Lakes are a fundamental part of the Iowa experience. They are also an important economic benefit to the state. Clean lakes are an asset for all Iowa businesses in recruiting employees and retaining a healthy, happy workforce. There are more than 11.9 million lake visits in Iowa every year. These visits result in $1.2 billion in spending and more than 14,000 jobs. 

Clean lakes contribute to our economic well-being and the vibrancy of our communities. Those of us who care about protecting our quality of life in Iowa must care about protecting our lakes. Clean lakes provide opportunities for swimming, boating, fishing and much more. Clean lakes are a shining example of our state’s beauty and our quality of life. 

The Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Iowa Environmental Council have proposed rules that are designed to protect that quintessential Iowa experience and ensure that Iowa’s lakes are safe for swimming for generations to come. These rules are based on scientific evidence and recommendations presented to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) by a panel of scientists. The rules will prevent toxic algae blooms and reduce pollution. They provide a way to measure progress and create peace of mind. 

It’s impossible to live in Iowa without having experienced a weekend trip to or a summer afternoon at Okoboji, Clear Lake, Lake McBride, Lake Rathbun or any number of other lakes scattered throughout the state. It’s something parents look forward to sharing with their children. When Iowans talk about our great quality of life, the ability to make an easy weekend trip to an Iowa lake is an important part of that.

So what does it say about our priorities and the job that we are doing to protect our quality of life when algae blooms on our lakes become noxious? What does it say to families when our waters are so overrun with pollutants that they can’t go swimming for fear of getting ill?

At a recent meeting of the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, Kim Stroud described water pollution so bad that “the algae rose up and baked and looked like cobblestones along the south shore of Spirit Lake.” She noted the smell was horrendous, and people couldn’t stand to be outside. Water pollution and algae blooms have significant health impacts as well. They can cause rashes, hives, blisters, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and even poison the family pet.

Unfortunately, these are not new problems, and they have only been getting worse in recent years. Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources has been considering action to protect Iowa’s swimming lakes for years. In 2008, a panel of scientists provided a set of recommendations to the DNR for how to protect our swimming lakes. Since that time, progress has been stalled during transitions, as priorities shift or when resources have been strained. As a result, good science and analysis has ended up being shelved for a later day, and Iowans have had to wait for action to protect their lakes. In the meantime, we’ve seen more algae blooms, more beaches have been subject to warnings for toxins, and more parents have questioned whether it was safe to let their children swim in an Iowa lake.

Polluted lakes don’t just affect the communities and small businesses that rely on boating, fishing and tourism to an area’s beaches. Polluted lakes affect all Iowans’ quality of life and in turn can have a chilling effect on employee recruitment and retention for Iowa businesses that want the best talent working for them. If we care about our quality of life, we must take action to protect our lakes. We urge you to join our call for the DNR to implement water quality standards for our lakes so that another swimming season does not pass us by without meaningful action to protect our lakes.

Josh Mandelbaum is staff attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center