116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
It’s officially summer and many Iowans are hitting the road for their favorite lakeside vacation spots to do some swimming, boating or fishing.
But how much does the quality of the water factor into which lake we visit?
An innovative study used photos posted to social media from 2005 to 2012 to compare visits to Iowa and Minnesota lakes. Researchers found lake users were willing to travel 56 minutes farther for every 1 meter increase in water clarity in Minnesota and Iowa lakes, even when controlling for other factors, such as size of the lake or whether it has a boat ramp.
“People are willing to trade off their time and gas mileage to seek higher water quality,” said Bonnie Keeler, assistant professor in the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs and lead investigator for the study published in 2015 in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.
This week, The Gazette is hosting a series of virtual panel discussions in an Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week on the issue of water quality. Tuesday’s panel, “A Recreational View: Ecotourism” will focus on the role water quality plays on recreation and tourism.
Register for Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week for free at iowaideas.com for a week’s work of lunchtime sessions focusing on the issue of water quality:
Noon Monday: The Value of Water, keynote session with Larry Weber
Noon Tuesday: A Recreational View: Eco- Tourism
Noon Wednesday: The Price of Drinking Water
Noon Thursday: In Volumes: The Impact of Animal Waste
Noon Friday: The Cedar River: A Watershed Case Study
The outdoor recreation economy across the country generates about $880 billion in spending each year, employs 7.6 million people and generates $59.2 billion in state and local tax revenue, according to the Outdoor Industry Association.
In just the Midwestern states of Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Minnesota, Missouri and Kansas, outdoor recreation generates about $60 billion in spending about 550,000 jobs, the association says.
Iowa would like to keep a larger share of that spending within its borders and has pushed to offer more outdoor recreation opportunities, including hundreds of miles of paved bike trails, white-water rapids courses and affordable state parks. But the state is losing out on tourism spending because many of its lakes have poor water quality.
Last summer, half of Iowa’s state park beaches had at least one swim warning because of bacteria or toxins and a handful of lakes — Backbone State Park, McIntosh Woods and Denison Beach — had at least 10 weeks with advisories.
Harmful algal blooms, fed by too much nitrate and phosphorus in the water, pop up frequently in Iowa lakes. This algae caused the first ever swim advisory for toxic microcystins at Lake Macbride in 2019. Earlier this month, a sewer smell at Clear Lake was attributed to an algal bloom.
Lakeside vacations have always been popular, but were even more so in 2020, according to a 2021 trend report from Vrbo.com, which connects vacationers with owners of properties to rent.
“Vrbo demand data shows that travel to lakes and rivers increased in popularity, while beaches took a back seat,” the report states. “Four the top five trending destinations are near lakes, rivers or streams where families can camp, hike and fish.”
A record 16.6 million people visited Iowa’s state parks in 2020, according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources estimates reported by IowaWatch.org. These outdoor trips were viewed as a safe way to vacation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not only are visitors paying to rent cabins, condos and lodges, but they buy groceries, go out to dinner, hire fishing guides and rent boats.
Iowa’s Okoboji area in northwest Iowa sees a $300 million annual economic impact from tourism, according to Rebecca Peters, Okoboji tourism director. But the area also has invested in clean water for decades.
“The Iowa Great Lakes Area was one of the first areas in Iowa to invest in sanitary sewer around our lake after algae blooms in the 1940s,” she said. “This has helped our water quality immensely because waste is treated instead of going into the lakes.”
Cities around Okoboji were some of the first to pass ordinances requiring private property owners to invest in infrastructure, landscaping and prairie preservation around the lakes to improve water quality, Peters said.
Dickinson County, home to Iowa's great lakes, requires animal feeding operations to take their manure-management plans to the local Board of Supervisors — which not every county does — and tries to discourage the operations within 3 miles of lakes and rivers.
The moves have paid off, Peters said. Volunteer water tests recently showed Center Lake, one of the area’s smaller lakes that hasn’t always been pristine, had clarity of more than 1.5 meters.
“That’s amazing improvement over past years,” she said. “It’s water you can float in and look down and see you toes — a swimmer’s delight.”
Measuring the impact
A 2018 Iowa State University study estimated Iowa is losing out on about $30 million from Iowans who would pay more to visit cleaner lakes and rivers. That estimate came from a 2014 statewide survey asking Iowans about their household trips to more than 100 in-state lakes. About 3,500 people responded to the survey. ISU researchers matched lake preferences with water clarity data collected by the university.
“The combined data on survey respondents’ locations, the destination of their trip(s) and distance to various alternatives, and water quality at the lakes in Iowa allow us to estimate the ‘revealed’ value that households put on water quality in the state,” the study reports.
The newest version of the Iowa lakes survey, done in 2019 and 2020, hasn’t been released yet by the state DNR, but Wendong Zhang, an assistant professor in economics from ISU, shared highlights Wednesday in a virtual presentation:
- Nearly 28 percent, the largest share, of respondents said water quality was the most important factor when determining which lake to visit. The next highest factors were park activities and proximity, tied with 17.4 percent.
- More than 70 percent said they check water quality before they go to the lake.
- Respondents ranked agricultural runoff as the biggest contributor to poor water quality, followed by livestock manure
Keeler’s team at the UM used social media as a proxy for lake visitation in Iowa and Minnesota because many people post photos of themselves on vacation. Their study examined geotagged photos posted on Flickr, one of the world’s largest photo sharing sites, to figure out which lakes people were visiting.
About 40 percent of Flickr users who uploaded pictures of lakes listed their home location in their public profiles. This allowed researchers to determine Flickr users who visited Minnesota lakes came from 47 states and 36 other countries, compared with users who visited Iowa lakes coming from 20 states and no other countries.
Keeler said the team used Iowa’s lake surveys to calibrate the findings from Flickr.
“Since we had survey results saying people went to this lake and this many times, we were able to understand the accuracy of social media data,” she said.
The researchers since have replicated the study across 17 states and 40,000 lakes from Minnesota to Maine, Keeler said. That study, which uses Flickr and Twitter posts, isn’t published yet, but she said the patterns seen in the Iowa and Minnesota study bear out with the larger review.
Comments: (319) 339-3157; email@example.com