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Another View

U.S. must get serious about water pollution

When officials said it was unsafe to drink or even bathe in Toledo, Ohio’s municipal water supplies earlier this month, it was a major inconvenience for nearly a half-million residents.

It also was a wake-up call for the rest of the nation to the fact that water pollution can directly affect the health of humans as well as rivers, lakes and aquatic life.

The question is whether this news will lead to meaningful action to improve water quality in this country. The water problem that made the news in Toledo is also an issue for bodies of water ranging from Minnesota, California, Cape Cod and Chesapeake Bay to the Gulf of Mexico – and Iowa.

Des Moines officials said last week that if the right circumstances were to occur locally, Iowa’s largest metro area could have to deal with the same situation.

It is time for the nation and these affected regions to commit to meaningful action.

Toledo draws its drinking water from Lake Erie, which routinely is affected by algae plumes created by excess nutrients flowing into the water from agricultural areas, urban sewage and industrial waste. It appears the plume on Lake Erie that settled directly over Toledo’s water intake pipes spawned toxic microcystin, which may cause diarrhea, vomiting and liver problems.

The drinking water ban was lifted last week, but the toxic algae plume won’t go away permanently anytime soon. Unless water quality improves on Lake Erie, according to experts quoted by the New York Times, the problem Toledo encountered potentially could affect 11 million residents living along the lake.

The reasons cited for the growth of algae plumes include intensive farming, animal confinements, urbanization and industrialization in the region. Whereas the federal regulators can legally require compliance by cities and factories, Ohio’s plan for dealing with the problem relies on voluntary compliance by agriculture.

If this sounds familiar, that is because Iowa and other Midwest states have used the same voluntary approach to reducing excess nutrients in the Mississippi River basin.

Those nutrients, which come mostly from agriculture, feed massive algae plumes in the Gulf of Mexico. It is known as the dead zone because the plumes starve oxygen needed by aquatic life.

It is hard to say whether Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy is having significant impact, but recent evidence is not encouraging.

On Aug. 4, the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone was measured at more than 5,000 square miles, or the size of Connecticut. Although the dead zone is somewhat smaller than in 2013, the five-year average is still nearly three times the size set as a goal 13 years ago as part of a national effort to reduce the size of the zone.

Leaders of farm organizations and state agriculture and environmental officials in Iowa point to anecdotal evidence that farmers are improving their land-use practices to stop excess nutrients from washing downstream. Those examples are encouraging, but Iowa agricultural and political leaders oppose setting quantifiable goals for water quality and measuring results within specific watersheds.

That opposition must end. Otherwise, those examples are just anecdotes, and there will be no way to know for sure what farming practices are effective. When practices that work can be quantified – if not measured at each farm, at least within regional watersheds – the public should be willing to help farmers pay for the necessary investment.

Stories have attracted the nation’s attention about people in an Ohio city the size of metro Des Moines losing their drinking water, or the fishing industry in Louisiana struggling to survive. Now, states such as Ohio and Iowa should show the nation they are serious about achieving clean water.

– The Des Moines Register

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