An Impressive Season

An Impressive Season

Jess Lancial testing water

Jess Lancial testing water quality (photo credit Story County Conservation)

Volunteer Water Monitoring in Story County

A round of applause for all the volunteers and Story County Conservation staff who have diligently been monitoring their assigned stream twice a month in all kinds of weather!   Also, let’s give a shout out to the people who work behind the scenes.  Sara Carmichael of Story County Conservation keeps everyone on track and equipped with supplies.  Heather Wilson of the Izaak Walton League of America provides training and support to volunteers around the state.  We rely on the IWLA’s  Save Our Streams program for training materials and the Clean Water Hub for data entry.  The three of us will be meeting the volunteers at a training event later this month to kick off another great season.

Three ways to get involved:

  • There’s room for one or two more volunteers to cover a site in Story County, so contact Sara. 
  • If you’d like to try water monitoring without committing to a schedule, Prairie Rivers organizes a one-day volunteer event in the Ames area each May, so keep an eye on our events page
  • If you don’t live in Story County, the Izaak Walton League is launching a new Nitrate Watch program and you can request a bottle of test strips while supplies last.

In March, Prairie Rivers will release a report detailing the findings, but for now let’s admire the scale and consistency of the effort, which has really improved since last year.

2022 Season

Volunteers participating

Sites tested at least once

Sites tested at least 10 times

Sites tested at least 20 times

Data sheets entered in the Clean Water Hub

2021 Season

Volunteers participating

Sites tested at least once

Sites tested at least 10 times

Sites tested at least 20 times

Data sheets entered in the Clean Water Hub

Clean Water Act: 50 years, 50 facts

Clean Water Act: 50 years, 50 facts

 “The Clean Water Act: 50 Years, 50 Facts” will be a weekly series of short videos on our Instagram and YouTube channels, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, and focusing on rivers and lakes in Iowa.  At the time I wrote this, we had published the first three episodes and have recorded the next three.

The Clean Water Act is a law that works best when concerned citizens are paying attention and speaking up, so it’s worth the trouble to makes sense of legal jargon like point source, 303(d) list, 319 grants, NPDES permits, and the ordinary high water mark.  Yikes! We’ll cover these topics and more in accessible and bite-sized chunks!

Environmental policy can be a dry subject, so we’re having some fun with it!  I take full responsibility for the theme music, inspired by a Steely Dan hit that debuted a month after the Clean Water Act.  You can thank Daniel Huber and Mike Kellner for making the videos pretty and putting them out there; I’m clueless when it comes to social media.

The videos are less than 90 seconds and meant for viewing on a smartphone in portrait mode.  The first few were me talking from my office, but I’ve already started taking field trips (Fact #6 was filmed in front of an effluent pipe) and I hope to feature guests whose job or advocacy work intersects with the Clean Water Act.

The Clean Water Act is a big law.  I know a lot about some pieces, and very little about other pieces.  My reference books for the series will be EPA’s Watershed Academy Web and River Network’s Clean Water Act Owner’s Manual.  If I overlook something, you’ll hear from my “fact-checker” in the description or comments section.

Clean Water Act Owners Manual

I want this to be relevant, so I will sometimes follow up on a fact with some commentary or include a link to policy recommendations from other organizations.  For example, here’s a report from the Environmental Integrity Project on how to close the gap between the CWA’s goals and reality. Yes, I work for an environmental organization and we would like some more environmental protection, please.

However, I can understand why many people see environmental regulation as burdensome, and wonder if a greater understanding of how the system works and doesn’t work might help us find some common ground.  My perspective on environmental law is informed by a stint at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources where I learned how complicated it can be to fill a small amount of wetland legally, and how often people got away with filling a large amount, illegally.  What if fewer projects needed a permit, but we had tougher enforcement?  Wouldn’t that save more wetlands on balance, while levelling the playing field and reducing compliance costs for responsible business owners?

And if common ground is out of reach in today’s political climate, hey, it’s just some short videos.  Enjoy!

You can lead a horse to water…

You can lead a horse to water…

Prairie Rivers of Iowa is not the sort of environmental group that follows the goings on at the state capitol (that would be our friends at the Iowa Environmental Council) but the success of our watershed projects is very much affected by state and federal policy.  A big part of our work is environmental education, but often “is a river still polluted and what can we do about it” is a legal and political question as much as a scientific question.  I hope this tricky case study from the Cedar River will illustrate why we need more people to learn about and talk about environmental policy to make it more transparent, fair, and effective.

My New Year’s resolution for 2023 is to write fewer long articles like this one and more bite-sized lessons.  For the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, we’ll be sharing 50 short facts (one a week) on social media about that important and complicated law.  Here are the first five:

1) The Clean Water Act (CWA) is 50 years old but it still has a big influence on how we evaluate and protect water quality in rivers and lakes.

2) The Clean Water Act is a federal law but is implemented at the state level, with oversight from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In Iowa, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is responsible for issuing permits, setting standards, and assessing the condition of rivers and lakes.

3) The Clean Water Act requires public notice and public comment for many decisions. Staff at environmental agencies read and take seriously public comments, so it’s worth speaking up and having your voice heard.

4) The Clean Water Act also gives concerned citizens the standing to file suit if there is an ongoing violation that hasn’t been enforced, or if the Environmental Protection Agency is not fulfilling its mandatory duties.

5) Decisions by courts and federal agencies can come into conflict with state legislatures, which control the budgets for state agencies. For example, in Iowa there are over 700 river segments and lakes on the waiting list for a cleanup plan, because Department for Natural Resources doesn’t have enough staff to keep up with it.

We can sum that up with the old saying: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” 

In November, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) made the unusual decision to withdraw a cleanup plan (or TMDL) for nitrate in a part of the Cedar River that supplies drinking water to Cedar Rapids.  Click here for the original plan, here for the public notice of its withdrawal, and here for the Iowa Environmental Council’s response, which provides some valuable context.  TMDL stands for “Total Maximum Daily Load.”  TMDLs are pollution budgets that explain where pollution is coming from and how much needs to be reduced in order to protect fisheries, drinking water, or recreation in an impaired river or lake.  They are often used to set permit conditions for upstream sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities.

 

leading a horse to polluted water in the the Cedar River

There is a joke that TMDL stands for “Too Many D*** Lawyers.”  Most state agencies ignored the part of the Clean Water Act dealing with TMDLs until a series of lawsuits by environmental groups in the 1990s.  The Cedar River TMDL was actually written under a court order in 2006.  The TMDL estimated that only 9% of the nitrogen in the Cedar River watershed was coming from regulated point sources of pollution like sewage treatment plants and factories.  Most of the reductions would need to come from agriculture, through voluntary conservation programs.  Still, the plan called for capping the pollution from point sources at the 2006 amount and not adding any more.  However, it seems that the DNR did not follow the TMDL when writing permits over the next decade, and did not enforce permit violations.

One of the most surprising violations is from a drinking water treatment plant in Waverly.  I don’t think of drinking water treatment as generating pollution, and maybe that’s why it was initially overlooked.  The facility uses reverse osmosis, which gives you cleaner water on one side of the membrane and dirtier water on the other side.  The facility has been discharging wastewater with 37.7 mg/L of nitrate into the Shell Rock River (a tributary of the Cedar).  When the DNR added a permit condition that nitrate be brought down to 9.5 mg/L, the Iowa Regional Utilities Association protested, claiming that compliance would cost them $1 million.  If my math is correct, bringing the facility into compliance would avoid only 5 tons of nitrogen pollution per year.  The TMDL calls for a reduction of 9,999 tons per year.  Enforcing this permit as written does not seem like a fair or effective way to protect water quality in the river, but I suspect there would be an easy fix if the TMDL were revised.

The Clean Water Act provides two ways to set the limits in a permit.  Water quality-based effluent limits reference the pollution budget in a TMDL.  They’re only for facilities that discharge to an impaired water body.  Technology-based effluent limits are set statewide, based on the level of treatment that’s possible with widely available, not-too-expensive technologies. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy included new technology-based effluent limits for nitrate and phosphorus, affecting 157 municipal and industrial wastewater treatment systems.  They must find a way to reduce their total nitrogen by 66% and their total phosphorus by 75% or else complete a feasibility study to show it would be cost-prohibitive to do so.  Some facilities are already making the upgrades, some won’t be done until 2027.  For the largest point source in the TMDL (the Waterloo sewage treatment plant), that means a reduction of some 333 tons of nitrogen a year.

Effluent from a wastewater treatment plant entering a river.

Of course, most of the nitrate reduction goal for the watershed (9,999 tons) will need to come from agriculture.  We don’t know how that’s going because Iowa doesn’t have a current or complete tracking system.  The most recent data I could find for cover crops by watershed is 7 years old.  At that time, there were not enough acres to make a noticeable difference in water quality in the river.

Cover crops in the Cedar River watershed
Cedar River watershed map, courtesy of IIHR

Side note: The Cedar River starts in Minnesota and has several major tributaries, including the Shell Rock River, West Fork, and Winnebago.  It’s a big watershed that usually gets divided into smaller chunks (i.e. there are separate watershed management authorities for the Upper, Middle, and Lower Cedar).  The TMDL actually recommended prioritizing conservation in the Upper Cedar, but at some point, the focus got shifted to the Middle Cedar.

Are water quality based-effluent limits still needed?  Maybe not, but the frustrating thing about this case is that we get don’t get a revised pollution budget that shows how other strategies will protect drinking water in Cedar Rapids.  We don’t get a public debate over what’s not working with this law and an opportunity to change it.  Instead, we get excuses for why a revised TMDL can’t be done and isn’t needed.  Some of those excuses are legitimate: the chronically underfunded DNR has a lot of TMDLs to write and not enough staff to do it.  Some of the excuses are flimsy: apparently, the document mishandled nitrogen units in a way that was too subtle for me to notice on the first read-through but serious enough to make the whole thing unworkable.

Another excuse—that the Cedar River is no longer impaired—seemed like a mistake at first but turned out to be technically correct on closer inspection.  “No longer impaired” means that fewer than 10% of the samples collected during the last two assessment periods (2016-2018 and 2018-2020) exceeded the drinking water standard.  I’ve double-checked this with another source of data and think this assessment holds up, even if we account for weather.  It’s just premature.  Nitrate was back up in 2022.

nitrate violations in the Cedar River

Well, you know what they say.  You can lead a state agency to water, but they can’t make it drinkable.

(Apologies to my respected colleagues at DNR.  I can’t resist a good pun!)

TMI stands for “Watershed Plan”

TMI stands for “Watershed Plan”

I missed the deadline for public comment on the new watershed plan for the Headwaters of the South Skunk River.  We were given only two weeks and it’s a 200-page document.  I can either respond with a quick text message: “TMI” (Too Much Information) or with a careful read and 700-word article.  Since the deadline is passed, these comments are really meant for our readers who might be wondering what’s in the plan and what it will mean for the river.

An imaginary text message conversation about the watershed plan

Watershed Management Authorities (WMAs) are authorities in name only, with no taxing or regulatory authority, and given no direct funding from the state.  Quarterly WMA meetings are a good forum for sharing news about water-related projects and opportunities, but some WMAs go years without managing a budget or holding a vote. Skimming the plan gives me hope that the Headwaters of the South Skunk River WMA could be more productive.

Roles of stakeholders in watershed, as shown in a handout for the open house.

One of the most illuminating parts of the plan is this piece, which explains the role of a Watershed Management Authority, its member jurisdictions, and some of its partners.  Chapter 7 fleshes out what needs to be done and who’s responsible.  Chapter 8 fleshes out where they could get the money to do it.  Put together, it’s a road map for getting some conservation practices on the ground, and cleaning up the water. 

The report includes a lot of good technical information about pollution and solutions. I especially like Chapter 5, with its emphasis on practices that can address both nutrient reduction and other issues like habitat and flooding.  There are some new ACPF maps for Hamilton County that will be very helpful for working with farmers to find suitable places for bioreactors, wetlands, and other structural practices.  There’s an eye-opening section on absentee-owned farmland (section 2.03) and why it might not be as big a barrier to conservation as people think it is.

But like most watershed plans, the emphasis is on all the tasks that were completed and all the information that was compiled, rather than what was learned and why it’s important.  This style of technical writing has two negative consequences:

table of invasive species

First, it makes it hard for a casual reader to tell the difference between what we know and what we don’t know. Here’s a table that looks like a list of invasive species in the watershed, but is actually a list of invasive species in the state, that may or may not be found in this river system.  Then there’s a table of streams with designated uses, but it doesn’t actually tell us which ones can support fishing or swimming.  Most of the smaller streams are only presumed to be swimmable, and if the DNR gets around to checking (through a field study called a Use Attainability Assessment), the rebuttable presumption would likely be rebutted.  I have spent many hours dealing with the confusion resulting from this little caveat: see Chapter 2 of the Story County Water Monitoring Plan.

Skimming through page after page of maps and tables gives the impression that the watershed has been exhaustively researched, but some of the main recommendations of the plan are for additional assessments that wouldn’t fit in the budget.

  • We know that normal farming practices can leak nitrogen and phosphorus, but we don’t know which areas are leakier than average, to be able to prioritize conservation practices where they can do the most good. The plan recommends additional monitoring in Hamilton County and the construction of a computer model.
  • We don’t know much about flood risks and mitigation opportunities in the watershed. The plan recommends commissioning a hydrologic assessment.
existing conditions poster from open house

Second, it reinforces a very human tendency to see what we expect to see.  If you expect to see high nitrogen levels in the South Skunk River, you have to look very carefully at the graph to realize that no, nitrate was actually quite low the last two years (a median of 3.1 mg/L) because of the drought.  I didn’t notice it until my third look at the poster above.  If the report is full of maps and tables that don’t seem important, or that tell you things you already know* then you stop looking carefully.  And that’s how you end up setting a target that would require an 80% reduction in nitrate, relative to the long-term average (8.8 mg/L).  Fortunately, I caught this during the public comment period, and authors are fixing it for the final draft.  I mention this not to criticize anyone, but to illustrate why it’s important (and not easy) to connect the dots between data, their implications, and action.

* A lot of the inventory chapter reads like “Figure 1 – Central Iowa is flat, Figure 2 – Central Iowa has a lot of corn and soybean fields, Figure 3 – The fields have drainage tiles, Figure 4 – Central Iowa raises a lot of hogs.”

I hope that Prairie Rivers of Iowa can work with the new Watershed Management Authority to help connect those dots, and help to implement the recommendations in what I think is a solid plan.

South Skunk River after the first snows of November.

The Great Mussel Rescue of 2022

The Great Mussel Rescue of 2022

Updated 2022-11-14 with final count: 53 mussels rescued, 13 of them threatened species!

Three fun facts about freshwater mussels

  1. Mussels keep streams clean. A mature freshwater mussel can filter 10 gallons of water a day, gobbling up algae and other microscopic organisms in the water.  As this video shows, mussels can clean up muddy water, but too much silt in the water can bury them alive or clog their gills.
  2. Mussels can hitch-hike long distances. Some mussel mamas have a special lure to flag down passing fish so that the baby mussels (glochidia) can hitch a ride as a parasite on the fish’s gills!
  3. Mussels are in trouble. The United States is a hotspot for freshwater mussel biodiversity but many species were nearly wiped out by over-harvest for the button industry, dams and habitat loss, and too much silt in the water.  For more about freshwater mussels, watch this PBS video.
volunteer holding mussel
mussel in Ioway creek

Two state-threatened species of mussels have been found in Ioway Creek–the cylindrical papershell (Anodontoides ferussacianus) and the creek heelsplitter (Lasmigona compressa). An erosion control and stream restoration project is planned at Brookside Park in Ames, so the Department of Natural Resources required that they be relocated before construction begins. Mussel expert Brett Ostby of Daguna Consulting was hired to lead the effort, but finding all the mussels hiding in a patch of streambed is slow work, and there was a kilometer of stream to cover. We needed volunteers…

Volunteers collecting mussels in Ioway Creek

I had been planning volunteer events to monitor water in Ioway Creek and its tributaries and to pick up trash in West Indian Creek, but low water levels forced us to cancel. Low water levels make it easier to find mussels, so Prairie Rivers of Iowa and our partners at the Outdoor Alliance of Story County switched gears and recruited 12 volunteers to help. Five of the volunteers were students at Ames High School, where I’d been talking with earth science classes about runoff and water quality.  Teachers Collin Reichert and Kean Roberts were kind enough to lend us some chest waders — essential gear if you’re planning to spend an hour or more in 45-degree water!

Since mussels can be buried in sand, we had to feel around or dislodge them with rakes. The three guys from Daguna Consulting used wet suits and snorkels to tackle some of the deeper pools. Volunteers helped when they were able over a three-day period. It’s slow, tedious work, leaving no stone unturned, but I can hardly complain about spending time in nature on a beautiful day. Ioway Creek has plenty of wildlife to see if you look long enough. I saw birds including a kingfisher, reptiles including a softshell turtle and northern water snake, and invertebrates including a hellgrammite, crayfish, and fingernail clams. For some of the students, being in the creek and seeing these critters was a new experience.

Ames High School student with crayfish
Spiny softshell turtle

Mussels were fewer and farther between than we expected.  We relocated 53 mussels (representing 5 species) to a stretch upstream of the park, where they seem to be more abundant.

  • 8 Cylindrical papershell (Anodontoides ferussacianus)
  • 5 Creek Heelsplitter (Lasmigona compressa)
  • 1 Fragile Papershell (Leptodea fragilis)
  • 37 Lilliput (Toxolasma parvum)
  • 2 Pocketbook (Lampsilis caridum)

Compare that to the results of a DNR mussel survey this year in the Iowa River near Coralville (which found 28 species, and was catching an average of 22 mussels every hour) and it’s clear that the ecosystem in Ioway Creek is out of balance.  Hopefully, this project will improve in-stream habitat so the populations grows.  Our thorough search ensures that few will be lost during construction.