Amid the sprawling farm fields that rank Iowa as among the most human-modified landscapes in the world, the state’s lake restoration program is among the best in the nation at improving water quality creating more opportunities for fishing and boating.
The Iowa Lake Restoration Program, which has garnered around $65 million of state money for projects over is 9-year history, is one of a few model programs for reservoir restoration across the country, said Jeff Boxrucker, coordinator of the Reservoir Fisheries Habitat Partnership. “They do a lot of projects,” he said.
Many of those projects fund work up in the watersheds that improves water clarity downstream, according to Mike McGhee, the restoration program manager for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Bureau. They’re often reducing the sediment and nutrients flowing off of land that leads the nation in agricultural production.
“We’re a big ag state, obviously. Number one in corn, soybeans and hogs,” McGhee said. “Probably one of the most altered environments in the United States.”
But lakes are important to Iowans. Surveys carried out by Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development show that 60 percent of residents visit a lake more than once a year, while the pursuit of lake-based recreation generates $1.6 billion in economic activity annually.
That makes the program an easy sell to the state legislature, which provides all the program’s funding.
“Sixty percent — that’s a super majority of people that visit a lake each year, speaking electorally,” McGhee said.
The Iowa program is modeled after the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Lakes Program, which was designed to help states with restoration projects but hasn’t been funded since 1994. The DNR assessed 127 of the state’s lakes in 2005 and 2006, and the agency created a ranking based on factors including water quality, restoration potential and local support. The state stepped in with funding in 2007 and has since supplied an average of around $7 million a year.
The ranking process produced a list of 35 priority systems, and the program currently has ongoing projects in around 25 of those. That includes Lake Darling, where the program replaced a leaking dam with new one that will raise the lake level two feet. Sedimentation in the lake had previously shrunk its surface by 40 acres, and work in the watershed will cut sediment inputs by 60 percent.
On Blackhawk Lake, the undesirable species that dominated the poor fishery were also stirring up sediment, re-suspending nutrients and contributing to the water clarity that sometimes dropped to less than a foot of visibility. A project there physically removed species such as bullheads and common carp and stocked bluegill, largemouth bass, walleye and muskie.
The Lake Restoration Program doesn’t fund 100 percent of these projects; Other Federal, state and local sources are often involved. Strong local support is crucial to restoration success, McGhee, but talking to community members about their degraded lake can be a delicate matter. Lakes are personal to people, and “when you go into a community and talk poorly about somebody’s lake, it’s like you’re talking and about their dog,” he said.
The dog analogy also applies to helping set reasonable expectations when it comes to what a restoration project can realistically do for a lake. Every lake can’t be among the best in the state, just like a dachshund can’t be expected to run like a greyhound.
Some lakes are just dachshunds, but “I’m going to make your lake the best darn dachshund it can be,” McGhee said. “It may not be a greyhound, but it’s going to be an exceptional dachshund.”