mining is an emerging concern for people in Northeast Iowa. This concern has prompted questions regarding potential impacts on water quantity, water quality, recreation and tourism amongst others.

In a new Iowa Policy Project report, “Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining,” we examined potential impacts of this industry on the environmental, economic and aesthetic assets of Northeast Iowa. Particularly with regard to water resources, we identify unique features of the region that warrant extra precaution such as trout streams and the prevalent karst geology.

frac sand deposits map
Well-rounded, crush-resistant sand prized by the fracking industry is found in several areas of three Northeast Iowa counties.

The potential impacts of frac sand mining on water quality and water quantity include changing local groundwater flow patterns and increased sedimentation of waterways through overflow and runoff events.

The exceptional waters and pristine environments found in Allamakee and Winneshiek counties contribute to the local economy drawing anglers and boaters. This led to $68 million in domestic travel expenditures and over 500 travel-related jobs in 2012 within these two counties. Frac sand mining in the region has the potential to affect this tourism-based economy in unforeseen ways. In fact, several economic studies from Wisconsin have shown that the costs associated with frac sand mining may exceed the benefits when comparing other economic activities in the region.

State regulations and local ordinances have an impact on the growth of this industry within a region as shown in this report’s comparison of Minnesota and Wisconsin activities. Wisconsin is shown to have less restrictive regulations than Minnesota, which has assisted the explosion of frac sand mining in Wisconsin.

These comparisons should inform local officials of different strategies and outcomes when drafting frac sand mining ordinances. They do have options, including hydrologic mapping, local well monitoring, and setbacks from trout streams and sinkholes.

As this industry becomes more active in Iowa, local officials and community members need to be aware of the potential effects it could bring to their lives and the local economy.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAPosted by Aaron Kline, IPP research intern

Click here to find the executive summary and full report, Digging Deeper on Frac Sand Mining, by Aaron Kline and David Osterberg

This research was produced with the generous support of the Fred and Charlotte Hubbell Foundation.