Staff Columnist

DNR sinks yet another chance to tighten water standards

Beach goers swim in the waters of Lake Macbride Thursday, June 13, 2013 near Solon. Signs warning people of the possibility of the presence of harmful blue-green algae have been posted on the fence at the entrance to the swimming beach at Lake Macbride State Park due to an algae bloom. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)
Beach goers swim in the waters of Lake Macbride Thursday, June 13, 2013 near Solon. Signs warning people of the possibility of the presence of harmful blue-green algae have been posted on the fence at the entrance to the swimming beach at Lake Macbride State Park due to an algae bloom. (Brian Ray/The Gazette-KCRG)

As summer begins, our chief beach-watchers at the Department of Natural Resources are giving me bad vibrations, raising questions about motivations.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency now says swimmers should be advised to steer clear of the water when microcystin levels reach 8 micrograms per liter. Microcystins are nasty toxins released by blue-green algae blooms, and can cause an array of health issues from skin irritation to liver damage.

Its recommendation, according to the EPA, is based in large part on concerns about young children ingesting contaminated water. “These values are based on the exposure of recreating children, due to their higher exposures compared to other age groups,” according to an EPA fact sheet.

Iowa’s standard for swimmer warnings is 20 micrograms per liter. And state DNR officials say they’re sticking with that standard, despite the EPA’s warning of health affects at lower concentrations. The Gazette’s Erin Jordan first reported on the DNR’s call this past week.

Iowa officials discount those health warnings. According to EPA documents posted online, the Iowa DNR questioned whether the EPA microcystin level had been based on an “appropriately designed epidemiological study” on exposure during swimming. Officials dubbed the EPA threshold an “artificially stringent standard,” resulting in unnecessary burdens on states.

The EPA cited a lengthy list of peer-reviewed studies on health effects. “Taken together, the weight of evidence for human studies supports the conclusion that microcystins … exposures are a human health hazard,” the agency responded. The EPA originally pushed for a 4 micrograms limit, but made concessions amid pushback from states and others.

Maybe this is simply a scientific battle over recreational pollution ingestion. Or maybe there’s more to it.

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The DNR also expressed concerns over the impact of the new EPA recommendation on “the public’s perception of water safety.”

I also think adopting the EPA standard would have an effect on public perceptions. There likely would be more swimming advisories and beach closures. Nothing underscores the sorry state of water quality in Iowa quite like a closed beach.

Suddenly, the problem is ours, and not some poor Louisiana shrimper’s. The “Dead Zone” is where we live.

Who would want to avoid such perceptions? Maybe agricultural interests, given that algae blooms are supercharged by abundant nutrients — nitrates and phosphorous — running off Iowa cropland.

The more swimming advisories and beach closures Iowans see, the more uncomfortable we may become with the state’s underfunded, slow-motion and totally voluntary effort to persuade farmers to be part of the solution and not most of the problem. Iowans might demand something stronger.

That’s probably why the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation also raised concerns with the EPA’s recreational water recommendation, according to a summary of public comments. In some cases, the Iowa DNR and Iowa Farm Bureau leveled very similar criticism at the microcystin standard.

Why would Iowa’s largest farm organization care about beach safety? See public perceptions above.

This latest DNR call makes a nice bookend with its Environmental Protection Commission’s February vote to reject setting numeric water quality standards for nitrogen, phosphorus, algae and water clarity in Iowa lakes. Setting such standards could have provided valuable data for adopting strategies aimed at reducing algae blooms and microcystin contamination. The standards were strongly recommended by a team of scientists organized at the DNR’s request in 2008.

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But adopting the recommendation would mean actually finding out the true scope of lake pollution, (again, public perceptions) and it would cost loads of money to clean them up. So no dice. The commission is dominated by farmers and members with ties to agribusiness.

OK, so how about higher standards and more money? Crazy talk.

When it comes to algae blooms, the nutrients that cause them and the sickening toxins they produce, what we don’t know can’t make the state look bad. And if you’re the parent of a young child at the beach, you can hope the EPA is just being artificially stringent.

And the rest of us can hope, someday, we’ll have an environmental agency led by people whom we can assume care about protecting our natural resources instead of suspecting they’re really serving the interests of politically powerful interests.

Wouldn’t it be nice?

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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