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Who we are

Posted on June 26th, 2019

I wrote most of this from the humble abode shown at left. I’ve always wanted a pickup camper and finally got around to buying one last week. I made the trip to Platteville, Wisconsin to buy this one of unknown age for $1500, which was a steal considering its near mint condition. I like camping, but I don’t want to sleep on the ground anymore. Plus, if writing this blog is as risky as some people seem to think it is, I figured some backup housing options might be prudent.

I brought it and my boat up to Lake MacBride Friday evening, thinking some solitude and an Iowa lake might provide me with some inspiration. I was soon inspired.

Despite the prediction of heavy rain, which  proved accurate, the campgrounds were nearly full and I was lucky to get a spot. MacBride is Iowa’s 6th-most visited state park (out of about 60), with more than 500,000 visits in 2018. I find the lake, like many of the constructed lakes in our parks, to be quite scenic. You would be hard pressed to make a distinction between Lake MacBride and a lake embedded in the hardwood forest of central Wisconsin.

Until you get to the water’s edge, that is.

The dynamic nature of our rivers tells us who we want to be, and who we don’t want to be, depending on the day. It’s way too often the latter because we’ve turned many of our streams into outdoor plumbing.

Lakes, on the other hand, store our transgressions for us and tell us who we are.

Saturday morning I backed down the boat launch near the Lake MacBride beach, and was saddened but not shocked to find the water was disgusting pea soup as far as the eye could see. This was not an obstacle for some, however, as people were on the beach, paddling kayaks and paddle boards, and fishing from boats and shore. I decided to take my boat over to the muddy waters of Coralville reservoir, where I caught no fish.

Forced with another boat-launching choice of mud or soup on Sunday morning, I chose instead to walk from the campground to the waterfall where MacBride empties into the reservoir. The air was so wet it dripped water like a boxer. Two or three monsoon downpours highlighted the walk, and I got to the waterfall in a pouring rain.

A strange effluvium, like something from an painter’s palette, formed where MacBride’s soup pooled out onto the reservoir’s coffee.

This is who we are.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The green and brown of our land is now the green and brown of our water, and the taxpayer has invested a lot of money trying to correct this. DNR has spent at least $100 million of your money on lake restoration since 2007, including some money spent here at MacBride.

We’re not very good at guarding our investments.  As far as I can tell, MacBride is not included in future restoration plans, so what we see here is what we get, at least for the time being.

Green water caused by megablooms of algae does present hazards to people. It was recently in the news that our DNR will not follow an EPA recommendation to impose stricter hazards on Iowa lakes because they “do not agree with the formula and science used to develop the 8 micrograms per liter for cyanotoxins microcystins standard,” according to an Iowa DNR spokesman. It’s interesting that DNR also did not agree with the lake nutrient standards proposed by their own assembled science team. DNR says adopting these standards will not make our lakes any safer for recreation.  I guess that’s probably right, if we don’t have enough desire, or courage, or determination, or whatever it is we lack, that is necessary to make the fundamental changes on the landscape necessary for clean water.


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13 Responses

  1. Jack Lauer says:

    Hey Chris, nice piece and your past ones too. Turn the camper truck and boat north and try some MN lakes! Actually though, we see alga dominant lakes in southern MN and it’s sad. Ironically on years where it flips to clear water state (after winter kill) and good aquatic vegetation flourishes, people complain and want their green lake back. Go figure. Enjoy your outdoor camping experiences. I just got back from the BWCA to get a reality check. Jack

  2. Jim Ruebush says:

    I think most people don’t pay much attention to the changes in the world around them. One needs to visit the natural world often, observe how it looks and is behaving, then come back regularly to note if it is different. That takes time.

    What gets the time and attention of most? It is that small communication device nearly everyone stares down at. They can be handy and helpful things. But, they aren’t the real world.

  3. Kenneth Elgersma says:

    A beautiful piece of writing about an ugly problem. I did have to chuckle however when you said “I’m too lazy to look up the stats”; looking up the stats is pretty much what you do in these blogs! I appreciate your insights and your stats-finding.

    • cjones says:

      Thanks! I actually emailed DNR to send me list of parks / number of visits. i will let you know if i get that.

  4. […] at guarding our investments,” said Chris Jones, a University of Iowa research scientist who blogged about Lake Macbride last week after a camping trip, saying the lake looked like “pea soup as far as the eye can […]

  5. Forrest Meyet says:

    Is the reconstituted lake at Kent Park in better shape than Macbride is now? Is it more protected from runoff?

    • cjones says:

      The Kent Park Lake should have at least a few years of decent water quality since dredging was part of the restoration. Phosphorus attaches to soil particles and when sediment is removed, it also removes the primary driver for algae blooms (phosphorus). As to the status of the areas upstream of Kent Park Lake, I do believe the county has tried to work with the landowners on a few things to protect the lake but I am not an authority on what has been done. I am sure if you call Johnson County Conservation they can tell you about that better than I can.

  6. Nancy Crespin says:

    Thank you for speaking up for Iowa’s waterways, Chris. What can we, as Iowans, do to change this? To put pressure on DNR to take a more proactive stance, to protect and enhance our water quality?

  7. Susan Judkins Josten says:

    I am concerned with the number of recent anecdotes I’ve been told about illnesses and infections that friends or family have experienced after spending time in and around Iowa’s water. I think there’s a personal health story that isn’t being fully told as people don’t necessarily connect one with the other.

    • cjones says:

      Thank you for reading the essays Susan, and thanks for this comment. Although I am not an authority on this particular subject, I do believe it to be true that people do contract illnesses from contact with Iowa waters.

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