John Crotty

John Crotty

The Iowa Environmental Council is asking state regulators to set new, tougher standards for water quality in 159 Iowa lakes.The group argues farm chemicals like phosphorus and nitrogen are fueling the growth of harmful levels of algae in the state’s lakes. John Crotty, legal counsel for the Iowa Environmental Council, spoke at the state Environmental Protection Commission meeting today in Mason City.

“Certain types of algae create a substance called microcystin toxin. This stuff can (cause) an irritation or it can get pretty serious,” Crotty said. “The Iowa Department of Public Health tracks this.”

According to Crotty, the Department of Natural Resources has had to post signs on state park beaches warning against swimming 92 different times since 2006 when levels of this toxin in the lakes grew too high.

“2013 was an especially bad year,” Crotty said. “They had to put this up 24 times just in the last year.”

Crotty told state officials declining water quality in Iowa’s lakes will have an economic impact.

“ISU did a study a couple of years ago — this was looking at 2009 data — that found that there were 11.9 million visits to lakes in that year,” Crotty said. “They spent $1.2 billion over the course of those visits and ISU estimated that spending supported over 14,000 jobs in the communities where these lakes are located.”

Last week state officials struck a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that calls for in-person inspections of hundreds of livestock confinements and review of liquid manure application rates on farm fields — part of an effort to reduce nutrient run-off that’s causing a “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. Crotty said Iowans want to know if the deal helps clean up the state’s lakes and that’s why new water “clarity” standards are needed.

“We think they deserve to know whether we’re actually making progress toward clean water in Iowa, not just whether we’re getting the Gulf cleaned up, but whether the water that we swim in is actually getting better,” Crotty said. “You can’t do that unless you have a definition of what we expect and that’s essentially what we’re proposing here is for the department to define what we expect in a swimmable lake.”

Chris Peterson, a farmer near Clear Lake who’s a past president of the Iowa Farmers Union, supports the tougher water standards.

“I’m real tired and ashamed of Iowa being 49th in water quality,” Peterson says. “…We need to grab the bull by the horns and clean up this state, as a farmer would say.”

Peterson told commission members he and “a lot” of other Iowans will be “nipping at your heels” on this issue and he warned if state regulators don’t respond, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency may take additional action.

The Iowa Environmental Council presented a petition to the state’s Environmental Protection Commission outlining the tougher water quality standards they seek and the commission is expected to either approve or deny the petition on October 14. That’s the date of the next commission meeting.

(Reporting in Mason City by Bob Fisher of KLSS Radio; additional reporting by Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson)