Twice this week I took the family to the river to splash around on a sandbar to escape the heat.
Considering the cost of fuel today, it would probably be cheaper to go to the water park.
But I’m a river rat at heart, so the muddy waters are calling me and I must go. Also, I didn’t just buy the boat to mow something else.
On more than one occasion, one or both of my children (ages 7 and 4) have planted their faces in the murky water and emerged spitting and stuttering. Because that’s what kids do.
Rough. Do you know what’s in this water? Neither do I. I’d rather not find out. But hey, at least there’s no chlorine burn.
It got me thinking about water recreation and the sad state of water quality in Iowa and the fact that as Iowa residents we are quite ambivalent about gross water.
In our agricultural country, muddy, bacteria-ridden waters are the norm and few of us are motivated enough to do anything about it.
I think that’s something we could improve on.
According to an article I read in this newspaper this week, there are currently 11 state park beaches where swimming is not recommended due to high bacterial counts.
Another beach was shut down earlier this month when a swimmer contracted a type of “brain-eating amoeba” (can’t make that up folks).
Here at the Conservation Agency, we also participate in the state’s beach surveillance program.
We diligently send in water samples from the swim area at Big Hollow Lake at the beginning of each week and get results on Friday.
We have yet to see any bacteria (E. coli) or cyanobacteria/microcystin (a potentially toxic alga) near worrying levels. Not so true for other beaches.
At this time, swimming at Lake Geode (slightly high microcystine) and Lake Darling (high bacteria) beaches is not recommended.
That can change from week to week. So if you’re thinking of swimming at a beach in a state or county park, check the DNR website for up-to-date listings.
But wait, didn’t the state recently pour a bunch of money into these two state parks? How come 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 my home, I also see things we can do better. One of them is definitely the water quality.
If there’s one thing Iowa is really good at, it’s breeding things.
For millennia, lush prairies and forests have grown on our land, creating the soil conditions for us to lead the world in food and fuel production for the last few centuries.
Today, in order to maintain (or increase) our production capacity, we supplement our fertile soils with fertilizers.
But not all of that soil, or the nutrients and animal waste it contains, stays on land.
Much of it ends up in our waters, and the same efficiency manifests itself in our lakes in the form of algal blooms and increased bacterial counts.
In Geode’s case, the problem is likely to improve naturally over the next few years as rooted vegetation rebuilds upstream of the lake.
This vegetation will act as a filter for the nutrients currently being taken up by the algae that we would rather not have there.
In the case of Darling, the forecast is a little less optimistic. Washington County, where Lake Darling is located, has some of the highest hog counts in the state.
Being a national leader in pork production has its trade-offs.
And for us river rats, for right or wrong, we simply accept that the river we love is less than pristine — and likely will be forever.
We simply rely on regular doses of Busch Light to be sufficiently antiseptic to counteract the rudeness we wallow in on summer Saturday afternoons.
But our lakes are far from a lost cause. Across the state we’ve seen successes in the purge.
When a church truly embraces a turning point, serious improvements can occur.
An example are the lakes at Nine Eagles State Park and Slip Bluff County Park in Decatur County in southern Iowa.
Both lakes have struggled for years with excessive sediment loading, which almost always made the water turbid.
Beginning in the early 2000s, the state and county worked together on numerous improvements throughout the watershed, including sedimentary basins and coastal armor.
Today you can see more than eight feet into the water most of the time, and the lakes clear up quickly after heavy rain events.
A similar project is taking shape at Big Hollow Lake here in Des Moines County.
While water clarity isn’t too much of a problem there, excessive phosphorus loading leads to impressive blooms of floating vegetation.
On calm days around this time of year, it’s not uncommon to see the lake’s surface covered in the stuff from bank to bank.
It’s not a health hazard, but it’s tough on boat engines and makes swimming, paddling, and fishing less than comfortable.
Personally, I can (almost) accept that the Muddy Mississippi will always be like this.
But I’m not that ambivalent about our inland lakes.
And knowing we can make them places we all want to visit without health risks, I think we should all prioritize that.
Chris Lee is executive director of Des Moines County Conservation. His column appears monthly in The Hawk Eye. He also blogs and podcasts about parks and conservation at OutdoorExecutiveDad.com.