Iowa Paddlers Sick of State’s Green, Polluted Water

Photos by Megan McDowell. Center: Praire Rose state park, Sides: Cedar Creek

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.

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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.

Possible Solutions

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.

The program is voluntary for the agriculture industry, though, which data shows is the leading cause of toxins in Iowa’s waterways, most often from runoff.

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

6 Comments on "Iowa Paddlers Sick of State’s Green, Polluted Water"

  • Yap,yap, yap! Another article comprised of total and complete truth, but folks best face the FACTS! This travesty of the situation will not change, either politically or by the laughable current law of rural self-compliance! Add to that a massive amount of pollution from city and town dwellers who want a greener lawn than their neighbor! In Western Iowa we’ve talked the issue to death, spent hundreds of millions of state and local dollars on the Nishnabotna and Nodaway, and water quality has still gone downhill. Same across the state! Righteous indignation will get you nowhere, it hasn’t on water quality for the last 30 years!! Politically it takes a Democratic trifecta, and even then there would be some in that majority of D’s that wouldn’t go up against the Farm Bureau. After all, that would be political suicide in their rural district, and certainly, politicians believe getting re-elected is most important! Anyone who believes that Iowa’s nitrogen and phosphorus levels will decline to a level conducive to recreational use of surface waters has been drinking at the creek. Taint gonna happen, because changes of current farming practice soil inputs will not change in your lifetime. It’s all about money! Defeatist? Yah, most unfortunately. Practical? Yah, most unfortunate also. If you really want to keep scum off your body, canoe paddles and kayak, then far northeast Iowa, northern and central Minnesota, and most of Wisconsin is your closest bet. As for you idealists…just keep those letters coming. After all, it makes you feel good, like really being an activist…like you’ve accomplished something! Either change your hobby, or learn to live with scum! Short of a miracle, nothing positive will come to pass in either self-compliance or public policy.

  • Interesting good story about a subject that deserves more coverage. Thank you.

    I don’t really understand the quote about “pressure on the industry,” however. Iowa Big Ag, for at least the last four decades, has been able to easily smash any efforts to regulate ag pollution the way a big swatter smashes a fly. Many of us have watched it happen.

    Minnesota, for example, requires farmers and landowners to leave unplanted buffer strips next to rivers and lakes, a very reasonable requirement. But in Iowa, farmers are free to till right up to the edge of the river until the riverbank sluffs off. The occasional efforts to change that can’t even be described as battles. They are dead on arrival in the Iowa Legislature.

    It is obviously annoying for Iowa Big Ag that many more Iowans now understand the real reason our water quality is so dreadful. But that annoyance hardly seems to deserve the word “pressure.”

    “Pressure” is when the Des Moines Water Works is facing the prospect of either not being able to supply clean water to customers, or digging new wells that, last I read, could cost well over $30 million. “Pressure” is when an Iowa family uses precious Saturday together time to drive to a public Iowa beach, only to see a warning sign and realize that the latest algae bloom means that the water is not really safe for the kiddos. “Pressure” is what some of us feel when an Iowa expert looks at the latest data and reports, as happened recently, that Iowa’s best remaining creeks in Northeast Iowa are deteriorating faster than some waters in other parts of the state.

    Already Iowa Big Ag enjoys many kinds of generous subsidies and incentives from taxpayers, including taxpayers funding more than half the costs of crop insurance. Yes, Iowans need to pay to help with the cost of more and better farm conservation. But we also deserve much better state water policies than the bad policies we have now, the bad policies that essentially mean that when it comes to water, Iowa farmers and landowners have all the power, and we, the general public, have none.

  • Per another comment in this thread, it is entirely possible for Iowans to write angry letters and also donate time, energy, and money to political candidates and environmental groups fighting for better water. I’ve seen it happen.

    I know of no major ongoing problem that was ever solved because people decided it was hopeless or because journalists gave up writing about it . I’m grateful to IOWA STARTING LINE and Nikoel Hytrek for the coverage. I remember when the Clean Water Act passed, largely because of public anger and good journalism. It did seem kind of miraculous.

    And yes, many of us will die without ever seeing clean water in Iowa. I fully expect to be one of them. I’m working for my great-nieces and nephews. It’s more satisfying for me than playing bridge.

  • Clean water is a great issue, but Iowa is so partisan that it is seen as a code word for big government regulations. Farmers are not evil, and they will try to help the process. However, Farm Bureau and big chemical companies want to sell farmers and home owners more fertilizer than they need. (Last time I saw a study, home owners use 5 times as much fertilizer per acre as farmers do, and that’s to grow useless grass.)

    Farmers are still putting on chemicals in the fall though 80% of what they put on runs off before plants can use it. The answer is to find a way to work together. To the comment above, it isn’t going to matter if they close a few beaches in Florida. What’s going into Iowa rivers and streams is killing the Gulf of Mexico, and nothing is being done.

  • Of course “farmers are not evil,” nor are landowners. They are ordinary people. Generally, when society wants ordinary people to do important things that are not in their immediate self-interest, like pay taxes or obey traffic rules, we set up systems that will very strongly encourage people to do the right things, often with penalties if they don’t. We’ve failed to do that in regard to agriculture, with predictable results.

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