While much of the South Skunk River has been channelized, above the I-35 Bridge near Ames it still maintains much of its natural character.  A greenbelt zoning district and county parks have protected much of the floodplain forest.  Smallmouth bass and rare mussels can be found in the water.  The river is much used by paddlers; 34 miles in Story County are now designated as a state water trail, with public access points, a map, signage, and a plan for improving the experience.

However, high E. coli levels have landed this scenic stretch of river on Iowa’s list of impaired waters.  Nitrate and phosphorus levels are also high.

200,566 acres (mostly in Story and Hamilton counties) drain to the South Skunk above its confluence with Squaw Creek in Ames.  Conservation efforts in this watershed can improve water quality for paddling and fishing while supporting Iowa’s nutrient reduction strategy.

Prairie Rivers of Iowa began working in the watershed in 2017-2018, funded by an NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant.  The project was framed around the lower half of the watershed—the Keigley Branch-South Skunk River (HUC10) unit—but we came to realize that watershed plans and partnerships would be more effective if the river’s headwaters in Hamilton County were included sooner rather than later. The project has brought us a long way toward building the partnerships and collecting the information needed to improve water quality in the South Skunk.  Deliverables include:

  • Draft goals and implementation strategies, based on comments from 80 people who participated in our five public workshops
  • An interactive map that shows suitable locations for conservation practices, identified with the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework (ACPF)
  • An assessment by Emmons & Olivier Resources that includes information about water quality, hydrology, and erosion
  • A user manual for combining the ACPF with the Iowa BMP mapping project to evaluate existing and potential conservation practices
  • A short grant report with lessons learned from the process

In summer of 2018, the Story County Board of Supervisors proposed an agreement to form the Headwaters of the South Skunk River Watershed Management Authority (WMA).  Two soil and water conservation districts (Hamilton and Story) and four municipalities (Ames, Story City, Roland, and Randall) have also joined.  We hope this partnership will grow and will encourage dialogue and collaboration among the varied stakeholders in the watershed.

We are pursuing funding opportunities that will allow us to provide education and technical assistance to farmers and landowners in the watershed.  To complete the watershed plan, we hope to answer some of the questions that were raised during public meetings and review of the limited available data.  This may include:

  • Working with the new WMA to refine goals and implementation strategies suggested at the workshops and to identify partners and funding sources for projects
  • Additional conversations with stakeholders, including those in the Jewell and Ellsworth area
  • Using the Agricultural Conservation Planning Framework to identify conservation opportunities in the upper part of the watershed
  • Fieldwork and modeling to distinguish between human and animal sources of bacteria
  • Quantifying the benefits of healthy soils and runoff-reducing conservation practices for flood control and bank erosion
  • Encouraging discussion of best practices for manure management to resolve conflicts between livestock producers and their neighbors
  • Additional water quality monitoring

Contact Dan Haug, dhaug@prrcd.org, if you are interested in getting involved!