Staff Editorial

Iowa should adopt EPA water standards

Algae is visible on the surface of Lake Macbride June 22, 2019. A harmful algal bloom caused a spike in microcystins, wh
Algae is visible on the surface of Lake Macbride June 22, 2019. A harmful algal bloom caused a spike in microcystins, which can sicken people and animals. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources posted is first microcystin swim warning ever at the lake for the weekend June 22-23, 2019. (Photo by Chris Jones)

Under new recommendations for beach water quality issued by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, swimmers should be advised when levels of microcystins — toxins spawned by blue-green algae blooms — reach 8 micrograms per liter of water. Currently, the state of Iowa issues a swimming advisory when microcystin levels reach 20 micrograms.

Microcystin exposure can result in a variety of health effects, from gastroenteritis and skin irritation to nerve and liver damage.

But the Iowa Department of Natural Resources is declining to follow the EPA’s advice, as The Gazette’s Erin Jordan reported last month. DNR leaders say they don’t like the science EPA researchers used to craft its recommendation. According to EPA summaries of public comments, Iowa officials raised multiple issues with the recommendation, including the impact it would have on public perceptions of water safety.

Although we’re not dismissing all of the state’s concerns, and some may be valid, they simply don’t seem to measure up to the EPA’s primary reasons for setting a lower threshold.

“EPA derived these recommended values based on children’s recreational exposures because children can be more highly exposed compared to other age groups. The recommendations are also protective of older age groups,” the agency wrote in its recommendations.

At one point, the agency sought a 4 micrograms limit, but boosted the threshold amid opposition from states and organizations. So the 8 micrograms level is a compromise.

Protecting children and older adults should rank high among governmental priorities. And we’re talking about swimming advisories that provide information to the public. Why should Iowans not be informed when microcystin levels exceed the EPA’s safety recommendation? Let parents and others decide what risks they’re willing to take.


We know lowering the state’s standard will lead to more swimming advisories, and that such advisories call public attention to Iowa’s water quality problems and the role of agriculture. The blue-green algae blooms that close beaches and produce microcystins are fed in large part by nitrogen and phosphorous running off cropland.

Public perceptions would be affected, which might by why the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation also weighed in with concerns about the lower threshold, according to EPA comment summaries.

Public safety is more important than public perceptions. Iowa should adopt the EPA threshold, issue advisories when it’s exceeded and allow Iowans to make informed decisions. We hope new, incoming DNR Director Kayla Lyon will re-evaluate the department’s stand.

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