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

Courageous words about ‘timid’ funding

Even a farm group may face consequences for daring to challenge Iowa’s poor funding of water quality efforts.

Even farm groups dare not question the timid funding of water quality

Recently the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported a slapdown of the Iowa Soybean Association by the Iowa Legislature.

Thanks to reporting by Erin Jordan of The Gazette, we learn now that a year ago, legislators were angered by comments from Iowa’s main soybean group that Governor Kim Reynolds’ first bill as governor — new money for water quality — was “timid.”

Partly because of that remark, the Gazette reported, legislators stuck back against the group by taking $300,000 in state funds away. Ironically, those funds had gone for research on water quality improvement.

In her article, Soybean group pays price for calling water bill ‘timid’, Jordan reported:

The Soybean Association had received $400,000 a year in state funding for the On-Farm Network, a program that helps farmers gather data to better manage nitrate fertilizer application on their cornfields. More precise application means less money spent on fertilizer and less excess nitrate washing into lakes and waterways.

IPP used some of the data collected by the Iowa Soybean Association in our recent report on water quality funding by the state. We called our paper “Lip Service” since that is about all Iowans are getting from their top leaders in response to widespread concerns about water quality in the state.

The Iowa Soybean Association research was very good. We found it to be the best out there on what improving nutrient pollution from agriculture was likely to cost. Now, that research has been curtailed because that organization had the temerity to tell the truth about the big talk and little money the state gives to improve water quality in the state.

To read our report or a one-page executive summary, visit the Iowa Policy Project website at http://www.iowapolicyproject.org.

David Osterberg is lead environment and energy researcher at the Iowa Policy Project, which he co-founded in 2001.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Bill Stowe: Water quality hero

Bill Stowe’s courageous fight for clean water lives on.

160915-Stowe-130333crop
Bill Stowe speaks at IPP’s 15th anniversary event in September 2016. (Photo: Lance Coles)

Bill Stowe, dead at 60. The average American male born in 1959 should live about another 10 years. But there was nothing average about Bill Stowe.

The average male does not get three advanced degrees from three different institutions. The average American, male or female, does not take on the strongest and most powerful to change public debate, and force accountability where it was lacking.

Bill ran the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW), the largest supplier of clean drinking water in Iowa. It was a surface water system. That means it had to deal with the serious pollution that unrestrained agricultural practices put into Iowa waters — a costly and unsustainable proposition.

Realizing he could not continue to pass on the costs of treating that water to his customers alone, he took action — courageous action in an agricultural state — to either get the polluters to stop, or at least to pay for the problems they are causing.

The case of the Des Moines Water Works vs. three Iowa counties with drainage districts that were some of the main polluters of the Raccoon River went to federal court. It scared agricultural organizations like the various state Farm Bureau federations.

As Stowe and DMWW fought “dark money”-funded interests in court, he gained both foes who favor the status quo and allies who shared either the lawsuit’s goals or the desire to help Iowans see what big industry was up to. Others joined the fight, including one small-town journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize, and activists who keep his fight alive today.

Bill lost his case in court, but pushed water quality more squarely into Iowa’s political and policy spotlight, forcing politicians including Terry Branstad to concede a need to do something — even though their actions have fallen short.

Bill Stowe was generous with his time and talked to groups about treating water to make it safe. He taught a class of mine.

160314-Stowe-DO classThe picture above was from three years ago when we visited the treatment works he served. He spoke often to groups about his passion for clean water all around the state — including as the featured speaker for the 15th anniversary of our organization in 2016.

When IPP considers what papers to investigate we often ask knowledgeable people around the state for thoughts on what would be helpful to better inform public debate. Bill had suggestions for our latest series of reports on water quality.

When IPP researcher Natalie Veldhouse and I met with him and his DMWW colleague Laura Sarcone in November, they had good suggestions that helped us in the development of our latest paper. When I sent a copy of that paper to Laura for her thoughts, I did not know that Bill was already in hospice.

Bill died too soon. His fight for clean water remains important for all Iowans.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is co-founder, former executive director and lead environment and energy researcher for the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Monopolies strangling solar, small business

Monopolies would destroy small business who make their money at the local level by insulating homes or installing solar panels.

In times like these, it is helpful to recall what our nation learned from the leadership of Teddy Roosevelt, who went after trusts and monopolies because he knew they used their huge size to strangle other businesses.

Iowa could use that kind of leadership. Our Iowa monopoly electric companies are strangling small businesses again. As monopolies they are guaranteed profits, only because of efficiencies seen as a public benefit in the production and distribution of power. And to make sure they do not abuse that power, they are regulated by a fairly powerful state regulatory agency, the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB).

Solar energy gives citizens control over part of their lives. Small customers who could not operate a coal plant can put up solar panels. MidAmerican Energy (MidAm) sees that and feels threatened. Even though only 750 of their 770,000 customers have solar panels on their property, MidAm wants this market to itself.

So now, MidAm is trying to bypass its IUB regulators by going to the Iowa Legislature to get what they want. MidAm’s approach is a job-killer for solar contractors and a few manufacturers in the state. Legislation the company is pushing would strip those small competitors of most of their market, reducing or even removing the benefits to people who chose to install solar panels.

In short, MidAm wants to put a tax on the sun.

Its proposed changes greatly reduce the incentive to generate one’s own electricity. As it works now, customers with solar panels sometimes produce more electricity than they use. This is often during the middle of a sunny day in the summer when electric prices are at their highest.

Currently, these customers are compensated for the excess energy they provide back to the grid at the same price they pay the electric monopoly. HSB185 would allow MidAm or any investor-owned utility to charge extra fees, or cut compensation, to homeowners and businesses that have clean energy systems. This would discourage solar projects by making them cost-prohibitive.

MidAm — like all utilities — charges a fixed, mandatory fee each month to all customers, which proves false MidAm’s principal argument that the clean-energy customers aren’t paying their share for lines, transformers and billing expenses of the company. Already, they pay.

But MidAm at least is consistent in its attempts to undermine smart-energy choices and the role of small users and businesses in providing it. We saw it last year as well, when MidAm and Alliant Energy successfully bypassed the IUB by dismantling Iowa’s requirement that they help their customers be more efficient. Previously, electric monopolies rewarded a customer who bought a more efficient refrigerator, or efficient light bulbs, or put in more insulation. No more.

Now MidAm is using the same game plan. Go to the Legislature and convince the members to allow monopolies to destroy small business who make their money at the local level by insulating homes or installing solar panels.

What would Teddy Roosevelt have done? He would stand up to stop utilities’ bullying of fair competition and the freedom of citizens to generate their own electricity. Small businesses, conservationists and citizens who just want more control of their lives are looking for that kind of champion.

David Osterberg is lead environment/energy researcher, founder and former executive director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project in Iowa City.

dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Ag Gag: Never a good idea

Restoring Iowans’ rights with the strikedown of Iowa’s “ag-gag” law is an important step forward. Next, someone needs to test the Iowa law reducing neighbors’ rights to sue big hog facilities.

pigs-matrixThe Iowa Legislature and our former governor just got a spanking by the courts. The “ag-gag” law they created in 2012 is unconstitutional because it violates free speech.

As Trish Mehaffey reported last week in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the law “threatened up to a year in jail for those individuals who use undercover means or provide false identities to document or report on activities in the agricultural animal facilities.” In other words, the law — now overturned — had criminalized actions by a whistle blower.

Another law passed and signed in 2017 needs similar testing by the courts. This one restricted nuisance suits by neighbors against large animal production facilities, as IPP reported in March 2017.

The source of both laws was the ag industry, which has successfully lobbied legislators to avoid better approaches to livestock production, with scare tactics about the survival of the industry. Their claims are nonsense.

For evidence, look to Denmark — like Iowa, a big and thriving producer of hogs, but with many more restrictions. Rather than making it a crime to report on abuse of animals, Denmark requires that:

“All Danish pigs are produced within independently monitored assurance schemes, which also require a monthly visit by the local veterinarian. In addition, the Danish authorities run an annual programme of ‘unannounced’ visits to ensure that all welfare legislation is being complied with.” [1]

In other words, whistleblowing would be encouraged.

Denmark has other rules in its promotion of a strong industry that considers animal welfare and protection of human health:

  • Required “showering systems for all pigs over 20kg weight to enable them to regulate their body temperature in hot weather.
  • A 2015 ban on the use of fully slatted flooring systems allows pigs a more comfortable lying area. [2]
  • Reducing antibiotic use in all animals by 49 percent from 1994 through 2016, while production of food animals actually increased by 15 percent. [3] The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only a voluntary program to reduce antibiotic use in animal agriculture and this effort has yet to show decreases in total amount of antimicrobials. [4]

In Iowa, ways have been shown to raise hogs other than in confinements that are outside the public eye or contrary to neighbors’ concerns. Hoop houses offer one such alternative. Among environmental advantages, hoop houses remove one problem because manure produced is mixed with straw or other materials. That manure can be applied to land with much less danger of running off into streams, a problem with liquid manure from confinements.

Restoring Iowans’ rights with the strikedown of Iowa’s “ag-gag” law is an important step forward. Next, someone needs to test the Iowa law reducing neighbors’ rights to sue big hog facilities.

[1] Agriculture and Food.co.uk. Providing Information on the Danish Pig industry. Overview https://agricultureandfood.co.uk/welfare/overview

[2] Ibid.

[3] Statens Serum Institut, National Veterinary Institute, National Food Institute. “DANMAP 2016.”

[4] United States, Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine. “Guidance for Industry #213.” December 2013, https://tinyurl.com/ybkn2uk5.

2016-osterberg_5464 David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project in 2001 and a state legislator from the 1983 through 1994 sessions of the General Assembly, is the lead environmental researcher for the Iowa Policy Project. Contact: dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

Listen to Osterberg’s interview on this topic with Michael Devine of KVFD, 1400AM in Fort Dodge.

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.