Iowa Parks During the Pandemic

posted on Friday, July 31, 2020

Guest blog post by Olivia Hicks, IEC Communications Intern

Since COVID-19 has altered Iowans’ summer plans, a large number of Iowans have taken full advantage of outdoor recreation opportunities to get out of the house. As summer approaches its final month, that trend has not slowed down.  

BeachgoersIowa state and county parks have seen tremendous park, trail, and beach attendance since COVID-19 reached the state.  

While different measures of attendance produce varying results, Richard Leopold, the director of the Polk County Conservation Board, said aggregate cell phone data has reported a 150% increase in Polk County park use. Data extrapolated from the American Trails Association has shown a 200% increase in Polk County trails use.  

Similarly, Todd Coffelt, Chief of State Parks, Forests, and Preserves Bureau for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said Google analytics reported a 140% increase in park attendance across the state of Iowa.  

Pammel Park Banner by Middle River

This increase in park attendance is even more monumental given that 2020 marks the 100th anniversary of Iowa State Parks. While many of Iowa DNR's celebratory events were postponed, or virtual, what better way to celebrate Iowa’s state parks than taking advantage of Iowa's natural wonders.  

Typically, the Iowa DNR's summer attendance indicators are the weekends of Memorial Day and 4th of July, as they represent the peak of park activity most summers. However, this summer every weekend resembled the 4th and Memorial Day.  

"Every weekend in June and May was like a holiday weekend," said Coffelt. “Day use numbers are above average; the parking lots are typically full on the weekends and on warm days trails have seen an increase in foot and bike traffic." 

Other indicators include traffic counters, parking spot capacity, and the DNR's online campsite reservation system. The reservation website advertises around 4,800 available campsites. Coffelt said based on attendance estimates from this recreation season, every weekend in the last half of May and all of June indicated all electric and full hook up camping sites were used.  

April, May, June, and now July have shown high numbers of birders, swimmers, kayakers, fishers, and boaters. However, increased beach usage cannot be reported without an air of caution and not just concerning COVID-19 safety.  

The Iowa DNR monitors 39 recreational beaches in Iowa state parks. Of those 39, eight water bodies have E. coli related advisories this weekend. 

The effects of water contamination are no small threat.  

“Bacterial and viral contamination is one of the big concerns with recreational water use, 

particularly swimming, where you're potentially ingesting [water]. The big health effects are things like gastrointestinal illness: stomach upset, diarrhea, and severe cases of that depending on the type of pathogen that you might get exposed to. There are respiratory illnesses that can cause respiratory infections. Skin diseases, so rash, and ear, nose, and throat issues,” said David Cwiertny, Director of Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa.  

Cwiertny also warned of the effects of microcystin, a toxin 

Algae Bloom

produced by harmful algal blooms. Microcystin exposure can hinder liver function in animals and humans and cause possible death when pets ingest contaminated water.  

However, the Iowa DNR’s recent adoption of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 8 micrograms per liter of microcystin advisory threshold instead of the previous 20 micrograms per liter threshold could help protect public health in Iowa’s water bodies.  

“The fact that we were for the longest time using a less stringent number created this gray area where people might feel like they are safe to recreate,” Cwiertny said. “This gives Iowa the chance to be on top of making sure people know water quality is safe.” 

The DNR aims to inform the public through advisories. Coffelt emphasized while the Iowa DNR cannot control beach-goers' actions, the water quality monitoring team wants to inform the public the best they can.  

"My advice would be to know before you go. We have information on our website and park-goers can call ahead," said Coffelt.  

When reflecting on increased use of Iowa’s state parks and beaches, it is difficult to ignore the potential for outdoor recreation if Iowa’s water was better quality.  

“It's just a tremendous missed opportunity,” Cwiertny said. “So many communities could thrive around the rivers and other lakes and surface waters we have, but until we get a handle on our water quality… I don’t feel particularly comfortable.”  

Kayakers on Badger Creek

If you are itching to leave your home and get outdoors during the pandemic, take the DNR’s advice and check for advisories before you go to ensure it is safe to swim. If you are unsure, non-contact activities like kayaking, canoeing, fishing, or paddle boarding might be the best outdoor recreation activity for you! 

  1. beach advisories
  2. cafos
  3. clean water
  4. dnr
  5. drinking water
  6. harmful algal blooms
  7. land stewardship
  8. microcystin
  9. nitrate pollution
  10. public beaches
  11. toxic algae
  12. water quality
  13. water recreation
  14. water safety