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.
Climate 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.
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. firstname.lastname@example.org
At what point do we say, “Enough is enough,” and start making the investment in our natural resources?
Lawmakers in Des Moines working on the state budget should remember that 63 percent of Iowans approved of a constitutional amendment creating a new fund for natural resources and water quality in the state. And now there is new evidence that that funding is needed.
The 10 water quality programs we looked at most saw significant declines of around 30 percent when adjusted for inflation. These programs provide a good snapshot of overall water quality funding in the state.
Numbers can sometimes be deceiving and in some cases look better than they really are. The water monitoring program of the DNR, for instance, has maintained nominal funding of about $2.9 million for nine straight years. Because of shifting money within the department, however, the monitoring program is not able to monitor things like groundwater quality, or test for pesticides and pharmaceuticals like it used to.
Money is not the only factor in improving Iowa water quality, but it is a necessary part of any effort. Iowa’s water quality can be improved. For evidence, just look at trout streams in northeast Iowa, which have made dramatic improvements since the mid-1980s, with six or seven times more streams having naturally reproducing trout now.
Improvements like that won’t happen without funding and the state’s current investment in water quality is not going to be adequate to make a significant improvement across the state. If these trends continue where will be in another 10 years? At what point do we say, “Enough is enough,” and start making the investment in our natural resources?
Can we, with any scientific validity, directly attribute any flood, heat wave, snowfall, hurricane or drought to climate change? Not yet. But the fact remains that the sorts of rainfall patterns Iowa has seen recently, and many of the extreme weather events seen across the world are exactly what climate models predict, as noted by a recent report from Environment Iowa.
I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward making certain extreme weather events more likely to occur. What this means for Iowa is that we now have to prepare for more frequent major floods, but also be ready for even larger floods.
What can we do? There are no simple answers and clearly the solution is going to involve a combination of things. Iowa is taking the right steps by developing some excellent resources for municipal officials and local residents. But does the political will exist to make the difficult choices? Should we allow development in flood plains? (The Cedar Falls city council has decided to say no.) Should we build more levies around cities to protect them (but push flooding on to communities downstream)? Should we prohibit a net increase in runoff from any development site? Should we require or even pay farmers to reduce runoff from their fields?
In both rural and urban areas, healthy soil is the first line of defense against flooding as it can slow, store and clean prodigious amounts of rainfall and runoff. Unfortunately, as outgoing DNR Director Rich Leopold noted in an excellent and sobering editorial, our soils are not healthy. We’ve lost, and continue to lose, huge amounts of topsoil from our croplands and the soils in our urban developments aren’t really much better than concrete at holding onto water.
Healthy soil means cleaner water, less flooding, excellent crops and — quite possibly — dice that are a little less loaded. That’s a win-win-win-win for everyone.
“Well, it is like, you want smaller government, this is what it looks like.” — Rich Leopold, outgoing Iowa Natural Resources Director
What does “smaller government” mean?
Richard Leopold, outgoing director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), has a few answers in an article in today’s Des Moines Register.
State general fund allocations to DNR have dropped over the past several years, from $22.1 million in FY09 to $15.6 million in FY11.
As a result of decreased general fund support, DNR has been forced to drop a number of programs and services. Leopold said:
I have gotten I don’t know how many complaints from legislators and small business owners about, “You used to do this and now you don’t any more.” Well, it is like, you want smaller government, this is what it looks like.
In a difficult economy, Leopold sees increased use of state parks. So more people are using the bathrooms, filling the trash cans and wanting to hike in the outdoors, and DNR has less money for staff to mow the grass, clean the bathrooms, empty the trash cans and keep the trails open.
Cuts in revenues lead to cuts in services that we all use. Often, they are the services that we’re so accustomed to receiving, we don’t notice them until they are gone.