Environmental Justice for All: Nutrient Impacts on Lake-Based Recreation and Tourism by Rural and Socially Disadvantaged Iowans

Over the past 18 years, nitrogen pollution flowing out of Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico has grown by close to 50% and contributed 29% of the total nitrogen headed to the Gulf from the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River basin. Increased nutrients in Iowa’s water deteriorates water quality and can lead to toxic algal blooms that can both decrease the oxygen fish and other aquatic life need to survive and can cause illness in humans through contact during recreational activities. In addition, in the presence of excess nutrients, potable water is more likely to be contaminated and cause disproportionate burdens and health risks for low-income and minority communities. An increase in the population impacted by nutrient issues in Iowa sparks concerns about broader socioeconomic disparities in nutrient pollution exposure. More studies are needed to understand the nutrient impacts on social wellbeing for all Iowans.

This 12-month project aims to understand nutrient impacts via the lens of local recreation and tourism as well as the economic impact of water quality improvement on rural and lower-income communities. Specifically, we have three objectives. First, focusing on lower-income and underrepresented households and building on nearly two decades of historical Iowa Lakes Survey work (2002–2019), we will examine how water quality influences participation in lake recreation activities and the roles of water quality perception and recreation equipment ownership on households’ recreation decisions. Second, we will supplement the forthcoming Iowa DNR 2020 Iowa Lakes Survey to include more household samples from rural and lower-income communities to counter the underrepresentation of these communities in previous surveys. The COVID-19 pandemic also provides us an opportunity to investigate if rural and lower-income communities respond differently to this change in 2020. Third, we will conduct a series of IMPLAN analyses to quantify the economic impacts of current recreation and tourism activities on local economies and project how these economic impacts change under different nutrient-driven water quality scenarios.