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

 

Big state, big issues — an obligation for all

We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt. It is not a voluntary matter.

160104-osterberg-map-7x7I put up a new map at the IPP office this morning. It’s a big one — about 4 feet by 6 feet, and it’s impressive on a wall.

What makes it more impressive comes when you think of what that map represents, some 36 million acres of land, and to think of how those acres are used, and what we are doing to protect them.

Even though it’s mainly a road map, we see those roads plotted on a landscape that we know is mostly farmland — rivers, lakes and streams running through it, and dominated by it.

Each five years the United States Department of Agriculture puts out a census of agriculture. The last one from 2012 shows just how agriculture dominates our land. About 24 of the 36 million acres are in cropland nearly all corn and soybeans — though even more land is agricultural since activities like grazing push the total of ag land well beyond 30 million acres. Cropland, woodland and pasture make up so much of the landscape that the category house lots, ponds, roads, wasteland, etc. makes up only 1.4 million acres, or less than 5 percent of the total.

IPP pointed out in a 2010 report Solution to Pollution: It Starts on the Farm that so little land in Iowa is devoted to urban uses (lawns or golf courses) that even if urban application rates of Nitrogen and Phosphorous fertilizer were much higher than that on farms, only 2 percent of the pollution from land application of fertilizer comes from lawns and golf courses.

When sewage treatment plants are included in the urban share of nutrient pollution, agriculture still dominates.

So the take-away message — water pollution in Iowa comes from agricultural land. We all have an obligation to clean up our rivers, lakes and streams and no sector can be exempt — particularly the biggest one. It is not a voluntary matter.

IPP-osterberg-75Posted by David Osterberg, co-founder of the Iowa Policy Project

Policy and pollution: We have options

“It’s not like we don’t have options. We do. Public policy can make a difference in protecting the environment.”

Iowa’s deteriorating water quality is a lingering problem that never seems to make it to the front burner of political campaigns or elected leaders’ agendas in the State Capitol. The Des Moines Register’s editorial today asks — and answers — the fundamental questions:

Why is our water so dirty? The state’s agricultural businesses, including 7,000 animal feeding operations, is a significant reason. Why do they do so much damage to the environment? Elected officials let them.

David Osterberg
David Osterberg

It’s not like we don’t have options. We do. Public policy can make a difference in protecting the environment, through tough and effective regulations that recognize the air and water belong to all of us, and by helping folks do a better job with targeted incentives.

Unfortunately, as the Register suggests, elected officials in Iowa have passed up opportunities in both the regulatory and incentive arenas to enhance Iowa’s water quality. The Iowa Policy Project through the years has noted many of the issues and presented constructive policy options. Here is a selection of those reports:

IPP also showed this year how environmental protection funding has waned in Iowa — even when voters specifically told lawmakers with a referendum in 2010 that environmental protection is an area where they want to see funding directed. As we found:

While legislators and other elected officials will always proclaim their commitment to clean water, they have not over the past decade demonstrated that commitment through the state budget. In fact, once inflation is taken into account, funding for many programs the state relies upon to monitor, protect and improve waterways has dropped by 25 percent or more. …

Over time, this slow erosion in the purchasing power of these programs is likely to contribute to deteriorating Iowa water quality, if it has not already done so. When funding is scaled to FY13 appropriations, the slow decline in spending on water programs becomes more evident.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Small boost in funding masks long-term reductions in state services

Small increases in some budgets should not distract from big cuts in higher education and water quality over time. There is more work to do.

David Osterberg
David Osterberg

July 1 begins the new fiscal year for the state of Iowa so this is a good time for IPP staffers to update reports released during the legislative session.

Two areas of funding that generally get lip service support from our elected officials are higher education funding and funding for water quality programs. In both areas there was some increase over the very low levels of funding from the previous year. Yet the long-term erosion of funding in these areas of state services was not improved a great deal.

While funding for ISU, UNI and the University of Iowa was increased this year by about $20 million, funding for these institutions still remains about 40 percent below what it was in fiscal year 2000 when inflation is taken into account. Andrew Cannon’s earlier report showed that long term underfunding is the reason that tuition has increased so much over the last decade. Community colleges seem to have fared better with only a 15 percent reduction in funding in real terms over the same period but enrollment has increased, so actual support for students is lower than that.

Water quality received some funding increases in two of the eight individual programs reviewed by Will Hoyer in his March 2012 report. However, overall funding for this group of water quality programs has fallen from what it was 10 years ago.

Lower funding in areas Iowans strongly support are the consequence of continual tax cuts that reduce the size of the state budget in relation to the size of the Iowa economy.

Posted by David Osterberg, Executive Director

Will Iowa ever put taxpayers’ dollars where their voices are?

The only thing that is self-evident is that Iowa lawmakers are not putting taxpayers’ money where their voices are: toward more and better water-quality initiatives.

Mike Owen
Mike Owen

The Des Moines Register editorial staff has produced some excellent perspectives about budgets in recent days, about budget cutting run amok, and budget cuts affecting the courts and human services (including accountability and oversight). Noted The Register:

It’s unlikely you will hear a politician say state government is too small. But at some point, it is.

You could certainly make the same case about environmental quality programs, particularly in water quality, as we showed in a report last week. In Drops in the Bucket: The Erosion of Iowa Water Quality Funding, IPP’s Will Hoyer, Brian McDonough and David Osterberg noted:

In a state with almost 90 percent of its land worked for agriculture, it should be of stark concern to Iowa policy makers that the water running through both our agricultural lands and urban landscapes contains excess nutrients, toxic chemicals, and sediments. These pollutants end up in Iowa’s rivers and streams. The impacts upon public health, fishing and other recreational activities, and cleanup and water treatment costs show up not just in Iowa, but all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. There, the nutrients from cornbelt farm fields are creating the area of hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions known as the “Dead Zone,” where sea life cannot live. …
 
Iowa voters demonstrated strongly that they favor additional efforts to protect Iowa waterways when 63 percent voted in 2010 to approve the Water and Land Legacy amendment, so one might expect the state to increase its commitment to protecting its water. While funding by itself is not an indicator of performance, it is a necessary ingredient in the fight to protect and improve Iowa’s water resources. This report looks at funding for several key state water programs over the last decade and finds that, from a fiscal perspective, the state’s commitment to water protection programs is woefully lacking. (emphasis added)

Among the IPP analysts’ findings is that for most of the period from FY2002-12, inflation-adjusted totals for 10 critical water programs hovered at just over $20 million, and that there were significant drops from those funding levels in FY03 and FY11, with little rebound from the latter in FY12. See the figure below (Figure 3 in our report).

Recent Drop in Water Quality Funding in Critical Programs
Figures in thousands
Table1

At the same time of these funding trends, we have learned that more and more waters in Iowa were impaired. One might expect greater awareness to produce greater attention to remediation, but clearly we are not seeing it. In fact, the Legislature would have to restore $5 million in state water-quality funding just to move to what it had been during the previous decade — as if those earlier levels were enough, something that is not self-evident.

The only thing that is self-evident is that Iowa lawmakers are not putting taxpayers’ money where their voices are: toward more and better water-quality initiatives.

Posted by Mike Owen, Assistant Director

Drops in the bucket: an erosion of water quality funding

At what point do we say, “Enough is enough,” and start making the investment in our natural resources?

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

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.

In our March 1st report, Drops in the Bucket: The Erosion of Iowa Water Quality Funding, we show that overall water quality funding in the state has dwindled over the past decade and it would take at least $5 million in next year’s budget just to get us back to an average funding level for the past decade.  This begs the question of whether those average levels were adequate or not.

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.

Table 3 from IPP report
When adjusted for inflation most of these programs saw significant decreases; the average inflation-adjusted decrease for these seven budget items is over 30 percent.

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?

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

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Read new IPP report by Will Hoyer, Brian McDonough and David Osterberg

See Radio Iowa and Cedar Rapids Gazette stories about the report

Quality of life — the path to good jobs and schools

A whopping 63 percent of Iowans voted in 2010 for a constitutional amendment that would dedicate funding to improve Iowa’s waters and land. Now, that is a mandate.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer


Governor Branstad wants Iowans to focus “like a laser beam” on jobs and education. If we are to do so, he must get us to examine how we’re managing our precious land and water. He cannot expect to achieve his job goals without those important parts of the picture.

What happens when people don’t want the jobs that are available because the air is so dirty that people get sick? What happens when well-educated, highly qualified job candidates pass up Iowa for another state that demonstrates a commitment to clean water and air? A variety of aspects make Iowa a desirable place to bring a business or a family. Most focus on quality of life.

If our children are educated in world-class schools they will have job opportunities everywhere. Companies across the country and across the world will be clamoring to hire hard-working, well-educated Iowa kids and those kids will have choices. Will they want to live in a state that demonstrates a commitment to clean air and clean water? Will they want a place that invests in parks and recreational opportunities? Absolutely.

As The Des Moines Register has pointed out, Iowa consistently ranks near the bottom in per-capita spending on recreation and conservation.

Politicians often talk of a “mandate” when they win an election with 52 or 53 percent of the vote. Why, then, can they not look back on the November 2010 election and recognize that a whopping 63 percent of Iowans voted for an amendment that would dedicate funding to improve Iowa’s waters and land? Now, that is a mandate.

Nobody will argue against creating jobs or improving education. It is a mistake to assume we can do either without other things that attract new people to Iowa and keep them here.

We educate smart people. If a smart Iowa-educated college grad can choose between a job in an Iowa town where the smell of a large hog confinement or industrial grain processor pollutes the air, or where nobody feels safe getting in the river water that runs through downtown, and a comparable job outside Iowa where clean air and water are the norm, we know what the choice will be.

We must invest in children’s education here in this state but we also must invest in protecting the environment so those children grow up healthy. We must invest in creating good jobs where people can work eight hours a day but we must also invest in protecting the environment where those workers live 24 hours a day.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate