Algae blooms, drought, spring flooding

My childhood summers were filled with going to my aunt and uncle’s lake house where we would swim each day, never wanting to leave the water even as the sun was setting, always preferring to stay outdoors. At the beach, my cousins, sister, and I would see who could stand on their hands the longest under water, we’d choreograph routines and pretend we were on a synchronized swimming team, we’d play Marco Polo—hiding behind perfect strangers in the lake hoping not to be tagged “it”—and every once and a while, we’d rent a paddle boat where we’d pedal our way across the lake dreaming about what our future might reveal.

Now that we’re grown and as our nieces and nephews want to spend the summers swimming and playing in the lake, instead of taking the children straight to the beach, we’re reading news articles with headlines like “Too Toxic to Swim” and checking the local reports about the water quality and danger that swimming might pose to people and animals because recent summers have seen record numbers of warnings against swimming in the lake due to toxic algae blooms.

In the United States, the agriculture industry’s participation in water quality regulations is only voluntary, yet commonly used fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus, in combination with a warming climate, cause these algae blooms. Algae blooms, in turn, cause fish die off. I have unfortunately seen dead fish floating on the surface of the lake. In addition to minor health problems like rashes, algae blooms are connected to more serious health problems like cancer, liver damage, respiratory and neurological affects. Moreover, a federal study suggests that climate change will create conditions that exacerbate soil erosion and fertilizer runoff threatening natural bodies of water as well as drinking water sources further continues this harmful cycle.

As I write this, temperatures across the State of Iowa were higher over Christmas than they are typically over Mother’s Day. Friends recount the difficulty farmers had last year due to spring flooding, a short planting window, and a summer drought. The government continues to deny human participation in causing climate change and has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Agreement. For now, we wait to usher in a new government and hope for another summer of swimming.

Iowa, United States , 2.1.2020


Kathleen Maris Paltrineri is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet from Iowa. She received her MFA from the University of New Hampshire where she studied with Charles Simic. She created Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast while she was the Fall Residency coordinator for the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. In 2018, she was a Distinguished Visiting Writer at Cornell College and a Jentel Artist Residency Fellow. She translates poetry from the Norwegian and is a candidate in the Iowa Literary Translation Workshop. Her work may be found at I learned to know the warmest liveliest sunshiny Kathleen when I was participating in the International Writing Program Fall Recidency in Iowa 2016.