Survey: Iowans willing to pay for cleaner lakes

Fishing is popular at Big Creek Lake north of Des Moines. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowans would consider paying for cleaner water if someone had a good idea how to accomplish that, a study found.

But most of Iowans surveyed weren’t familiar with the centerpiece of Iowa’s cleanup effort, the voluntary and widely criticized Nutrient Reduction Strategy. And farmers who were asked about water quality issues tended to say the problems are less serious and less farm-related than other poll respondents thought.

Wendong Zhang is an assistant professor of economics at Iowa State University. (Photo via TheConversation)

Those were some of the findings shared by Iowa State University economist Wendong Zhang at a presentation at the Iowa Water Conference on Tuesday. The conference continues through Thursday.

A study funded by the Iowa Water Center and released in December found a minority of Iowans, 32%, considered Iowa’s water quality “good” or “very good.” But 55% of farmers ranked the quality that high, Zhang said. 

A majority, 60%, of the general public considered manure and fertilizer from farms as the main source of runoff pollution in Iowa’s lakes. Less than a third of farmers, 32%, agreed. 

But farmers were more attuned to the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which asks farmers to voluntarily use conservation practices to help improve Iowa’s waterways, sometimes with government aid. That strategy, which has been the focus as lawmakers continue to decline to regulate farm runoff, has been called ineffective by the Iowa Environmental Council, the Iowa Chapter of Sierra Club, Des Moines Water Works and a host of other critics.

The survey found 20% of farmers were “not at all familiar” with the strategy, but 65% of the general public didn’t know about the document or its contents. 

The general public tended to be more concerned with cancer-causing nitrate in drinking water, considered a sign of farm runoff. The survey found 35% of the public and 26% of farmers concerned about nitrate pollution, which caused Des Moines Water Works to install special treatment equipment decades ago. 

Iowans on average said they would be pay $19 a month if someone could promise them 25% less nitrate in water sources, a 50% cut in toxic algae blooms that prevent swimming at beaches and a 10% cut in the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.

The “dead zone “ is an area of low oxygen tied to algae blooms that the U.S. Geological Survey has tied mostly to agricultural runoff. Iowa and Illinois, the nation’s top two corn-growing states, have been identified as the top sources of the pollution.

Survey respondents tended to be mostly male and retired. The survey was of 858 Iowans in 2019 and 493 farmers in the Boone and North Raccoon river watersheds in 2020.

Zhang is pursuing a new survey this year in an effort make sure that racial, gender and economic diversity are represented.

Another study found that people who fish in Lake Erie in Ohio were willing to pay $8 to $10 more per trip if a mile of their route was free of toxic algae. And if someone found a way to cut phosphorus pollution — which feeds the algae blooms — by 40%, the fishing enthusiasts would be willing to pay an extra $40 to $60 per trip, according to the survey.