10 Scary Facts Plauging Iowa’s Waterways

Media Contacts
Michelle Hesterberg

Environment Iowa

In anticipation of Halloween, Environment Iowa unveiled the Ten Scariest Facts Plaguing Iowa’s Water, illustrating how alien invasives, green slime from algae, ghoulish bacteria, and toxic pollutants haunt Iowa’s waterways.

“Halloween is the season to be scared, but Iowans shouldn’t have to be afraid of swimming and fishing in Iowa’s lakes and rivers or disturbed by the quality of their drinking water,” said Environment Iowa’s Amelia Schoeneman. “Manure and runoff from CAFOs, agriculture, and industry have made our rivers into a potion of pollution perfect for fish kills, E. coli, and toxic algal blooms.”

In its new, frightening fact sheet, Environment Iowa found that:

 1. The Iowa DNR does not issue permits for factory farms as required by the Clean Water Act, as shown in a July 2012 EPA study. Only 9% of Iowa’s 1,648 concentrated animal feeding operations have the necessary permits to protect our waterways from the excess nutrients, pathogens, growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals, and heavy metals that run off from these operations.

2. Fish kills are a growing problem in Iowa. Illegal manure spills from factory farm operations killed more than one million fish in Iowa’s waterways over the last decade. And the unprecedented high water temperatures in Iowa’s rivers this past summer resulted in the longest fish kill in Iowa’s recent history. Ninety-seven degree temperatures in the southeast Des Moines River killed 58,000 fish worth more than 10.1 million dollars.  

3. In 2012, the Iowa DNR reported 474 waterbodies as impaired or not meeting water quality standards in Iowa. The main      cause of impairment was pathogens–223 waterbodies were affected by E. coli, which can cause diarrhea and urinary tract infections, respiratory illnesses like pneumonia, and other health problems.

4. In Iowa’s lakes, the main cause of impairment in 2010 was algae. The runoff of excess nutrients, like phosphorous and nitrogen, cause algal blooms, which cover lakes (and anyone who uses them) with green slime.

5. Some algal blooms can produce dangerous toxins, like the blue-green algae that threatened three of Iowa’s lakes this past summer.  Swimming, boating, and contact with the water in Big Creek Lake, Green Valley Lake, and Rock Creek Lake were restricted because of the presence of this harmful algae that can cause gastrointestinal and respiratory issues or even liver failure.

6. A record 93 pound and 8 ounce Big Head Carp, , the size of a trick-or-treater,  was snagged in southeast Iowa’s Rathbun Lake in July of this year. These massive fish are also known as invasive Asian Carp and normally reach 60 pounds. The monstrous species are so prolific they clog fishermen’s nets, pile up at the bottom of dams, and devastate the food supply for native species. They’re rapidly spreading across Iowa and have already invaded the Mississippi, Des Moines, Iowa, Cedar, Chariton, Missouri, Platte, Nodaway, and Big Sioux Watersheds.

7. Two recent, polluter-driven Supreme Court cases removed Clean Water Act protections from 62% of streams in Iowa, hundreds of acres of wetlands, and the drinking water of 667 thousand Iowans, making them more vulnerable to pollution.

8. Roquette America Inc. and Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. were Iowa’s biggest polluters in 2010 and the 24th and 25th biggest in the nation, both dumping nearly 1.7 million pounds of toxic releases into the Mississippi, Cedar, and Iowa Rivers. 

9. In 2010, the Mississippi River ranked second among the nation’s waterways for total toxic releases, releases of cancer causing toxics, and releases of reproductive toxins.  The Copperas-Duck Watershed, which includes the Mississippi River near Davenport, was 26th among the nation’s watersheds for the amount of cancer causing toxics released. The EPA reports aluminum, cadmium, and arsenic as causes of impairment in the watershed.

10. The Middle Cedar Watershed near Cedar Falls was 43rd for pounds released of reproductive toxics in the nation. The EPA lists Cedar Lake in the watershed as impaired for Chlordane, a cancer causing pesticide banned in 1988 that is extremely persistent in the environment and bioaccumulates in fish.  

To protect Iowa’s wetlands and tributaries from these threats, Environment Iowa urges the state of Iowa to take action. The status-quo protections have left Iowa’s waters frighteningly polluted. We need the state to create strong, science-based standards for nutrients in our waterways. And the Environmental Protection Agency must move forward to restore the Clean Water Act to protect all of Iowa’s waterways. 

“Halloween witches and ghosts should be scary. The state of the Mississippi and Des Moines Rivers or any of our lakes shouldn’t be,” added Schoeneman. “It’s time to give Iowa’s water the Halloween treat it deserves: protection from pollution.”


Environment Iowa is a statewide, citizen-funded environmental organization working to protect clean air, clean water, and open spaces.