Guest Opinion
Osterberg: Poor water quality point to need to address climate change
By David Osterberg
Published Sept. 18, 2020, by the Quad-City Times, Davenport
Quad-City Times link

Can we deal with any more bad news? So far Iowans have had to deal with the long-overdue discussion of social justice, continued clean-up from last monthís derecho, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the related controversy over if and how our schools should be open. Itís easy to miss the news that Iowaís water quality continues to decline, spurred, in part, by climate change.

The Iowa Capital Dispatch recently reported that the Des Moines River, one of the Des Moines drinking water systemís two largest sources of tap water, was "essentially unusable for drinking water," because of a toxic cyanobacteria algae bloom.

These algae blooms are nothing new in Iowa. The town of Greenfield had to issue a bottled water order because of toxic blooms in 2018, and some Iowa campgrounds and lakes have been affected. Ironically, the Raccoon River, to which the Des Moines Water Works shifted for water after the blooms on the Des Moines River, was itself deemed unfit for drinking because of algae blooms two years ago.

Weeks before Greenfield lost its water supply for several days in 2018, an Iowa Policy Project report noted the effects of exposure to cyanobacteria can include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, skin rashes, liver and kidney toxicity. Some substances in the family of cyanobacteria are neurotoxic and can cause paralysis or seizure, and humans and pets are vulnerable. Dogs can be particularly susceptible, and a large number of cyanotoxin-related canine deaths are reported in the United States each year.

This is especially troubling because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the frequency of harmful algal blooms is increasing. This increase is mostly tied to three factors: an overabundance of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) from fertilizers in our water, warmer temperatures associated with climate change, and increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere. In short, algae blooms need three things to grow: warm water, nitrates for fuel, and CO2 to photosynthesize. We have done a good job of giving them all three.

Luckily, solutions exist. One is the mandatory creation of vegetative buffer strips between crop lands and waterways to catch nitrate and especially phosphorous runoff from farm fields. Both Minnesota and Vermont, two states that have had water quality issues in the past, have implemented this type of law to great effect. Last fallís meeting of all the Soil and Water District Commissioners in Iowa also endorsed a mandatory buffer on our streams.

On the climate change side, a solution is the creation of so-called "carbon-storage farms," which can transform marginal cropland into perennial vegetation that captures carbon from the atmosphere. These could also be placed to function as buffer strips.

It is increasingly clear that we need to enact some type of policy to reduce nutrient runoff and move our state toward being 100% carbon neutral. If we do not, harmful algae blooms will increase in frequency, and our water quality will continue to decline.

David Osterberg is Professor Emeritus of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa. He is an economist and is lead environmental researcher for Common Good Iowa, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy analysis and advocacy organization formed by the recent merger of the Iowa Policy Project and the Child and Family Policy Center.

Comments: dosterberg (at)