2018 Impaired Waters List

2018 Impaired Waters List

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is seeking public comment on the newly released draft impaired waters list.  Prairie Rivers of Iowa will be recommending that Squaw Creek and East Indian Creek be added to "Waters in Need of Further Investigation."  We'll also take this opportunity to try to demystify a topic that can be confusing, using examples from the South Skunk River watershed. Every two years, the DNR is required to assess the available data to determine whether Iowa's lakes, rivers, and wetlands are meeting their designated uses.  About half the rivers, and a bit more of the lakes have enough data to assess.  Since new waters are considered each cycle, the length of the impaired waters list doesn't really tell us whether water quality is getting worse.  Since nutrients aren't considered for most uses and the data used for the 2018 assessment is from 2014-2016, it doesn't tell us whether the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is working.  What it...
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Low hanging fruit?

Low hanging fruit?

Nitrogen rate management (MRTN) is the low-hanging fruit of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a win-win for profitability and the environment.  On closer inspection, that fruit is even juicier than we thought; but harder to reach.   Here’s the paradox of nutrient management that the general public fails to grasp.  We don’t know with any certainty at application time how much nitrogen the corn crop will need or how much nitrogen will be left in the soil come July when the crop starts maturing.  Corn stalk nitrogen tests and split applications can improve the accuracy of the guess, but farmers still have to guess.  If they guess too low, they lose income.  So most farmers err on the high side, which means that (all else being equal) more nitrogen will end up in our streams. Figure by John Sawyer at ISU.  The economically optimum nitrogen rate varies by year, even on the same field. We may not know what’s the right amount of nitrogen...
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Watershed Matchup #5: Grant Creek Vs. West Indian Creek

Watershed Matchup #5: Grant Creek Vs. West Indian Creek

GIS mapping is a big part of my job, but I'll be the first to admit there’s a limit to what you  can learn about a stream without getting your feet wet, or at least dipping a bucket into the water. I’ve been testing West Indian Creek and Grant Creek at the lovely Jennett Heritage Area, just above their confluence. (With some help from David Stein and Rick Dietz)  West Indian Creek flows through Nevada and drains 28,417 acres at this point.  Grant Creek, also known as Drainage Ditch 5, drains 13,344 acres between Ames and Nevada. Based on soils and landcover in the watershed, I’d expect Grant Creek to have comparable or slightly worse water quality than West Indian Creek.  There are nutrient loading models available online and in the Story County Watershed Assessment that predict just that. Instead, I’ve found that water quality is consistently better in Grant Creek.  West Indian Creek has normal nitrate levels but very high phosphorus levels. ...
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Lake Appreciation Month – Cairo Lake

Lake Appreciation Month – Cairo Lake

"None of the lakes hereabout are very deep. They are all marsh-like, only distinguished from a thousand marshes by the courtesy of the pioneer who called them lakes to suit his fancy, recognizing their greater width and possibly, in some cases their bluffy shores." -Thomas H. McBride, Geology of Hamilton and Wright Counties (1910)   The governor has proclaimed July as Lake Appreciation Month. We've got a few lakes in the South Skunk River basin that we appreciate for different reasons. Hickory Grove Lake is a 100-acre impoundment that we appreciate for swimming and fishing. The effort involved in constructing it and now restoring it is a testament to how much Story County residents value our lakes. Ada Hayden Heritage Park Lake is a 137-acre former gravel pit that we appreciate for paddle sports, fishing, and admiring from the trails. Little Wall Lake is a 249-acre natural lake that we appreciate most for swimming and motorized sports. Cairo Lake is a 1300-acre former lake...
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Watershed Matchup #4: Upper Squaw Creek vs. Lower Squaw Creek

Watershed Matchup #4: Upper Squaw Creek vs. Lower Squaw Creek

This post is part of a series for 2019 Watershed Awareness Month, comparing water quality in a pair of local creeks to learn how land and people influence water. On May 20, the Skunk River Paddlers launched their canoes and kayaks on Squaw Creek at 100th Street in Hamilton County and paddled down to 140th St in Boone County.  The recent rains made it a fast ride! However, the rain also washed a lot of sediment and quite likely some land-applied manure into the stream.  I collected a water sample just before I took this photo and had a lab test it for E. coli bacteria, an indicator of fecal contamination: 2,390 CFU (Colony Forming Units)/100mL.  That’s 10 times the primary contact standard for a single sample (235 CFU/100mL) and just shy of the secondary contact standard (2880 CFU/100mL). Later that day, I collected a sample from Brookside Park in Ames with the help of my son.  The lab results came back at...
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Watershed Matchup #3: College Creek VS Bluestem Creek

Watershed Matchup #3: College Creek VS Bluestem Creek

This post is part of a series for 2019 Watershed Awareness Month, comparing water quality in a pair of local creeks to learn how land and people influence water. With such a big watershed—147,000 acres—we’ll need the help of a lot of people to improve water quality in Squaw Creek.  However, some of the people I talk to assume that water quality is mostly someone else’s problem—it’s the CAFOs fault, or the golf courses, or the residential lawns. By comparing smaller streams, volunteer monitoring can help us untangle some of the influences and serve as a reality check on the finger pointing.  Thanks to the Squaw Creek Watershed Coalition we have some data on a lot of Squaw Creek’s tributaries, some with urban watersheds (College Creek) and some with rural watersheds, some with hog barns (Prairie Creek) and some without (Bluestem Creek).  Some streams were even sampled monthly for a few years—not always the same years, but I’ve included some monthly averages...
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Watershed Matchup #2: Clear Creek VS Clear Creek

Watershed Matchup #2: Clear Creek VS Clear Creek

This post is part of a series for 2019 Watershed Awareness Month, comparing water quality in a pair of local creeks to learn how land and people influence water. Clear Creek @Hyland on May 18 Clear Creek@ Hyland on May 24 Transparency > 60 cm Transparency of 1 cm Orthophosphate 0.1 mg/L Orthophosphate 5 mg/L Clear Creek was true to its name on May 18 when the Squaw Creek Watershed Coalition did its spring water quality snapshot.  Long-time member Ed Engle and three Ames High School students (Wil, Becca, and Nate) filled a transparency tube to the top (60 cm) and the secchi disk at the bottom was clearly visible.  A week later, Rick Dietz tested the same location after a 1.7 inch rainstorm and couldn’t see the disk until he’d poured out all but 1 cm of the water! Water quality can change rapidly.  Sediment* in the water spikes during and after a big rain storm.  So does phosphorus and E. coli.  Nitrate and chloride show strong...
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Watershed Matchup #1:  Long Dick Creek VS Bear Creek

Watershed Matchup #1: Long Dick Creek VS Bear Creek

This post is part of a series for 2019 Watershed Awareness Month, comparing water quality in a pair of local creeks to learn how land and people influence water. Long Dick Creek and Bear Creek both start east of Ellsworth and join the South Skunk River between Story City and Ames.  Both have agricultural watersheds with thousands of acres in both Story county and Hamilton county.  Yet one is dirtier than the other.   You might wonder why… Hey!  Wipe that smirk off your face! “Long Dick” was the unfortunate nickname of a tall guy named Richard who explored the land near the creek when it was still wild prairie.  “Bear Creek” was named because an early settler shot a black bear nearby.  Since the 1860s, the prairie and the bears have disappeared and the man’s nickname has acquired other meanings, but we at Prairie Rivers of Iowa are serious about our water and our history and will have no giggling, thank you very...
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Roots and mussels on the South Skunk River

Roots and mussels on the South Skunk River

This is a good time of year to enjoy the South Skunk River Water Trail and other local waterways! I joined the Skunk River Paddlers this weekend, paddling my kayak from Anderson Access to West Petersen Park.  While the main purpose of the outing was fun, we also hauled out some tires, cleared some smaller obstructions, and made note larger logjams for followup.  The water was chilly but the air was pleasant. Bluebells were blooming on the bank and we found live mussels in the water (this one is a plain pocketbook). While central Iowa has been spared the extreme flooding that has devastated communities on the Missouri and Mississippi, it's been a wet fall and a wet spring, and we saw the evidence of that on the river. Bark had been scraped off trees by ice flows, lots of bank slumping, and lots of exposed roots. The roots here illustrate the value of riparian buffers. A good stand of perennial vegetation can...
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Learn about volunteer stream monitoring

Ever wondered about the condition of your local creek? What kinds of fish, aquatic insects, and other critters live there? Does the water quality pose a health risk for children wading or kayakers paddling? How much nitrogen and phosphorus is washing downstream to the Gulf? In some cases, a regulatory agency or university is collecting this information, but with 71,665 miles of rivers and streams in the state, that's not a given. Most of what we know about Clear Creek, Worrell Creek, and College Creek in Ames; Montgomery Creek and Prairie Creek in Boone County; Gilbert Creek (Ditch 70) in Gilbert; or Crooked Creek near Stanhope, we know because the efforts of volunteers in the Squaw Creek Watershed Coalition. For other streams in the area, including West Indian Creek in Nevada, Rock Creek in Maxwell, Middle Minerva Creek in Zearing, and Long Dick Creek near Story City, we have almost no information. Iowa DNR has had to scale back its role in providing equipment, training, and IT...
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