Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The photo below (credit David Thoreson) was taken at Iowa’s West Lake Okoboji this past 4th of July weekend. Ignoring for a while what it may show about the effectiveness of volunteerism in suppressing the coronavirus, I’d like to point out that this is one area of Iowa where our legislature has chosen to pursue a regulatory framework to protect water quality, ostensibly to protect West Okoboji as a source of drinking water. Speaking of drinking water, some of those boats do look nice enough to have a head but…..on second thought I won’t take take that sentence any further.

crowd on lake okoboji

Dickinson County, home to West Okoboji and the other Iowa Great Lakes (Big Spirit, East Okoboji, and some smaller nearby lakes) has worked hard to protect their water resources, which they see as an economic engine for the region. Numerous watershed, wetland construction, monitoring, and urban stormwater projects help characterize the stressors and stem the flow of pollution into this interconnected lake system, and help make it a vacation destination.

The lakes still suffer from inputs of nutrients and other pollutants and the water quality on Big Spirit and East Okoboji is far from pristine. Nuisance algae blooms are fairly common and there are some other problems. But West Lake’s depth (at 136 feet the deepest lake in Iowa) essentially entombs the incoming pollution, allowing the epilimnion (upper layer of the lake) to remain relatively unscathed. As a result, West Lake is very clear and hosts a great recreational fishery, of which I can attest.

I don’t recommend fishing on July 4.

Lake Okoboji Bass

The unique (for Iowa) clarity of West Lake has helped make its shoreline the priciest real estate in Iowa. The state’s most expensive single family dwelling is there, and a quick look at Zillow shows 20 lakeside residences currently for sale with an asking price greater than $1 million ($1.1 to 5 million). Zillow values almost every residence with frontage on West Okoboji, which is almost completely developed, at greater than $1 million. Nearby Big Spirit lake, also a good recreational fishery, is shallow and thus more vulnerable to nutrient pollution, and shorefront property there goes for much less than West Okoboji. Green water tends to suck the green out of nearby real estate.

As I said, Dickinson County and a long list of individuals and organizations have worked tirelessly to slow water quality degradation of the lakes. The county has been especially hostile to the livestock industry (1, 2) and has long argued that the existing Master Matrix framework for livestock facility siting is a failure. In a 2015 letter to Iowa DNR (2), the supervisors said “Dickinson County relies on a combination of industry, tourism and farming to advance our overall economic well-being. For more than a century, these economic forces have worked in concert such that today Dickinson County is one of the most economically stable and fastest growing counties in Iowa.” Out of Iowa’s 99 counties, Dickinson County is #2 in per capita income (3), beating out the city slickers in Polk (3rd), Linn (5th), Johnson (7th) and Scott (9th) Counties.

Now there are some that say that manure actually protects water quality (4) and plays no role in the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone (5), and so some others might wonder why Dickinson County doesn’t open the barn door to new CAFO construction. But really, it’s not very mysterious to anyone uninfected by  the Moreasonavirus, which causes brain injury and motivated reasoning (hence the name) in its victims. What is sort of curious is how the county has managed to be as successful as it has been in getting legislators, agencies and others to help them manage for a diverse economy that values their natural resources.

As you read what follows, rest assured that I think the lakes and especially West Okoboji merit special consideration and protective measures because of the unique ecological and geological features they provide to Iowans. But I have to say that we have many other natural gems that do not merit such attention. Clayton County’s Bloody Run Creek, for example. This small, short and cold river supports an excellent trout fishery and has long been one of Iowa’s most undisturbed streams. But time after time, the locals (Clayton and Allamakee Counties, 74th and 84th in per capita income) are forced to defend the stream from stressors like highway construction (mid 1980s) and a 10,000 head cattle feedlot (2017), losing in both cases. The feedlot has twice been fined $10,000 for polluting the stream (6), which, at $2/cow doesn’t seem like much when Iowa DNR values the economic value of a trout around $15 (7). Go figure, literally and figuratively.

Feel free to disagree, but I think I’m standing on a pretty sturdy limb when I say that the 4th of July photo shown above, the property values on West Lake Okoboji, our legislature’s willingness to protect the lake with special laws, and the county supervisors’ zeal in preserving its clarity, are all related. If you like fishing or swimming or sailing in Lake Darling or Backbone Lake or Bloody Run Creek and are bothered by their condition, well, you better learn to just deal with it.

When I first saw that Independence Day Okoboji photo, I couldn’t help but think about it against the backdrop of everything else going on in our country right now, which to me circles around the words “privilege” and “right”, and how we comingle them. The privilege/right to work from home, out of harm’s way. The privilege/right to not wear a mask, to go to a bar, to be treated fairly and humanely by our police and our government. The right (privilege some would say) to protest injustice.

How does this all relate to our water here in Iowa? Clearly some have the privilege to impair our water, and many of those would say they have a right to do just that. And some of us have more of a privilege than others to use the cleanest of our lakes (and yes, I know there is public access to West Okoboji). I’d even count myself as among this last group, although I don’t own any property there and don’t know anybody that does.

If you have children coming of age, then I think you know that big change is at our doorstep. Some privileges may endure, but the privileged will have to fight dirty to keep them. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am. And I don’t think I’m being political when I say that.

I’ve always been sort of fascinated by Bob Dylan, and when faced with questions about the (supposed) political nature of his early work, he said this: “To be on the side of people who are struggling for something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being political.” I think this is good and correct, and it’s tragic that the privileged of our country have comingled “struggle” with “political” in a way that is not unlike the comingling of “privilege” and “right.”

You might recognize the title of this essay as the same as the 1963 Bob Dylan song. The entire poem is like an Orwell prophesy. Here’s the end:


Oh, the foes will rise
With the sleep still in their eyes
And they'll jerk from their beds and think they're dreamin'
But they'll pinch themselves and squeal
And know that it's for real
The hour when the ship comes in

Then they'll raise their hands
Sayin' we'll meet all your demands
But we'll shout from the bow your days are numbered
And like Pharaoh's tribe
They'll be drownded in the tide
And like Goliath, they'll be conquered



  1. https://www.dickinsoncountynews.com/story/2434152.html.
  2. https://iagreatlakes.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Guge-Farm-Letter-Signed.pdf
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Iowa_locations_by_per_capita_income
  4. https://www.iowafarmbureau.com/Article/Between-the-Lines-The-scoop-on-poophow-Iowa-farmers-manage-manure-responsibly
  5. https://www.ktbs.com/news/arklatex-politics/reviving-the-gulf-of-mexico-s-dead-zone/article_f344d378-388e-11ea-b587-539cdee2716e.html
  6. https://www.sierraclub.org/iowa/blog/2019/10/walz-energy-fined-again-for-pollution-bloody-run-creek-trout-stream-watershed
  7. https://www.kcrg.com/content/news/I9-Cedar-Rapids-fish-kill-may-cost-City-thousands-of-dollars--439077123.html