2021 Spring Water Quality Snapshot

2021 Spring Water Quality Snapshot

Excuse the delay in posting the data. I had shared this with the participating volunteers but not with a broader audience. I was distracted by the dramatic change in water quality a week later. However, the results from the spring snapshot event is more typical of what we’ve been seeing this year–clear and drying up!

On the weekend of May 15, fifteen volunteers tested 25 sites on Ioway Creek and its tributaries.

Volunteers practice testing phosphate and dissolved oxygen.

Like most of 2021 so far, water levels were way below normal, and light rains Saturday afternoon did little to change things. A few volunteers tested their sites Sunday, but water levels had dropped back down by the time.

Water levels (blue) in Ioway Creek are below normal (triangles).

With streams running low and tiles not flowing at all, most sites were as clear as we can measure (transparency greater than 60 cm), had low nitrate (2 mg/L or less) and low phosphate (0.1 or less).

But there were a few interesting exceptions.

Nitrate concentrations were a little higher (5 mg/L) in the middle reaches of Ioway Creek, starting at Hwy E18 in Boone County and continuing to Moore Park in Ames. The upstream reaches in Hamilton County and the downstream reaches in Ames had low nitrate levels.

“Gilbert Creek” had higher nitrate (5 mg/L) and much higher phosphate (1 mg/L) than other sites. When streams are running low, effluent from wastewater treatment plants can make up a significant portion of streamflow and can have a big influence on water quality. When streams are running high, effluent becomes a small fraction of streamflow compared to runoff from cropland. Wastewater plants in Iowa are only beginning to install technology to improve nitrogen and phosphorus removal.

The upper reaches of Ioway Creek in Hamilton County. Good water quality on May 15, but warm, not much shade.

Some urban streams showed elevated chloride levels (125 mg/L), but still within Iowa standards for aquatic life (389 mg/L thresholds for chronic exposure). Road salt dissolves and makes its way into groundwater, so we can see it’s influence in spring and summer, but testing before and after winter storms can give us a clearer picture.

The little creek below Ames High School (SC23) had muddy water (transparency of 32 cm) and dissolved oxygen low enough to harm aquatic life. We know that when it does rain this creek gets a lot of stormwater runoff (the video we produced with City of Ames shows this in action) and construction could also be an influence.

I don’t have a good explanation for lower dissolved oxygen and transparency at other locations.

Filling a transparency tube in Montgomery Creek, one of the murkier sites this year.

Thanks to our volunteers for spending a morning testing water! Our next event will be in October.

Weather Whiplash Returns!

Weather Whiplash Returns!

“If it never rained, we’d have great water quality in Iowa.”

-Jim Richardson

“If it never rained, we’d have great water quality in Iowa,” joked a volunteer at our May 15 water quality snapshot. 15 of us spent the morning testing Ioway Creek and its tributaries in Boone, Hamilton, and Story County and were marveling at the low nitrate levels and crystal clear water at the majority of our sites.

I wish more creeks in central Iowa were like this spot in Boone County. Cows fenced out the creek, a CREP wetland upstream keeping nitrate levels low, orioles and a kingfisher flitting between the trees.

Well, we’ve had some much-needed rain in the week since, and water quality has gone from good to bad. I’ve written before about “weather whiplash” that explains some of the big swings in nitrate over the past decade and here’s an early hint of it. Here’s data from a nitrate sensor in Ioway Creek installed by IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering. A five-fold increase in nitrate concentrations in just one week! The water has gone back down but the nitrate levels are still above the drinking water standard.

Graph showing a big increase in flow and nitrate levels after a rain storm

And here’s some water samples I collected on Friday May 21. No, that’s not my coffee thermos, that’s some of the world’s best top soil washing down the Skunk River!

Four samples collected May 21, after a 3/4 inch rain

That’s not to blame the weather. It does rain in Iowa and if your farming practices let a plume of topsoil, manure, or fertilizer wash off the field every time that happens, you’re doing it wrong! Some farmers are doing it right (I saw some cover crops this spring near Nevada and lots driving on I-80) but not enough, especially in the Ioway and South Skunk River watersheds.

Water quality monitoring has been top of mind for Prairie Rivers of Iowa lately and I see an challenge and an opportunity. It’s a challenge to interpret data and track our progress when one good rain can cause water quality to go from clear to coffee-colored overnight! There’s an opportunity to be more strategic about how and where we test, so we notice and communicate more eye-opening moments like this one, and hopefully persuade a few more people to protect soil and water.

Update: June has been abnormally dry and Hamilton, Boone and Story County are experience severe drought. Droughts stress is impacting crops and smaller streams are drying up.

What’s carried with snowmelt?

What’s carried with snowmelt?

When snow melts, salt applied to melt snow on sidewalks, roads, and parking lots can make its way to streams. Freshwater critters don’t like living in saltwater. Are we getting to a point where they’d have trouble? Not quite, the chronic levels of concern for Iowa is 389 mg/L of chloride, and this sample (from a creek near Ames High School) and some others in our area were just shy of that last weekend. But be mindful of how much salt you’re scattering if we get some more icy days this month–people often apply more than what’s needed for safety!

The Izaak Walton League’s Winter Salt Watch is a good way for people to check on water quality during the winter and learn more about the issue.

What else is being carried in snowmelt? Our lab tests from late February are showing higher nitrate and bacteria levels than January’s tests. Check back in mid-March and we’ll get that data organized.

What’s in a (creek) name?

What’s in a (creek) name?

Learning the name of a person is a first step to building a relationship with them. It’s the same way with natural features. Learning to distinguish and name Iowa’s species of trees and wildflowers helped me me deepen my awareness of the landscape and seasons. That’s the thinking behind the road signs we helped Story County install, marking the creek crossings and watershed boundaries. Once you know the name of a creek and where it flows, you pay a bit more attention to it. If you begin to see the creek as something more than a garbage dump or drainage system, maybe you’ll take some steps at your home, farm, or business to make the water cleaner.

Now, the name of one of those signs is a word that is disrespectful to Native Americans. We apologize for perpetuating its use. We are delighted to hear that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names has approved changing the name of “Squaw Creek” to “Ioway Creek.” We commend the Story County Supervisors, Ames City Council, and others who pushed for this issue. It will take a little time and effort to change the signs, the logo and legal documents for the Watershed Management Authority, and our habits, but it’s a necessary and overdue change.

Time to replace some road signs. It’s shows respect and is not that big a hardship.

If you’re inclined to roll your eyes at this “political correctness,” hear me out. My white Norwegian-American elders did not share stories of racism and oppression, but they did teach me about pride in our heritage and showing respect for others. And since I have a hard-to-pronounce last name, I understand that when people take the trouble to get a name right, it’s a sign of courtesy.

The settlers who adopted the word “squaw” for place names did not take the trouble to get it right. According to a group that works to preserve indigenous languages:

“Squaw” is not an Indian word. It was probably invented by European colonists who could not pronounce a longer Indian word… The likeliest thing is that those original colonists were not being insulting and were just trying and failing to use an Indian word for “woman.” … However, since then the word has been used in a very racist and sexually abusive way, so it definitely has negative implications now.

-Native Languages of the Americas

Here’s a little thought experiment for white Iowans who enjoy, as I do, the celebrations of Dutch heritage in Pella, Norwegian heritage in Story City, etc. Imagine that there was no-one of Norwegian heritage left in Story City. Imagine they had all been killed or driven out generations ago, and there was no one left there to celebrate Syttende Mai, or paint rosemaling, or roll lefse, or bake sandbakkels. Imagine that instead of being celebrated in the town square, those customs had been suppressed by the US government and religious schools, and had only recently been revived by my Norwegian-American community in exile. Suppose that all that remained to acknowledge that Norwegian immigrants once lived here was a creek or housing development named “Sunbucker,” a corruption of the dessert “sandbakkel”, now understood to mean “those backward people.” Suppose I’d grown up being called a “Dirty Sunbucker” or worse because of my ethnicity. How would I feel about these place names? Uff da! Would I appreciate if people showed me the courtesy of using Norwegian words correctly, and talking about my ancestry without resorting to crude stereotypes? You betcha! It’s a silly analogy for a traumatic history, but you get the point.

At this point the etymology of the word “squaw” is beside the point.

“It’s not a positive term. The continued use of it is not appropriate and disrespectful to the people of native tribes.”

-Lawrence Spottedbird, executive director at Meskwaki Nation, as quoted in the Gazette

If you can bring yourself to change your seed cap from “Monsanto” to “Bayer” over a corporate merger, surely you can get used to saying a different creek name to show a little more respect for the people who used to live in Story, Boone, and Hamilton County (the Iowa or Bah-kho-je people) and to avoid insulting our Meskwaki neighbors.

Recently, the students of Newton High School, having cleaned up their neighborhood creek, campaigned to change its name from Sewer Creek to Cardinal Creek. It was a way of changing the way people thought about the place. Water matters to us. Names matter too.

Trends from volunteer monitoring

Imagine tracking a child’s growth if your measuring tape had no inch markings. 1 ft, 2 ft, 2ft, 3 ft, 3 ft, 3ft

Not very helpful is it? The same thing could happen if you were trying to measure a gradual decline in nitrate with a Hach test strip, which measures in very course increments: 10 mg/L, 10 mg/L, 10mg/L, 5 mg/L, 5mg/L

For this reason, I’ve always assumed that trend monitoring is not a realistic use for volunteer monitoring data. However, that wrongly assumed that any year-to-year trends would be small and gradual. Instead, using weekly lab data, I’ve found several big swings in nitrate over the past 20 years. It turns out volunteers with the Squaw Creek Watershed Coalition tracked some of the same trends. These six sites were sampled monthly from 2002 to 2008. Trends at three sites were even statistically significant, at the 90% confidence level.

Nitrate trends as measured by volunteers with the IOWATER program.