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.