Fish kills reported across the state

An example of a large fish kill in California (Bruce Evans / Flickr)
An example of a large fish kill in California (Bruce Evans / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | October 6, 2015

Fish kills stretched across more than 20 miles of Iowa waterways last week.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources first reported on September 28 that a massive fish kill was spotted in Stoney Creek northwest of Spencer. After finding elevated ammonia levels in the creek, the DNR later concluded that egg washing liquid from Sunrise Farms near May City had been dumped into a corn field that flowed into Stoney Creek, leading to an 18.2 mile spill that killed more than 160,000 fish.

Another spill along Buchanan County Creek was traced to a hog confinement where below-building manure pits had overflowed, leading to a two mile fish kill. Spilled grease from a food processor led to another small spill west of Osceola in Clarke County.

DNR officials said fish can be at greater risk this time of year as manure pits begin filling up. DNR environmental specialist Sue Miller reminded farmers to check their manure levels frequently to avoid additional spills.

The string of fish kills affected mostly minnows and chubs, with those lost in Stoney Creek valued at more than $28,000.

Cancelled swim portion of an Iowa triathlon highlights water quality issues

The start of the 2013 Iowa's Best Dam Triathlon at the Coralville Reservoir (Justin Torner)
The start of the 2013 Iowa’s Best Dam Triathlon at the Coralville Reservoir (Justin Torner)
KC McGinnis | September 17, 2015

Triathletes in eastern Iowa were disappointed Sunday to find that the swim portion of Iowa’s Best Dam Triathlon (IBDT) had to be cancelled due to public health concerns.

After finding high E. coli concentrations in the Coralville Reservoir, IBDT race officials were forced to cut the swim portion of both the Olympic and Sprint distance triathlons held last weekend. They replaced the swim portion with an additional run, making the event a duathlon.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources regularly tests state beaches and lakes for E. coli, which can cause serious illness in humans. It is often carried into waterways through fertilizer runoff or sewage. Lake MacBride has had E. coli advisories posted since early August.

The cancelled swim event is another example of the toll of high nutrient runoff from agricultural production on Iowa water recreation. Mitigation efforts like Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy may help Iowans be able to enjoy clean water next summer.

Report surveys water recreation in Iowa, U.S.

Summer Fun Index vIA-page-001

Nick Fetty | September 2, 2015

A recent report by the Environment America Research & Policy Center analyzes outdoor water recreation in Iowa and the rest of the country.

The 8-page report – entitled Summer Fun Index: Counting the Ways We Enjoy Clean Water – was released on the heels of the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Water Rule which went into effect August 28.

John Rumpler – a senior attorney for Environment America – was the lead author of the report which surveyed outdoor water recreation in 28 states. The researchers found that nearly half a million Americans visited 2,201 state and national parks (includes various types of national park units) with waterways during the summer of 2015. Additionally, nearly 17 million Americans registered for fishing licenses while nearly 8 million registered boats during 2015. The report ranked the top-five states in the following categories: number of visitors to state and national parks with waterways, summer camps with water activities, licensed fishers, and registered boaters. Iowa did not crack the top-five in any of the categories.

The report concluded with several recommendations for ways to keep American waterways safe or to make them safer. Recommendations included requiring “permits with stringent, enforceable standards” for facilities that threaten waterways, implementing stricter fines so that it “no longer pays to pollute,” disallowing projects that “pave over or otherwise degrade our wetlands,” “establishing numeric pollution limits and enforceable clean up plans for all waters too polluted” for recreation or wildlife, and providing tools and resources so communities can “prevent runoff pollution and end sewage overflows.”

This marks the second year Environment America has released its Summer Fun Index.

Iowa Stats

  • State & national parks* with waterways: 69
  • Visitors to state & national parks* with waterways: 14,317,288
  • Summer camps offering water activities: 22
  • Licensed fishers: 359,767
  • Registered boats: 221,939

* For these purposes, “national parks” include various types of national park units

On the Radio: Record blue-green algae blooms causing health concerns

(Bobby McKay / Flickr)
(Bobby McKay / Flickr)
August 24, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at public health concerns over the record number of blue-green algae blooms in Iowa this summer. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Blue green algae causing health concerns

Toxins from dangerous algal blooms are appearing in record numbers across the state this summer.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The most recent report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources advises Iowans to avoid two beaches that exceed healthy levels of a toxin produced by cyanobacteria, also known as blue green algae. This brings the total number of advisories this summer to 25, already ahead of the record of 24 set in 2013.

Toxic cyanobacteria blooms are an indirect effect of nutrient runoff and weather conditions aided by climate change. That’s according to CGRER’s Peter Thorne, head of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa:

“Higher surface temperatures and reduced mixing of hot surface water with deeper colder water, and increased nutrient loads, produce growth of toxic cyanobacteria which make the water unsuitable for consumption.”

Contact with the blooms can cause severe sickness and even death in humans and animals, and fish kills like one in Crystal Lake that claimed the lives of thousands of fish in July. Continued sunny and dry conditions will likely lead to more warnings in Iowa lakes before the end of the summer.

For more information about algal blooms, visit From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Register editorials highlight Iowa’s water quality debate

Water Works Park in Des Moines.
Water Works Park in Des Moines.
KC McGinnis | August 4, 2015

A series of editorials published in the Des Moines Register has highlighted concerns over Iowa’s water quality.

The editorial exchange started by Dennis Keeney, former director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, begins with Keeney’s criticism of the “weak leadership” of figures like former governors Chet Culver and Tom Vilsack, who now serves as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Keeney cites these leaders and more as promoting an unsustainable, market-driven agricultural economy that is biologically incompatible with Iowa soil, inevitably leading to current high runoff rates.

“Midwest agriculture leaders chose to ignore the warning signs and pushed for more of the same,” Keeney wrote. “The point is that weak leadership on environmental issues crosses political lines. It responds not to the need of the residents of Iowa, but to the need to keep Iowa agriculture humming along on its pathway to industrial domination.”

Secretary Vilsack followed Keeney’s critique with a stern response, insisting that he made water quality a priority during his time as governor and continues to reach across party lines to improve water quality around the country. In 2003, Vilsack called for Iowa’s first Water Quality Summit in hopes of cleaning up Iowa’s impaired waters by 2010. Today, this list includes 725 lakes, streams and waterways, with water quality improvement plans written for 153.

On July 23, farmer and soil scientist Francis Thicke, along with Keeney, the Leopold Center’s Fred Kirschenmann and UNI Center for Energy and Environmental Education director Kamyar Enshayan responded to Vilsack’s editorial by criticizing Iowa’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

“Remedial practices are absolutely necessary to prevent nitrate loss to our rivers,” they wrote, “and widespread farmer participation will be necessary for significant progress.”

The group of researchers recommended adding more perennial crops to Iowa’s agricultural portfolio. These plants, like native prairie grasses, have roots that can prevent nitrate runoff year-round without exhausting soil.

The most recent contribution to the public discussion over water quality solutions came from Des Moines Water Works Board of Trustees chairman Graham Gillette, who strongly criticized Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy as a “voluntary pollution compliance scheme.” He recommended regulating all discharges into Iowa waterways and establishing a clean water fund to help drainage districts transition to water sustainable practices.

Midwest researchers come together for research project

Doug Schnoebelen, left, explains early 20th century mussel production along the Mississippi River during the CZO-IML conference on July 29, 2015. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
Doug Schnoebelen explains early 20th century mussel production along the Mississippi River during the CZO-IML conference on July 29, 2015. From left, Schnoebelen, Praveen Kumar, Thanos Papanicolaou, and Chris Wilson. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | July 30, 2015

Roughly 30 students, professors, and researchers from six different institutions met in Muscatine this week to discuss a collaborative research effort to improve land, water, and air quality in the Midwest.

This Midwestern project is part of a nation-wide project known as the Critical Zone Observatory (CZO) an effort by the National Science Foundation to “[study] the zone where rock meets life.” The Midwestern project is called the CZO-IML (Intensely Managed Landscapes) and focuses on watersheds and lands in Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

The Lucille A. Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station (LACMRERS) in Muscatine hosted the IML-CZO conference which began Tuesday and ends today. This marked the second annual meeting for what will be a five year project.

“The first year was a lot of planning and field campaigns. The second year we’ve collected some data will be able to get that back to look at the results. We finally have some things to discuss, some real science,” said LACMRERS Director Doug Schnoebelen.

Schnoebelen, who also serves as a contributor for the IML-CZO project as well as a member of CGRER, said he hopes this research will be helpful not just for farmers and watershed managers but also for the general public.

“We’re hoping to look at an integrated approach and that’s what the Critical Zone is, being able to say something about water movement, soil conservation, transformation of carbon and energy in the environment. All of these things are really critical to the soil, the water, and the way we live.”

The conference brought together researchers from Indiana University, Northwestern University, Purdue University, University of Illinois, University of Iowa, and University of Tennessee. Schnoebelen said this emphasis on collaboration over competition has been key to the success of the project. He added that he is also grateful the CZO chose to support a Midwestern research project since much of the CZO’s other research takes place on the coasts.

“I think it was important when the national team came out and they realized how managed our landscape was and how important this research really was. It’s not just flyover country in the Midwest, it’s a critical part of our economy for food and energy.”

Iowa companies fined for environmental violations

Nick Fetty | July 24, 2015

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has issued fines against roughly a dozen Iowa companies for environmental violations.

The announcement was made earlier this month and includes a $10,000 fine for air quality violations against the Mason City-based ethanol production facility Golden Grain Energy LLC. The DNR cites that the company (1) exceeded permitted emission limits and failed to properly maintain required records, (2) failed to properly maintain equipment, (3) failed to continuously operate an emissions monitoring system, and (4) failed to continuously monitor thermal oxidizer temperature. In 2012, the company was fined $5,750 for air quality violations.

Other consent orders issued by the Iowa DNR include a $5,000 fine for Farm Nutrients LLC (Kossoth County) for manure runoff into state waters, a $6,500 fine for Twilight Investments LLC (Fremont County) for manure application violations, $5,575 for Smith Ag Inc. (Mitchell County) for manure discharge violations resulting in a fish kill, $8,000 for M.G. Waldbaum Company (Hancock County) for past permit violations, and $1,000 for Porter Farms, Inc. (Jefferson County) for manure disposal.

A full list of actions taken by the Iowa DNR is available on its website.