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Health Advisories At Some Iowa Lakes Dampen Outdoor Recreation Over July 4th Weekend

Kate Payne
There were eight swimming advisories in place at seven state beaches in Iowa over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Advocates say the health warnings were a blow to families during the popular outdoor recreation weekend.

Iowans were advised against swimming at seven public beaches over the Fourth of July holiday weekend due to elevated E. coli levels and toxic algae blooms. Advocates say the health concerns are a blow to families during a popular weekend for outdoor recreation.

For many Iowans, Independence Day is a time to celebrate the nation’s civil rights and civil liberties with cookouts in public parks or by boating, fishing and swimming in rivers and lakes. But blue green algae and bacteria at public beaches kept some out of the water this holiday weekend.

The contaminants are linked to excess fertilizer, manure and runoff from surrounding farm operations and flow through the state’s heavily engineered ag drainage networks and into lakes and streams.

Potential health impacts of the pollution can vary, depending on age and underlying health conditions. According to the Mayo Clinic, while many healthy adults can recover from E. coli illness within a week, some may develop life-threatening complications. According to the U.S. EPA, health effects from toxic algae exposure can also range from mild symptoms to potentially serious or life-threatening illness.

Heading into July 4th, five beaches had E. coli advisories and three had microcystin advisories, with warnings in place from Prairie Rose Beach in Harlan County to Backbone Beach in Delaware County.

So far this summer, Lake Darling in Washington County is the only beach to have health advisories for both algae and bacteria.

Diane Rosenberg, executive director of the advocacy group Jefferson County Farmers & Neighbors, said she used to bring her kids to Lake Darling for afternoon swims and summer camps, but she says she wouldn’t do the same today.

“I used to bring my children when they were young to the lake all the time. We would go and have a nice afternoon there,” Rosenberg recalled. “I would never do that if I had small children again. I just wouldn't do that. It's just not healthy. It's not safe right now.”

Lake Darling State Park has struggled with persistent water quality issues for years, despite taxpayers and private donors undertaking a $12 million restoration project that was completed in 2014.

At the time, Iowa Department of Natural Resources officials saw the renovation as a potential model for other parks around the state, according an article published by the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Before the restoration, the lake became so clouded with sediment and runoff from nearby farm operations, biologists and advocates said the water resembled “hot chocolate.”

DNR officials assured residents that the millions of dollars of investments would keep the lake clear enough and clean enough for aquatic species and swimmers.

“Soil conservation measures both in the park and in the watershed should ensure that the lake remains clear for generations,” according to a 2014 Gazette article.

The DNR has at times labeled Lake Darling, named for Iowa conservationist and Pulitzer-prize winning cartoonist Ding Darling, a “success.”

A department publication from 2007 noted how poor water quality at Lake Darling not only dissuaded swimmers from visiting the park but also campers and anglers. But the article noted that conservation efforts by nearby farmers that improved water quality helped boost visits to the park and to local businesses in the small city of Brighton, where advocates were hopeful that “as water quality continues to improve, the town and surrounding areas will grow."

But in the years since the multi-million dollar investment, water quality issues persist. Rosenberg, the advocate in nearby Jefferson County, called the continued pollution a “slap in the face” to the public.

“Why bother to do a lake renovation when you can't even use the lake in the way it was intended? Why bother to raise $16 million and get a whole community of people working to create this beautiful lake, to make it more available and clean it up if you're not going to have practices that protect it?” Rosenberg asked. “It makes no sense.”

Advocates and researchers say a lack of regulation of nearby livestock operations continues to degrade the lake, despite the millions spent to restore it. Washington County has among the highest concentrations of hog operations in the state.

For years, environmentalists and researchers have called for expanding regulations for the state’s ag industry in order to address chronic water quality concerns, which are continuing to threaten not only recreational waters but drinking water sources across the state.

Editor's note: The version of this story that aired on IPR said the advisories affected eight lakes. We have corrected that in this online story.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter