Black Hawk Lake’s water quality problems date back to the days of the Depression, but local residents and community leaders think they finally have a path toward recovery.
“There is no doubt that people here want to make real progress on making the lake a better place for all of us. There is just too much at stake,” said Jamie North, who moved to the area with his family five years ago.
Local residents have come up with a long-term plan to address the pollution problem that has kept the lake on the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s impaired water list for the past decade.
Excessive algae growth and turbidity plague the glacial lake, posing a problem for the local economy and the health of those in nearby Black Hawk Lake State Park and the small town of Lake View. These problems are caused primarily by large amounts of runoff from the surrounding agricultural communities – a 13,000-acre watershed feeding a 900-acre lake.
This situation isn’t new. A conservation plan prepared in 1933 by the Iowa Board of Conservation and the Iowa Fish and Game Commission reported that Black Hawk Lake exhibited algae growth in 1932 and was in deep need of dredging as a result of silting as well as sewage and cattle pollution. The plan recommended, among other things, that 960,000 cubic yards be dredged and that 200 acres be deepened to 10 feet.
But unlike those days in the 1930s, when Lake View was a much smaller town and the lakeside properties were essentially empty, there is much more at stake now for those who live in the community. City officials estimate that the lake generates about $19 million annually.
“It seems every couple of weeks, there are signs posted that tell people swimming isn’t recommended,” says Emily Onstot, who grew-up on the lake and moved back to it after living in Denver. “Once it is posted, it's what people remember, and it is always much harder to get those people back because they don’t want to go into that kind of water. It's a detriment to the economy.”
In mid-July, officials from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) found sufficient levels of e-coli and the toxin microcystin – produced by blue-green algae – in the lake to recommend against swimming.
Onstot was among nearly 100 area residents and community leaders who met with state and federal officials in July to discuss the progress being made. At that time, Iowa water quality officials were seeing blue-green algae blooms in the lake that they believe were the result of dry weather conditions and motor boats churning up pollution already in the lake. Blue-green algae, often known to locals as the “pond scum” that floats on top of the lake, is unsightly, produces a strong odor, chokes fish and native plants of oxygen, and can be toxic to humans and pets.
The major problem is that 75% of the watershed is comprised of corn and soybean farms. As a result, those acres are producing runoff laced with nitrogen and phosphorus – common nutrients applied to fields to improve yields. Those nutrients may be good for corn and soybeans, but they aren’t good for waterways. Once there, they stimulate algae growth just as they would have stimulated growth on the farm.
Studies have shown that about 74% of the phosphorus pollution in the lake is the result of cropland runoff during rainy periods. The remaining 26% comes from sewage effluent, streambank erosion, and internal phosphorus recycling – when phosphorus deposits already embedded in lake sediment are released due to lack of oxygen or intense water movement from motorboats.
Dean Tiefenthaler, who lives on the lake, but farms near Breda, said that the nutrient impact can be seen most distinctly in the early spring just after the lake’s ice has melted. Unlike most of the year, that’s when the water is clear almost to the bottom.
“You can see three feet deep,” Tiefenthaler said. “It’s so beautiful. That is the way it should always be.”
Paul Alesch, a retired farmer and area business owner, said that those kinds of nutrient problems have plagued the lake for about as long as he can remember.
“Back in 1972, we could see some of the [nutrient] problems though we didn’t quite know how serious they could be,” Alesch said.
As a result of these problems, residents and community leaders have developed a 30-year plan to clean up the lake. The plan is designed to stem the flow of nutrients into the watershed prior to any kind of dredging and other more expensive steps. To do that, it calls for five phases – each with specific pollution-reduction goals tied to the participation of farmers, business owners and homeowners in the area.
As part of that effort, the Sac and Carroll County Soil and Water Conservation Districts obtained a $454,000 grant to be used to provide incentives to farmers and land owners to employ conservation practices that will benefit the lake.
T.J. Lynn, the program’s coordinator, says that the program has received support from area farmers. Already, farmers who have adopted various conservation practices have helped to reduce the flow of phosphorus by about 865 pounds this year and have kept an estimated 400 tons of soil on the farm. To put those numbers into context, scientists have estimated that one pound of phosphorus can grow from 350-700 pounds of blue-green algae, according to the State Environmental Research Center.
Lynn said that farmers are adopting practices, such as leaving crop waste on their fields to prevent soil erosion and injecting phosphorus below ground instead of spraying it on crops, where it can easily run off into nearby waterways.
Farmers aren’t the only people being asked to change habits. Urban residents of towns like Lake View are being asked to install rain gardens and rain barrels around their homes. These devices prevent rain water from washing soil and urban pollution (e.g., oil leaks from driveways) into the lake.
Lynn said that area landowners already have initiated a variety of anti-pollution practices on 2,500 acres of the 13,000 acre watershed.
But that isn’t enough, given the fact that there are nearly 32,000 pounds of phosphorus that enter the lake on an annual basis. Lynn said that the initial goal is to reduce phosphorus pollution by 15% in the next five years and by 80% by the end of the 30-year plan, with tiered targets in between.
“We must reduce substantially the amount of phosphorus and sediment that is getting into the lake if we are to have a healthy and properly functioning lake,” Lynn said. “We are off to a good start, but we have a long way to go.”
Tiefenthaler is one of farmers who already adopted various conservation practices to prevent phosphorus and soil from leaving his farm and entering the lake. He uses a “strip tilling” method that prevents soil erosion and helps keep moisture in the ground. Also, he uses a GPS system to plant seeds in the exact locations where he has already injected phosphorus and other nutrients underground, which is preferable to spraying nutrients on top of the field, where it can more easily run off the land into the lake.
“I put 90% of the phosphorus in the ground 6-8 inches deep so it doesn’t get out of the ground,” Tiefenthaler said. “Phosphate and potash doesn’t move if it is the ground. If it stays on top, it will wash off.”
Tiefenthaler says these practices also save him money.
“We save a lot on fuel costs and in the number of hours we put on our tractor by doing it this way,” he says. “Time on a $200,000 tractor is money, and now we don’t have to be running the tractor the whole time.”
Asked whether other farmers will be willing to adopt these practices, Tiefenthaler said that many farmers in the area are likely to at least listen.
“People in the watershed are more willing to listen, but it may take a while to get all of them to understand,” he said.
Tiefenthaler said that the largest resistance will come from farmers with a certain philosophy.
“There are two ways to farm,” said Tiefenthaler, who prides himself on his conservation farming methods. “You can farm a lot of acres, or you can try to get more bushels off of one acre. I have found getting more bushels off an acre is where I am at, and it is paying off for the lake as well.”
If more farmers begin to adopt that same attitude, then Black Hawk Lake will have a chance to finally recover.
Onstot said that the primary goal is to reverse years of neglect to protect the one resource that the entire Lake View community shares.
“To me, the lake is the lifeblood of where I grew up. You see pictures of how it used to be. To be honest, a lot of it went away,” she said. “We need to bring a balance back for all of us.”