Each year, thousands of Iowans pull out their oars and paddles to enjoy the state’s many lakes and rivers.
And each year, more and more, they find green and streaked water, algae blooms and bathing advisories.
Megan McDowell went paddling in upper Michigan and Wisconsin in July and saw a noticeable difference between the waters there and those of Iowa.
“Seeing how clear their water is, it kind of shows that you like, oh, well, when you don’t have a lot of farming in the area, what could your water look like?” Said McDowell, who has paddled Iowa waters since the age of 2.
She works at the Iowa Environmental Council and attends Drake University in Des Moines. She hopes to pursue a career in the defense of the environment.
Especially since the problem has only worsened.
McDowell said the last few times she’s been out she and her friends have found themselves in water that looks unsafe, and it’s disheartening because people should be able to enjoy Iowa water.
“When you’re aware of the quality of the water 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 the scum caught on her paddle, or where boats made lasting marks in the water behind them.
Last Saturday she was at Green Valley State Park near Creston, which had a swim 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 lovely area of the fishing pier, this weird, weird green, like blue-green algae stuff, was moving in waves across the water.”
As of Friday, 10 beaches were on notice according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the US Army Corps of Engineers. This is down from 14 last week.
Rick Dietz, a longtime paddler who has done conservation work in Iowa for decades, said it’s not always easy to tell the water is toxic on sight. He sees this as a learning opportunity for people.
“You have to educate them and make sure they can see and understand the issues because, you know, there are a lot of new kayakers out there who maybe have no idea that they could be in some of these waters. toxic, ”he said.
People interested in whitewater paddling need it more than others because they have more contact with water and are often completely submerged.
There are many possible solutions, including the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which is a framework to reduce the presence of nutrients that cause algae blooms in surface waters.
The program is voluntary for the agriculture industry, however, whose data shows it to be the primary cause of toxins in Iowa’s waterways, most often from runoff.
To regulate or not to regulate?
But regulating agriculture is not a popular idea in Iowa, where Iowa Farm Bureau lobbyists spend tens of thousands of dollars each quarter and agriculture is a major 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 like the enemy.
“The only thing wrong here is that we are not, at the moment, spending enough energy to mitigate the damage caused by the industry,” he said. “We just have to get everyone to work on the same page. “
He said there should be more incentives for farmers to make good environmental decisions.
“Take the pressure off the industry that is determined to meet the needs that we ask to be met,” he said.
Another solution exists. In 2010, the people of Iowa voted to amend the Iowa 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 them is the taxation of fertilizers, which he learned more about in a recent webinar hosted by the Iowa Farmer’s Union on why the nutrient reduction strategy has not been effective.
“There is a state of Iowa recommended fertilization level, but farmers often fertilize above that because it’s cheap insurance,” he said. “The more nitrates you have, the more harvest you will have. But they apply too much.
Dietz attended a webinar where the host suggested taxing excess nitrate.
He also explained that the Clean Water Act only regulates point polluters like factories and wastewater treatment plants, and a broader solution could be to include diffuse sources, which would include agricultural runoff.
He said if nothing continues, the problem will only get worse and will continue to affect water downstream, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
“We can’t do it fast enough to really turn around anytime soon,” Dietz said. “I don’t know when or if the people of Iowa will stand up and say enough is enough and fight the farm lobby, but my friend came here from Florida and pointed out that when they have to start closing beaches in Florida it will be a much more powerful influence than the Farm Bureau is.
by Nikoel Hytrek