Staff Editorial

The high cost of dirty water in Iowa

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)
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)

In Iowa, the debate over water quality often focuses on how much it will cost farmers and landowners to keep nitrate and phosphorus runoff from fouling the state’s waterways.

But what gets too little attention is the cost of dirty water.

Grand Lake in Ohio is a cautionary tale, told in the latest installment of the “Treading Water” series by The Gazette’s Erin Jordan. Deteriorating water quality cost the Grand Lake community millions of dollars in lost tourism spending.

Blue-green algae blooms in Grand Lake, blooms fed by nutrient runoff, spawned high levels of microcystins toxic to humans and animals. Swimming and skiing in the lake was prohibited. Dog owners were warned to avoid letting their dogs drink lake water. People got sick, businesses closed and property owners had trouble selling.

It should be a sobering saga for Iowa leaders in a state with a $1 billion annual lake tourism industry. Tourism in Iowa’s great lakes region alone is worth $290 million annually.

Iowa is doing far too little to protect and clean up its waters. The state has a Nutrient Reduction Strategy calling for large reductions in fertilizer runoff. But the strategy has been woefully underfunded. Programs that are in place are strictly voluntary and require no meaningful measurements to track actual progress. Voluntary approaches have not made a significant dent in our statewide problem, which becomes a national problem when Midwest nutrients contribute to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s true, there were fewer total beach advisories in Iowa this summer compared to 2018, although advisories due to microcystin contamination rose from six in 2018 to 19 this year. It’s worth noting the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has shunned an Environmental Protection Agency recommendation for using a far more stringent microcystin limit that likely would have led to more advisories. Among the groups that oppose the lower limit is the Iowa Farm Bureau.

Our state’s leaders and ag allies seem more interested in appearances rather than results when it comes to water quality. It’s worth noting there have been some local and regional successes. But the big picture in Iowa remains as murky as one of the state’s hundreds of impaired waterways.

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Lawmakers should raise the sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust fund created by voters in 2010. The fund, which could provide tens of millions of dollars for water quality efforts annually, sits empty.

Statehouse leaders should listen to the Conservation Districts of Iowa, which recently voted in favor of requiring 30-foot buffers around waterways to curtail nutrient runoff. Other groups have called on lawmakers to require that landowners adopt minimum standards of care from a menu of practices aimed at improving water quality. It’s a reasonable approach.

But we fear Republicans who control the Statehouse will say the state and landowners can’t afford these measures. They must be reminded Iowa also can’t afford the costs of dirty water.

Comments: (319) 398-8262; editorial@thegazette.com

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