Every year I look forward to vacationing with my husband’s side of the family at beautiful Lake Okoboji. Our days are spent doing what the area is known for— relaxing, boating, waterskiing and watching the kids play on the beaches. And we aren’t alone in choosing this popular tourist destination as our getaway.
The Iowa Great Lakes, which include West Okoboji, East Okoboji and Spirit Lake bring in nearly $200 million of economic impact to the area. And because it is the premier place in Iowa for boating, fishing, swimming and jet skiing, many families will soon kick off the summer season there over Memorial Day weekend.
And thanks to efforts from locals—including farmers—the water this year is ready to enjoy.
What is the water quality like in the Iowa Great Lakes?
Both West Lake Okoboji and Big Spirit Lake have been deemed an “Outstanding Iowa Water.” Which may surprise farming critics as segments of West Lake and Big Spirit are listed on the Iowa Department of Natural Resource’s Impaired Waters list—but hold on! Did you know that water segments can be on the “impaired” list for a variety of reasons, including natural occurrences that have nothing to do with agriculture? Simply put: “impaired” does not mean polluted.
Experts say measuring and determining water quality is complicated. For example, West Lake Okoboji is broken down into five different water segments for testing, as opposed to the whole entire lake. Of the five, three segments are required to have a watershed plan. One segment was reported “impaired” because of waterfowl causing degradation. Two other segments on the list were labeled “fully supporting” the water’s recreational purpose in 2016 but need another cycle of re-evaluation before a decision can be made to delist them.
Sometimes it can be invasive species causing water quality issues like the curlyleaf pondweed. If that plant sounds vaguely familiar, you might have heard about it in the news. Mike Hawkins, fisheries biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, explains curlyleaf is an aquatic plant that germinates in the fall, and because of the clear water conditions, light penetrates through the winter ice to the lake floor, allowing it to live. Once this ice clears, Hawkins says the plant “takes off,” growing rapidly and inhibiting the growth of beneficial native plants. When curlyleaf dies back in early summer, it releases nutrients, triggering algae blooms.
Now, nutrients are necessary for a healthy lake ecosystem. Hawkins points to Lake Superior as an example of one of the clearest bodies of water in the United States, but because it contains too few nutrients relative to Iowa lakes, it supports very little aquatic life. So, just like most things, we know it’s all about balance and working together toward a common goal; protecting our state’s beautiful lakes and streams that supply us with drinking water, a thriving ecosystem and memories made on the water. In fact, some waters considered “impaired” have been de-listed thanks to communities coming together to protect their natural resources.
How are farmers protecting water quality in the Iowa Great Lakes?
To be clear, farmers know agriculture can have an impact on water quality, which is why they continue to take on the challenge of finding ways to be part of the solution. But, as stated above, it’s complicated and there are a lot of moving parts—both from natural cycles as well as human impact.
John Wills, director of the Dickinson County Clean Water Alliance, insists for water quality projects to be successful, farmers, urban dwellers and businesses must work together. The goal could not be achieved by just one group acting alone. Local collaborators include rural and urban entities ranging from the YMCA, art center and city governments to the Dickinson County Farm Bureau and Iowa Great Lakes Fishing Club—proving there is a widespread, vested interest in keeping the lakes clean for all to enjoy.
These collaborative efforts bring measurable success with reductions of 560 tons of sediment per year; 1,435 pounds of phosphorous per year; and 650 pounds of nitrogen per year in the Iowa Great Lakes. Other successes include the restoration of more than 500 acres of wetlands and 1,000 feet of shoreline to native shortgrass prairie up in the Okoboji area, and there’s even more projects underway right now.
It’s why I’m especially excited for our family trip this year. My son will have just turned one, and as much as he likes to splash in the bathtub—I know he will especially love splashing in the BIG tub that is Lake Okoboji. I hope other moms will also take the time to learn more about water quality and conservation before they make judgements about farming. After all, showing what people can do by working together is another important lesson to teach our children this summer, right?