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 are authorities in name only, with no taxing or regulatory authority, and given no direct funding from the state.  As a result, a WMA can go years without managing a budget or holding a vote—the members do their own thing and meet quarterly to give each other updates on anything water-related.  More communication across counties and city lines is great, but we’d like to see more than that. Skimming the plan gives me hope that this group 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 projects on the ground, and getting some clean in 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.  Over the last two years, nitrate in the South Skunk River was much lower than usual because of the drought—a median of 3.1 mg/L.  And yet a graph showing the most recent two years of data was shown alongside the heading “high nitrate” and used to set a target that would very difficult to hit in a year with normal rainfall.  Relative to the long-term average (8.8 mg/L), a goal of 1.8 mg/L would be an 80% reduction.  It’s an easy mistake to make.  I glanced at this poster twice, said “yep, that’s my data” and didn’t look at the y-axis on the graph or process what that numbers meant until the third viewing.  This mistake should be easy to fix, but it does illustrate the challenge in connecting the dots between data, their implications, and action.

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.
Ames Pollinator-Friendly Practices Pilot Project Completed

Ames Pollinator-Friendly Practices Pilot Project Completed

How can homeowners in Ames be encouraged to increase pollinator-friendly practices in their yards? That was the question addressed by former Prairie Rivers of Iowa Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway Coordinator Shellie Orngard in a recently completed pilot project using Community Based Social Marketing strategies. Now that the pilot is completed, the project will move forward in 2023 to explore ways to apply what was learned to increase pollinator habitat along Iowa’s Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway.

Community Based Social Marketing was developed by Canadian psychology professor Doug McKenzie-Moher, author of Fostering Sustainable Behavior. It is used in developing and implementing community programs that make use of scientific knowledge of human behavior in effecting change. Community programs such as composting and conserving water and energy have used it to increase participation.

According to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 70 to 80 percent of Iowa was once covered by prairie, producing rich agricultural soil and a lush environment for pollinators. Now, with 90 percent of Iowa’s land in agricultural production, less than one percent of Iowa’s prairie remains, simultaneously reducing pollinator habitat. “Doing this project I learned strategies to encourage pollinator-friendly practices that can be employed along Iowa’s byways,” says Orngard. “We are now exploring applying these strategies to make the Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway a pollinator-friendly byway from the Mississippi to the Missouri Rivers. Some of Iowa’s other 13 byways have also expressed interest.”

Visitors to Jennett Heritage Area prairie near Nevada Iowa during Prairie Rivers Bees and Berries Family Adventure Day
Urban Pollinator Garden

While a number of groups (including Prairie Rivers) have focused on encouraging farmers, other large landowners, and local governments to improve pollinator habitat, this project will also include urban areas, businesses, and homeowners.

An initial survey was conducted to determine the perceived barriers and benefits of creating a pollinator garden. The results show that homeowners can face some big barriers such as knowing what types of plants to grow that provide diverse and useful habitat during all seasons. Additionally, by implementing pollinator-friendly practices, homeowners may, in some cases, go against societal norms of having a yard consisting primarily of well-groomed turf.

This project focused on strategies to encourage a paradigm shift in what landowners consider desirable, resulting in such practices as reducing pesticide and herbicide use, letting grass grow longer before mowing, and leaving leaves for overwintering insects.

To encourage year-round pollinator-friendly practices, Orngard worked with Xerces Society Farm Bill Pollinator Conservation Planner/NRCS Partner Biologist Sarah Nizzi to create The Pollinator Friendly Yard: A Seasonal Guide informational flyer. Homeowners were asked to commit to increasing their pollinator-friendly practices according to their comfort level.

As a final strategy, Orngard worked with local artist Naomi Friend to create a charming yard sign homeowners can use to educate passersby about why some leaves are being left to provide habitat for overwintering insects.

Pollinator Garden Sign

Pollinator-friendly yard signs are available by contacting our office.

Orngard summarizes the pilot project as a success that will guide Prairie Rivers Lincoln Highway National Heritage Byway and Watersheds and Wildlife programs, local community partners, homeowners, other byways, and communities throughout Iowa as they move forward with education and on-the-ground practices geared towards improving the environment for pollinators in our state.

This project was made possible in part by Resource Enhancement and Protection Conservation Education Program (REAP-CEP) funding along with coaching support from the E Resources Group’s Dr. Jean Eells, a frequent Prairie Rivers of Iowa collaborator, and Rebecca Christoffel. The REAP-CEP funding also allowed Orngard to attend an online workshop by Doug McKenzie-Moher on Community-Based Social Marketing and Resiliency and Adaptation to Climate Change and the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition Winter Workshop.

Shellie Orngard also contributed to the content of this article.

A Full Plate: Little Things Deserve Our Thanks

A Full Plate: Little Things Deserve Our Thanks

We’re dipping into the season of gratitude. Although it’s definitely cliché, I feel like many of us who sniffed at the idea of owning a gratitude journal have inevitably found ourselves thankful for small, everyday things more often than we did a few years ago. The truth is, the sum of many small things makes a big difference, and this rings true for the natural world as well.

A Full Thanksgiving Meal

The graphic above depicts some typical Thanksgiving Day food that either depends upon or may benefit from animal pollination, as well as pest control from wasps, birds, and bats. It is not an exhaustive list!

Who runs the world? Bugs!

E. O. Wilson said it best: insects are the “little things that run the world”, and that includes pollinators. Pollinators are not only key to the survival of about 87% of Earth’s flowering plant species; they are also a major food source for many animals, and around 35% of our world’s food crops depend upon them. The food we cook for a Thanksgiving meal, and many of our other meals, comes from all over the world. It is consequently imperative to appreciate and protect the biodiversity of the entire planet.

We rely on squash bees in our gardens to pollinate our pumpkins, and tropical flies and beetles to pollinate coffee and spice plants such as nutmeg, anise, and cardamom. If you hunt for a wild turkey this fall, know that about 10% of its diet was comprised of insects (and it required even more when it was a poult). And while not all of our food or cultivars require animal pollination, we clearly need all kinds of insects to run the world, from South American flies we will probably never notice or see, to the monarchs that bless our backyard gardens in summer.

Milkweed Beetle
Squash Bees
Swallowtail Butterfly

A Value of Their Own

Pollinators, and all wildlife for that matter, have intrinsic value, and should not be valued purely based on the goods and services they provide for humans. Pollinators and other wildlife have played key roles in nature and agriculture long before we realized it, and will continue to do so after we forget about them (but let’s try not to forget). The purpose of this article is to bring to light just how dependent we really are on all “the little things”. Whether we choose to value pollinators, insects, and nature in general or not, we are sustained by the air, plants, and diverse food groups they support. So at your next Thanksgiving meal, give a mulled wine toast to the little things!

Sources for percentages:

  • Ollerton J, Winfree R, and Tarrant S (2011) How many flowering plants are pollinated by animals?
  • Klein A.-M., Vaissière B. E., Cane J. H., Steffan-Dewenter I., Cunningham S. A., Kremen C., & Tscharntke, T (2007) Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops.

  • Brigida D, Mizejewski D (2021) NWF Blog: 6 Tips for Feeding Wild Turkeys with Your Garden.

Pollinators/beneficial insects listed in the Thanksgiving food graphic were informed in part by the Pollinator Partnership.

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.

The Real Meaning of WOTUS

The Real Meaning of WOTUS

Last week at the Iowa Water Conference, I attended several sessions that illustrated of the consequences of paving over wetlands and streams.

This week, the Supreme Court is revisiting the question of which wetlands and streams are subject to the jurisdiction of federal agencies–another chapter in the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) controversy. The importance of this legal back and forth for agriculture and water quality has been greatly exaggerated. In practice, the definitions haven’t changed much and it mostly concerns Section 404 of the Clean Water Act: if your construction project involves running a bulldozer or backhoe in a stream or wetland, do you need to get a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers?

Prairie Rivers of Iowa generally avoids getting mixed up in politics and policy, but maybe I can shed some light on what’s at stake and what isn’t.  Last week I was at the Iowa Water Conference with colleagues from Story County and the City of Ames to give a presentation on our locally-led water monitoring program. While at the conference, I attended several sessions that illustrated of the consequences of paving over wetlands and streams. Shout out to Michael Jansen of Strand Associates, Steve Brown from the City of Dubuque, and Tim Olson and Ryan Benjederdes of Bolton & Menck for sharing their projects.

In Dubuque, a creek called Bee Branch had been put into a pipe to build a business district and a residential neighborhood, but had the habit of backing up into the streets and basements whenever the Mississippi River was high and there was a summer downpour. What used to be the 100 year storm is now the 50 year storm, so the complaints from residents were getting louder and more frequent. The solution was to daylight the creek and turn it into an amenity. The Bee Branch Greenway is beautiful and very thoughtfully designed, but it took a decade to build and cost $250 million.

In a Minneapolis suburb, a wetland complex had been paved over for commercial development prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act. The water the wetlands used to store was regularly backing up into the streets: a 4 inch rain caused 3 feet of flooding). A new transit line opened up some redevelopment opportunities, but the water the wetlands used to store had to go somewhere, so they put it in massive underground chambers. The project included a lot of clever engineering to detain and treat the water within a limited footprint, and a lot of innovative construction to get it installed while keeping the restaurants and stores open, but it came at a cost of $10 million.

A highlight of the conference was seeing Tracy Peterson (who’s helped us with many watershed projects and events) get an award. As an engineer for the City of Ames, Tracy regularly deals with the consequences of past development on rivers in the City of Ames, overseeing projects to reduce flooding on South Duff, clean up runoff on Welch Ave, and control erosion on the South Skunk River and Ioway Creek.

Bottom line, when developers are allowed to pave over wetlands and streams without limit and without mitigation, we pay for it later with flooded basements or big infrastructure projects. There’s a debate to be had over what level of government has the authority to regulate construction in wetlands and waterways and how we should balance the competing interests, but that’s not the debate we’ve had.  For a decade, some politicians and interest groups have been claiming that an expanded definition of WOTUS is a threat to farmers. I don’t get it.

stormwater project in Bloomington, MN

In a previous job, I had the pleasure of reading boxes of old permit files and learning about what kinds of activities require a federal dredge/fill permit or state water quality certification.  As I recall, farming activities are exempt except for cranberry bogs (this was Wisconsin) and some new drainage ditches.  Best I can tell, this issue isn’t really about farmers, it’s about developers. It’s not really about water quality, it’s about flash flooding. It’s not really about the EPA, it’s about the US Army Corps of Engineers. It’s not just about federal overreach, it’s also about state under-reach.

This election season, remember the true meaning of WOTUS.  wink

Autumn’s Spooky Species: How to Appreciate Misunderstood Wildlife this Season

Autumn’s Spooky Species: How to Appreciate Misunderstood Wildlife this Season

These Halloween icons are in reality quite charming, and provide us with valuable services! 

The crisp October air brings the excitement of changing leaves and a changing season. While making yards and gardens cozy for wildlife braving the winter is a common discussion this time of year, we are focusing on what kinds of important wildlife you may notice this month! With Halloween around the corner, now is the perfect time to better understand some of the spooky (or maybe not-so-spooky-after-all) animals that you may see in autumn!

Owls

Soon leaves will fall to the ground, making it easier to spot this inquisitive bird of prey. The barred owl in particular hoots in a pattern that sounds like they’re asking “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”. I think we all wish the answer to that question was “someone else”. While this call at night may sound spooky, barred owls have some endearing qualities. This species mates for life, and lets its young stay near home longer than other species – up to six months! You can look for barred owls in Ames in mature tree stands near a water source. To help all owls, try to stop putting out rodent poison; owls eat rodents, and can consequently become sick from the poison. Healthy owls in your area may mean natural rodent control for you! Additionally, some owls utilize nesting boxes; you can contact Wild Birds Unlimited here in Ames to learn more!

Barred Owl
Little Brown Bat

Bats

Could we truly celebrate Halloween properly this month without bats? From décor to Dracula, this fuzzy animal’s image will be seen everywhere this month. However, the animals themselves will be seen less and less. Bats remaining in Iowa during winter are now looking for cozy spots for hibernation, especially as the amount of insects declines this month. Bats are great at gobbling down mosquitos and other pesky insects (the bat pictured here can eat 600 insects in an hour!), and their babies are called “pups”! These animals are much more helpful and cute than they are spooky. 

To help bats, consider building a bat box for fun! If a bat gets in your home, remember that they will not fly into you; they are expert navigators and will avoid you while they try to fly up and away. Calmly open a door or window for it to fly back outside and stand still at a distance until it leaves. If it can’t find the exit, call the Iowa Wildlife Center (515-233-1379) or other wildlife societies to have experts remove the bat in a humane way.

Spiders

Many people try their best to be open-minded towards insects, but most find spiders hard to appreciate (spiders are not technically “insects” – they’re “arachnids”). During late summer and early fall, you may see spiders more often, but don’t panic. They are not “coming in” to escape cool temperatures. Most spiders you see indoors are specifically adapted to survive indoors, where there is little food and water. Outdoor spiders are not well-adapted to live inside our homes, and are not trying to sneak in; their food is outside, and that’s where they’ll stay! If they accidentally wander in, they will not survive more than a few days, and won’t reproduce. What you are probably seeing are indoor spiders that have been inside this whole time, not bothering you at all. 

Beautiful Spider Web

But why are you seeing indoor spiders more often than usual? Because they are in love! This time of year is the mating season for many spiders, and instead of stealthy squatters, you’re seeing love-sick troubadours! Besides embarking on their quest to find love, spiders are also fantastic household helpers, eating any insects they may find along their way. I tend to leave spiders alone if they are along baseboards and in corners. If one particularly bothers me, I use a paper and cup to catch it and place it outside.

This time of year is beautiful in Iowa, and it’s the perfect time to find ways to appreciate the beauty of living things that continue to serve our needs, despite our fear of them. Happy Fall!

 

Household Tip: To truly understand any animal/insect you see in or around your house, look up information from science-based sources, such as university extension websites, rather than pest-control companies. Pest-control websites are likely to present alarming information, possibly to encourage use of their services. A majority of the time, whatever you are seeing is not only common, but harmless as well.

 

Links in Text:

Leave The Leaves! Xerces Society blogpost, by Justin Wheeler:

https://xerces.org/blog/leave-the-leaves

 

Wild Birds Unlimited, Ames (515-956-3145) Website:

https://ames.wbu.com/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=local&utm_campaign=localmaps&utm_content=279

 

Woodworking for Wildlife, Iowa State University, link to PDF file on how to build a bat box:

https://naturalresources.extension.iastate.edu/wildlife/woodworking-wildlife