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 IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org. 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.

UI students get hands-on water quality experience

Students head out on a fishing trip with the water quality class at LACMRERS. Photo by Tim Schoon.
KC McGinnis | July 21, 2015

University of Iowa environmental science students are gaining tangible experience measuring water quality outside of the lab this summer.

During a summer Water Quality class at the Lucille A. Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station, students go the the Mississippi River to collect samples, catch fish, and learn about water quality up close. LACMRERS director and Water Quality Class director Doug Schnoebelen, who is also a CGRER member, describes the class as an opportunity for students to connect class concepts like dissolved oxygen and pH levels to memorable experiences with physical products.

The class comes amid increasing and public concerns over water quality in Iowa, including high nitrate levels and historic droughts and flooding in recent years. To see the full story from Iowa Now along with a gallery of images from the Water Quality class, click here.

Algal blooms hit at least 14 Iowa beaches

A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | July 15, 2015

As temperatures rise algal blooms are popping up in Iowa waterways.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has posted advisories cautioning swimmers to stay out of the water at 11 state parks because of harmful algal blooms. Algal blooms are caused by a combination of phosphorus pollution and high temperatures which creates microcystin toxins in the water. When ingested these toxins can cause skin rashes and asthma-like symptoms for humans and potential fatalities for dogs, livestock, and other animals.

A recent blue-green algae breakout on Crystal Lake in north central Iowa has caused a “substantial fish kill” on the 264-acre body of water. Thousands of fish died due to reduced oxygen levels from the algal outbreak. Iowa sees between five and 14 cases of microcystin poisoning each year and an infectious amoeba caused the death of a 14-year old boy swimming in a Minnesota lake earlier this summer.

“The toxins can affect the liver as well as the nervous system. In the most extreme they can cause respiratory distress. Often times we see issues with nausea or diarrhea, headache, that kind of thing,” IOWATER Program Coordinator and Iowa DNR Research Geologist Mary Skopec told Radio Iowa.

Iowa DNR monitors beaches at 39 state parks between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Last summer DNR officials posted advisories at 22 beaches.

Currently the Iowa DNR advises against swimming at 14 beaches: Backbone Beach, Beed’s Lake Beach, Big Creek Beach, Black Hawk Beach, Denison Beach, Emerson Bay Beach, Geode Lake Beach, Lake Darling Beach, Lake MacBride Beach, North Twin Lake Wet Beach, Pine Lake South Beach, Rock Creek Beach, Springbrook Beach, and Union Grove Beach.

On the Radio: Unexpected consequences of beef hormones on aquatic ecosystems

Cattle in the snow near Monmouth, Iowa (Phil Roeder/Flickr)
Cattle in the snow near Monmouth, Iowa (Phil Roeder/Flickr)
July 13, 2015

This week’s On the Radio looks at new research suggesting beef hormones can make their way to waterways for longer periods than originally thought. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript:

Transcript: Beef hormones and waterways

A powerful growth hormone used on cattle may be having unexpected consequences on U.S. waterways.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

An Indiana University study co-authored by two University of Iowa researchers shows that trenbolone acetate, or TBA, a growth hormone given to cattle, may be making its way to streams and rivers in an unexpected and highly potent form. That’s according to lead author and CGRER member Adam Ward:

“These are incredibly potent steroids; we designed them to be potent. We designed them to persist so they don’t break down in cattle and continue to have that impact. And when these reach the environment, they do the same thing to fish.”

In the case of TBA, the byproduct is a new compound called 17-alpha-trenbolone, a powerful endocrine disruptor that can affect the reproductive processes of fish and can even cause sex changes from female to male.

“That means the product, what is unexpectedly made in the environment, is more harmful than what we put into the environment.”

For more information about this study, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.