Blue-green algae toxins harm children and pets


Lakeside Park Boat Launch
Photo from Winnebago Waterways, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | August 28, 2019

A child was poisoned earlier this summer in southern Iowa by a blue-green algae toxin that has been blamed for the deaths of six dogs across the country this summer. The algae, also called cyanobacteria, can cause rashes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and in severe cases liver failure. It is especially dangerous for children and pets.

Overgrowth of this algae occurs in waters that are rich in nutrients. In Iowa, nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in water primarily comes from fertilizer runoff. Besides the harmful effects of their toxins, overgrowth of these algae can also impact other forms of life beneath the water’s surface by blocking sunlight and stealing oxygen and nutrients from other organisms. 

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources tests state park beaches for microcystins, the toxic byproduct of blue-green algae, and issues swimming advisories if the water contains more than 20 micrograms per liter. However, this is less restrictive than the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended standards of 8 micrograms per liter. 

Cyanobacteria blooms often look like foam or floating paint near the water’s surface, though they can also hide beneath the water’s surface and may not be visible. When cyanobacteria die, they produce a bad smell, similar to rotting plants. The Center for Disease Control recommends that people avoid swimming and boating in water where algae appears or where water is discolored, and to rinse off as soon as possible if you are exposed to water that may contain cyanobacteria.

Environmental groups suing for Raccoon River water quality


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The Raccoon River in Des Moines (Michael Leland on flickr).

Julia Poska| April 11, 2019

Two environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Iowa late last month over degraded water in the Raccoon River, a drinking water source for 500,000 people.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch are suing the Iowa Departments of Natural Resources and Agriculture and  two state environmental boards, according to the Des Moines Register. They are seeking a ban on building or expanding animal feeding operations in the Raccoon River watershed until nutrient reduction compliance for farmers becomes mandatory.

“There’s too much at stake to bet on voluntary practices,” the plaintiffs wrote in an op-ed for the Register. “We want to force elected officials to think about a food and farm system that works for farmers, workers, eaters and the environment, not just industrial interests.”

Runoff of fertilizer and manure from farms contributes to harmful algae blooms, which  leech toxins into local waters and create a lifeless Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  The environmental groups say the state has failed to uphold the “Public Trust Doctrine,”  which states that the government must protect certain natural resources for public uses, like drinking and recreation. As of now, tried-and-true nutrient reduction strategies like planting cover crops are incentivized but not mandated for farmers.

Others, like the Iowa Soybean Association CEO and the Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig, told the Register the “potentially divisive” lawsuit disappointed them. For many, this case recalls the 2015 Des Moines Waterworks lawsuit against drainage districts in three north Iowa counties, which attempted to force compliance with federal clean-water standards for “point-source” polluters but was ultimately dismissed.

 

Water quality researcher/blogger puts fresh perspective on stinking problem


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This map from Chris Jones’ blog relates the “real populations” (based on animal waste) of Iowa watersheds to the human populations other global areas.

Julia Poska| March 21, 2019

The public rarely gets its science straight from the source; we depend largely on the media to distill complicated academic research for us. University of Iowa researcher and adjunct professor Chris Jones is one of a rare breed of scientists who can adeptly communicate science on his own.

Jones has spent his career monitoring and researching the Iowan environment for institutions ranging from Des Moines Water Works to the Iowa Soybean Association. As an IIHR research engineer today he conducts original research and runs a blog where he explores the systems and nuances surrounding Iowa’s degraded water.

Recently, Jones calculated “Iowa’s real population” based on the nitrogen, phosphorus and solid matter in animal waste. He explained that Iowa’s millions of hogs, cattle, chickens and turkeys produce as much waste as 134 million people. The map pictured above matches the human populations of global cities and U.S. states to the “real populations” of Iowa’s watersheds.

“Managing the waste from these animals is possibly our state’s most challenging environmental problem,” he wrote. Weather and plant life cycles create a limited time window to apply it to fields, and hauling and handling it presents other challenges. When nutrients from manure enter waterways, they contribute to harmful algae blooms locally and in the Gulf of Mexico.

In another recent post, Jones used public data to compare the amount of nitrate purchased commercially and produced via manure in each Iowa watershed with the Iowa State University recommended application rate for corn. He found that, on average, Iowa farmers over-apply synthetic nitrogen by 35 pounds per acre. The addition of manure brings that surplus to 91 pounds per acre.

Other posts explore historical, social and political angles. Earlier this week, a post called “Ransom” related efforts to protect Lake Eerie in Ohio to the economic reality of farming and agribusiness in Iowa. “Who is getting the outcomes that they want from our policies, and in particular, the old school policies targeting improved water quality?” Jones asked.

Overall, Jones’ blog offers an informative and rather accessible expert perspective on a hugely complex issue. To subscribe yourself, visit here and enter your email at the bottom of the left sidebar.

***In an earlier version of this post, the number “134 million” was incorrectly written as simply, 134. Big difference! Thanks so much to those who pointed out the error***

Rise in toxic algal blooms


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A sign warning swimmers not to take a dip in algae infested waters (Amanda S/flickr)

Eden DeWald | May 30th, 2018

With the first day of summer well on its way, so are toxic algal blooms.

Cyanobacteria, also referred to as blue-green algae, are a type of photosynthetic bacteria that produce microcystin toxins. These pose both short term exposure and a long term exposure threats to humans. Skin contact with microcystin can cause digestion issues, a sore throat and even liver damage. Whereas long term contact can create side effects as serious as cancer and liver damage. Microcystins may cause damage via ingestion or skin contact. Cyanobacteria are not only a danger to humans, and can cause large populations of fish to die off and disrupt aquatic ecosystems.

Cyanobacteria blooms have become a growing threat for waterways in the United States. The amount of blooms has grown substantially even in the past few years according to the Environmental Working Group, which saw a rise from three self reported algal blooms in 2010, to 169 reported blooms in 2017. 

The Environmental Protection Agency sites commonly used fertilizers nitrogen and phosphorus as causes for these algal blooms. When excess fertilizer runs off and finds its way into a waterway, it can create a dangerous potential home for cyanobacteria which utilizes these elements within its chemical processes.

Potential prevention methods for toxic algal blooms can include approaches such as planting vegetation buffer strips near waterways, and changing the way that fertilizers are applied to crops to prevent excess from being utilized.

 

Algae risk increased by wet spring


Record levels of rain this spring and the resulting agricultural runoff are causing researchers to predict high levels of algae during the summer months that would put recreational water users at risk. Continue reading

Environment Iowa’s “10 Scary Facts Plaguing Iowa’s Waterways”


Photo by BLW Photography, Flickr.

For Halloween, Environment Iowa released a list of ten discouraging facts about how Iowa’s waterways are being harmed.

The list includes the increasing number of fish kills in Iowa, the large amounts of phosphorous and nitrogen entering the waterways and the small percentage of animal feeding operations with the required environmental permits.

Read the whole list here.

2011 Iowa DNR projects reduce sediment reaching our waterways by 20,000 tons


Centennial Bridge over the Mississippi River in Davenport, IA. Photo by ercwttmn, Flickr

Projects funded by the DNR in 2011 will keep over 20,000 tons of soil out of Iowa’s waterways each year. Additionally, these conservation projects will reduce the phosphorous and nitrogen reaching the waterways by 27,164 pounds per year and 41,881 pounds per year respectively.

Since 2004, DNR funded projects have reduced sediment reaching Iowa’s waterways by 175,867 tons.

These conservation projects include creating wetlands, ponds, terraces and buffers.

Read the full press release from the Iowa DNR here.