Government

Environmentalists press state to set new lake pollution limits

But Iowa Department of Natural Resources says it's too costly and restrictive

Tanner Puls takes water samples Aug. 14, 2018, at various locations from the swimming area at Lake Macbride State Park in rural Solon. Samples from multiple locations creates a composite water sample for testing. Puls also takes atmospheric measurements as well as water measurements including PH level, amount of dissolved oxygen, turbidity and temperature. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Tanner Puls takes water samples Aug. 14, 2018, at various locations from the swimming area at Lake Macbride State Park in rural Solon. Samples from multiple locations creates a composite water sample for testing. Puls also takes atmospheric measurements as well as water measurements including PH level, amount of dissolved oxygen, turbidity and temperature. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Just because Iowans generally believe in safe driving doesn’t mean the state doesn’t need speed limits.

That’s the comparison environmental groups are making as they ask the state Environmental Protection Commission, which meets Tuesday, to set numeric limits for nitrate and phosphorus levels in Iowa lakes used for recreation and drinking water. Numeric criteria would provide a point at which lakes are determined to be impaired, triggering cleanup plans.

“The state has to establish water quality criteria to protect its water,” said Cindy Lane, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council.

But the Iowa Department of Natural Resources disagrees, saying numeric limits would result in costly changes and more federal regulation. The Iowa DNR will recommend the commission deny a petition from the Environmental Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

The environmental groups want the Iowa DNR to designate 159 Iowa lakes as “significant public recreation lakes” and set numeric limits for water transparency, chlorophyll-a, total phosphorus and total nitrogen. Their request is based on a 2008 recommendation from a panel of science advisers to the Iowa DNR.

According to Lane, 28 states already have numeric limits on some water bodies.

Phosphorus running from farm fields into lakes can cause the growth of algae blooms that generate toxins harmful to humans and animals. Iowa issued 196 beach advisories from 2006 to 2018 for microcystins exceeding 20 micrograms per liter, the level deemed safe by the World Health Organization.

Nitrate in drinking water has been linked to infant methemoglobinemia — blue-baby syndrome — a life-threatening condition reducing the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, as well as some cancers and thyroid problems.

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The Law and Policy Center also asked for these changes in 2013, but the commission denied the petition.

Josh Mandelbaum, staff attorney for the center and a Des Moines City Council member, said he’s requesting numeric criteria again because Iowa’s water quality hasn’t improved, despite increased conservation efforts.

A 2018 Gazette investigation found Iowa, along with many other Midwestern states, can’t show progress toward reducing nitrate and phosphorus going into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico as part of a 12-state pact to cut the nutrients by 45 percent by 2035.

The Iowa DNR says in its recommendation to deny the petition Iowa already is addressing water quality through its 2013 Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which lays out ways Iowa can slash nitrate and phosphorus runoff. The Iowa Legislature last year passed a bill providing $282 million over 12 years toward nutrient reduction goals, with $4 million available in the first year.

Numeric limits would result in impairment of 93 percent of Iowa lakes and would cost 19 municipalities more than $205 million combined to meet these limits, the Iowa DNR states in its recommendation.

Mandelbaum and Lane agree it will cost money to clean up impaired lakes, but that the state is losing out on income with beach closures caused by polluted water. An Iowa State University study released last year showed Iowa stands to gain $30 million a year in recreational benefits by improving water quality.

The commission, a nine-member board with five Republicans, three Democrats and one independent, will meet at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Des Moines.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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