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.

Story County Develops First of Its Kind Water Monitoring and Interpretation Plan for 2021 – 2030

Story County Develops First of Its Kind Water Monitoring and Interpretation Plan for 2021 – 2030

Water Quality Monitoring and Interpretation Plan Cover

Prairie Rivers of Iowa along with staff from Story County and eight other local jurisdictions and organizations have developed a first-of-its-kind countywide comprehensive water monitoring and interpretation plan for 2021 – 2030.


This completed plan is a result of an effort facilitated by Prairie Rivers of Iowa who assembled a 24 member planning team representing Story County Conservation, City of Ames,

Nevada, City of Gilbert, City of Huxley, Iowa State University, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Izaak Walton League, Story County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Story County Community Foundation.

Starting in April of 2020 the planning team met monthly through December to learn how water monitoring helps understand how to identify water quality issues and solutions detailed within the plan.

“Water quality is very important to the Ames community so when provided the opportunity to join with other organizations to make more impact within Story County, we saw this as an important collaboration,” states City of Ames Municipal Engineer Tracy Peterson. “This plan is a first of its kind in Iowa where a countywide plan has been developed. It provides a working document for meeting goals and strategies as the planning team continues to meet and support effective, practical stream and lake water quality monitoring efforts.”

The monitoring and interpretation plan creates a roadmap to guide work towards four primary goals that include increasing water quality awareness, the expansion of monitoring efforts, identifying and promoting actions that improve and sustain water quality and resiliency of lakes and rivers while strengthening relationships between current and future partners. “This marks, most importantly, a commitment to learning all we can about our water resources and how to improve them,” adds Story County Conservation Director Mike Cox.

Specific chapters in the 86-page report outline the county’s current state of water quality, what action steps are needed for obtaining accurate water quality data, how and where that data is collected and how to sustain monitoring through 2030.

“Many Iowans grew up playing in creeks, lakes and rivers. They want to make sure their children can do the same without being exposed to harmful bacteria,” says Prairie Rivers of Iowa Watershed Educator Dan Haug. “We can use water monitoring data we’ve collected to know where problems exist, take the appropriate precautions and fix it.”

 Haug further explains, “Farmers, water treatment plants and local governments are working to keep nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil, thus out of our rivers, lakes and ultimately the Gulf of Mexico. Readers of the report will get a sense of the challenges with water monitoring and how we need to work going forward to gather and interpret the data for the public to understand what water quality concerns we have and then plan to develop steps taken by responsible parties to improve conservation efforts.”

The planning team will continue to refine and complete the actions needed to implement the goals and strategies to understand about water quality and measure improvement within Story County.

Visit here to read the entire plan.

National for Twelves Day

National for Twelves Day

On National For Twelves Day (4/12), our nation honors a magnificent number that holds significance in several ways.

We measure our days in two 12 hour sets. When we buy roses, eggs, and pastries, we purchase them by the dozen. How many months are in a year? Twelve. Of course, math lovers appreciate 12 because it has a perfect number of divisors.

On this special day, we want to bring to your attention 12 species of pollinators and wildlife that are listed as “Species of Greatest Conservation Need” by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, a full list of which can be found here

Rusty Patched Bumblebee
Habitat: Riparian Prairie and Woodland
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Pollen and nectar; preferred plants include milkweeds, prairie clovers, jewelweed, asters
Notes: This is the only federally endangered bee species in the lower 48 states.

Regal Fritillary
Habitat: Tallgrass Prairie
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Prairie and Birdsfoot Violets as caterpillars, nectar as adults
Notes: This butterfly was once considered for Iowa’s Official State Butterfly.

Gorgone Checkerspot
Habitat: Tallgrass Prairie
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Sunflowers and Lysimachia as caterpillars, nectar as adults
Notes: As adults, this butterfly exclusively visits yellow flowers.

Habitat: Tallgrass Prairie
When in Iowa: Breeding Season (Spring-Fall)
Diet: Milkweeds as caterpillars, nectar as adults
Notes: The Monarch migrates all the way to Mexico for the winter.

Bald Eagle
Habitat: Forests near water
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Fish
Notes: The mating dance for the bald eagle involved two birds grabbing each other’s talons and free falling.

Trumpeter Swan
Habitat: Lakes and Ponds
When in Iowa: Breeding Season
Diet: Plants
Notes: This is the largest species of bird in North America.

Horned Lark
Habitat: Tallgrass Prairie
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Seeds and Insects
Notes: There are 42 subspecies of Horned Lark worldwide.

Eastern Kingbird
Habitat: Tallgrass Prairie
When in Iowa: Breeding Season
Diet: Fruit and Insects
Notes: This bird has a hidden patch of bright feathers on its head that it uses to intimidate predators.

Gray Tree Frog
Habitat: Forests and Woodlands
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Insects
Notes: This species is strictly nocturnal, and is often found feeding on insects attracted to outdoor lights.

Blanchard’s Cricket Frog
Habitat: Wetlands and Ponds
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Aquatic Invertebrates
Notes: This small frog only lives for around 1 year.

Tiger Salamander
Habitat: Underground in Tallgrass Prairie and Woodlands
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Insects, Worms, and Frogs
Notes: This is the largest ranging salamander in North America, found coast-to-coast.

Common Snapping Turtle
Habitat: Ponds
When in Iowa: Year-Round
Diet: Small Animals
Notes: Snapping turtles can live to be over 100 years old.

Contact our Watershed Coordinator David Stein to learn more about restoring habitat and wildlife on your land:

No-Till Farming The Low Hanging Fruit

No-Till Farming The Low Hanging Fruit

Trying to be a good steward of the land has posed many a conundrum to Iowa farmers, myself included. We go to meetings in the winter and we learn about all sorts of conservation methods that will renew the soil, help clean the water, sequester carbon to help with climate change and just, by golly, make you feel better about yourself.

Spring comes and you meet with your banker. Your financial sheet says your net worth has gone south and that hot dry July really put the clamps on your income forecast. Your yield just came up to your crop insurance levels so there’ll be no help there. You’ve begged your landlord to hold off for another year raising the rent but the well-to-do neighbor’s pickup is in his driveway every time you go by. You think I’d like to try some of these progressive farming practices, but maybe this is not the year to change things.

Now let’s talk about the low-hanging fruit. The low-hanging fruit on a tree is that fruit that can be picked with the least amount of time and equipment. I consider the low-hanging fruit in conservation to be no-till. Farming without fall tillage is farming with the least amount of equipment and in the least amount of time. Leaving your crop residue on top of the land throughout the winter has long been recognized as a farming practice that reduces erosion, builds soil organic matter, and takes the pressure off of getting the harvest done so you can get your tillage done.  

So maybe this should be the year you try something new. Let’s see, if I don’t till my cornstalks this fall my fall expenses will be much less. Lot smaller fuel bill and I won’t have to hire my Uncle to do the ripping while I finish up the combining. I’ve already got trash whippers on my 

No-till Planter

on my planter so next spring I won’t have to do any tillage before I plant my soybeans. With all the trash on top it will probably hold down the early season weed pressure so maybe I will only have to spray once when the beans are half grown. I’m saving money! My banker will love it! Next year since I won’t be needing that big piece of iron known as the V-ripper I can sell it and pay down on my machinery loan. I noticed I didn’t get my big 4 wheel drive tractor out of the shed this year so maybe I can sell that too.

This is where I was in 1999. I’ve been a no-tiller ever since. I live on a blacktop road six miles from town. In late winter of 2000 I noticed when I drove to town that once I got past my farms, all the ditches filled with snow were black from topsoil from the wind whipping over the tilled fields. It took a long time but today in 2021 when I drive to town all the ditches are white except for the fields farmed by the two tillage holdouts. All my other neighbors have gone no-till or strip-till proving “once you don’t see black, you’ll never go back”.

The easiest change a farmer can make to his operation that will greatly affect his bottom line and help him feel good about himself is to keep those ditches clean. And you’ve just picked the low-hanging fruit.

Missing Monarchs, What it Means, Why it Matters, and How to Help.

Missing Monarchs, What it Means, Why it Matters, and How to Help.

It seems to be a yearly event nowadays, that we wait with bated breath for the release of the year’s final monarch count from Mexico, where they spend the winter.  Similarly, each year, we’re let down with the news that the population has fallen again.  This same thing has happened this year, with MonarchWatch’s yearly report from the field.  Yet again we’ve seen a decline, with the total area covered by monarchs in their overwintering site falling 26% compared to last year, now only covering 2.1 hectares (5.2 acres).  For a comparison, the indicator of a healthy Monarch population is an overwintering area of 6 hectares (14.8 acres).  So what’s going on here, and more importantly, what does it mean?

The Continual Growth and Collapse of Monarch Populations. Photo Credit:

It’s time for my controversial but true statement, monarchs really aren’t good pollinators. There, I said it! They don’t contribute very much to fruit or seed production, and they certainly don’t help with our food security.  So what’s the deal?  Why are we spending our time and energy monitoring and reporting on them?  Well, there are a lot of reasons why protecting them matters. For example, if you felt uncomfortable, angry, or saddened by any of my previous statements in these last 2 paragraphs, then that’s a fantastic reason on its own to protect them.  

Monarchs have a special place in the culture of Iowa, the Midwest, and North America as a whole.  Most people that I talk to about the plight of the monarchs reminisce about seeing them delicately flying around in the summer.  Many more, myself included, have fond memories of raising and releasing Monarchs as part of countless elementary school science classes.  For many people, monarchs were a great introduction to the wonders of nature, highlighting how creatures can grow and change through time in order to adapt to their surroundings.  Monarchs also teach us about migration and animal movement, how creatures overcome great odds, and large distances all for the sake of the next generation, who in turn will repeat the cycle.  

Monarchs after Migrating to Mexico.

Outside of nostalgia, metaphor, and symbolism, monarchs have an important role in conservation as what’s called an indicator species.  Because of their size, recognizability, and large range, tracking a trend in the population of monarchs is far easier than, say, a small, camouflaged, yet more-efficient pollinator.  If we know that both of these creatures have similar habitat and dietary needs, it is in our best interest, time and energy-wise to focus on the big, orange, easy-to-track species.  By providing the good habitat, food, and space for a monarch, we can expect other pollinators to use those resources in a similar way.  Similarly, if we see declines in monarch numbers, we can use that data to assume that other species of pollinators are also declining for similar reasons.  

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed, but did you spot the sweat bee?

It’s in our best interest to protect monarchs, because by extension, we’ll be protecting pollinators as a whole.  Now you may be wondering how you can help monarchs and pollinators, what things you can do to help reverse these declines?  The good news is that no matter where you live, or how much land you have, you can help your local pollinators.  All it takes to start is a few seeds, easy enough right?  

Well, no…you need to make sure you plant the right seeds for the job.  Monarchs and pollinators evolved right alongside our native plants, so those are the plants to grow that will cover all of their nutritional needs.  If you aren’t able to access native plants, or don’t have the space for them, non-native nectar plants like lavender, mint, and clover are all good options (just make sure that they don’t spread outside of a designated area!)  Also plant “host plants.”  These are specific species of plants that caterpillars will eat to prepare them for becoming butterflies.  The host plants for monarchs are famously milkweeds, but every other butterfly has their own version of this.  Finally, your plants should bloom throughout the season, with species blooming continuously between May and October.  This way, you’ll know that you’re providing a source of flood for hungry pollinators at all times.  

Pollinator Gardens Provide Nectar Throughout the Summer.

Monarchs may not be the best at pollinating, but they are an important symbol.  They symbolize migration, change, and the cycle of nature.  They also symbolize pollinators as a whole, illustrating their needs, their declines, and their need for protection.  Again, by protecting monarchs, providing them with spaces for them to grow, thrive, and eventually venture out from, we’ll be able to protect all of our pollinators.

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.