Our Lake Needs a Diet

What happens when you consume more calories than you burn?

What happens when you drink more alcohol than your body can process?

And what happens when you add more nutrients to a lake than it can process?

The first answer is you gain weight. The second is you get drunk. The third is that you get massive algae blooms. What’s constant is that in all the above scenarios is the system is put out of balance.

We can understand weight gain and inebriation pretty easily. Consume too much and your body weight and blood alcohol levels rise. Fix it by consuming less. Maybe forego that second piece of cake or that next drink.

But in aquatic systems, it’s a bit harder to turn off the nutrient tap because the sources vary across the landscape above the body of water in question. They can include fertilizer and manure runoff, underperforming septic systems, and more.

I bring this up because Big Hollow Lake, which is managed by my department (Des Moines County Conservation), has a nutrient problem and needs an intervention from us. If you’ve ever visited that lake on a hot, calm day in the summer, you’ve seen the results of too many nutrients entering the lake from its 4,400-acre watershed. The algae and floating aquatic plants get thick and the lake gets pretty green.
Thanks the prevailing south wind in the summer and the fact that most amenities at Big Hollow are on the north side, the duckweed gets pretty thick in places like the beach and boat ramp, much to chagrin of boaters and swimmers. 

In case you’re worried, don’t be. The water itself is still plenty safe. We test it all summer long to be sure of that.

Though it’s safe, it’s not pretty and we’d been pursuing an intervention since at least 2014. But the lake had to land on the state’s list of “impaired” water bodies before it could get much attention. Which it eventually did. More than half of all lakes and streams in the state are on that list. The nutrient problem in Iowa is epidemic.

Then we rallied together a whole alphabet soup of partners to start making some headway on the issue. They include the SWCD, the IDNR, the IDALS, and others. We government types love our acronyms.

Those partners then secured federal grant funding to hire a consultant to complete an EPA-approved Nine-Element Plan. This plan, coupled with the DNR-prepared Water Quality Improvement Plan (which establishes a Total Maximum Daily Load or TMDL for the nutrients in question), will identify the actions and practices to implement throughout Big Hollow Lake's watershed to improve the lake's water quality without having to take drastic measures like draining the lake like the DNR had to do at Lake Geode.

Furthermore, once the Nine-Element Plan is approved by the EPA, the watershed will then be eligible for federal funding through the Clean Water Act as well as other local, state, and federal programs.

In short, it’s a long and detailed planning process but once it’s done, we’ll be eligible for money to help apply conservation practices such as terraces, sediment ponds, cover crops, and buffers throughout the watershed to capture nutrients before they get to the lake. Basically, we’ll get help putting the lake on a nutrient diet.

But being eligible for funds doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll get them, which is where you come in.

Projects such as this are infinitely more successful when there’s broad public support. Locally, we know that Big Hollow already has that. After all, most of the park’s features were built because of the volunteer time and funding that so many have contributed to it over the years. But how does one show in a grant application how important clean water is to this community?

Here’s how we’re going to try.

First, we have a short, 11-question survey. It’s available through the Big Hollow water quality page on the Des Moines County Conservation website, or you can go it directly with this link: https://bit.ly/BHWQsurvey. Whether you’ve ever been to Big Hollow or not, please fill it out. We want input from the community at large.

The engineers said they’d be happy with 30 responses. I laughed and said, “This is Big Hollow. People are crazy about this park. We’ll get 100 or more.” Now it’s up to you to prove me right.

Second, we’re staging an event to show photographically how much you care. On June 5th we’re asking anyone with a canoe or kayak to join us in a giant “Floatilla” in front of the beach to show your support for the lake’s water quality. A picture is worth a thousand words, so we’ll take drone photos at 2:00 PM of that giant mass of supporters to use in grant and donation applications.

And finally, on June 24 at 5:30 PM we’re hosting a Water Quality Symposium at the Hickory Shelter House at Big Hollow where the partner agencies and engineers will present what they’ve learned through their research and discuss how we can all help clean up our lake. Consider this event the formal intervention. We’ll even provide a barbeque dinner if you come. Just be sure to RSVP either by calling us at 319-753-8260 or fill out the form online at www.DMCconservation.com so we know how much food we’ll need.

It’s been a long time in the making but we’re finally making progress toward a less-green lake. And with your support, we can get Big Hollow on the diet it needs and clean it up without having to resort to drastic measures.

Now, where’d I put that cake?