116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
A study chronicled by The Gazette’s Erin Jordan this week found that people headed out to Iowa and Minnesota lakes are willing to travel farther for clean water. The analysis of social media photos found that lake goers were willing to travel 56 miles farther for every 1 meter increase in water clarity.
It’s latest evidence that clean water attracts tourism and tourism dollars. In Iowa and six surrounding Midwestern states, outdoor recreation generates $880 billion in spending and 7.6 million jobs, according to the Outdoor industry Association.
But Iowa suffers from persistent water quality problems. Nitrates and phosphorous flowing mostly from cropland foul Iowa waterways and, in particular, feed algae blooms in lakes that can spawn dangerous toxins. In 2020, half of Iowa’s state park beaches posted at least one swim warning and a smaller number of lakes had several weeks of advisories.
Republicans who have controlled much of state government in recent years have been reluctant to take on Iowa’s water challenges in any meaningful way. The state’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy has not received enough buy-in from farmers to significantly reduce polluted runoff.
Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court shot down a promising effort to hold our leaders’ feet to the fire. Ina 4-3 opinion, the court dismissed a lawsuit seeking to hold the state accountable for failing to protect the Raccoon river, a major source of drinking water for Des Moines. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch argued failing to shield the river from ag pollution is a violation of the public trust. Three dissenting justices argued the suit should have moved forward.
So now the ball is back in the governor’s and Legislature’s court. During a keynote session Monday as part of The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week: Water Quality, Iowa Flood Center co-founder Larry weber outlined policies Statehouse leaders could pursue.
Weber said the state should discontinue crop production in areas susceptible to regular flooding, specifically 100,000 acres of cropland in two-year flood zones. Technology could be deployed to map manure management plans, research is needed to develop better manure biodigesters to breakdown waste and farmers could receive payments for agreeing to limit commercial and manure fertilizer use. Over-application feeds polluted runoff.
Weber also contends the state should increase funding for lake restoration and adopt measurable water quality standards once lakes are restored. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has been reluctant to set lake standards, arguing they could lead to calls for costly clean ups.
But ignoring evidence and sustaining the dirty status quo is not going to solve Iowa’s water problems. Iowa is already losing tens of millions of dollars from Iowans willing to drive past dirty lakes to cleaner waters. We need leadership, political courage and clear-eyed science.
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