Should Iowa adopt stricter standards for recreational lakes? Environmental commission says no
In early 2018 the Iowa Legislature took a step in addressing Iowa's water quality with a plan to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels by 45 percent. Kelsey Kremer/The Register
The state rejected a proposal Tuesday that two environmental groups say would make Iowa's recreational lakes cleaner.
The Environmental Law & Policy Center and Iowa Environmental Council filed a petition in November pushing the state to adopt stricter standards for Iowa's nearly 160 recreational lakes.
"We are not protecting our lakes, and keeping them safe for kids and families to be in the water," said Josh Mandelbaum, an attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center.
For example, he said, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources closed state beaches nearly 200 times over 12 years because of microcystins tied to harmful algae blooms that are dangerous to people, pets and livestock.
More warnings would have been issued if the state monitored water quality at more than 39 state beaches, he said.
"The proposed rules are designed to … ensure that Iowa's lakes are safe for swimming for generations," Mandelbaum said. "They will prevent toxic algae blooms and reduce pollution."
The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission rejected the petition at a meeting Tuesday in Des Moines, saying the move could cost Iowa cities and towns about $205 million to meet the stricter standards.
"The break down per capita would be astronomical," Jon Tack, DNR's water quality bureau chief, told the commission.
For example, the improvements would cost $41,822 per person in Corydon, a town of 1,500 people in southern Iowa.
Despite the costs, upgrading wastewater facilities and other operations to meet the standards would do little to measurably improve water quality, Tack said.
Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for urban and rural areas to cut by 45 percent the nitrogen and phosphorus levels leaving the state and contributing to the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone each summer.
The strategy outlines cutting nutrients from point sources, like a city's wastewater treatment operations, and nonpoint sources such as farming and livestock production.
About $420 million had been spent since 2013 to cut nutrient loss, the state said.
Tack said Iowa needs to do more to reduce phosphorus and nitrogen levels in its lakes and rivers. "But the question before you is whether we should do this. Our answer is no," he said.
Mandelbaum said the groups asked the commission five years ago to adopt the standards and were told to give the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy a chance to work.
But the strategy is not working fast enough, he said. For example, it will take the state about 80 years for farmers to plant 10 million acres in cover crops at their current pace.
Mandelbaum questioned why the costs to meet new standards would be placed solely on cities and towns, saying that farming operations should bear part of the costs, especially since nutrient losses come primarily from nonpoint sources.
The state's analysis showed the proposed standards would result in 93 percent of Iowa lakes being declared impaired. That's distressing, Mandelbaum said, given that 37 of Iowa's lakes and reservoirs also are sources of drinking water.
Last year, the city of Greenfield asked residents to use bottled water following a toxic blue-green algae outbreak on a nearby lake that's used for drinking water. And in 2016, Des Moines Water Works issued a warning that microcystins had been detected in finished water, although below health advisory levels.
Mandelbaum said the state needs to identify the problem before being able to solve it. "There's a real cost of inaction," he said, noting that Iowa lakes attract nearly 12 million visits annually, resulting in $1.2 billion in spending.