Toxins from Algae are at 10 Times the Federal Reccomendation for the Des Moines River

Via Flickr

Maxwell Bernstein | August 28, 2020

The Des Moines River has 10 times the federal recommendation for microcystin, toxins that come from algae, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch.

The algae feed on fertilizer runoff and manure and produce toxins that cause health issues like skin rashes, intestinal problems, and even liver damage. 

The Des Moines River is one of the two largest sources of water to provide tap water and acts as a source of drinking water for around 500,000 Iowans. The toxins are suspected to originate at Saylorville Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood-control reservoir that sits north of Des Moines.

Rise in toxic algal blooms

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.


On the Radio: Algae blooms present hazards in Iowa waters

A blue-green algae bloom along the shore of Lake Winnebago near Oshkosh, late June 2014. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
A blue-green algae bloom along the shore of Lake Winnebago near Oshkosh, late June 2014. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a type of hazardous algae that’s become increasingly common in Iowa waterways. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.


Transcript: Algae

As the summer comes to an end, late season beach-goers are advised to take extra precaution as algae blooms in Iowa lakes can be at peak levels.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Hot August temperatures coupled with high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in Iowa waterways provides the ideal breeding ground for algae. Certain forms of blue green algae can contain toxins that are harmful to humans and have even been known to kill dogs, livestock, and other animals.

Blue green algae are generally visible on the surface and can give the water a consistency similar to paint. The Iowa Department of Public Health advises any persons to immediately wash algae off themselves or pets that come in contact with it.

So far this summer, Saylorville Lake and Lake Red Rock, both in central Iowa, have reported high levels of blue green algae, and at least six other state-operated beaches across the state have seen high enough algae levels that swimming was not recommended.

For more information about blue green algae, visit

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

On the Radio: Iowa water quality monitoring contract

Photo by Joe Wolf; Flickr

This week’s On the Radio segment covers the state’s contract with Iowa State University to monitor water quality in Iowa lakes. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript. 

Continue reading

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

On the Radio: Runoff contributes to largest dead zone in history

Photo by Steve Shupe, Flickr

 Listen to this week’s radio segment here.  It discusses the impact that Miswestern runoff has on the Gulf of Mexico.

Imagine an area of the ocean equal to 20 percent of Iowa that’s unlivable for most marine life. This will soon be a reality in the Gulf of Mexico as they prepare for the largest dead zone in history. Continue reading