Yet another water quality wake up call for state leaders

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Back in June, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources predicted another record year for beach closures due to toxic blue green algae blooms. Sure enough, by Labor Day weekend, the state had broken its 2015 record.

Six beach advisories issued last week before the holiday weekend brought this summer’s total to 37, three more than last year. The DNR issues advisories discouraging swimming because microcystin, a toxin produced by algae, makes the water unsafe for humans and pets.

As the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy for reducing polluted agricultural runoff points out, algae blooms are fed by nutrients in ag fertilizers, phosphorus and nitrogen. Not only does nutrient runoff contribute to algae blooms in Iowa, it feeds blooms in the Gulf of Mexico that are, in part, responsible for the gulf Hypoxia Zone, or Dead Zone.

So, too often, Iowans looking forward to splashing in their favorite lake on a hot summer day instead find scummy water and a beach advisory. “When in doubt, stay out,” the DNR warns.

Unfortunately, our state leaders also remain in doubt over what to do about Iowa’s water quality problems. They’ve floated numerous ideas which failed to gain political traction. The fall election will play a big role, but he campaign has yielded no new ideas.

An Iowa State University study estimates that Iowa’s lakes generate $1.2 billion annually in visitor spending, including spending by visitors to state and county parks surrounding many lakes. More than 14,700 jobs are connected with lake tourism, generating more than $300 million in income.

The governor and lawmakers were willing to move Iowa’s August school start date to help Iowa tourism interests. But what is the next Legislature going to do to protect lake tourism from pollution that fouls its waters and closes its beaches? Will the governor stick to a plan that pits education against the environment, or will he use his considerable political skills to help forge a better plan?

How many more wake up calls and pollution warnings will it take to remind lawmakers that Iowa voters overwhelmingly picked a sound strategy in 2010 when they created the constitutional Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund? All that’s needed is a three-eighths-cent sales tax increase to fill it. If only political courage bloomed like algae.

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