Every year, thousands of Iowans break out their oars and their paddles so they can take advantage of the state’s many lakes and rivers.
And every year, more and more, they find green, streaky water, algae blooms, and swimming advisories.
Megan McDowell went paddling in upper Michigan and Wisconsin in July and saw a noticeable difference between the waters there and those in Iowa.
“Seeing how clear their water is, it kind of shows you like, oh, well, when you’ve got not a lot of agriculture in the area, is that what your water could look like?” said McDowell, who has paddled on Iowa waters since she was 2 years old.
She works at the Iowa Environmental Council and attends Drake University in Des Moines. She hopes to make a career of environmental advocacy.
Especially since the problem has only gotten worse.
McDowell said the last few times she’s been out, she and her friends have run into water that looks unsafe, and it’s discouraging because people should be able to enjoy Iowa’s water.
“When you’re aware of the water quality and what’s in the water, it’s a little off-putting to think about what you’re swimming in,” McDowell said.
She described a few sites, such as Cedar Lake and Cedar Creek, where scum clung to her paddle, or boats made lasting tracks through the water behind them.
Last Saturday she was at the Green Valley State Park near Creston, which had a swimming advisory the week before.
“When you went to the beach the water was a little green. It’s like OK, Iowa in late July, August,” McDowell said. “But we went to the pretty fishing dock area, that weird, freaky green, like blue-green algae stuff, was moving in waves going across the water.”
As of Friday, 10 beaches were under advisory according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the US Army Corps of Engineers. That’s down from 14 last week.
Rick Dietz, a longtime paddler who’s done conservation work in Iowa for decades, said it’s not always easy to tell the water is toxic by sight. He views that as a learning opportunity for people.
“You have to educate them and make sure that they can see and understand the problems because, you know, there’s a lot of new kayakers who may not have any idea they could be in some of these toxic waters,” he said.
People interested in whitewater paddling need it more than others because they have more contact with the water, often getting fully submerged.
There are a lot of possible solutions, including Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which is a framework meant to reduce the presence of nutrients that cause algae blooms in surface water.
To Regulate or not to Regulate?
But regulating agriculture isn’t a popular idea in Iowa, where lobbyists for the Iowa Farm Bureau spend tens of thousands of dollars every quarter and agriculture is a top industry.
Peter Komendowski, a board member for the Iowa Whitewater Coalition and an active paddler, said it would be better to find a way to work with the agriculture industry rather than treat it as the enemy.
“The only thing that’s wrong here is that we’re not, at this time, expending enough energy to mitigate the damage that industry causes,” he said. “We just need to get everybody working on the same page.”
He said there should be more incentives for farmers to make good environmental decisions.
“Takes pressure off of the industry who’s driven to supply the needs that we ask to be fulfilled,” he said.
Another solution exists. In 2010, Iowans voted to amend Iowa’s Constitution to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which is supposed to provide money for conservation efforts to preserve outdoor recreation and natural resources without regulating farms.
But in 2021, the fund remains empty.
Dietz had other ideas, mainly because agriculture is the biggest contributor to water pollution in Iowa.
One of those is taxing fertilizer, which he learned more about in a recent webinar hosted by the Iowa Farmer’s Union about why the Nutrient Reduction Strategy hasn’t been effective.
“There’s a level of fertilization that’s recommended by Iowa State, but farmers often fertilize over that because it’s cheap insurance,” he said. “The more nitrate you have the more crop you’re going to have. But they overapply.”
Dietz attended a webinar where the host suggested taxing the excess nitrate.”
He also explained that the Clean Water Act only regulates point source polluters like factories and sewage treatment plants, and a broader solution could be to include non-point sources, which would include agriculture runoff.
He said if nothing continues to happen, the problem will only get worse and it will continue to affect the water downstream, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We can’t do enough fast enough to really turn around any time soon,” Dietz said. “I don’t know when and if Iowans will stand up and say enough is enough and fight the ag lobby, but my friend came here from Florida and pointed out that when they have to start closing beaches in Florida, that’s going to be a lot more powerful influence than what the Farm Bureau is.”
by Nikoel Hytrek