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DNR Officials Block Numeric Standards For Water Quality In Iowa Lakes

josquin2000 / Flickr
Iowa DNR officials have turned down another request to set specific numerical water quality standards for the state's recreational lakes.

Officials at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources have decided not to set numeric standards for water quality at the state’s recreational lakes. Environmental groups wanted specific limits on phosphorus, nitrogen, chlorophyll-a and water clarity.

Some environmentalists and residents want a better idea of what Iowans are swimming in in the state’s lakes. They argue setting specific water quality standards could help prevent bacteria blooms and keep the lakes in line with public perceptions of what water quality should be.

The Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center brought the petition before the DNR’s Environmental Protection Commission, a policy oversight board at the agency. At a Tuesday meeting of the commission, they requested the agency adopt new rules for public recreational lakes, setting total phosphorus at 35 micrograms per liter, total nitrogen at 900 micrograms per liter, chlorophyll-a (a measure of the amount of algae) at 25 micrograms per liter, and setting water transparency of at least one meter.

Those metrics would only have to be met 75 percent of the time to comply with the standards overall.

"In the meantime, we've seen more algae blooms, more beaches have been subject to warming and more parents have questioned whether it was safe to let their children swim in an Iowa lake." - Josh Mandelbaum, Environmental Law and Policy Center

Josh Mandelbaum with the Environmental Law and Policy Center told the commission that specific standards are needed in order to quantify exactly what is in Iowa lakes. Mandelbaum highlighted the risks of microcystins, potentially deadly toxins that cyanobacteria blooms sometimes produce.

“If we are unwilling to acknowledge and define the problem we will be unable to analyze and solve it,” Mandelbaum said.

DNR agency staffers recommended the plan be rejected, and ultimately the Environmental Protection Commission did so unanimously.

The petition is based on recommendations made by a team of scientists that was organized at the request of the DNR. The Nutrient Science Advisory committee published its findings in 2008. Agency officials have turned down multiple chances to adopt the recommendations since then, in 2011, 2013, and again this week.

In their 2008 report, the NSA committee wrote a strongly worded warning if state regulators did not adopt their proposed standards.

“Levels of TP [total phosphorus] and TN [total nitrogen] above these standards risk the health and safety of the people using these lakes for direct contact recreation uses and threaten the economic health of the communities surrounding the lakes that have significant recreational industries,” the report authors wrote at the time.

"We're on the edge of a precipice. These microcystins are nothing to kid around about it [...] any way you look at it, it's poison." - Steve Throssel, Eldora resident

Mandelbaum says the lack of specific standards leaves Iowans without valuable information.

“Good science and analysis has ended up being shelved for a later day, and Iowans have had to wait to test their lakes. In the meantime, we’ve seen more algae blooms, more beaches have been subject to warming and more parents have questioned whether it was safe to let their children swim in an Iowa lake,” he said.

In a 2007 analysis, Iowa State University researchers calculated that the state’s lakes draw more than 11 million visitors a year, who spend some $977 million dollars annually.

A beautiful lake at a well-loved state park can be valuable to local communities and local economies, especially in small towns that depend on them.

Eldora resident Steve Throssel testified for the petition and told the commissioners he believes poor water quality is preventing his community from swimming and kayaking in their nearby lake. He says Eldora is losing residents, in part due to quality of life aspects like this.

“Let’s get going! You guys are smart enough, you’ve been measuring this stuff for 15 to 20 years. You know exactly what we’ve got going out there,” he said. “I can’t stand this not doing anything and watching my town slowly die.”

Throssel called on the commissioners to proactively adopt policies that promote water quality.

“We’re on the edge of a precipice. These microcystins are nothing to kid around about it. Even E. coli,” he said. “For little kids and elderly or immune-impaired people, it can be a death sentence […] Any way you look at it, it’s poison.”

"That is a significant cost [...] it's astronomical what the impacts would be." - Jon Tack, Iowa DNR

According to the DNR, some 93 percent of the state’s lakes would be considered impaired under the plan, and need additional monitoring and regulation. The DNR Water Quality Bureau Chief Jon Tack told the commission that under the proposed rules, an estimated $200 million in associated costs would fall on local communities.

“That is a significant cost,” Tack said. “It’s astronomical what the impacts would be.”

Tack argued the DNR isn’t required by law to adopt numeric standards and said the agency is already investing in water quality improvements.

“I don’t see a way that adopting this does anything beyond the impacts to the towns that would speed those other efforts, that would change those priorities,” Tack said.

But the petitioners argue there is also a real cost associated with not acting. Nitrogen runoff in the state, mainly from agricultural lands, is not slowing down, even as the state implements its Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The plan calls for the adoption of cover crops, no-tilling and other conservation practices, but it’s voluntary, and sets no timeline for implementation. While hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested, scientists estimate nutrient pollution in Iowa waters is a multi-billion dollar a year problem.

In the meantime, some 28 other states have adopted specific numeric nutrient criteria for their lakes and reservoirs. If Iowa doesn’t adequately protect its waters, as required by the federal Clean Water Act, the U.S. EPA does have the power to step in.

After Tuesday’s meeting, Cindy Lane with the Iowa Environmental Council said that could be a possibility.

“I think that’s certainly something that could happen,” she said. “Under the Clean Water Act, the EPA could say, these are necessary to protect Iowa’s waters. You need to have numeric criteria for nitrogen and phosphorus.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter