Lake Recreation Spurred over $1 Billion in Spending in Iowa in 2019

Wendong Zhang, 515-294-2536;
Nathan Cook, Communications, 515-294-3809;

December 6, 2021

Ames, Iowa – A new study by Iowa State University economists found that lake recreation activities in Iowa drove over $1 billion in spending in the state in 2019.

“In terms of lake expenditures, compared to the $983 million dollars of direct spending in 2014 (equivalent to $1.059 billion in inflation-adjusted 2019 dollars), the estimated total direct spending associated with single-day trip visits to Iowa’s lakes in 2019 was $1.023 billion dollars, with an average total expense per lake of $7.4 million dollars,” said Wendong Zhang, an assistant professor of economics at Iowa State’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) who helped conduct the study.

“$1 billion is a big number—more than half a percent of the Iowa economy,” Zhang said. “The U.S.-China trade tariffs in 2018 resulted in $1 billion to $2 billion in lost state revenue, for comparison,” he said.

“It is quite significant, if you consider the current-dollar outdoor recreation-related GDP for Iowa in 2019 was around $3.6 billion,” said Yongjie Ji. Ji is a research scientist at CARD and was involved in the study along with Zhang and Xibo Wan, a former Ph.D. student of Zhang’s and current postdoctoral research associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Zhang emphasized that the $1.023 billion in direct spending was only related to single-day trips to Iowa lakes, “so it does not include lodging expenses, and it does not include spending related to overnight trips.”

Wan, Ji, and Zhang worked with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources on the 2019 Iowa Lakes Survey, which provided the data for their study. The survey was previously conducted every year from 2002 to 2005, and in 2009 and 2014. Ji said the 2019 survey was sent to 7,000 households in Iowa and, for the first time, states bordering Iowa.

The study shows that total direct spending on lake recreation and the number of single-day and overnight trips to Iowa lakes were all about the same as in 2014—in 2019 the number of Iowa households making lake trips increased, but the number of trips per household decreased. However, Ji said, “the estimated total household single-day trips across Iowa in 2019 was about nine million, which is about the same as the 2014 estimates.”

The 2019 study found that 65 percent of Iowa respondents took at least one single-day trip and 20 percent took at least one overnight trip to an Iowa lake, with the average being about eight single-day trips and about two overnight trips per household. For out-of-state respondents, about 22 percent took at least one single-day trip and 9 percent took at least one overnight trip, with the average being about two single-day trips and roughly one overnight trip per household.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many aspects of Iowans lives over the past year-and-a-half, it did not have any impact on survey results—the survey focused on lake trips in 2019, and the researchers said that the majority of surveys were returned before the pandemic began in March 2020.

“There is no reason to believe that the pandemic affected the visitation patterns revealed in the survey,” Zhang said. “However, there is evidence that the pandemic affected people's usage of local amenities—lakes, rivers, and state parks included.”

The 2019 survey did reveal some changes in the most popular lakes in Iowa. In 2014, Saylorville Reservoir, Clear Lake, West Okoboji Lake, Grays Lake, and Big Creek Lake were, respectively, the five most popular lakes for trip-takers. However, the 2019 survey showed that Clear Lake overtook Saylorville Reservoir as the most popular, while Ada Hayden Lake and Lake MacBride joined the top-five and West Okoboji Lake and Big Creek Lake dropped out of the top five.

One thing has not changed since the 2014 survey—respondents in 2019 said that water quality is the most important factor when choosing a lake for recreation, even more important than the park facilities available on premises or the lake’s proximity to their household. About 70 percent of respondents said they checked water quality status before visits—83 percent of Iowa respondents said they checked the DNR website and another 32 percent used DNR social media platforms to do so.

The majority of respondents were mostly concerned about agricultural runoff, livestock manure, and urban runoff as pollutant sources. Zhang said the 2019 survey included a new section about harmful algal blooms, which “are a growing concern in Iowa lakes and many US freshwater recreational sites.” A harmful algal bloom is when naturally occurring algae grow out of control, producing harmful and often toxic effects.

“Harmful algal blooms can directly harm humans with algal toxins and they have led to beach closures. It is best to avoid contact with the waterbody when a large harmful algal bloom is present,” Zhang said. About 32 percent of respondents reported seeing a large algal bloom in an Iowa lake in 2019, and of those, about 82 percent reported either moving to a different area of the water body or stopping all water-related activities.

Survey reports, interactive maps, and other lakes-related publications are available at

CARD researchers will conduct a similar lake-recreation survey from January to March 2022 that will focus on the lake trips taken by underrepresented and socially disadvantaged Iowans. The Iowa Water Center is funding that research.