State Environmental Protection Commission denies petition to establish protective pollution limits for Iowa lakes

posted on Tuesday, February 19, 2019 in Water and Land News

State chooses ‘business as usual’ and risks the economic health of lake communities

Des Moines, Iowa – Iowa’s recreational lakes are a vital economic resource for the state. According to a recent report on lake restoration by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, visits to Iowa lakes generate more than $1 billion in annual spending and six in 10 Iowans visit Iowa lakes multiple times in a year.

Protecting these lakes from nutrient pollution is critically important, the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC) and the Environmental Law & Policy Center (ELPC) stated today before the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC).  Nutrient pollution, which includes nitrogen and phosphorus, contributes to the growth of harmful algae blooms that reduce lake water clarity and drive patches of foul-smelling green algae on the water’s surface that essentially choke Iowa’s lakes.

These harmful algae blooms can also release toxins like microcystin, which threaten human and animal health. The discovery of microcystin toxin has forced the DNR to issue an increasing number of beach warnings over the last decade, keeping people out of recreational lakes and harming local economies that receive significant revenue from lake tourism.

IEC and ELPC petitioned the state in November to establish numeric limits for nutrient pollutants, maintaining that such limits are necessary to protect the safe use of Iowa’s recreational lakes and are therefore required by the federal Clean Water Act. 

“Just like we need numeric speed limits to protect Iowa roads and driver safety, we need to establish numeric limits on the amount of nutrient pollution that Iowa lakes can withstand while still supporting their safe recreational use,” said Cindy Lane, Water Program Director at the Iowa Environmental Council.  “These limits are vital for effectively monitoring our lakes, determining which lakes are impaired by nutrients, and triaging our limited public resources to restore lakes that are most critical.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been calling on states to establish numeric limits on nutrient pollution in waterbodies for decades, and numeric nutrient limits are expected to be a part of a state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategies. Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources convened a panel of science advisors to develop numeric nutrient limits in 2008, but the state failed to implement those recommendations. The recent petition is the second request by the IEC and ELPC to adopt these numeric nutrient limits for lakes. The EPC rejected the previous request in order to allow the then brand-new Nutrient Reduction Strategy time to work.

Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney for ELPC, states, “There has been more than enough time for DNR to act on its own scientific evidence and meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy is not leading to enough practices being implemented to solve our water quality problems. It’s time to adopt these lake standards to protect public health and the economic well-being of Iowans who rely on, use, and enjoy their lakes.”

Steve Roe agrees. As a longtime soil and water commissioner, homeowner near Lake Panorama, and business owner actively engaged in the economic development of his community, Roe is concerned about diminished lake water quality leading to declines in property values and threatening the economic vitality of his community. 

“Within my lifetime, I have watched as our lakes begin to lose the fight against nutrient pollution,” says Roe. “The water clarity is greatly reduced and with the increase in algae, we’re losing the boaters, paddlers, fishermen, swimmers, and beachgoers to other activities, other lakes, and even other states with cleaner water. I want clean water for my grandchildren. We can do better. It’s time to do better.” 

Eldora, Iowa, business owner Steve Throssel also worries about water quality impacts on the future quality of life for Iowa’s rural communities if nutrient pollution continues to be ignored. “They are literally counting on the rivers to make the nutrient problem go away, but that doesn’t work so well for lakes. Here I am focused on my community and the hundreds of children that attend any one of the three church camps at Pine Lake each summer who cannot swim due to beach advisories, and no one will provide a plan to address the bacteria and nutrient pollution. They are killing our small towns.”

Increasing public health risks from harmful algae blooms and associated toxins should not be ignored, says David Osterberg, Professor Emeritus with the University of Iowa College of Public Health and former director of the Iowa Policy Project (IPP). “Recreational exposure to toxins like microcystin can cause serious illness, including gastrointestinal distress, nervous system issues, and even liver failure in severe cases,” says Osterberg.

A recent report by the Iowa Policy Project found that the number of microcystin advisories issued at state beaches has steadily increased from 2009-2016. In 2016 alone, IPP found that nearly 50% of monitored beaches in Iowa had an advisory recommending against swimming due to microcystin levels. “It is time to truly address nutrient pollution in a meaningful way – the Nutrient Reduction Strategy has proven to be inadequate for the task,” cautions Osterberg. “That starts with establishing and enforcing safe limits for nutrient pollution in lakes -- before these pollutants result in chronic, harmful algae blooms that threaten the health of Iowans.”

Following public comments and some clarifying questions, the Commissioners voted unanimously to deny the petition.

The environmental groups caution that while this petition was denied, they are exploring avenues to continue to call for the adoption of numeric criteria. Says Mandelbaum, “We know that we have serious pollution problems in our lakes. There have been a total of 196 microcystin-related warnings in a little more than a decade at the monitored state park beaches and almost two-thirds have had at least one warning. What we have been doing is not solving the problem or reducing threats to public health and quality of life here in Iowa. We will continue to search for options to ensure Iowa’s lakes and its people are protected.”