Iowans was advised not to swim on seven public beaches on the July 4th holiday weekend due to elevated levels of E. coli and poisonous algal blooms. Proponents say health concerns are a blow to families on a popular weekend for outdoor recreation.
For many Iower, Independence Day is a time to celebrate the country’s civil rights and freedoms with barbecue parties in public parks or while boating, fishing, and swimming in rivers and lakes. But blue-green algae and bacteria on public beaches kept some out of the water this holiday weekend.
The pollutants are associated with excess fertilizer, manure and runoff from the surrounding farms and flow through the state’s highly developed drainage networks and into lakes and streams.
The potential health effects of pollution can vary based on age and underlying health conditions. According to the Mayo Clinic, many healthy adults can recover from E. coli disease within a week, but some can develop life-threatening complications. Also, according to the U.S. EPA, the health effects of exposure to toxic algae can range from mild symptoms to potentially serious or life-threatening illnesses.
As of July 4, there were E. coli indicators on five beaches and microcystin indicators on three, with warnings from Prairie Rose Beach in Harlan County to Backbone Beach in Delaware County.
This summer, Washington County’s Lake Darling is the only beach so far with health warnings for algae and bacteria.
Diane Rosenberg, executive director of advocacy group Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors, said she used to take her kids to Lake Darling for afternoon swimming and summer camps, but she says she wouldn’t do the same today.
“I used to bring my children to the lake when they were little. We would spend a nice afternoon there, ”recalls Rosenberg. “I would never do that again if I had young children. I just wouldn’t do that. It’s just not healthy. It is not safe at the moment. “
Agricultural pollution in Iowa’s lakes and streams is so widespread that if conservation efforts continue at the current pace, it could take thousands of years to meet some of the goals of the Iowa Nutrition Reduction Strategy, according to a new analysis. https://t.co / bdbRkLcB4W
– Iowa Public Radio (@IowaPublicRadio) July 6, 2021
Lake Darling State Park has struggled with persistent water quality issues for years, despite taxpayers and private donors running a $ 12 million restoration project that was completed in 2014.
At the time, officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources saw the renovation as a potential model for other parks across the state, according to an article published by the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Before the restoration, the lake was so cloudy, with sediment and runoff from nearby farms, that biologists and proponents said the water looked like “hot chocolate.”
DNR officials assured residents that the millions of dollars in investment would keep the lake clear enough and clean enough for water species and swimmers to enjoy.
“Soil protection measures both in the park and in the watershed should ensure that the lake remains clear for generations,” said a newspaper article from 2014.
DNR has sometimes called Lake Darling, named after Iowa conservationist and Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Ding Darling, a “success.”
A 2007 publication by the department found that the poor water quality at Lake Darling kept not only swimmers but also campers and anglers from visiting the park. However, the article noted that conservation efforts by local farmers who were improving water quality helped encourage visits to the park and local businesses in the small town of Brighton, where proponents hoped “the town and surrounding areas were having to further improve water quality. “
For years @ DSMH2O has tried to force or persuade farmers to reduce the runoff that leaves rivers with sky-high nitrate levels. Now it is considering a drastic move that big cities just don’t typically do – drilling wells to find clean water. Https://t.co/ZxHLsM8vHE
– Kate Payne (@hellokatepayne) July 5, 2021
But in the years since the multi-million dollar investment, water quality issues persist. Rosenberg, the attorney in nearby Jefferson County, called the ongoing pollution a “slap in the face” to the public.
“Why renovate the lake if you can’t even use the lake as it was intended? Why bother raising $ 16 million and engaging a whole community of people to create, make more accessible, and purify this beautiful lake when you don’t have practices to protect it? ” asked Rosenberg. “That makes no sense.”
Proponents and researchers say a lack of regulation of nearby livestock farming continues to degrade the lake, despite millions being spent on restoration. Washington County has one of the highest concentrations of pig farms in the state.
Environmentalists and researchers have been calling for regulations on the state’s agribusiness to be expanded for years to address chronic water quality concerns that continue to threaten not only recreational waters but also drinking water sources across the state.
Editor’s Note: The version of this story that aired on IPR said the notices concerned eight lakes. We corrected that in this online story.