Tag Archives: nitrogen and phosphorus pollution

Severe erosion and lack of conservation progress cause for alarm among Iowa experts


Former Iowa Environmental Council executive director Linda Appelgate captured this image of a corn field eroding into the Nishnabotna river in 2010. According to the Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, nearly 80% of Iowa farmers agree they need to do more to “reduce nutrient and sediment runoff into streams and lakes.”

Last week was Soil and Water Conservation Week in Iowa, a time to reflect on how well we are protecting one of Iowa’s most precious natural resources.  Unfortunately, soil erosion remains a serious problem in our state. Recently several top experts on Iowa soil conservation weighed in and expressed alarm about the state of our soil.

The Iowa Daily Erosion Project can create estimates of soil erosion the morning after a rainfall event occurs.  Here, estimates are shown for a 2-day precipitation event on April 12-13, 2014.  Still, without advances in modeling, project manager Rick Cruse says these models do not tell the whole story of Iowa soil erosion.

The Iowa Daily Erosion Project can create estimates of soil erosion the morning after a rainfall event occurs. Here, estimates are shown for a 2-day precipitation event on April 12-13, 2014.   Still, without advances in modeling, project manager Rick Cruse says these estimates do not tell the whole story of Iowa soil erosion.

Most unsettling was a reminder from Iowa State University agronomist Rick Cruse that our present methods of estimating soil erosion are badly flawed and may be missing between 20 and 90% of the erosion in the state.  In total, Cruse estimates the economic harm to agricultural yields Iowa suffers from historic soil erosion may be as great as $1 billion each year–harm that will grow as erosion continues.

Cruse, who manages the Iowa Daily Erosion Project, said current models only account erosion that occurs evenly across the soil’s surface and fail to account for ephemeral gullies that form when heavy rainwater forms channels and washes out a trench along a slope.  He answered questions about soil erosion recently in the Des Moines Register and spoke about his research at length in an Iowa Learning Farms webinar, which is available free online.

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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.

Is toxic algae coming to a lake near you?

Summer should be a time for fishing, boating and swimming with family on our nation’s lakes.  Yet instead of fresh clear waters, many users are encountering mats of thick blue-green harmful algal blooms (HABs) – aka toxic algae.

toxic_algae_report_20130920A new report by the National Wildlife Foundation and Resource media highlights the toxic algae blooms that are fouling waters nationwide, including in Iowa.  The authors have also launched an interactive map tracking reports of harmful algae blooms from across the country at toxicalgaenews.com.



In addition to highlighting the health and economic impacts of harmful algal blooms, the report also discusses solutions for this widespread problem.  It highlights Iowa farmer Mark Peterson who is making extensive use of cover crops on his farm to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in local waters.

Here’s Mark’s story, reprinted with permission of the report’s authors:

“One of the most effective things I do is use cover crops to soak up nutrients that move with any rainfall,” he says. “I aerial seed cereal rye before harvest so that it is already sprouted and growing by the time harvest is over. That way there is always something growing in the field which helps protect the soil and scavenge nutrients. This also will help build up organic matter over time.

“I’m not alone in this practice – more and more farmers are shifting to a spring fertilizer application, along with planting cover crops. Why? It’s good for the farm. We like to say, ‘Don’t farm naked!’ Cover crops prevent the land from staying bare over the wintertime. They prevent soil erosion, keep the nutrients in the soil and improve soil health.

“It is time for the government to put its money where its mouth is and provide funding for conservation education that will improve soil and water quality. We should also link conservation compliance to crop insurance. Farmers are getting a big subsidy on our crop insurance, and in exchange we must take care of our soil and water not only for ourselves, but for the future generations. Melanie and I have five sons and two grandchildren—so far. I want to leave, for them, the farm and the environment in even better shape than what we started with.”

By the way, the great “Don’t Farm Naked” t-shirt Mark is wearing comes from Practical Farmers of Iowa, a Council member organization.

Dead Zone Decision: Court Ruling Forces EPA Action on Mississippi River Pollution

The U.S. District Court in Eastern Louisiana ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Friday to determine within six months whether to set new limits on the pollution that is fueling the dangerous algae growth choking the waters throughout the Mississippi River basin, the Gulf of Mexico and waters across the country.

Image shows a thick mat of green algae with the text "Let's clean this up!"The suit, filed a year and a half ago, challenged EPA’s denial of the Mississippi River Collaborative’s 2008 petition to EPA asking it to establish quantifiable standards and cleanup plans for nitrogen and phosphorus pollution. The suit charged that EPA had unlawfully refused to respond to the question posed to it, which is whether such federal action is necessary to comply with the Clean Water Act.  The court agreed with plaintiffs, holding that the Agency’s refusal to provide a direct answer was unlawful.

The result is a win for Iowans and others living up and down the Mississippi River who support clear, deliberate action to clean up polluted waters.  Here’s how Ann Alexander, lead attorney on the case at the National Resources Defense Council, described the result:

“In the simplest terms, the court ordered EPA to remove its head from the sand and make a decision whether to be part of the solution or part of the problem.  It’s a short and satisfying answer to a long and decidedly unsatisfying history of dithering inaction by EPA.”

At issue, Alexander explains, is EPA’s responsibility to ensure standards for cleaner water are put in place according to a reasonable timeline.  Alexander explains EPA has been clear about whether the standards are important:

“EPA has been acknowledging for more than a decade that this problem is severe, calling the nationwide damage from algae pollution a “sobering picture and a compelling reason for more urgent and effective action.”  More to the point, EPA has repeatedly gone on record saying that states have not done enough to solve the problem…”

But the federal agency has dithered on whether the standards are legally necessary–a finding that would trigger EPA’s responsibility to work quickly with states to set needed standards.

Perhaps shaken by the fierce industry opposition to its effort to set such limits in Florida, EPA simply refused to answer our question, saying only that setting federal limits if they were necessary would be a lot of time and trouble.

The Court’s decision, issued Friday does not tell the Agency how to address the problem, only to make a decision on the issue. However, EPA has repeatedly acknowledged the severity of the problem and stated that federal intervention is appropriate because states are not doing enough to solve it.

Plaintiffs in the suit included Gulf Restoration Network, Waterkeeper Alliance, Environmental Law and Policy Center, Iowa Environmental Council, Missouri Coalition for the Environment, Prairie Rivers Network, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Tennessee Clean Water Network, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, Sierra Club, and NRDC.  Attorneys at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, NRDC, and the Environmental Law and Policy Center brought the case.