The busiest place in Iowa on July 4 is likely the two-lane section of Hjighway 71 between East and West Okoboji lakes, choked with cars, when the population of Dickinson County swells from 16,696 of year-round residents to an estimated 120,000 who come to the area for one reason: the Iowa Great Lakes.
Iowans are willing to drive hours to recreate on lakes with the best water quality, and will visit lakes closest to home for a quick week night or weekend trip to wet a hook. Visiting Iowa lakes is good for business, too.
The most recent study by Iowa State University’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development estimates that Iowans spend $1.6 billion annually to recreate at lakes, and with the number of lake restoration projects underway, that amount is likely to increase.
A recently completed water-based recreational use survey by Iowa State University’s Center for Agriculture and Rural Development found the most popular lake use activities in descending order were fishing, picnicking, wildlife watching, boating, hiking/biking and swimming/beach use.
To emphasize the importance that lakes have to the Iowa economy and as a major source of recreation, Gov. Terry Branstad proclaimed July as Lakes Appreciation Month.
“Sixty percent of Iowans visit lakes annually and most of them make multiple trips each year,” said Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Those visits mean money and money attracts businesses looking to serve that market. We know that Iowans prefer to fish, hike, camp and boat on lakes with better water quality and are willing to drive further and stay longer for that experience.”
Lake restoration projects are nearing completion at Little River Lake, Hawthorn Lake and Clear Lake, and have been completed at Crystal Lake, Lake Wapello and Green Valley Lake within the last few years.
Once fully restored, these lakes will become magnets for Iowans looking to spend time on or near the water. Cities and businesses understand that as well.
Storm Lake Mayor Jon Kruse said the ongoing renovation of Storm Lake has been a catalyst for economic development not only in the town of Storm Lake, but for the region as a whole.
“Lake restoration work for Storm Lake and its watershed has been the inspiration for the community to come together and chart its destiny into the future,” Kruse said. “This community has traditionally had most of its economic base centered on agriculture. Because of lake restoration work, our people determined that we could diversify our economic base by increasing recreational opportunities at Storm Lake.”
Crystal Lake has just started to see the benefits of the $3 million lake renovation. Anglers from surrounding counties and as far away as Des Moines and Columbus Junction have found 244-acre Crystal Lake, and stopped at Sheri’s Southside Convenience Store, one block south of the lake.
“This past winter I sold the most bait ever over the last 17 years,” said store owner Sheri Moore, of Crystal Lake. “Never have I seen this before.”
Moore said that while it was difficult on her business to renovate the lake, it needed to be done. Her store sells minnows, night crawlers and basic tackle, in addition to other convenience items, like gas, pop and snacks.
“When fishing is good, my sales are good,” she said. Although located near the north edge of town, Moore tied her business to the lake through the store’s name. “It’s called Sheri’s Southside because it’s on the south side of the lake and I depend on the lake for business,” she said. “The lake is everything to me.”
The renovated lake has also helped attendance at Crystal Lake County Park.
“The campground was busy on holidays, but declining on the other weekends and midweek,” said Jason Lackore, naturalist for Hancock County Conservation. “The use of the lake and the park increased once the water quality and clarity improved.
“People want to go where there is good water quality and good fishing, and since the renovation, they have been coming here from all over the region as well as from Minnesota,” he said.
Lackore has been the county naturalist for 13 years and said the lake use this past year was impressive.
“It was amazing how many ice shacks were here over the winter,” he said.
That good fishing has continued this spring.
Little River Lake, near Leon, completed a major lake restoration recently and since the lake has refilled, camping at the county park has increased 50 percent from pre-renovation numbers. Lake attendance has also increased 50 to 60 percent, according to county conservation board director Rich Erke.
At Green Valley State Park, near Creston, camping has increased 25 percent compared to pre-renovation attendance. Fishing has been excellent and will be even better in 2014 after the fish have another year to grow. The park is so popular that the cabins and campsites are nearly always full on the weekends.
Maintaining high quality lakes has been part of a long term commitment from the Iowa Legislature. Since 2007, the legislature has invested $61 million toward lake restoration efforts throughout the state, which includes $8.6 million for the upcoming year.
Lake restoration projects are possible because many entities work together to make it happen. Partners include the DNR Lake Restoration Program, DNR Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Districts, EPA Nonpoint Source Program, County Conservation Boards, local communities and private groups like Ducks Unlimited and lake associations.
The top 20 most visited lakes are generally around metro areas. In order, they are Saylorville, Coralville, Clear Lake, West Lake Okoboji, Big Creek Lake, Red Rock, East Lake Okoboji, Lake Macbride, Spirit Lake, Lake Rathbun, Storm Lake, George Wyth Lake, Pleasant Creek Lake, Lake Manawa, Brushy Creek Lake, Lake Ahquabi, Easter Lake, Lake Geode, Black Hawk Lake and Swan Lake.
About 1 million people visit the Iowa Great Lakes each year, spending $244 million that supports 1,830 jobs with an annual payroll of $29.28 million.
The Iowa Great Lakes Chamber of Commerce estimates that the county population increases from 16,696 of year round residents to about 100,000 for Memorial Day Weekend, 120,000 for July 4, and is 75,000 from July 4 to Labor Day.
The University of Okoboji Winter Games attracts 30,000 visitors and 5,000 anglers in May on the opening weekend of walleye season.