Longer summer break for Iowa kids, but with less lake swimming

Thousands of Iowa children went back to school today, having enjoyed an extra week or two of vacation thanks to a new state law preventing K-12 school districts from beginning the academic year before August 23. In response to lobbying from the tourism industry, most state lawmakers and Governor Terry Branstad sought to block local school administrators from starting in early or mid-August. However, as economist Dave Swenson explained here, “there is no evidence that early start dates interfere in any meaningful sense with the Iowa State Fair or with any other tourism activity in Iowa.”

If only the governor and most of our state legislators were as tuned in to how dirty water hurts Iowa tourism.  

David Pitt reported for the Associated Press on August 21,

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has posted 27 beach advisory warnings this summer due to blue-green algae blooms, a record that tops the 24 warnings posted in 2013.

“We’re seeing more severe blooms and we think more toxic blooms as well,” said Mary Skopec, who directs the beach monitoring program for the DNR. […]

Blue-green algae blooms are believed to be caused by a combination of warmer temperatures and too much fertilizer and manure running off of farms and other pollution. Algae blooms sometimes emit a toxin called microcystin which has been known to cause skin irritation and sicken people who swallow the water during swimming or breathe in water droplets containing the toxin. […]

Since 2006, the DNR has issued 139 beach warnings for high levels of microcystin. Nearly two-thirds were posted just in the past four years and five Iowa beaches were posted for the first time this year. […]

The DNR tests 40 state-owned beaches in Iowa but there are more than 130 lakes widely used for recreation by the public owned by cities, counties and others that are not tested, Skopec said. In addition, thousands of private lakes and farm ponds could harbor toxic algae.

Beach advisories have never told the whole story on lake pollution in Iowa. Seven years ago, monitors discovered shortly after Labor Day weekend that Black Hawk Lake in western Iowa had blue-green algae levels “seven times more than an internationally recognized benchmark for safe swimming.” The Iowa DNR had neither discovered the problem nor “warned swimmers to stay out of the 925-acre Sac County lake, which has several beaches and campgrounds.”

Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed two beaches at Saylorville Lake near Des Moines because of toxic algae. Those beaches briefly reopened, only to be closed again a week later due to the same pollution problem. They have stayed off-limits to swimmers for most of this month, the peak tourism season.

Some economist should calculate how much money Iowa businesses lost this summer because dirty water made popular recreation spots unsuitable for swimming or fishing.

So far, this year’s blue-green algae problem is “not threatening drinking water” in the Des Moines area. But in 2008, the Des Moines Water Works had to switch to a secondary water source because of high cyanobacteria levels in the Raccoon River. At that time, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources did not investigate the problem; rather, monitoring by the Des Moines Water Works traced the pollution to an algae bloom in Black Hawk Lake.

Last summer’s toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie made national news, leaving the city of Toledo, Ohio was without safe drinking water for days. The crisis created enormous direct and indirect economic costs for that metro area. Other states have dealt with increasing numbers of algae blooms as well.

Governor Branstad, so eager to appease the tourism industry when it comes to school start dates (regardless of the potential impact on student learning), seems blind to the hidden and not-so-hidden costs of Iowa’s filthy water.

After Des Moines Water Works officials warned they would need to raise rates to cover rising treatment costs, Branstad told reporters in late July,

“The Des Moines Water Works ought to just tone it down and start cooperating and working with others, like Cedar Rapids is doing, and other communities in the state of Iowa,” Branstad said. […]

“I think we in the state of Iowa want clean water and we want to do everything we can,” Branstad said. “We have a nutrient reduction strategy. We are working on a cooperative and collaborative basis.

“If they want to cooperate and work with us, they are much more likely to get assistance and support. If they are continuing to sue and attack other people, that is not doing to get them the kind of assistance and support they would like to have.”

Those remarks inspired a classic Todd Dorman commentary that you should click through and read in its entirety. Money quote: “Tone it down? Tell it to the bloomin’ algae.” A few more excerpts:

Everything we can, apparently, is turning water quality programs into stagnant, budgetary backwaters ever since he took office. Everything we can means providing zero dollars to the Iowa Watershed Improvement Board for the second straight year. Everything we can means vetoing hard-fought bipartisan efforts in 2014 to boost funding for farm runoff reduction strategies and the Resource Enhancement and Protection program, or REAP.

Branstad vetoed those dollars, claiming it was a tough, necessary call in the face of lean budget times ahead. And yet, fiscal 2015 just ended June 30 with an unspent ending balance approaching $300 million. The governor was flat wrong.

It’s great that the governor appreciates Cedar Rapids’ efforts to cooperate with upstream farmers and landowners on efforts to reduce runoff. They deserve praise. It’s also great that Cedar Rapids was able to secure $2 million in federal funding for that effort. If it had sought state funding, it likely would be waiting instead of cooperating.

Truth is, if the governor and his allies had their way, we wouldn’t even be talking about this issue.

Bleeding Heartland covered Branstad’s 2014 vetoes of conservation and water quality funding here. The money he axed would not have solved Iowa’s toxic algae problem, but it would have helped the state take more steps in the right direction.

The lead editorial in yesterday’s Sunday Des Moines Register justifiably declared, “Iowa waterways are a disgrace.”

Unfortunately, Gov. Terry Branstad has yet to show much interest in repairing Iowa’s waterways. Instead, he boasts of his annual visits to all of Iowa’s 99 counties, further cementing his reputation as the nation’s longest-serving ribbon cutter.

Before the summer is over, the governor should organize his travels to include a few of the parks and polluted waterways that have been placed off-limits to boaters, swimmers and anyone who doesn’t want to picnic alongside a fish kill.

His first stop could be Union County, where last year he toured a newly opened flour mill. Two days ago, bright yellow signs went up on the shore of the 390-acre lake in Union County’s Green Valley State Park: “WARNING! Swimming is strongly discouraged. Do not drink lake water. Keep children and pets away…” […]

According to the DNR, the level of nitrogen and phosphorus – which are the primary contributors to toxin-producing algal blooms – in Iowa’s waters “are generally two to 10 times the levels considered appropriate for Midwest streams.”

To make matters worse, Iowa doesn’t even have numerical water-quality standards for several significant types of pollution. Once those standards are established, the DNR points out, the number of Iowa waterways officially recognized as impaired will increase significantly.

Don’t get me started on how Branstad, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and state lawmakers have insisted on an all-voluntary nutrient reduction strategy with no numeric standards for the key pollutants. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has warned that “numeric criteria are important tools for effective Water quality management of nutrient pollution.”

I don’t expect any progress on water quality from next year’s legislative session. Agricultural industry lobbyists exert too much power over lawmakers of both parties. Even if by some miracle a bipartisan compromise emerged to address the root causes of toxic algae blooms, Branstad would likely put his veto pen to work.

Next summer, most Iowa kids will enjoy three full weeks of August before heading back to school. I wouldn’t count on spending much of that quality time on Iowa beaches.

UPDATE: Lauren Mills wrote a good piece about the blue-green algae problem for the non-partisan journalism program IowaWatch. Excerpts:

State toxicologist Stuart Schmitz said the Iowa Department of Public Health and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources have participated in a surveillance program of harmful algal bloom illness since 2008. He said five to 14 cases of suspected human exposure to microcystin are reported each year.

He said people should shower after using lakes that have an active bloom and “if they don’t have to go in there, stay out.” […]

[The DNR’s Mary] Skopec said she thought the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might release new, lower guidelines for microcystin in recreational waters after the EPA released new microcystin drinking water advisory levels this year. So far, it has not. […]

Information is available on the department’s beach monitoring website as well as its beach monitoring hotline. However, she said not all beaches are monitored.

“In Iowa, officially we are only testing about 40 beaches,” she said. “So just because it’s not posted with an advisory, people should still exercise caution if they see very green, blue-green scummy water. Because not all water bodies are going to be tested and posted.”

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