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The Worth of Water: Iowans Value our Recreational Lakes

Economic Impacts of Iowa Lakes

Iowa Lakes are Highly Used for Recreation

Over the span of several years, researchers at Iowa State University studied the use and economic impact of 139 Iowa lakes via the Iowa Lakes Valuation Project (ILVP).

According to ILVP:

  • Iowa lakes are highly used – 65% of Iowa survey respondents visited a state lake at least once in 2019
  • On average, Iowa survey respondents took about eight trips to visit an Iowa lake in 2019

Recreational Lake Use Is Important to Iowa's Economy

When people visit our lakes for recreation, they spend money on local retail goods and services such as gasoline, food, or lodging. This spending provides significant benefits to our state and local economies. According to ILVP:

  • Visits to Iowa lakes result in over $1 billion in direct spending in the state each year.
  • Direct spending varies at each lake, but on average, visitors spend an estimated $7.4 million annually per lake.
  • While some lakes generate significant spending (e.g., several Iowa lakes generate spending of over $50 million annually), even small lakes in rural Iowa can generate spending of over $2 million annually.
  • The 2014 study showed that Iowa lakes create and support more than 12,000 jobs in the state.

View an interactive map of the economic impacts of other individual lakes around Iowa.

Water Quality is Essential to Recreational Lake Use

Okoboji Water ClarityAccording to the ILVP, water quality (i.e. "safety from bacterial contamination/no health advisories") is the most important factor for Iowans when choosing a lake for recreation. Water clarity is also an important consideration.

As nutrient pollution continues to degrade Iowa’s water quality, it can also reduce the recreational use and enjoyment of Iowa lakes and diminish the associated economic benefits of Iowa lake use. 

On the other hand, improving Iowa's water quality can spur increased use and associated spending. Iowa lakes that have benefited from restoration projects and investments, such as Easter Lake in Polk County, have seen considerable increases in tourism. According to ILVP, three out of four lakes with the highest increases in visitation in Iowa have undergone major restoration projects. 

Iowans are willing to pay for water quality improvements and associated recreational benefits. 

According modeling and estimates by the Center for Agriculture and Rural Development:

“Iowans would be willing to pay about $30 million per year for recreational improvements [resulting] from the better water quality associated with full implementation of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy.”