Environmental groups call for clean water goals to reduce harmful algae blooms and protect clean water in lakes
Environmental groups call for clean water goals to reduce harmful algae blooms and protect clean water in lakes
Iowa Environmental Council - Des Moines, Iowa

The Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law and Policy Center filed a petition with the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission Tuesday calling on Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources to set water quality standards to protect clean water, public health, and recreation at 159 of Iowa’s publicly owned lakes.

The proposed water quality standards will establish clear, science-based goals to prevent potentially harmful algae blooms and keep Iowa’s lakes clean and safe for swimming and recreation.

“These standards are focused on helping local communities prevent lake water quality problems that can make recreation less desirable, threaten aquatic life, and put people’s health at risk,” said Ralph Rosenberg, the Council’s executive director.

The safeguards the Council has proposed, called numeric nutrient criteria, will provide local community and watershed groups a way to know if soil and water conservation efforts around a lake are sufficient to achieve needed results.  They will also help the Iowa Department of Natural Resources write permits to protect lakes by managing pollution releases by industrial sites and municipal wastewater facilities.

The proposed standards would set goals for Secchi depth and chlorophyll-a , measurements of water clarity and the presence of potentially harmful algae.  They would also set goals for total nitrogen and total phosphorus in the lake, pollutants that contribute to algae growth and low water clarity.

Iowa State University lake expert John Downing said Iowa’s lakes have some of the highest nitrogen and phosphorus levels found anywhere in the world, leading to blue-green algae blooms that are unhealthy for ecosystems and people.

“Decreasing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus reaching a lake can lead to renewal and restoration of good water quality, and this has been shown in Iowa and throughout the world,” he said.

Lake recreation is a significant economic driver in local communities, supporting an estimated $1.2 billion in spending and 14,000 jobs, according to 2012 estimates by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Iowa State University.  But when lake water quality is poor, Iowans suffer the consequences.

At Spirit Lake last summer, local resident Kim Stroud, whose family has lived on Spirit Lake since 1964, witnessed the worst algae growth she has seen at the lake.  “The smell was so bad we could hardly stand being outside,” she said.  “It scared most of us into realizing what a big cesspool we could be living on if we don’t do something about it.”

Protecting lake water quality also protects public health, said Mary Gilchrist, past director of the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory who was among the first public health officials in Iowa to call for enhanced monitoring for toxins related to harmful algae blooms.

“Once potentially unsafe conditions exist at a lake, public health officials can do only so much to caution the public against contact with harmful algae, and many Iowa lakes are still not monitored for harmful toxins.  It is important to inform the public about the risks of harmful algae, but if we really want to have clearer water in our lakes, we must act to prevent problems before they occur,” she said.

Recognizing this, since 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called on states including Iowa to set numeric criteria to protect lakes, rivers, and streams from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution.  Other states, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, have set numeric limits for their lakes, but Iowa has not followed their lead.

In its petition, the Council calls on the Department of Natural Resources to adopt standards DNR developed and proposed but never adopted in 2011.  Despite a several year-long effort, including recommendations from a science advisory committee, these standards to protect recreational lakes are not mentioned in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, first released in November 2012.

The Iowa Environmental Council was disappointed that the strategy did not include these lake standards based on receiving assurances from DNR that work on them would resume after the nutrient reduction plan was completed.  The strategy, however, is noncommittal about setting standards, returning Iowa to a pattern of inaction.

“We have consistently called for accountability and transparency to reduce water pollution from all sources and to achieve clean water in Iowa.  These clean water standards give us clear goals we can use to measure progress while government begins to implement portions of its nutrient reduction strategy,” said Rosenberg.  “We consider these standards critical to assessing progress under that plan.  Years of delay in establishing these goals erode Iowans’ confidence that local lakes and other waters will get cleaner over time.”

Under Iowa law, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, the state board responsible for setting Iowa’s water quality standards and overseeing pollution control efforts by DNR, must act on the Council’s petition in 60 days.  Rosenberg said he hopes the Commission will commit to setting the standards at its September 17 meeting in Cerro Gordo County.

“EPA has expected these standards for a decade, DNR worked for years to plan them, Iowa’s pollution reduction efforts need them to be successful, and Iowans are asking for accountability, but Iowa has not finished the job,” Rosenberg said.


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