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CHRIS ZOELLER, The Globe Gazette 

Mason City Senior Citizens Thanksgiving Dinner at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Sunday.

'Like pea soup': A look at algal blooms in North Iowa

CLEAR LAKE | More than three years ago, algal blooms were discovered at McIntosh Woods State Park beach, and toxins produced by those blooms were found in the swimming area at Clear Lake State Park.

Although these blue-green blooms muddied the lake, the issue used to be a lot worse, according to Randy Schnoebelen, a DNR district supervisor whose jurisdiction includes Clear Lake.

"Back in the '80s, it bloomed so much it almost looked like pea soup," Schnoebelen said.

Algal blooms, which have occurred in lakes, rivers and other bodies of water throughout Iowa the past several years, can result from too many nutrients entering the water, creating a small bloom. 

Then, that bloom grows through photosynthesis. Issues can arise if toxicity levels in the water are high, posing health risks to animals and humans.

The Globe Gazette examined the current state of algal blooms in North Iowa, specifically in Clear Lake. Multiple officials said that while efforts can improve, Cerro Gordo and the surrounding counties have taken steps to ensure recreational bodies of water are safe to fish in, swim in and otherwise enjoy.

Jim Sholly, who has been the CLEAR Project coordinator in Clear Lake for the past two summers, said one of the unique challenges is a mixture of urban and agricultural runoff that add nutrients to the water. That can create algal blooms. 

Much of the agricultural runoff comes from increased manure accumulation, which puts increased nutrients in the water. Sholly believes that while the issue is worse in other parts of the state, local farmers should take advantage of funding and programs designed to better their environmental impact on lakes and streams.

"In Cerro Gordo County, we need someone who we call a 'champion farmer,'" Sholly said. "Someone who is doing this stuff, is progressive, and talking to their neighbors … that’s when it starts to spread."

One of the most important components that helps farmers accomplish this is Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) funding. The USDA awards money to the NRCS in Iowa, which then disburses the money to individual counties.

Corey Brink, NRCS's district conservationist for Mitchell and Howard counties, said his organization acts as an educational tool for farmers, who apply for the funds through applications.

"We're voluntary, so they have to decide if they want to come to us," Brink said. "The main thing is we offer free technical assistance, erosion challenges, programs like that."

What remains an issue, however, is how these funds should be spent. The Iowa Citizens for Community Involvement believes too much money is spent on concentrated animal feeding operations, which increases manure output and more nutrient-rich bodies of water. 

Erica Blair, an organizer with the group's farming and environment team, believes EQIP funding should be spent elsewhere.

"That’s not really a conservation practice," she said of EQIP money going to CAFOs. "In essence, we’re subsidizing the construction of these factory farms through EQIP."

Iowa's EQIP director Paul Goldsmith, however, believes the funding process is transparent. The NRCS — where Goldsmith's job falls under — does withhold some information from the public, mostly if personal identifying information of private landowners would be included.

As long as CAFOs build responsibly and take proper precautions, Goldsmith said environmental impact should be minimal.

"It’s for existing feedlots where we have runoff concerns," he said of the funding for CAFOs. "We are eliminating or closing an existing runoff on feedlot issues."

Regarding specific EQIP funding to North Iowa counties, an Associated Press data analysis shows many counties, including Cerro Gordo, have no data available or received $0 last year.

Goldsmith, however, stated some counties end up not using any of the allocated money because the county's priorities doesn't match what the funding needs to be spent on, from cover crops, nutrient management, grade stabilization structures and several other initiatives. 

According to multiple officials, if this funding isn't used, it goes back into the EQIP national funding pot. Goldsmith admitted, however, that last year, over $20 million worth of EQIP funding applications were unfulfilled statewide.

Despite this, local lakes and other bodies of water have recently been safe from toxic algae. Josh Rembe, Clear Lake State Park ranger, said his park's beach has never been shut down in his 14 years on the job.

In 2015, an algal bloom killed thousands of fish in Crystal Lake, a popular Hancock County fishing spot. DNR officials said a combination of runoff, warm temperatures and light winds followed by abnormally cool and overcast days prompted a rapid death for the algae, which sucked oxygen out of the water as it decayed. 

Although Clear Lake has seen worse days, Sholly said local and state officials need to be aware of the problems algal blooms can cause — but commended them for their recent work.

"I am confident in my lifetime we are going to see another one (on Clear Lake)," he said.

"At the same time, we’ve done so much in the last 10 years to prevent them," he added. 

Developer: Opponents tried to `sabotage' hotel plans

MASON CITY | The developer of the proposed downtown hotel said Monday the plan is moving forward despite vigorous opposition from people who have tried to delay or kill it.

The City Council is expected to approve a final development agreement at its meeting Tuesday night.

David Rachie, a representative of Gatehouse Mason City LLC, the hotel developer, said a lot of stories have been written about the project and negotiations have gone longer than he anticipated.

"The people like the project with about 75 percent approval," he said, referring to approval of two public issues on the Nov. 7 ballot.

"The story that hasn't been told is the actors who have been trying to sabotage this for many months," he said.  Rachie didn't mention any names but made reference to former city officials. 

Rachie said it was unfortunate the city felt the need last month to delay a final vote on the development agreement. "That put everything on hold," he said. "It can't be on hold any longer."

Interim City Administrator Kevin Jacobson said the council was required by law to delay action for 30 days because changes had been made from an earlier draft of the agreement. Because it was, in effect, a new agreement, other potential developers had to be given 30 days to submit their own proposals.

The deadline for submissions is noon Tuesday. Jacobson said Monday he had received no new proposals or received word that any were forthcoming.

Rachie addressed two other issues that are directly related to the council giving final agreement to the development agreement. As of Monday, he had not secured financing for the project nor had Hyatt, the proposed franchisee, given its final approval.

There will be no problem with either, said Rachie.

"Hyatt is a singular source. It is waiting for an application fee which will come after approval by the City Council," he said.

"Financing is a different dynamic. They want everything else in place. They want to see design and development plans. It is a much tighter position."

Gatehouse has committed to building the hotel by Dec. 31, 2019.

The council meets at 7 p.m. in the Mason City Room of the public library. A public hearing will precede council discussion on the hotel.


An architectural rendering of Gatehouse Capital's proposed Hyatt Place hotel. Though the City Council eventually chose G8 as the hotel developer, it has incurred more than $44,000 in legal fees for work on the Gatehouse plan.

Iowa lawmakers could face pressure over Medicaid benefit cut

The Republican-controlled Iowa Legislature could face pressure next session over its decision earlier this year to reduce a key Medicaid benefit for poor and disabled people, but it's still unclear how much lawmakers are willing to reverse course on an issue that critics say will be detrimental to the state's health care system.

Some Republican lawmakers have begun to question whether the cut to so-called retroactive eligibility, which essentially helps new patients with recently incurred medical costs, was larger than intended. They've indicated the topic will be revisited when they return in January, and health care groups are expected to lobby for some kind of action. Several of them spoke against the change at a legislative committee last week.

That meeting included candid talk from some GOP lawmakers, like Sen. Mark Chelgren of Ottumwa, who raised various ideas about additional exemptions around the change, which took effect Nov. 1.

"I think that this is something that's going to have to be solved in the next session," he told his colleagues.

Brent Willett, president and CEO of the Iowa Health Care Association, has warned the reduction will be particularly harmful to the nursing homes and other long-term health care facilities that make up his group.

"I take those legislators at their word that they're interested in looking at this," he later said after the meeting.

The retroactive benefit is a staple of Medicaid that helps newly eligible patients with medical bills that go back three months. It's aimed at ensuring health care providers accept low-income people who qualify for Medicaid but may not be signed up yet. It's particularly critical for those hurt suddenly, such as being injured in a car crash or suffering a brain injury.

Under Iowa's change, which was briefly mentioned in a roughly 130-page health budget approved last spring, that window of eligibility was reduced to the first of the month in which a person applies for Medicaid. The issue gained national attention for its scope because only a handful of states have reduced retroactive eligibility. Many of those states targeted people who recently gained Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. Iowa uniquely sought to cut the benefit beyond that, to a swath of people who included the disabled and children.

In the end, the federal government approved a plan that only exempted pregnant women and children younger than a year old.

The state's human services agency said the change would save money. It previously estimated a savings of nearly $37 million total, including more than $9 million for the state. Officials predicted about 40,000 Iowans would be affected annually.

Multiple health groups argue the move creates a massive financial burden for hospitals, providers and patients. They also claim the state didn't properly account for the extent of that impact.

Flora Schmidt, executive director of Iowa Behavioral Health Association, warned the ripple effect could be fewer providers in rural parts of the state offering treatment for things like substance abuse and mental health.

"It's going to come back onto the taxpayers and the providers somewhere else," she said. "It's just the shifting of the cost to someone else."

Wendy Rickman, a top administrator for the Iowa Department of Human Services, defended the data provided. The department has been clear that aside from cost savings, the change would better align with the private insurance market.

"We took this responsibility extremely seriously and worked to the very best of our ability to get the right numbers for you," she told the committee.

Scott McIntyre, a spokesman for the Iowa Hospital Association, expressed hope lawmakers would return to the issue in 2018. In an email he said, "We would certainly support reversing the policy and will be monitoring the situation as the session approaches."

This is expected to fall on Republicans, who hold majorities in both chambers and ultimately voted to pass the health budget that included the benefit reduction.

GOP Sen. Mark Costello, vice chair for the health committee that could review any proposed legislation, said he's open to a suggestion that would ensure patients have a clear period for reimbursement. Some critics argue an injury at the end of a month versus the start could greatly impacts costs for all parties.

Costello, of Imogene, said Friday he wants more information from health care groups about their claims that the impact is greater than what's been spelled out by DHS.

"I think we just have to try and figure out a little bit more what's really happening and who it's really going to affect," he said.

Sen. Pam Jochum, a Dubuque Democrat, said she believes something is off about the estimated impact of the change because of the numerous calls she's received from constituents about the issue. She also worries whatever happens in the Legislature will take too long.

"By the time we address this in the legislative session, it could be six months from now," she said. "It might be April before any decision is made ... I don't know what the impact is going to be."