Are we really doing right by Iowa's land and water?
by Megan McDowell on Friday, July 23, 2021
This summer I had the unique opportunity to spend time in Western Iowa camping, canoeing, and exploring four state parks. My base camp was the lovely Swan Lake State Park in Carroll County. From there I visited Prairie Rose, Blackhawk, and Twin Lakes state parks, as well as explored the shoreline of Storm Lake. I also discovered the beauty of Grant County Park along the North Raccoon River and Reiff Park along the Boyer River near Early, Iowa.
Iowa has some pretty amazing parks. Last summer, many of us realized their importance more than ever. This summer, people are getting out in droves and exploring the great outdoors both close by and far from home. I chose these state parks because they’ve been on the Iowa DNR’s beach advisory lists for E.coli, making them unsafe for swimming and other recreation.
I often wonder if people really know when the beaches are unsafe for swimming. When you visit beaches under advisory, the signs are relatively small, easy to ignore, and I imagine visitors are writing them off as the standard ‘no lifeguard on duty’ notification. I talked with a mom at
Twin Lakes State Park who told me the nearby community has a Facebook page that posts the beach advisories from the DNR. But as a traveler coming to the park, would they see the one, lone sign that’s not even close to the main beach where the majority of kids were swimming that day?
The town of Lake View in Sac County has a beach along the banks of Blackhawk Lake. I spoke to a man at the Crescent Beach concession stand, he said the DNR notifies them about beach advisories at Denison Beach in Black Hawk State Park, but he didn’t know there had been E.coli advisories the prior two weeks when I spoke to him on June 22. Why wouldn’t the DNR make more of an effort to get this information out to the public? Could this be a capacity issue due to understaffing?
The main lake at Prairie Rose State Park had nice kayak launches, but the really interesting side of the lake is the marshland to the East where all the wildlife congregated. Yet the boat ramp area, while perhaps navigable to a boat on a trailer, was covered in bright green algae - the kind that looks unnatural and you’re not quite sure if it’s churning out harmful microcystin. I decided not to wade through all that algae just in case. I did, however, help a big snapping turtle to get off the highway before he was run over by a semi-truck.
I got some looks, and I’m sure some laughs too, as people drove by the crazy lady parked in the road with her hazards flashing. The turtle did not have a way to swim directly to the main lake though, so he had to travel over the fairly busy highway. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could provide wildlife with easier and safer routes across our roadways and make driving safer for fellow humans?
As I drove through the Iowa countryside, I did find myself discouraged at the number of CAFOs I could see in every direction, the lack of crop diversity, and often seeing crops seeded up to the edge of a stream or river. The more I learn about the water quality problems we have in my home state, the more I want to fix it. But it’s going to take money, and a whole lot more acceptance for change, to implement the solutions we need to help protect our water and soil from the adverse consequences of certain farming practices.
I was a weekend farm kid. I grew up in Southwest Iowa and my grandpa raised cows on the farm. And pigs when my mom and her siblings were growing up. (Back when selling one hog would cover the cost of a semester of college tuition, but I digress.) Those cows were free to roam the hillsides, timber, and pastures. The crops were rotated and I remember the cows being let out to graze the corn stalks after the harvest, no-till was the ‘normal’ thing to do, or so I thought. The cows seemed happy and healthy. They didn’t have to stand around in a confined space, out in the hot beating sun, mucking around in the mud and their own manure. The air still smelled fresh around the farm, natural and outdoorsy. I’m not sure about you, but seeing cows in these confined animal feeding operations makes me wonder why we are treating animals like this. They’re already giving up so much for us to eat, why not make their lives a bit better before they end up on our plates and grills?
I found myself asking these questions and more. I know it’s easy to ignore problems or to justify the agricultural system that’s holding our state – and yes, our farmers - hostage. But we can do better. Relying on a voluntary nutrient reduction strategy is not working; we have to be honest with ourselves and face that. But voluntary is hard to make work when you don’t necessarily own the land you’re farming or have the money to put into conversation practices.
If our lawmakers would take the step to raise the state sales tax by 3/8ths of a penny (yes, just that much) we could have the outdoor trust fund Iowans voted on and approved 11 years ago. We could have millions in NEW money to fund all kinds of water quality improvements – money for farmers to make beneficial changes, for trail maintenance, and money to help our state offer more and better outdoor recreation. (I mean, Missouri \has an outdoor trust fund. Does Iowa really want to trail behind Missouri???) As someone who loves to canoe, and has been canoeing Iowa’s rivers since I was two years old, I want to live in a state that values outdoor recreation and safe water.
I know Iowa used to have cleaner, clearer, and safer water from stories my grandpa shared about swimming in the Grand River. But with the ways we’ve modified our landscape so greatly, I just hope we can turn it back before it’s too late. At the rate we’re going, even a few generations of Iowans from now won’t have safe water to touch, let alone drink.