Treading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the Midwest

Treading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the MidwestTreading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the MidwestTreading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the MidwestTreading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the MidwestTreading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the MidwestTreading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the MidwestTreading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the MidwestTreading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the MidwestTreading Water: Millions of dollars riding on water quality in the Midwest

ST. MARYS, Ohio — Two tourism directors 700 miles apart, one in Iowa and one in Ohio, use the same word when describing the effect a swimming ban caused by water pollution would have on their lakeside vacation communities:

Devastating.

For Rebecca Peters, Okoboji Tourism director, it's hypothetical because the northwestern Iowa region generates nearly $290 million a year as people flock to the lakes known for their clean water.

But in the Greater Grand Lake Visitors Region in western Ohio, the lake's four public beaches have had swim warnings every summer since 2009 — which means this 13,000-acre lake surrounded by homes and used as a vacation destination has been deemed for a decade as no longer safe to touch.

'For us, when it first started, it was like the sky was falling,' said Donna Grube, executive director of the Grand Lake tourism bureau.

Last weekend, after spending millions of dollars over 10 years trying to fix Grand Lake's chronic water quality problems, one beach finally was safe enough for swimming. Officials hope the cleanup works and lures tourists back.

They also warn other Midwestern states: It can happen to you.

Study: Iowa already missing out

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds in June announced the 'This is Iowa' campaign to persuade people from other states to visit, move to and work in Iowa. Prominently featured on the campaign's website is a photo of a family pedal boating and a shout out to four Iowa lakes — Red Rock, Coralville Lake, Clear Lake and Lake Rathbun.

What the site doesn't tell people is that Rathbun, which hosts the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' Honey Creek Resort, had a swim advisory one week in August. High levels of toxins produced by algae turned the lake a murky green much of the summer. Moreover, microcystins can cause health problems ranging from skin irritation to liver damage.

Clear Lake had three advisories this summer for high levels of E. coli, a bacteria that indicate feces in the water.

As Iowans go elsewhere for vacation, the state loses out on tourism spending. A 2018 Iowa State University study found Iowa stood to gain $30 million a year by improving its water quality.

'Beach advisories may cause families to cancel planned trips altogether,' the study states.

West Lake Okoboji is an exceptional Iowa lake, with clear, cold water that so far has avoided algal blooms because of careful monitoring and protection.

'Because so many people spend time in and around the water, we want to make sure it's healthy and safe,' Peters said.

Okoboji tourists — most from a 200-mile radius — collectively spend an estimated $1 million a day during the peak summer months. This money holds down property taxes and helps pay for schools, roads and police, providing year-round residents with more amenities than those in many other Iowa small towns, Peters said. But many of these benefits would vanish if a lake is deemed unsafe for swimming.

'From a tourism perspective, being able to swim in the lake is important,' Peters said. 'It would be devastating for their property values as well, which then would affect tax revenue the city and county brings in, which would affect the money they have to make improvements.'