Iowa farmers implement sustainable practices


Photo by Alejandro Barru00f3n on Pexels.com

Tyler Chalfant | October 17th, 2019

Iowa farmers are implementing practices to increase sustainability and reduce environmental threats to public health, including crop rotation, use of cover crops, eliminating pesticides, and using alternatives to chemical weeding. One group called Practical Farmers of Iowa organized a series of educational field days over the summer, providing opportunities across the state for farmers to share and discuss these practices. One of the environmental threats in the state comes from nutrient runoff from agricultural fertilizers, which recently have contributed to the growth of toxic microcystins in some Iowa bodies of water, making sustainable farming not just an environmental issue, but a public health concern as well. 

Research published last month from Iowa State University scientists found that the widely-used practice of crop rotation helps to reduce pollution, but also depletes organic matter in soil over time. Rotating between corn and soybeans requires less nitrogen fertilizer than continuous corn production, as soybeans leave behind a nitrogen-rich residue in the soil. This allows farmers to save on costs and reduce nitrogen runoff into freshwater lakes and streams. However the abundance of nitrogen contributes to the growth of microbes which, on years when corn is planted, consume nutrients needed for corn production, depleting this organic material in the long run.

Iowa sees record number of blue-green algae advisories


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Microcystin toxins float on top of water and often look like spilled paint or pea soup. (Oregon State University/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | September 9, 2016

Iowa State Park beaches saw a record number of advisories this summer due to unsafe levels of microcystin, a toxin produced by some types of blue-green algae.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitors the water at state beaches each season from Memorial Day through Labor Day. DNR issued six beach advisories this week for a total of 37 microcystin warnings this year, surpassing last year’s record of 34,  just as DNR officials predicted earlier in the season.

Microcystin is considered toxic to humans when levels are at or above 20 micrograms per liter (ug/L), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Swimming in water that has harmful levels of microcystin in it can cause breathing problems, upset stomach, skin reactions, and liver damage. If the water is inhaled, it has been known to cause cause runny eyes and nose, cough, sore throat, chest pain, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions. Contaminated bodies of water can be especially harmful to pets and children, who are more likely to ingest water.

In total Iowa DNR has issued 185 microcystin beach advisories since 2006, and two-thirds (117) have been in the most recent four years. The blue-green blooms that produce microcystin feed on nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that seep into waterways from pollution sources like agricultural fertilizers, livestock waste, septic systems, and urban runoff. Blue-green algae toxins do not only pose a threat to beachgoers. Last month, Des Moines Water Works detected microcystin in treated municipal drinking water.

While DNR monitors 39 State Park beaches across Iowa for these toxins, many public and private beaches are not monitored. As the total number of beach closures rises each year, Ann Robinson, agricultural specialist at the Iowa Environmental Council said, “This is a wake-up call that more needs to be done to reduce the nutrient pollution coming from the farms, city lawns and urban and industrial wastewater plants that are feeding the algae. If we don’t take action on the scale needed, unprecedented numbers of beach warnings will become our new normal.”

More information about identifying harmful blue-green algae blooms and a chart that outlines dangerous levels of microcystin in Iowa’ lakes dating back to 2006 can be found at the Iowa Environmental Council’s website.

July marks peak season for blue-green algal blooms in Iowa


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 19, 2016

While not expected to be as severe as last summer, Iowa outdoor recreation enthusiasts should be mindful of blue-green algal blooms this time of the year.

Warm July temperatures coupled with excess phosphorus that often runs off of farm fields into lakes and waterways creates the ideal breeding ground for blue-green algae. These conditions lead to the creation of microcystin toxins which can cause skin rashes and asthma-like symptoms for humans and potential fatalities for dogs, livestock, and other animals.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources monitor state beaches and other waterways to determine if the water is safe for recreational activities. The state’s first instances of blue-green algae were reported at the end of June. Last summer, blue-green algae blooms led to a record closure of Iowa beaches. Iowa DNR officials have also recorded bacteria growth – such as E. coli – at some state beaches this summer.

Earlier this month, Florida governor Rick Scott issued a state of emergency because of harmful algal blooms on bodies of water in the Sunshine State. NASA satellites captured images of algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee in May.

Check out the Iowa DNR website for reports of blue-green algae and other bacteria at state-owned beaches. Mary Skopec with the Iowa DNR advises swimmers, boaters, others to be cautious of water that is green in color or scummy in texture.

“When in doubt, stay out,” Skopec said.