We don't have to be okay with gross water

Twice this week I’ve taken the family out on the river (the Mississippi, near Burlington, Iowa) to splash around at a sandbar to escape the heat. Considering the cost of fuel these days, it probably would be cheaper to go to the waterpark. But I’m a river rat at heart so the muddy waters call to me, and I must go. Besides, I didn’t buy that boat just for something else to mow around.

On more than one occasion, one or both of my kids (ages 7 and 4) face-planted into the murky waters and came up spitting and spluttering. Because that’s what kids do. 

Gross. You know what’s in that water? Me neither. I’d rather not find out. But hey, at least there’s no chlorine burn. 

It got me to thinking about water recreation and the sad state of Iowa’s water quality and the fact that, as Iowans, we’re pretty much ambivalent to icky water. Being the ag state that we are, muddy, bacteria-ridden waters are the norm and few of us are sufficiently motivated to do much about it. I think that’s something we could improve on.

According to an article I read this week, there are currently 11 state park beaches where swimming is not recommended due to high bacterial counts. An additional beach was closed earlier in the month when a swimmer contracted some sort of “brain-eating amoeba” (I can’t make this stuff up, people).

(Post-publish edit: I've since learned that swimmer has died. My condolences to the victim's survivors and my sympathies to the agency staff dealing with what I'm sure is a crazy situation).

Here at the conservation department, we also participate in the state’s beach monitoring program. We diligently send in water samples from the swimming area at Big Hollow Lake at the beginning of every week and get results on Fridays. We have yet to see bacteria (E. coli) or cyanobacteria/microcystin (a potentially toxic algae) counts anywhere near concerning limits. Not so true for other beaches. 

As of this writing, swimming is not currently recommended at Lake Geode’s (slightly high microcystins) and Lake Darling’s beaches (high bacteria). That can change from week to week, so if you’re thinking about swimming at a state or county park beach, check the DNR website for up-to-date postings.

But wait, didn’t the state just invest a pile of cash in both of those state parks recently? How is it that swimming is still not recommended? 

Welcome to Iowa, friends. And I say that as someone who loves this place. But as much as I love where I call home, I also recognize things we can do better. One of those is definitely water quality. 

If there’s one thing Iowa is really good at, it’s growing things. For millennia, our lands grew lush prairies and forests which created the soil conditions for us to lead the world in food and fuel production the past couple centuries. In order to maintain (or increase) our productive capacity, today we supplement our rich soils with fertilizers. 

But not all of those soils, or the nutrients and animal wastes they contain, stay on the land. Plenty of it makes it into our waters and the same productive capacity manifests in our lakes in the form of algae blooms and elevated bacteria counts. 

In Geode’s case, the issue is likely to improve naturally in the next few years as rooted vegetation re-establishes upstream of the lake. That vegetation will serve as a filter for the nutrients that are currently being taken up by the algae we’d rather not have there. 

In Darling’s case, the prognosis is a little less optimistic. Washington County, where Lake Darling is located, has some of the highest per-acre hog counts in the state. Being a national leader in pork production has its tradeoffs. 

And for us river rats, for right or wrong, we just accept that the river we love is – and likely forever will be – less than pristine. We just count on regular doses of Busch Light being sufficient antiseptic to counter whatever grossness we wallow in on summertime Saturday afternoons. 

But our lakes are far from a lost cause and across the state, we’ve seen successes at cleaning them up. When a community really commits to a watershed, serious improvements can happen. One example is the lakes at Nine Eagles State Park and Slip Bluff County Park in Decatur County in south-central Iowa. For years, both lakes struggled with excessive sediment loading which made the waters almost perpetually murky. Beginning in the early 2000’s, the state and county worked together on numerous improvements throughout the watershed including sediment ponds and shoreline armoring. Today, you can see more than eight feet down into the water most of the time and the lakes clear up quickly after heavy rain events. 

A similar project is just starting to take shape at Big Hollow Lake here in Des Moines County. While water clarity isn’t too much of a problem there, excessive phosphorous loading results in impressive blooms of floating vegetation. On calm days this time of year, its not uncommon for the surface of the lake to be covered shore-to-shore with the stuff. It’s not a health hazard, but it’s hard on boat motors and makes swimming, paddling and fishing less-than-convenient.

Personally, I can (almost) accept that the Muddy Mississippi will always be just that. But I’m not so ambivalent about our interior lakes. And knowing that we can make them the kind of places we all want to visit without health risks, I think we should all prioritize doing so. 

This article first appeared in my monthly Living Land column in The Hawk Eye.