Iowa environmentalists scored a victory for water quality as 2017 ended

Lake MacBride
Lake MacBride

Last year saw many setbacks for environmentalists as President Trump and Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), took charge of the federal government’s environmental policy. But in Iowa, 2017 ended with a win for those concerned about the state’s water quality.

At its December meeting, the Environmental Protection Committee (EPC) of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officially abandoned a proposal to eliminate the Single Sample Maximum E. coli bacteria standard, a measurement used to assess the health of bodies of water used for recreation.

“This a really important standard, in terms of the quality of life and the health of outdoor recreation assets in our state,” said Susan Heathcote, water program director at the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC), a Des Moines-based nonprofit.

Following EPA standards established in 1980s, the state currently mandates the use of two measurements of E. coli bacteria contamination for recreational bodies of water: the geometric mean standard and the single sample. The geometric mean determines the amount of E. coli over the long term, while the single sample looks at E. coli contamination on individual days.

For primary recreational bodies of water where people swim, the single sample standard is 235 organisms per 100 milliliters of water. For secondary recreational bodies of water — where contact with the water is typically “either incidental or accidental,” according to the state’s definition — the standard is 2,880 organisms per 100 milliliters.

“The single standard maximum is designed to identify a water body that typically has good water quality, but on some days has very high spikes of bacteria,” Heathcote explained. “That could be related to a lot of things.”

The most common source of such spikes is a heavy rainfall that washes pollutants into the water, according to Heathcote.

“Since, it’s related to runoff pollution, it’s not going to happen every day. So, on a sunny day when there hasn’t been any rain recently, the beach is going to be just fine,” Heathcote said. “But having the standard lets us identify a source of pollution, and have the DNR take steps to restore that body of water.”

In June 2017, Jon Tack, chief of the DNR’s Water Quality Bureau, wrote a summary for the proposed rule change that stated, “The DNR has determined that the single sample maximum value is overly stringent and is not an appropriate tool for water quality assessment and permitting purposes.” Tack went on to explain, “This change will result in fewer water bodies being listed as impaired.” The DNR noted in its proposal that listing fewer bodies of water would save the state money, because it would lessen the number of pollution-related actions the DNR undertakes each year.

“Of course, the pollution is there, whether the state recognizes it or not,” Heathcote said. “And there’s a real concern that if the state no longer considers a water body ‘impaired,’ based on removing the single standard maximum, potential public health risks won’t be identified and the public won’t be aware of those problems.

“Even more importantly to us, DNR wouldn’t be required to do any restoration work to try to identify the source of the impairment, and then do something to restore the water so it would be safe.”

It was the response the DNR received during the public comment period for the rule that made the agency decide not to eliminate the single standard. Working with the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club, the IEC helped organize opposition to the change.

“Over 700 Iowans opposed the proposed change in the standard,” Heathcote said. “That’s probably a record for the number of people taking action [on such a proposed rule change].”

Heathcote said the IEC had seen in an increase in interest in environmental issues on the part of the public, not only since President Trump took office, but also in response to last year’s session of the Iowa Legislature, during which the Republican majority advanced a strongly ideological agenda.

“There is concern that politics is changing the way these decisions are being made,” Heathcote said. “So, the public feels the need to make sure their voices are heard.”

Still, this win for environmentalists may only be temporary, Heathcote explained.

“This isn’t over yet,” she said. “What the DNR said in their response to the public comments was that they were going to terminate [the change] for now, but they are planning to reassess the alternatives for the E. coli bacteria standard as part of the water quality standards review process.”

Federal rules require every state to review their water quality standards every three years, and make any necessary changes to the standards. Iowa’s review will be conducted this year.

Heathcote said the IEC and other environmentalist in the state aren’t opposed to all changes to the current E. coli measurements, just ones that render the measurement less effective or eliminate them.

“We’re going to be pushing to make sure that any changes to the water quality standards address both types of bacteria concerns,” she said.

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