Tag Archives: lakes

Blue-green algae blooms: stay informed, stay safe

Swimming was not advised at Rock Creek Lake on August 10 due to the presence of a harmful algae bloom.

Swimming was not advised at Rock Creek Lake in August 2013 due to the presence of an algae bloom.

UPDATE: As of Thursday, August 6, DNR has posted 23 beach advisories warning Iowans to stay out of the water at Iowa State Park Beaches due to high levels of microcystin, just one warning shy of the 24 warnings posted in 2013 – the most since DNR began monitoring for the toxin at State Park beaches in 2006. Warnings have been posted at 13 beaches, including five beaches brand new to the list.

Summer is in full swing, and many Iowans are heading to the state’s lakes to swim, paddle, relax and cool off with family and friends. However, many Iowans are being greeted by an unwelcome sight at their favorite swimming spots: toxic blue-green algae blooms.

This type of algae, caused by a combination of high levels of phosphorus pollution and increased temperatures can produce harmful microcystin toxins that can make people sick and be deadly for dogs, livestock and other animals.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has posted more than a dozen swimming advisories cautioning Iowans to stay out of the water at State Park beaches throughout Iowa so far this summer due to high microcystin levels. Included on this summer’s list are Lake Darling, Pine Lake, Red Haw Lake and Twin Lake West beaches – all first time toxic blue-green algae offenders.*

“The threats posed by toxic blue-green algae blooms are serious,” said Water Program Director Susan Heathcote. “Iowans need to be aware of this problem, the health risks, and know how to recognize and respond to toxic blue-green algae blooms.”

Toxic blue-green algae blooms create green, murky water, visible surface scum and a foul odor. The blooms can spread across the water but tend to accumulate in shoreline areas. Beach warnings are posted by the DNR when microcystin levels exceed 20 ug/liter, a guideline established by the World Health Organization. Contact with water at or above this level can result in breathing problems, upset stomach, skin reactions, and even liver damage. Inhaling water droplets containing toxic blue-green algae can cause runny eyes and nose, cough, sore throat, chest pain, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions.

After tracking microcystin poisoning cases in Iowa as part of a national pilot project, Iowa’s public health leaders recently announced plans to add “microcystin-toxin poisoning” to the list of conditions doctors must report to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

“To rid Iowa of toxic blue-green algae blooms and ensure our lakes are safe and healthy for our families and pets, we must improve our water quality and reduce phosphorus pollution caused by agricultural and urban runoff and wastewater treatment systems,” Heathcote said. “This pollution not only puts our health at risk, but also has negative economic impacts on communities that depend on lake tourism, as well as our environment.”

The DNR monitors 39 State Park beaches for microcystin on a weekly basis between Memorial Day and Labor Day, issues advisories and posts warning signs when conditions are unsafe for swimming. The weekly beach advisories can be found on their website. Last summer, the DNR posted 22 beach warnings for high levels of microcystin during the recreational season.

At this time, DNR only monitors State Park Beaches, so if you swim at other public or private beaches you need to be aware of the potential for toxic blue-green algae this time of year. Not all blue-green algae is toxic, but when in doubt, stay out of the water and call the DNR Beach Monitoring Hotline at 515-725-3434. If you think you or your pets may have been exposed to toxic blue-green algae, thoroughly wash it off with fresh water. If you or your pet are experiencing symptoms associated with high microcystin levels after suspected exposure, seek medical or veterinary care immediately.

Records showing State Park Beaches with documented Microcystin levels exceeding 20 ug/L dating back to 2006 are available on the Iowa Environmental Council’s website.

State commission passes on water quality standards to prevent toxic algae, poor water quality in lakes

Swimming was not advised at Rock Creek Lake on August 10 due to the presence of a harmful algae bloom.

Swimming was not advised at Rock Creek Lake on August 10 due to the presence of a harmful algae bloom.

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission Monday declined to advance lake water quality standards for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, rejecting a petition by the Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law and Policy Center requesting that they do so.  The Commissioners also rejected an offer from the environmental groups of more time to consider the proposed rules before making a final decision.

Ralph Rosenberg, the Iowa Environmental Council’s executive director, expressed disappointment at the decision:  “Iowans will be disappointed the commission missed an opportunity to take action today,” he said. “Iowans will view the inaction as state government abandoning stronger efforts to protect our lakes, and the denial only sends a message of a lack of urgency for clean water action within state government.”

Iowans expect state government to proactively address the threats to lake water quality that exist today, Rosenberg said, adding that the Council and its partners will continue to insist that setting clean water goals for Iowa’s lakes must be a higher priority for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.  Without a minimum protective standard, some lakes will be left behind by Iowa’s pollution reduction efforts.

The Commission’s decision came after potentially toxic algae blooms continued to threaten recreational uses of Iowa’s lakes this summer, sending tourists and their dollars out of state in pursuit of cleaner waters elsewhere.

“We ought to protect that quintessential Iowa experience and ensure that Iowa’s lakes are safe for swimming for generations to come,” Environmental Law & Policy Center staff attorney Josh Mandelbaum said. “These rules would prevent toxic algae blooms and reduce pollution.  They would provide a way to measure progress and create peace of mind. This Commission could have taken meaningful steps to protect Iowa’s swimming lakes by initiating rulemaking as our petition requested. We think the science and the record supports it.”

At the same time, Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which seeks to address pollution reaching the Gulf of Mexico, lacks water quality goals for protecting Iowa’s lakes, a shortcoming the proposed rules would help to address.

The environmental groups used the same standards a group of Iowa’s top lake researchers first developed at the Department of Natural Resources’ request in 2007.  The DNR attempted to partially implement the standards in a 2011 rulemaking process that was allowed to expire quietly just before completion.

The proposed water quality standards represent clear, science-based goals to prevent potentially harmful algae blooms and keep Iowa’s lakes clean and safe for swimming and recreation.  The Environmental Protection Agency has called on states to set standards since 1998; other states, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, have made progress, but Iowa has not.

While lake recreation supports 14,000 jobs in Iowa and generates $1.2 billion in annual spending, Iowa’s lakes have among the highest nitrogen and phosphorus pollution levels found anywhere in the world.  As a result, many lakes suffer from poor water clarity and frequent algae blooms.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources monitors 39 state park beaches for toxins associated with harmful algae blooms.  In 2012, the Department issued 20 advisories against swimming at state park beaches due to high concentrations of algae-related toxins that could make people sick, according to a Council review of water quality data.  In 2013, the Department issued 24 such warnings.  Many popular locally managed beaches are not included in DNR’s monitoring program.

Additional details about the Council’s action, including a downloadable copy of the petition itself, are available online at http://iaenvironment.org/waterQuality/lakestandards.php.

Iowans speak out in support of clear goals for clean water in lakes

Rep. Sharon Steckman (D-Mason City) speaks out in support of the Council's petition before the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission at a September meeting in Mason City.

Rep. Sharon Steckman (D-Mason City) speaks out in support of the Council’s petition before the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission at a September meeting in Mason City.

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission is expected to make a decision on the Council’s petition for clear goals for cleaner lakes at its October 14 meeting in Windsor Heights.

Why is action on this issue so important?  Here are selections from actual comments the Council’s supporters have submitted.  When the Council made a presentation on our petition at the Environmental Protection Commission’s September meeting, we submitted complete versions of these comments and many others.  You still have time to add your voice by submitting your comment now.

Dale in Cedar Falls:

I do open water triathlons.  I would be delighted if I could find even ONE Iowa lake with clear water where I could see my hand when swimming.  I am required to suspend open water training every July because biological activity in Black Hawk County (George Wyth Lake) triggers an allergic reaction.

I am always tempted to move my competition events out of state because I know there are triathlons with clear water for the swim.

I very strongly support the rule making request filed by the Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law and Policy Center.

I might add that I grew up on a farm and have been involved in farming, which is no easy enterprise. Yet, farmers should not be permitted to continue using practices that push the costs and consequences of soil and chemical run off onto the general public.

Lisa in Ames:

As a mother, I want my two young boys to enjoy all the pleasures of outdoor play around water that I enjoyed during my youth in northern Wisconsin.  Right now, I am fearful to let them play along the streams and beaches of Iowa.  It’s painful to explain to them that something so natural as water could harm them.

I hope you will work with me to change this situation by adoption clearer, numerical goals for water quality.

Michael in Grinnell:

I know from working in the business community that if you don’t set clear, measureable goals, it is much harder to succeed or even know if you have succeeded.

Have you ever seen an algae bloom on a body of water?  I have.  I can’t imagine anyone wanting to swim in that gunk.  Iowa can do better than that.

Bill in Urbandale:

I used to enjoy swimming, boating, and fishing at Geode State Park when I was growing up. I used to go canoeing on the Raccoon River and camp with my family at Rock Creek.  Sadly, I can no longer experience those activities because of the pollution in Iowa sewers (formerly called streams, rivers, and lakes).

Jan in Okoboji:

Numerical standards are essential!  We need even higher standards for lakes like West Okoboji. This is common sense.

Please do it!

You can learn more about the Council’s petition on our website, and you can speak out in support of the petition through our action alert system.

Environmental groups call for clean water goals to reduce harmful algae blooms and protect clean water in lakes

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The Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law and Policy Center filed a petition with the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission Tuesday calling 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.

Online feature:  See an interactive map of lakes included in the petition.

The proposed water quality standards will establish clear, science-based goals to prevent potentially harmful algae blooms and keep Iowa’s lakes clean and safe for swimming and recreation.

Image shows a thick mat of green algae with the text "Let's clean this up!"“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.

The safeguards the Council has proposed, called numeric nutrient criteria, will provide local community and watershed groups a way to know if soil and water conservation efforts around a lake are sufficient to achieve needed results.  They will also help the Iowa Department of Natural Resources write permits to protect lakes by managing pollution releases by industrial sites and municipal wastewater facilities.

The proposed standards would set goals for Secchi depth and chlorophyll-a , measurements of water clarity and the presence of potentially harmful algae.  They would also set goals for total nitrogen and total phosphorus in the lake, pollutants that contribute to algae growth and low water clarity.

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 ecosystems and people.

“Decreasing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus reaching a lake can lead to renewal and restoration of good water quality, and this has been shown in Iowa and throughout the world,” he said.

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Late summer is peak season for harmful algae, Iowans encouraged to stay safe at area lakes

Update (8/5/2013):  The Council is maintaining a list of algae-related swimming advisories on our website.

Big Creek Lake was one of several Iowa lakes were public advisories concerning algae blooms were issued in summer 2012.

Big Creek Lake was one of several Iowa lakes were public advisories concerning algae blooms were issued in summer 2012.

Ensuring a safe, enjoyable visit to Iowa lakes this summer means keeping track of water conditions and being aware of potentially harmful algae blooms.

Algae, which are tiny aquatic plants, are abundant in many Iowa lakes because Iowa’s waters frequently have high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.  In the late summer, when conditions turn hot and sunny, algae growth can increase dramatically, or “bloom,” threatening recreation and causing public health concerns.

“We are especially concerned about algae blooms this year because high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous in runoff from farmland reached Iowa’s waters this spring and early summer,” said Susan Heathcote, the Council’s water program director.  “Now, the sunny and hot conditions in late summer could spur rapid, widespread algae growth.”

Image shows a thick mat of green algae with the text "Let's clean this up!"Algae blooms are a nuisance, resulting in green, murky water and visible surface scum.  However, certain forms of blue green algae can produce toxins that can make people sick and have been documented to kill dogs, livestock, and other animals. Laboratory analysis is needed to determine whether toxins are present, so Iowans should use caution around any algae bloom they encounter.

“Harmful algae blooms can emerge quickly, and they may affect different parts of a lake differently,” Heathcote said.  “At any lake, visitors should rely on their own judgment in addition to posted advisories.  Avoid bright blue or green colored water, thick scums that look like spilled paint, or areas that smell bad.”

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, health impacts of blue-green algae exposure can occur through swimming, drinking, or breathing airborne toxins from affected areas.  Symptoms include breathing difficulties and skin rash, and children are at greater risk than adults.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitors beach safety at 39 state-owned beaches with once-weekly water testing.  Iowans planning to visit a state-owned beach can call a DNR hotline, (319) 353-2613, to hear weekly beach water quality monitoring information.

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