How do we build a healthy and sustainable Iowa?

December 9, 2020 12:36 pm

The Iowa Great Lakes has maintained high water quality allowing families to enjoy a healthy outdoors experience. (Photo by David Thoreson)

Now that the contentious elections are behind us, we have difficult choices to make. The United States of America has crumbling, outdated infrastructure and an antiquated energy system. We need a massive public works project to employ 10 million people who lost jobs due to coronavirus. Rebuilding an America prepared for the threats of an uncertain 21st century should be a top priority regardless of politics.

Our economy is shifting away from the old, polluting fossil fuel-based economy into a cleaner, high tech and renewable energy model producing advanced manufacturing and installation jobs. These are the fastest-growing jobs in America.

At the same time, the failures and inequities of our health care system are being exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. We must come out of this challenging time with a plan to rebuild smarter, cleaner and more sustainably.

As I write, the Louisiana coast has been thrashed for the fifth time in 2020, this time by hurricane Zeta. Yes Zeta — we were forced to use the Greek alphabet because there have been a record number of storms in this Atlantic hurricane season. On the west coast, wildfires are consuming California at a rate never witnessed in history. In California alone, fires have burned more than 4.1 million acres and destroyed over 10,000 homes.

Many Iowa rivers are impaired by agricultural runoff. Improving water quality creates rural and urban recreational opportunities along with potential economic benefits. (Photo by David Thoreson)

Iowa is not rebuilt from record 2019 floods that caused $2.9 billion in damage. Sixty-seven of 99 counties in Iowa were designated disaster areas. The summer of 2020 brought a new devastating derecho windstorm, the most powerful thunderstorm ever recorded. It caused $7.5 billion dollars of damage to a staggering 850,000 acres of farmland and communities in Iowa. This was immediately followed by the driest August ever recorded, moving much of the western third of the state into a severe drought.

We are being forced into rebuilding much of the country, and the state of Iowa, over and over again. This all comes with a staggering cost to the taxpayer because of climate disruption happening in real time. Climate change has arrived. Our agricultural landscape and infrastructure are in disrepair. Scientists predict that our weather and climate systems are only going to get less stable and less predictable in the near future.

Should we build back the same as we would have in the past century when weather and climate patterns were more predictable? The answer is no. The state of Iowa needs to build back in a more “resilient” manner in a way that our buildings, communities and landscape can sustain more extreme weather events and not be lost. We need to reimagine Iowa based on a scientific climate assessment looking at past, present and future climate scenarios.

At the same moment we face exhaustive climate disruption, the coronavirus pandemic is devastating the country and our state. Iowa has had 200,000 COVID-19 cases, more than 2,000 deaths, record hospitalizations and billions in health care costs. COVID has entered into over 100 nursing homes, killing our most vulnerable Iowans and infected dedicated health care and “essential” frontline workers who are getting completely burned out and demoralized. We have a public health crisis in the state of Iowa simultaneously.

In the middle of a pandemic, it is sometimes hard to get outside of the bubble and connect the dots. Climate change and coronavirus are intricately connected by the fact they are both crises of science. Scientists have predicted the rise of both issues. It is our duty as citizens to understand and accept the science; then solutions can be implemented and society can advance together. Science cannot get politicized, or demonized, any further. Follow the science. There are healthy pathways forward with a bold vision which ultimately creates a more resilient Iowa.

Restoring natural features and adding border trails creates healthy outdoor family opportunities and could be replicated across the state of Iowa. (Photo by David Thoreson)

At a time when we have been so divisive, let’s begin to heal by working together on issues that Iowans overwhelmingly support in a bipartisan manner. At the very top of the list there is one clear example: Iowans want more public land and water for safe and healthy outdoor recreation. This is the perfect place to start the healing.

As we entered and emerged from the first wave of coronavirus in the spring and summer, something became very clear. We all value a healthy outdoors and opportunities to enjoy nature. Not only are we blessed with beautiful natural resources here at the Iowa Great Lakes, we have invested in expansion of our outdoor recreational economy. In times like these we can easily see how this vision has worked. Iowa as a whole, however, has not invested in this vision. Therefore, countless Iowans don’t have the opportunities to get outside and enjoy a walk on a trail or a paddle on a lake or river.

With water quality an issue throughout the state of Iowa, the concentration of boats on the Iowa Great Lakes is increasing. (Photo by David Thoreson)

One can clearly see from the concentration of people and boats on our Iowa Great Lakes that we are loving the water to death. Do we want our scarce, public waters to be so congested like ours or shall we restore more nature and provide more local opportunities to our citizens across the state?

Now is the time to invest in water quality and recreation all across Iowa, something we all advocated for 10 years ago. In 2010, Iowans voted for a constitutional amendment to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, a permanent, protected funding source dedicated to clean water, protecting our vital soil and expanding wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities. We have now potentially lost a billion dollars which could have been invested in creating the new, improved and healthy Iowa.

Seventy percent of Iowans support this specific investment in Iowa’s future. As it turns out, 70% of Iowans also want to see action on projects that can help with climate change. Many of these new projects overlap while helping the agricultural community diversify their lands with added income streams. We can boost our economy, create new local jobs, all while becoming a part of the solutions to climate and public health issues.

Strong public health doesn’t just include our health care system; it means a healthy outdoors with local opportunities for families to recreate safely and peacefully. Restoring and enhancing nature, promoting conservation and mitigating damage caused from viruses and a changing climate are big and bold goals for the 21st century. Let’s work together on this enlightened vision and begin the process of healing. We must build a more resilient Iowa.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

David Thoreson
David Thoreson

David Thoreson is a photographer/writer based in the Iowa Great Lakes. Thoreson documents the outdoors and is active in climate and water quality issues.