Environmentalists: DNR failing to protect public

By: - January 9, 2020 6:00 am
The Raccoon River in the Des Moines area is among the most-polluted in the state.

The Raccoon River is a main source of drinking water for the Des Moines area. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa environmentalists charge that the state government is directly threatening the health of swimmers and other recreationalists by failing to adequately inform the public of risks and by falling behind on a federally required warning system. 

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources “is not meeting its legal obligation to submit the (impaired waters) list by the statutory deadline, leaving Iowans in the dark about the status of their waters and putting them at risk,” Michael Schmidt, attorney for the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council, wrote in formal comments of a proposed list of “impaired waterways.”

At the same time, the state’s latest report fails to include potential threats to people’s health at several popular lakes, including Big Creek north of Des Moines, Schmidt added.

And environmental groups add that DNR’s proposed list of waterways that fail to meet all standards is so late — 19 months beyond deadline — that the next round of reviews for the every-two-years report is already imminent. Because of the DNR delays, the data used to assess the waterways is so old it’s of questionable value, the Iowa Environmental Council contends.

The list is required by the federal government as part of the Clean Water Act’s mission to ensure that waterways are clean enough for fishing, swimming and as water sources, for example. The state analyzes if a certain lake or river supports its state-designated uses. That means, in some cases, that a waterway is expected only to be clean enough to support aquatic life. In others, conditions suitable for swimming or fishing are expected.

At the end of December, DNR wrapped up its public comment period on the draft list, which must be approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. DNR spokesman Alex Murphy said the report will be sent to EPA in a month or two, after comments are reviewed and adjustments made, if warranted. 

The number of stretches with the most serious problems — 622 — was up 2% from the report a couple of years ago, the lowest jump the DNR had seen in the last several reports, DNR reported. Those waterways fall short of one or more standards.

“An increase or decrease in impaired waters does not necessarily mean that the water quality in the state is worsening or improving,” said Roger Bruner, who supervises the section of DNR that creates the report. “It often is a reflection of the additional monitoring we are conducting, changes in water quality standards, and changes in assessment methodologies.” 

State environmental officials have said even the waters on the list aren’t necessarily dangerous or unusable.

“Impaired segments are often used for recreation and fishing, among other uses, so impairment doesn’t mean that the segments are unusable or that they necessarily will cause illnesses,” Bruner said. The state’s report doesn’t indicate how far a waterway exceeds limits on pollutants, only that it does, he added.

“I like the analogy that I’ve heard that an impairment can be thought of like you going to the doctors and finding out that you have elevated cholesterol,” Bruner told reporters. “It doesn’t mean you’re going to die, but it means you should be aware of it and work towards improving that.”

The environmental council accused DNR of underselling the risks to Iowans.

“This list only continues to grow and we must call attention to the reality that we see little real progress in improving these waters,” said Alicia Vasto, IEC’s water policy and advocacy specialist. IEC represents 75 organizations, at-large board members from business, farming, the sciences and education, and more than 500 individual members. 

The council’s attorney, Schmidt, noted in formal comments submitted to the state:

  • In the latest state draft report, the proportion of waterways checked that have “impairments” held steady at more than half — 54%. “Waters are not being removed from the list at a reasonable rate, nor has there been a serious effort on behalf of the state” to come up with cleanup plans so waterways can be removed from the list, Schmidt wrote. “Instead, the DNR expects Iowans to accept that more than half the waters of the state are impaired for one or more of their designated uses. This indicates that the state does not take seriously its duty to protect water quality for Iowans. The Council calls on the state to take stronger leadership to improve Iowa’s water quality and reduce the number of impairments to a manageable level.”
  • Ninety percent of the state park beaches checked, 35 out of 39, also failed to meet at least one standard for recreational use. “Public lands and waters are owned by the people under the care of the state. The state has done an inadequate job of protecting public lands and waters for public use,” Schmidt wrote.
  • Several lakes — including heavily used Big Creek Lake in Polk County and Clear Lake in Cerro Gordo County — were listed as not meeting standards for aquatic life because of algae toxins, but weren’t listed as a health threat to swimmers, skiers and others. That, Schmidt wrote, makes no sense, especially when the report that had to do with protecting aquatic life noted this: “Based on information from the DNR fisheries bureau, large (toxic algae, or cyanobacteria) blooms have formed on the lake every summer in recent years and it has deterred recreation.” The main toxin tracked in Iowa, microcystin, can cause intestinal illness, skin rashes, and worse, according to EPA.
  • According to the environmental council, the state has ignored EPA recommendations for handling toxins from algae, particularly microcystin, which has become a more prominent problem in Iowa. Des Moines Water Works, which serves a half-million people, reported last year it had temporarily changed where it was drawing water to avoid blooms in one of the local rivers. DNR has continued its years-old practice of issuing an advisory — but not closing the beach — when microcystin levels hit at least 20 micrograms per liter. That’s nearly three times higher than the EPA’s suggested guideline of eight. 
  • Iowa was supposed to submit this list, which take a couple of years of data collection and analysis, by April 1, 2018 under federal law. Adam Schnieders of the DNR water quality staff told reporters the report was delayed by staff turnover. Because the report is supposed to be done every two years, the 2020 list is due April 1, but no draft of that version has been released. In effect, IEC says, DNR has weakened the report by using even older data than usual. Because the state uses five years of certified data, some of the results in the report now under review date to 2012, Bruner noted in comments to reporters. 
The Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines serves as a water supply and a growing recreational draw.
The Des Moines River north of downtown Des Moines. (Photo by Perry Beeman, Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Bruner maintains critics overreact to the list. “Sometimes impairments are portrayed as a highly polluted water,” he said. “That’s generally just not the case because, again, magnitude is not part of this assessment. Most of our impairments, professionally speaking, are fairly minor. We do have our challenges on some of them though and I don’t want to minimize that.” 

Schmidt disagrees. The environmental council and other nonprofits have pushed DNR to approve numeric standards for many pollutants that aren’t regulated that way now. “The lack of clear standards has created uncertainty and low confidence in the completeness and accuracy of the assessments,” he said. “Iowans deserve numeric standards, as most other states in the Midwest have adopted to protect citizens’ health and quality of life.”

The Iowa chapter of Sierra Club said this on its website: “Iowans expect the rivers, streams, and lakes in the state to be free of pollutants, that the fish they catch are safe to eat, and that they can wade, boat, and swim without becoming sick.”

Common problems with Iowa waterways include significant levels of bacteria, which can mean the presence of organisms that can make people and animals sick; algae; or water clouded by soil runoff or silt.

Iowans sound off on water quality

Comments submitted to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources regarding the state’s latest “impaired waters” list show some Iowans have tired of the long effort to clean waterways that in some cases are heavily polluted by agricultural chemicals, soil runoff, livestock manure, human sewage, and other contaminants.

Here’s a sampling of 94 pages of comments received by DNR:

“It is more than time to clean the waterways … Corporate farming should be reined in. Health is important, both of humans and animals and the beautiful earth. This not political. Do the right thing. Investigate and act.” — Patsy Martinson, Decorah

“This reporting does little give Iowans confidence the [Iowa Department of Natural Resources] is monitoring enough segments of our waterways to be useful to the public.” — Cherie Mortice, Des Moines

“Why are my tax dollars not being used to follow the regulations of reporting the impaired waterways on time — not 19 months late?”  — Jane Alderman, Ankeny

“Iowa has the worst water quality in streams, lakes, etc. This makes me furious! Iowa citizens deserve to have clean water in nature. The DNR needs to take actions to improve our waterways. Do your job!” — Richard Baker, Atalissa

“The DNR is not taking the problems of Iowa’s streams seriously. We all deserve to have access to clean water.” — Patricia Fuller, Council Bluffs

“It is the job of DNR to protect our waters. You should be relentlessly protecting our water, soil, air and the remnants of our natural world. We know the problem is worsening … You know the causes, so why aren’t you publicly and relentlessly pointing to and sanctioning the polluters?” — Virginia Meyer, Lone Tree

“I find your comment about  the DNR report comparing dirty water to high cholesterol reflects badly on you … insulting to say the least. Your trivialization of the situation disqualifies you to work in water issues in Iowa.” — Constance Skinner, Ankeny

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