DES MOINES, Iowa - Two environmental groups filed a petition Tuesday with the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, calling on the state to set measurable water quality standards to clean up Iowa lakes.
The Des Moines-based Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center, based in Chicago, filed the petition saying Iowa's plan for reducing phosphorous and nitrogen that pollute lakes is inadequate and doesn't meet federal Environmental Protection Agency standards.
The petition calls on Iowa's Department of Natural Resources to set water quality standards to protect clean water, public health and recreation at 159 of Iowa's publicly owned lakes.
The nine-member commission of governor appointees oversees the DNR and is responsible for setting Iowa's water quality standards and overseeing the DNR's pollution control efforts. By state law the commission must act on a petition within 60 days. The group's next meeting is Sept. 17.
The standards proposed in the petition would require scientific measurement of water transparency of lakes and set limits for the concentrations of chlorophyll, phosphorous and nitrogen. These so-called numeric nutrient criteria establish clear, science-based goals to prevent potentially harmful algae blooms and keep Iowa's lakes clean and safe for swimming and recreation, the groups said.
"These standards are focused on helping local communities prevent lake water quality problems that can make recreation less desirable, threaten aquatic life, and put people's health at risk," said Ralph Rosenberg, the council's executive director.
Iowa State University lake expert John Downing said Iowa's lakes have some of the highest nitrogen and phosphorus levels found anywhere in the world, leading to blue-green algae blooms that are unhealthy for fish, wildlife and people.
Last summer Kim Stroud, whose family has lived on Spirit Lake since 1964, witnessed the worst algae growth she has seen at the lake.
She said fish were swimming to shore gasping for air and dying. Local radio stations were broadcasting warnings to stay out of the water and keep animals away.
It was the first time Stroud remembers ever being warned to stay out of the lake.
"The smell was so bad we could hardly stand being outside," she said. "It scared most of us into realizing what a big cesspool we could be living on if we don't do something about it."
She said there have been two algae blooms this summer.
Phosphorus and nitrogen pollution reaches Iowa's lakes from sewage treatment plants and from farms when fertilizer and manure is washed out of the soil by rain. When phosphorus and nitrogen pollution reaches excessive concentrations, it can produce algae blooms in lakes.
The blooms can generate chemical poisons called cyanotoxins, which not only produce unpleasant odors and reduce water clarity, but in high enough concentrations can result in rashes, hives or skin blisters for those swimming. Other symptoms can include vomiting, diarrhea, severe headaches, and asthma-like symptoms. High concentrations can cause liver damage. Dogs, livestock and wildlife have died from drinking water containing cyanotoxins.
Since 2007, Iowa DNR has recorded 68 instances of microcystin toxin levels exceeding 20 micrograms per liter at 39 sampled beaches. Microcystin is a type of cyanotoxin. When a sample exceeds 20 micrograms per liter, a warning sign is posted at the beach by the DNR to keep children and pets away from the water. Boaters are advised to avoid concentrated algae.
Since 1998, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has called on Iowa and other states to set numeric criteria to protect lakes, rivers and streams from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. Other states, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, have set numeric limits for their lakes, but Iowa has not.
The DNR adopted standards after years of work that included recommendations from a science advisory committee. However, the agency never included those standards in the state's new policy implemented by the DNR in November and endorsed by Gov. Terry Branstad and his administration.
Iowa's Nutrient Reduction Strategy, as it's called, relies heavily on voluntary compliance by farmers and lacks specific enforceable standards.
The EPA has expected Iowa to set standards and has threatened to take over enforcement of federal Clean Water Act rules in Iowa if the state doesn't improve set enforceable rules and implement them.
"Meanwhile, year after year Iowans visiting beaches around the state are too often confronted with green, murky water," Rosenberg said. "The Environmental Protection Commission has the opportunity to contribute to meaningful, measurable progress on cleaner lakes, and we hope they will."
DNR spokesman Kevin Baskins said, "There is a process and we will go through it. We have 60 days to determine whether or not we'll initiate rulemaking or deny the petition."