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Clean up Iowa's Water?

May 12, 2010
Ed Brown
Des Moines Register
February 13, 2001

People would rather have their theme parks
Ed Brown, Professor of Biology and Director of Environmental Programs

I had the opportunity to spend the weekend BEFORE the Minnesota Fishing Opener on a small lake about two hours Northwest of Minneapolis. By coincidence, this was the weekend after Paul Johnson resigned as Commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources and the weekend before our research group was to begin its second summer studying water quality of two Iowa Lakes.

The small lake in Minnesota has about 40 cabins along its shores, but only about six were occupied that unusually warm May evening when I floated in a canoe. Except for three loons, I was alone on the flat calm crystal blue lake. The water was so clear, I could see the bottom to a depth of at least thirty feet and occasionally I would glimpse a large bass or even a loon swimming under water chasing a small fish or minnow. Quietly drifting, it was hard not to think of lake water quality in Iowa and why Paul Johnson, who fervently advocates clean water, quit so unexpectedly.

The quality of life in Iowa is excellent because of our abundant natural resources of good soil, abundant water and a climate conducive to excellent grain farming. Clean water is no longer an attraction to Iowa nor is it a characteristic to be included as a measure of quality of life. It wasn't always this way. I was born in 1948 and it is particularly pleasant for me to fondly remember going to "the lake" when swimming in Clear Lake about the time that Buddy Holly died meant swimming in clean water.

But swimming and fishing in lakes have been replaced by other forms of recreation for most Iowans. We now have air conditioned indoor entertainment at malls, movie theaters and even entertainment in our own homes. Apparently, clean lakes and streams are not as important to our quality of life as they once were.

Each Earth Day, public officials are asked if the environment is cleaner than it was in 1970, the year of the first Earth Day. I donÍt know if the ground water or surface waters in Iowa are cleaner than in 1970 (testing has been sparse), but my generation remembers much cleaner water in the 1950's. The reason for the first Earth Day was the recognition that environmental quality was being degraded and that it was finally time to do something about it. This was a particularly critical period for agriculturally dependent Midwestern States that wished to enhance the quality of life for its citizens in difficult economic times. We, Iowans, made the choice to allow our surface waters to deteriorate to the point that most are unfit for swimming or capable of sustaining natural populations of fish. One lake our research group is studying was classified as fit for "swimming and fishing" by the Environmental Protection Agency twenty or so years ago but was recently characterized as a "sewer" by a DNR official.

Ground waters received some attention with the passage of the Ground Water Protection Act, co-authored by Paul Johnson in the late 1980's. I am confident that the authors of that legislation believed that it would protect the environment and keep groundwater clean and safe for human use. However, some would argue that the former governor and legislators used the legislation to focus more on assisting businesses to comply with, primarily, federal environmental regulations rather than actual adverse impacts to the environment. Could it be that Paul Johnson was frustrated because he discovered that current legislators would not give him the support needed to re-think environmental protection and begin to focus more on the environment? The Groundwater Protection Act is dated and needs to be re-visited.

However, legislature apparently continues to believe that IowaÍs water quality only needs enough attention to keep Federal Regulators from forcing action and ensuring that water at certain swimming beaches is not so contaminated with bacteria from fecal material that bathers will get acutely ill.

Nostalgia aside, it makes more "economic sense" to build theme parks than to spend the millions that would be necessary to rehabilitate our neglected lakes and streams. Maybe that is the sensible approach. The kids of my generation have Disney World; thatÍs better than the real thing! So bring on the water slides, the wave pools and the artificial rain forests. We nostalgia buffs who still value clean water as important to our personal and spiritual life can always go to Minnesota.... or Wisconsin, or Michigan or Colorado or Montana or...