Important Changes Needed to Proposed Water Quality Policy

posted by Clare Kernek on Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Iowa DNR has recently announced it is launching a new “Triennial Review” for 2018-2020. As required by the Clean Water Act, Iowa must conduct a review of our state water quality standards every three years.

The purpose of the Triennial Review is to give members of the public the opportunity to tell DNR what they feel the state’s priorities for water quality standards should be for the next three years.

DNR has proposed the following priorities to work on:

  • Updating the water quality standard for aluminum to protect aquatic life;
  • Updating stream and lake Use Attainability Analyses (UAAs) that determine how Iowans use our lakes, rivers and streams (i.e. aquatic life uses, recreation and drinking water); and
  • Revising water quality standards for all metals to protect aquatic life.

Missing from the list is one of the top priorities for improving water quality in Iowa: Establishing water quality standards to limit nutrient pollution (nitrogen and phosphorus) necessary to protect aquatic life, public recreation and drinking water uses.

We need the public’s help to get nutrient water quality criteria added as a state priority for the next three years.

Nutrient pollution continues to cause serious water quality problems:

  • In recent years Iowa has seen more harmful algae blooms forming in lakes and rivers with too much phosphorus, creating dangerous microcystin toxins. In both 2015 and 2016, DNR posted a record number of warning signs at state park beaches advising the public to stay out of the water. Learn more here.
  • Increasing nitrate levels in public drinking water sources and private wells is a growing concern in Iowa cities and rural areas. Read more here.
  • In 2017, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico was the size of New Jersey—the largest ever measured. This low-oxygen “dead zone” where no aquatic life can survive is caused by algae that is fed by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff into streams from states along the Mississippi River. Iowa is one of the top contributors of nutrient pollution to the Dead Zone, ranking second for nitrogen and third for phosphorus.
  • Iowa is the only state in the Upper Mississippi River basin that has made ZERO progress on adopting numerical standards for nutrients into state water quality standards. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Missouri have all set numerical limits for nutrient pollution for at least one type of waterbody in their states.  Check out this map showing states’ progress on developing numerical standards for nutrients.

Standards for nitrogen and phosphorus are needed in Iowa and long overdue.

In previous Triennial Reviews, DNR has acknowledged the need to adopt water quality standards for nutrients.

  • In 2006, Iowa finalized its nutrient criteria development plan, which stated that numeric criteria for lakes would be adopted in 2007, with stream criteria being developed the following year.
  • A state science advisory panel developed numeric criteria for Iowa’s recreational lakes, which were formally recommended to DNR in a published report in 2008. 
  • DNR initiated rule-making in 2011 to adopt the nutrient standards recommended by the advisory panel for 159 significant recreational lakes.  The DNR conducted seven public hearings, however the proposed nutrient standards for lakes were never adopted because DNR backtracked on the rulemaking at the last minute.
  • In 2013, the Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law and Policy Center submitted a petition for rulemaking to the DNR’s Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) asking the Commission to initiate rule-making to adopt the lake criteria proposed by DNR in 2011, but the EPC denied the petition.

What can you do?

Please join us in telling to DNR it is time to TAKE ACTION on setting water quality standards for nutrient pollution in Iowa’s waters. As a crucial first step, Iowa DNR should prioritize rulemaking to adopt the numeric nutrient standards already developed for significant public recreational lakes.