Ignoring still-serious water threat

Last year, we issued a report on toxic algae and three weeks later the city of Greenfield lost its drinking water. Now we see that the Environmental Working Group has found no improvement. How long before another town faces the same problem Greenfield did?

Iowa detail of map in report showing water test results.

About a year ago the Iowa Policy Project released a report on cyanobacteria in drinking water supplies and recreational waters. A new report from the Environmental Working Group shows things have not gotten better.

Microcystin and other cyanotoxins are still not regulated by the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. Thus, few drinking water systems test for them. These very dangerous natural chemicals are still on EPA’s candidate list for regulated contaminants but they have made it no further.

When it comes to beach monitoring for the same substances, Iowa still does not use the EPA’s recommended action level and prefers to use on more than twice as high, making any notice to beachgoers of the presence of microcystin less likely.

In high amounts cyanotoxins can make you sick and cause serious long term damage to human health. There are many reports of dogs dying after playing in ponds and licking their fur after.

The EWG report also found further evidence of what we reported last year in our report.

“The late summer months are usually the peak of the algae bloom season, though recent outbreaks are starting earlier and lasting longer. Increased rainfall and rising temperatures caused by the climate crisis are exacerbating the issue.”[1]

Later peaks in blooms and toxins means that the beach monitoring system will not see them since it ends in Iowa on Labor Day. True fewer people will be at beaches, but water supplies are vulnerable later into the year and no one is looking for microcystin in October.

Three weeks after IPP released its report in June 2018, the city of Greenfield, Iowa, closed its drinking water system for about a week because microsystin got in finished water. One wonders if in another three weeks after Thursday’s release we might see another town in the same predicament.

[1] Environmental Working Group, Aug. 8, 2019: “Report: Toxins From Algae Outbreaks Plague Hundreds of Lakes in 48 States,” https://www.ewg.org/release/report-toxins-algae-outbreaks-plague-hundreds-lakes-48-states

David Osterberg is former director and currently lead environmental researcher for the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Iowa: Better sorry than safe

The Iowa DNR says you as a beachgoer have no need to know if toxins in the water might have reached a level that the U.S. EPA believes demands caution.

Iowa environmental officials are taking an unusual position for people charged with protecting the citizens of the state: “Better sorry than safe.”

No, that’s probably not the message you heard from Mom or Dad.

But it is the effect of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) position not to follow tougher rules on water quality to guide warnings to beachgoers.

DNR has decided that if toxins in water reach a risk level suggested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as right for a warning, that is on a need-to-know basis, and you as a beachgoer have no need to know before you dive in, or before your child or dog splashes around, maybe drinks a little of the lake in the process.

Iowa is sticking with a more relaxed standard, of 20 micrograms of the microsystin toxin per liter, instead of the EPA-recommended 8 microgram level.

The Gazette story by Erin Jordan comes almost a year to the day since an Iowa Policy Project report by Carolyn Buckingham, Mary Skopec and myself showed how little the state is doing to address increasing problems with cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in Iowa waters. The report noted DNR testing had shown increasing numbers of beach advisories from 2009 through 2016, and increases in the number of lakes with advisories against swimming, due to microsystin levels — 17 of the 39 monitored beaches (graph below). And that was recorded under the weaker standard of 20 micrograms per liter.

Microsystin advisories for Iowa lakes, 2006-16Climate change and increased nutrient runoff contribute to increased algal blooms at the heart of the problem. If the number of advisories and lakes affected were to rise even more because of tougher standards, that likely would drive more Iowans to push for changes in policy to address the causes.

Safe might not be the top priority.

Sorry.

David Osterberg is lead environmental researcher and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project, and professor emeritus of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

New evidence on old water problem: It’s grown, and is getting worse

Vegetative buffers can address the main causes of the worsening algal bloom problem: climate change and nutrient runoff.

The Iowa Policy Project released a new report that brings attention to the harmful algal bloom problem that is not being addressed adequately in the state.

There have been numerous reports and articles that discuss the problem, including an IPP report that was released nearly 10 years ago, but what is different about this new report is that it highlights new science and evidence that indicates that the problem is growing worse.

The 2014 water crisis in Toledo, Ohio, where toxic blue-green algae shut down the water system, was a wake-up call for those responsible for ensuring our drinking water is safe. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources are therefore aware of the looming threat posed by blue-green algae.

Recent studies have shown that the harmful algal bloom problem is more prolific and this is tied to changes in weather and landscapes due to climate change and due to increased nutrient runoff.

Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a framework that was created to address the runoff issue in Iowa but new evidence suggests that the NRS is not enough to tackle the problem.

One approach endorsed by IPP’s new report may be effective in protecting Iowans from harmful algal blooms: the implementation of mandatory vegetative buffers throughout the state. Minnesota and Vermont already have promulgated such laws for regulations and buffers along waterways —a conservation practice proven to dramatically reduce nutrient runoff.

Buffers also have an added benefit in that they can act as a carbon sink or as carbon storage, thereby helping to curb climate change. In other words, vegetative buffers can address the main causes of the worsening algal bloom problem: climate change and nutrient runoff.

Carolyn Buckingham, an attorney with a background in environmental law and policy, is lead author of a new report for IPP on issues caused by cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, in Iowa water.

Find the report here.

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