Why we must ensure ALL Iowans are protected with beach advisory signage
by Angelisa Belden on Thursday, August 3, 2023
On Tuesday, July 25, after making note that Brushy Creek near Lehigh was once again under a microcystin advisory – the fourth consecutive week at that time and it was under advisory again last week! – I made the trek to get a look. Whenever feasible, we try to visit public beaches in Iowa with harmful algae blooms, or HABs, for photos and real-life observation.
We get the pictures for several reasons: to raise awareness and educate Iowans about HABs and their causes, to inform Iowans about the very real health dangers of HABs, and to document the forms an HAB can take to help people recognize toxic algae. Learn more and see photos of HABs here.
I had never been to Brushy Creek Recreation Area and was delighted to turn into an expansive site along the Boone River featuring horse trails, trap shooting sites, a lovely campground, and what looked like – from the parking lot anyway – a wide, beautiful beach that I couldn’t wait to bring my kids to (another time of course).
My first order of business: locate the advisory signage the DNR posts publicly during a microcystin or E. coli advisory. I spotted the small sign common to every state public beach; it contains the same general warning and information about how to find water quality information online. But there was nothing larger.
Nothing with dates or warnings about the current situation. Most of the text was rubbed away. In fact, the sign warning me that I couldn’t collect snails (!) was bigger and clearer than the signage warning me that I, my children, or my pets could be harmed by getting in this water.
Next order of business: find the bloom.
But as I walked onto the beach, I was dismayed to see a family splashing away in the water: several children, including a young baby, with their mother perched on the sand. My anxiety skyrocketed as I considered whether to approach this family enjoying the beach and water on a hot, muggy day and tell them they should really, really, really get out.
But I did. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. I had heard the children chattering in Spanish as they played; when I said hello, I learned the mother didn’t speak English and needed her son and daughter to translate into Spanish what I was attempting to share. I pointed out the green along the shore, and urged her to get everyone out soon, wash their hands carefully before they left the beach, bathe fully the minute they got home, and see the doctor right away if anyone felt sick.
Luckily, I was able to pull up IEC’s beach advisory page that we translate each week into Spanish. Through her daughter, the mother told me, “This beach is usually nice, but not lately.” How was she to know that it wasn’t just gross-looking, but also potentially dangerous? The advisory signage was tiny, not dated, hard to read, not available in any other language than English, and posted in just one place along a lengthy beach where people could enter from any point in the parking lot.
I spent nearly an hour along the shoreline taking photos and videos of the algae bloom in its various states: green goop in the water and sad scum floating on the surface, a dead fish, green water that was sometimes cloudy and sometimes clear. Watch this Instagram Reel to see the various forms we documented. As I prepared to leave the beach, I saw more people arrive with chairs and umbrellas and another car pull in the lot.
I wish I could say this was the first time I’ve been in this situation. I once advised a man to get his boisterous puppy out of Kool-Aid-green water in Clear Lake when it had a harmful algae bloom (did that not seem odd to him?), and encouraged a family with young kids frolicking down the path to that same beach to consider going elsewhere that day. You know what? Both had walked right past the DNR's advisory signage from the parking lot.
The DNR can do more and can do better. IEC approached DNR water quality monitoring officials in 2021 about improving signage and translating it into Spanish or other languages. They were receptive and began working on a comprehensive redesign of the beach signage that would include translation into other languages.
When we reached out to get an update for this newsletter earlier this year, we learned they are still a year away. While we fully support a redesign of the signage to catch more eyes and better convey risk to beachgoers, it’s too late for this family and all the others across the state taking their kids to an Iowa beach today.
If I lived near this recreation area, I’d want to be at this beach too. But I’d also count on state leaders and those tasked with managing our state recreation areas to be looking out for ALL the Iowans who use it – making sure that critical water quality and safety information is proactively shared for everyone in the community to be safe and not just posted for those who know where to look.
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