Is Iowa’s Water Quality Nearing A Public Health Emergency?

This week Greenfield, Iowa’s municipal water utility announced a ban on the city’s drinking water after initial tests indicated microcystin — a toxin produced by blue-green algae. The city is conducting further testing to confirm the source of the contamination. Drinking water containing microcystin can result in abnormal liver function, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, numbness or dizziness. It can be toxic to animals as well. Recall that in 2014 a blue-green algae outbreak in Lake Erie shut down Toledo, Ohio’s municipal water supply to a half million residents.

The Greenfield incident is the latest warning that the integrity of Iowa’s water sources is in extreme danger from pollution. A June 2018 report from the Iowa Policy Project reports that the blue-green algae and associated toxins is a growing problem in Iowa waters.

The report states, “Fresh analysis confirms warnings in an Iowa Policy Project report nearly 10 years ago that this serious problem is expanding.”

The EPA predicts increasing algae blooms resulting from climate change. Higher temperatures, increased nutrient pollution and rising carbon dioxide levels all contribute to increasing algae blooms.

“Scientists predict that climate change will have many effects on freshwater and marine environments. These effects, along with nutrient pollution, might cause harmful algal blooms to occur more often, in more waterbodies and to be more intense. Algal blooms endanger human health, the environment and economies across the United States,” the EPA report said.

The blue-green algae blooms and resulting toxins are just one element contributing to Iowa’s growing water crisis. Much has been written about the increasing pollution from excess nitrogen and phosphorous. Des Moines Water Works announced last year they must spend $15 million to expand their nitrate removal equipment due to the increasing amounts of nitrates in their water sources.

There is a direct relationship between the increase in blue-green algae blooms and Iowa’s increasing nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient loads entering Iowa’s waters. The blooms are fed by excess nutrients and warmer temperatures resulting from climate change.

In addition, the increasing contamination of Iowa waters comes from bacterial contamination such as e-coli. It presents a growing health risk as well. Iowa has over 750 impaired water bodies with e-coli and microsystin as two of the primary contaminants.

E-coli presence in the Iowa waters indicate contamination by fecal matter from wildlife waste, sewage, or manure runoff.  These pollutants can lead to diarrheal diseases, skin, ear, or respiratory infections. Obviously, high levels of e-coli in Iowa waters puts swimmers, boaters and water skiers at risk. Young children and older adults are at greater risk to life threatening illnesses from contact with e-coli.

Each week the Iowa DNR takes water samples for both e-coli and microsystin toxins at public beaches. This week several beaches around the state are closed to swimming because of excess e-coli in the waters.  Several of these closed beaches are popular weekend getaways including Gull Point Beach on West Okoboji, McBride State Park Beach near Iowa City, George Wyth Beach in Cedar Falls-Waterloo and Nine Eagles State Park Beach near Lamoni. As you can see from the locations, the contamination is widespread across the state.

Iowa’s lakes, streams and rivers are critically valuable natural resources. We not only rely on clean water for human and animal consumption, but clean water provides Iowans with much needed recreational opportunities. Lacking mountains and oceans, Iowans depend on our lakes and rivers as popular recreational diversions.

Iowa has been attempting to develop our rivers as water trails modeling the successful bike trail system. The water trails offer canoers and kayakers new and expanded opportunities by creating rapids and water parks. The removal of low head dams and replacement with rapids has been successful in creating new recreational opportunities in other states.

Des Moines has suggested removing dams in central Iowa and replacing them with water parks. How successful will they be if the water is unsafe? Both the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers are on the list of impaired waters because of bacterial contamination. If Iowa rivers present health risks to swimmers and boaters how can Iowa ever hope to make them recreational magnets? If Iowa’s beaches are subject to closings from health risks, how can we expect Iowans to risk their children’s safety?

The only reasonable solution is to demand our decision makers clean up Iowans’ water resources. Governor Reynolds had her chance to pass the Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy (IWILL) funding and seriously commit additional money to improve Iowa water quality. She has refused to address this growing water quality crisis.

Fred Hubbell has a long history fighting for water quality improvements. His detailed commitment to environmental improvement includes specific recommendations to clean up our waters by funding IWILL, the DNR and the Resource Enhancement and Protection Program (REAP). His plan to work together with all stakeholders offers the opportunity to unite urban and rural Iowans on an asset equally important to both – clean water.

“We need a unified effort, in both our urban and rural communities, to implement long-term, permanent solutions to protect the water we all share. By supporting our farmers to implement sustainable farming practices and promoting expanded soil and water conservation efforts, together with appropriate water quality monitoring and transparency across the state, we can help keep our drinking water and recreational waters clean and safe for all Iowans,” Fred Hubbell’s policy position reads.


by Rick Smith
Posted 7/20/18

1 Comment on "Is Iowa’s Water Quality Nearing A Public Health Emergency?"

  • I’m grateful to see “recreational water” mentioned, and it’s certainly better than just mentioning “drinking water.” However, as someone who has been working on Iowa water issues for almost forty years, I will state categorically that one reason we Iowans are in this enormous water mess is because our thinking and caring have been so narrow and mostly focused only on us, Homo sapiens, the upright apes.

    When working in the Legislature, I always knew that the legislator who knew the meaning of the word “biodiversity” would also be the legislator who was most informed and progressive about protecting human drinking water. If we Iowans cared about keeping water safe for other forms of life as well as people, we would also be protecting our own water. Ironically, if we continue to care only about ourselves, we are much more likely to continue to create water conditions that are bad for all life, ourselves included.

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