Iowa DNR predicts record beach closures due to algae blooms

blue green algae bloom
Patterson Lake algae bloom, Washington State. (State of Washington Department of Ecology)
Jenna Ladd | June 15, 2016

Iowa experienced a record number of beach closures last year due to blue green algae blooms, and this year could be worse, says the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

As of August 2015, Iowa state park beaches had been closed 25 times over the summer season due to extremely high levels of microcystins in the water. Microcystins are toxins produced by blue green algae blooms that can be lethal to pets and cause skin irritation, rashes, as well as flu-like symptoms in humans. Iowa Public Radio reports that with the summer season only beginning, just under half of Iowa’s waterways are already on the Iowa DNR’s impaired waters list.

The blue green algae that release these harmful toxins are the result of an abundance of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients. The steady rise of blue green algae across the midwest can be attributed to changing agricultural practices, population growth, and climate change. In practice, phosphorus and nitrogen from fertilizers, septic tanks, and other sources enter waterways through runoff. Next, they flow into bigger bodies of water like lakes and rivers, then naturally present algae feed on the nutrients, allowing them to multiply quickly. Finally, with the perfect combination of warm temperatures and adequate sunlight, algae blooms form across the body of water allowing for the release of microcystins. Iowa began testing for this type of harmful bacteria just two years ago as a part of a pilot project. Algae and bacteria in water are tested weekly and results can be found here.

Mary Skopec, coordinator of beach monitoring for the Iowa DNR, says that we’re likely to see beach closures during this week. Iowa lawmakers looked to pass policy that would help to offset nitrates and phosphorus in waters this year, but failed to reach agreement.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and the federal Environmental Protection Agency collaborated to release a satellite imagery system that tracks algae blooms across the country last October. The Environmental Protection Agency is working to create a mobile app using this data to alert swimmers of dangerous blooms nearby.

Until then, Skopec says to err on the side of caution, “better safe than sorry, when in doubt, stay out.”

Freshwater Mussels

Craig Just; UI Civil and Environmental Engineering

Craig Just, a University of Iowa faculty member, is studying freshwater mussels with respect to the nitrogen cycle.

His team is trying to find ways to restore river habitats that have been depleted by excessive algal blooms.

By understanding how freshwater mussels process the nitrogen they consume from the algal blooms, researchers will know whether the mussels contribute to or remove nitrogen from the rivers.


For more information on Just’s research, click here.