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

Hiding behind averages — soil erosion problems in Iowa

The EWG report illustrates the problems with averages. In some parts of the state a single 2007 storm led to over 100 tons per acre of topsoil eroding into rivers and streams in some parts of the state.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

This week the Environmental Working Group released a report that shows that the rate of soil erosion in parts of Iowa is way worse than most people could have imagined.

Using data from the Iowa Daily Erosion Project, headed by agronomist Rick Cruse at Iowa State University, EWG’s report shows that Iowa’s statewide erosion rate of 5.2 tons per acre* can be very misleading and hides the fact that in some parts of the state a single 2007 storm led to over 100 tons per acre of topsoil eroding into rivers and streams in some parts of the state.

This illustrates the problem with averages. Sure, large parts of the state (the flatter parts of north-central Iowa, especially) might not be losing much soil at all, but other, hillier parts of the state are not doing so well.

And in some years, erosion might not be much of a problem because the storms just are not very severe, but as a report from earlier this year points out, climate change is driving more frequent and severe storms in Iowa — the kind that lead to catastrophic erosion.

Many current policies and practices are not helping the situation. When we speak in statewide averages we might think that those policies and practices are working better than they actually are.

Be sure to watch the 5 minute video that goes along with the report.

*In Iowa the “tolerable” soil loss amount, or “T,” is five tons per acre per year. This T value has been around for years and was theorized to be the rate at which soil was regenerated. Many experts question the validity of a T value of five and think that a truly sustainable soil loss limit would be significantly smaller

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate