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Bacteria, algae, polluting more waterways in Iowa

Lake at Kent Park cited in impaired waters list

F W Kent Lake at F W Kent Country Park in Oxford on Thursday, May 14, 2015. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)
F W Kent Lake at F W Kent Country Park in Oxford on Thursday, May 14, 2015. (Michael Noble Jr./The Gazette)

Bacteria levels violating state water quality standards at Kent Park Lake have landed the popular Johnson County recreation area on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ latest list of impaired waters. The federally required list, which was in draft form when posted this week as part of the agenda for next Tuesday’s Iowa Environmental Commission meeting, showed Kent Park is partially impaired for human use. So Iowa must create an assessment called the Total Maximum Daily Load, or TMDL, showing how much pollutant the water body can handle while still meeting water quality standards.

Larry Gullett, Johnson County conservation director, said pollution from humans at the beach area, and possibly feces from geese, are likely to blame. The bacteria level can vary dramatically from week to week, so swimmers can check a sign at the park entry or call the office for a water quality level.

“We will post a sign that swimming is not recommended if the level is high,” Gullett said. “If you have a toddler or young child who can’t control getting water in their eyes, nose and throat, they shouldn’t swim, but it is not that big of a deal if it’s an adult or teenager. Just take a shower after you’re done.”

He said the county is embarking on a three-to-five year effort to rejuvenate the lake and address water quality issues.

Kent Park is hardly alone among Iowa waterways with impairments.

Bacteria, erosion and algae are stressing waterways that Iowans use for swimming, fishing, and boating. In all, 725 locations are included in the DNR’s latest impaired water list, up 15 percent from 630 in 2012, the latest reporting period.

New stretches of the Cedar River, including near McLoud Run in Linn County, were added to the list because more than 10 percent of samples exceeded acceptable pH balance levels for humans and aquatic life. States are required to provide a list of waterways not fully meeting state water quality standards — thus considered impaired — every two years to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act.

Among the key findings in the latest list:

• Bacteria in the form of E. coli, biological impairments and fish kills account for 82 percent of the stream or river impairments,

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• Turbidity from algae and erosion and bacteria in the form of E. coli are responsible for 69 percent of impaired lakes and reservoirs.

• 73 waterways from the 2012 impaired list are proposed for removal, including 30 for water quality improvements.

An environmental advocacy group said Thursday that the growing list is a sign Iowa is failing to improve water conditions.

“The DNR wants to say manure pollution is not that bad, but it really is,” said Jess Mazour, a spokeswoman for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. “It’s the reason for the toxic algae blooms, and the high nitrate levels.”

Iowa CCI blames manure spills and fertilizer from farms for increased nitrates and phosphorus in waterways, which support algae blooms and bacteria. The group wants permits to better enforce rules for spreading manure.

John Olson, a senior environmental specialist with the Iowa DNR, agrees water quality is an issue here but said using the list to assess trends can be misleading.

The list doesn’t evaluate the severity of impairment. And more monitoring is being done, which triggers the growing list of impaired waterways. While some impairments are severe, most are not, he said.

“The impaired water list is a tracking device,” Olson said. “The more monitoring you are going to do, the more impairments you are going to have. ... I don’t know of any state where the impaired water list is getting smaller.”

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He attributed 58 percent of the additions to the 2014 list to more monitoring for bacteria in smaller watersheds, and said removing water bodies from the list once they are entered is difficult because impairments are identified faster than can be addressed.

“As we get more funding, we test more and find more problems,” said Jerald Schnoor, professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of Iowa. “The number of waters on the list simply tell you we have a problem, as well as other agricultural states, but you shouldn’t put too much stock in the number.”

Schnoor said addressing water quality issues has stagnated since the 1970s and 1980s, when $100 billion was spent over two decades under the Clean Water Act of 1972. That law curbed runoff from pipes, such as from storm or wastewater systems.

What is now needed is to stop the “non-point source” runoff, which would be contaminants from agricultural land or forests seeping into water bodies, he said.

“If want further improvement, we need to figure out voluntarily or through legislation, how to control the non-point source runoff,” he said.

The impaired water list will be released at an Iowa Environmental Protection Commission meeting Tuesday in Davenport. A public comment period then commences for 45 days.

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