The Department of Natural Resources posts the warnings when testing shows high levels of either in the water. Mary Skopec oversees the water monitoring program and says there was a north-south split when it came to they type of issues found at the lakes.
“We had repeated rains that tracked across the northern half of the state — so as a result we had a higher than normal number of e-coli bacteria advisories,” Skopec says. “And then southern was in pretty dry conditions and we actually saw a number of the algal toxic warnings this year. In fact, we set a record for number advisories in 2016 for algae toxins.” Skopec says there were 37 warnings posted at beaches for high levels of algae, and many more for bacteria concerns.
“The e-coli advisories — we had about a 136 of those advisories — which represents about a quarter of all the samples taken were above the advisory level.” Skopec says the high number of e-coli levels is due to the heavy rains that washed materials into lakes. She says the record number of algae warnings is something to keep an eye on.
“I do think we want to be aware of this kind increasing trend in algal toxin advisories, and it’s something to be monitoring and be aware of. But certainly nothing to be terribly alarmed at right now,” according to Skopec. Skopec says preventing the algae issues in the lakes is a long-term issue.
“In terms of the algae, it’s really a matter of trying to reduce the nutrients. Algae are like any living plant, they like nutrients, they grow faster and more vigorously with the nutrients. So, one of the things we’ll be looking for is trying to reduce the amount of nutrients getting into the lakes. The reduction strategy that the state is currently engaged in will hopefully bring some relief to some of those water bodies. Other factors that spawn the algae blooms can’t be controlled.
“Some of its just the roll of the dice in terms of climate. So, when we have higher temperatures, more stagnant wind conditions, that really sets the stage for those algae to get really dominant,” Skopec says, “especially the blue-greens that produce those toxins…so we really have to work hard to bring down those nutrient levels, because we can’t do anything about those weather conditions.” She says the effort to improve Iowa’s lakes is underway.
She says there are a number of projects going on around the state with the lake restoration program and she says many have made gains in reducing the sediment that gets into lakes.
Skopec says Lake Darling and Lake Aquabi are good examples of the program working to reduce sediment. “We know where we put significant money and effort into protecting that lake watershed we see significant improvement. And hopefully through time we will have more of those lakes going through that process.” The issues with the lakes can lead to problems for people if they swim in them.
“We have had about a dozen illnesses sort of on average over the last couple of years with people coming and seeing either fever or they feel like they have the flu,” Skopec explains. “And this year is no exception. We had again about a dozen people coming seeking relief for illness as a result of being exposed to the toxins.” Skopec says that’s why they post signs at the beaches to let people know about the issue and to keep them from the water. But they only test the water at state beaches.
“Certainly people should go to their physician if they feel ill and they have been in water bodies that are green or scummy,” Skopec says. “We try to be proactive about letting know when they should stay out of the water or what to do if they become sick. It is a challenge because we can’t test everywhere in the state.” The state beach water monitoring program ended on Labor Day. You can see the summer water survey results on the DNR’s website.