Are small towns a big problem for water quality?

Are small towns a big problem for water quality?

Before state wastewater standards went into effect in the 1960s, raw sewage could flow directly to a stream without treatment. Despite the standards, this continues in many areas today. In areas called “unsewered communities,” outdated or poorly functioning septic tanks still allow untreated wastewater into our waters.  The Iowa DNR works with these communities to find funding sources and alternative treatment systems and to allow adequate time to upgrade the systems.

Iowa DNR: Rural Community Sewers

The Governor has announced that additional funding through the infrastructure bill that will be available to help unsewered communities upgrade their systems.  Could this make a big difference for water quality in Iowa?  Statewide, I’m not sure, but I’ve taken a closer look at the Iowa River Basin upstream of Marshalltown, where we know of 11 unsewered communities.  Based on my first look at the data, it appears that these communities have little influence on E. coli in the Iowa River itself, but could make a difference for water quality in tributary streams like Beaver Creek in Hardin County.

There are 11 unsewered communities in the upper part of the Iowa River Basin, marked here with yellow circles with an X.

A Water Quality Improvement Plan for E. coli bacteria in the Iowa River Basin was released by Iowa DNR in 2017.  As required by the Clean Water Act, these kinds of plans include a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) of pollutants that a water body could handle and still meet water quality standards.  Author James Hallmark compares this pollution budget to a family budget: regulated point sources are your fixed bills, non-point sources are your variable expenses, and the margin of safety is your emergency fund.  I like this analogy and would add that without some understanding of where your discretionary spending is going, and a realistic strategy to reign it in, you’re probably not going to achieve your goals.

The Water Quality Improvement Plan includes a comprehensive list of E. coli sources but doesn’t single any of them out as being particularly important.  It includes a list of potential solutions, but it doesn’t identify which of those would make the most difference.  That’s a job for a Watershed Management Plan written with stakeholder input, apparently. However, the document is chock-full of load-duration curves, which I wrote about previously.  We can use the information in these charts and tables to take the next step and begin to narrow down where and when the pollution is most serious!

In this article, I won’t pay much attention to “High Flows” and “Low Flows” because there wouldn’t be much recreational use under these conditions. I also don’t look at “mid-range” flows because there’s a bigger mix of sources influencing water quality in these conditions. A closer look at the other two categories is revealing.

common sources of bacteria for different flow conditions

If houses are discharging raw sewage directly into a stream, we’d expect to see the highest E. coli concentrations when the stream is running lower than normal, and there’s less dilution.  This is indeed what we see in Beaver Creek in Hardin County, which is downstream from the unsewered community of Owasa.  Beaver Creek would need a 79% reduction in E. coli load to meet the primary contact recreation standard during “Dry Conditions” and a 38% reduction during “Wet Conditions”.

If not fully treated, sewage could be a major contributor to E. coli in some tributaries of the Iowa River.

Treated sewage also has the biggest influence when streams are lower than usual.  The upper reaches of the South Fork receive effluent from the small towns of Williams and Alden, which have waste stabilization lagoons.  It’s likely that some bacteria makes it through the treatment process, and this would explain why E. coli is higher during “Dry Conditions” (needing a 73% reduction) than during “Wet Conditions” (needing a 30% reduction).  When their permits come up for renewal, Iowa DNR could require a UV disinfection system to ensure that E. coli in effluent is no greater than 126 colonies/100mL.

The blue line is the wasteload allocation–the regulated part of the pollution budget. Even with the best available treatment, wastewater from two towns has a big influence on the South Fork during dry conditions.

In a watershed with few people and many hogs, we’d expect to see the highest E. coli concentrations when the streams are running high and runoff from fields that receive manure application is more likely.  This is indeed what we see in Tipton Creek in Hardin County, a watershed containing 47(!) CAFOs, but the levels are not especially high compared to other sites in the Iowa River basin.  The recreation standard is met during “Dry Conditions” and would need a 36% reduction during “Wet Conditions.”  Handled correctly (applied to flat ground at the right time, and preferably incorporated into the soil), manure and the microbes it contains can be kept out of streams.  Preventing loss of the nutrients in manure is a more difficult challenge—nitrate concentrations in Tipton Creek often exceed 20 mg/L!

Despite there being a lot of hogs in the Tipton Creek watershed, E. coli levels are not especially high, relative to downstream locations.

It’s not clear to me whether primary contact recreational use of these streams is a relevant or attainable goal, or whether we should be calibrating our level of concern to the secondary contact recreation criteria. Unless there’s a permit holder affected, IDNR doesn’t investigate whether there’s enough water for kayaking in Tipton Creek, or whether children play in Beaver Creek, so the designated use is presumptive and tells me nothing.

E. coli and recreation on the Iowa River is not as big a concern at Crystal Lake as it is at Steamboat Rock.
Photo Credits: Ryan Adams, photojournalist

To protect fishing, paddling, and children’s play on the Iowa River itself, where and when should we focus?  The Iowa River at Marshalltown needs a 60% reduction in bacteria load to meet the recreation standard during “Wet Conditions” (10-40% flow exceedance).  However, it actually meets the primary contact recreation standard during “Dry Conditions” (60-90% flow exceedance).  Focusing on unsewered communities in the watershed would NOT be an effective way to address this impairment.

Beaver Creek (left) has worse E. coli when it’s dry. The Iowa River near Marshalltown (right) has worse E. coli when it’s wet. If the green line is above the red line, that indicates that the E. coli geometric mean for that range of flows exceeds the standard.

Galls Creek in Hancock County has some of the worst E. coli levels measured in the basin, and would have a larger per-acre benefit to the Iowa River if standards could be met.  Galls Creek has no unsewered communities but at least 20 farmsteads located along the creek that could have issues with septic systems overflowing under wet weather.  The watershed has little woodland and no pasture, so land application of manure from the several CAFOs in the watershed would be most likely animal source of E. coli.

Table by Prairie Rivers of Iowa, using information from the Water Quality Improvement Plan for the Iowa River Basin

This is just a partial review of one of three HUC8s in the Iowa River Basin. There is much more to learn from further discussion with people who know the area well, or from on-site investigation.  However, I hope I’ve demonstrated how we might squeeze some more insight out of the data we have, in order to make smart investments in water quality.

Reflecting on the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Project

Reflecting on the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Project

This project that was funded through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) is coming to a close early this December. It allowed us the means to engage with several local people about the need for wildlife and pollinator habitats in central Iowa. I’d like to take the time to reflect on all the great work that we’ve done through this grant. Here are the highlights of our accomplishments of over the last three years with a few numbers.

6 Field Days were held on the following topics: Hamilton County Wetlands, CRP/Pollinator Habitat, Saturated Buffers, Multi-Scale Habitat Restoration, Story County Wetlands, Orchard, and Prairie Pollination.

220 People attended field days between 2019 and 2021

CRP Pollinator Habitat Field Day

5 Webinars were held in 2021 on the following topics: Water Quality, Ethnobotany, Planting for Pollinators, Citizen Science Opportunities, and Habitat Financial Assistance.

119 People attended our webinars in 2021

Which Water Worry Where Webinar

6 Water Quality Snapshots were held each spring and autumn between 2019 and 2021.

113 Volunteers tested water quality during our snapshot events.

Which Water Worry Where Webinar

36 Landowners were provided with technical assistance for nutrient reduction, water quality, wildlife habitat, and erosion issues.

30 Species of native plants were offered through the Community Seed Bank Program started in 2019.

96 Landowners were provided with native seeds through the Community Native Seed Bank

179 Acres of pollinator habitat were restored or enhanced through the Community Native Seed Bank

Native Seed Bank

9 County Maps were developed to find the ideal placement for new habitat installation.

10 Years of water quality monitoring were planned through a collaborative group of Story County stakeholders.

Story County Water Monitoring and Interpretation Plan

Tall Grass Prairie Restoration Follow Up

Tall Grass Prairie Restoration Follow Up

Chris Taliga at Wild and Scenic Film Festival Presented by Prairie Rivers of Iowa

NRCS PLANTS Data Team Plant Ecologist Chris Taliga, a featured presenter at our Wild and Scenic Film Festival, shared with the audience a little about the restoration of prairie on her family’s farm. I recently followed up with Chris to learn more about the restoration and what best practices she suggests for those wanting to get started with a similar project of their own!

PRI: Can you summarize what efforts you and your family have taken to restore your 160 acres of Iowa land into a prairie?

Chris: We bought this farm 22 years ago seeking to restore tall grass prairie and to develop a conservation approach that is in harmony with life on the farm and the environment.

We began by bringing back fire on the parts of the farm that were pasture (roughly half of the land area) in an effort to see if we could find remnant native vegetation. We also immediately seeded down eroded waterways, contour buffer strips and filter strips (to a mixture of native prairie species) on the parts of the farm that were leased for farming.

We also thoroughly inventoried the vegetation. We knew early on that conserving our soil and water resources and enhancing the environment for all life on the farm were top priorities for us which is why we committed to using organic practices in our restoration efforts. We have been managing this farm organically for the past twenty years and were first certified organic in 2006. We have felt all along that this approach would help us protect our natural resources.

Taliga Family Farm Prairie Restoration

After our farming lease expired we enrolled roughly 1/3 of the farm into the Conservation Reserve Program and have slowly added additional acreage into the Conservation Reserve Program over the years.

Along with prescribed fire we also mowed, chopped, pulled, and sawed non-native invasive species. We collected seed, purchased seed, and inter-seeded areas after our prescribed fires. Most seeding was done by broadcasting and some of the seeding we hired out with a no-till drill. In areas we did not seed, we recognized native grass like (graminoid) species, mostly native upland sedges, which had persisted in our pasture in a few areas less than 0.1 acres in size with some remnant flowers such as pale purple coneflower but very little other native vegetation.

Over the years we have continued to burn and seed and have been rewarded with large stands of native tall grass prairie vegetation throughout the farm.  We now collect seed and sell our certified organic prairie seed geared mainly to the home landscape as we deal in very small quantities.  There is always more work on the farm, besides seed collection we are also working on addressing some issues along the banks of two of the streams traversing our farm.

PRI: How long have you been at it?
Chris: Since 1999.

PRI: What three best practices would you recommend to others wanting to get started with a similar prairie restoration on their land?
Chris: Identify and tackle the most critical areas first, either areas you need to seed down to address soil erosion or a weed issue, this allows you to start small and learn from your experience.

Persistence & patience, native vegetation takes time, be sure you stay on top of the mowing and weed care a native seeding requires. Establishing a native plant community also requires patience as you observe the plant community developing over time.

Continue the learning process by monitoring your work, talking to others doing similar work, develop a support community, and trusting your instincts

PRI: What steps have you taken or hope to take to put into practice perennial crop alternatives to your acreage?
Chris: We have explored a number of options over the years and currently certified organic hay and native seed are our main perennial crops.

PRI: What improvements/benefits have you seen over time because of your efforts?
Chris: We have seen reduction in soil erosion, and multifold increase in native plant biodiversity and increased abundance of wildlife including native grassland birds and pollinators. We also see signs of better water quality in our creeks and ponds.

PRI: Do you have any additional thoughts you would like to share with our readers? 
Chris: Our family has learned so much from our restoration efforts which are ongoing. We express our love for Iowa and its natural resources through our stewardship on our farm. It is wonderful to see our daughter engaged in this landscape ethic which is beyond any of our dreams when we started this endeavor.

Chris Taliga and Family

You can find Chris and Her Family on Etsy @BurtalFarmSeed.

Note From the Program Coordinator

Note From the Program Coordinator

Thank you all for joining us again on the newest addition of the Watersheds and Wildlife Newsletter. Let me go ahead and start by thanking everyone for making our most recent events a massive success! We had a lot of events in a row, and it made us so happy to see the massive amount of support shown to us. On August 28th we held our final field day for the year, and for the National Fish and Wildlife project. This field day was called Bumble Bees and Berries and was held at both the Berry Patch Farm and Jennett Heritage Area. We were lucky enough to partner with Story County Conservation, the Story SWCD, and Monarch Joint Venture. We had a total of 40 people stop by to learn all about pollinators, orchards, and prairies.

Bumble Bees and Berries Event Activity
Chad Pregracke Presentation

On September 30th, in collaboration with the City of Ames, we hosted a river cleanup lecture by Chad Pregracke at the Ames City Auditorium. His talk then inspired us, and 26 other environmental enthusiasts to get our hands dirty and our feet wet, and do a massive cleanup in Ioway Creek on the 2nd.

Our largest event by far, however, was the 2nd annual Wild and Scenic Film Festival, again held at Ames City Auditorium on October 1st. This was a night full of inspiring films, partnership building, and showing support for conservation. We hope you all enjoyed the event, and look forward to next year’s show!

Iowa PBS Wild and Scenic Film Fest Presentation

On October 23, we hosted this year’s second Water Quality Snapshot, where volunteers helped collect vital data that we can use to evaluate our waterways. Starting in November our annual Native Seed Bank will be re-opening. We hope that this year’s seed bank will be able to help restore more acres than 2019 and 2020 combined! On November 2nd, we alongside Story County Conservation will be hosting a webinar to update the public on the progress being made towards Story County water quality monitoring.

Like always, for more details about all of our upcoming events, please follow us on social media, and visit the events page on our website. Thank you again for joining us and enjoy this edition of the Watersheds and Wildlife Newsletter.

Visit here to read the entire newsletter.

Our October 2021 volunteer monitoring event is a little different

Our October 2021 volunteer monitoring event is a little different

Thanks to the 15 volunteers who helped to catch benthic macroinvertebrates (bugs) and test water quality over the weekend!

Volunteers capture benthic macroinvertebrates with a kick net, one of two methods we tried.

Ioway Creek “Snapshots” in May and October are a tradition going back to 2006.  Volunteers test water quality at many locations on the same day to get a better picture of what’s going on in the watershed. Since the IOWATER program ended, Prairie Rivers of Iowa has gathered supplies and planned events to keep the tradition going, but this year there was just one little snag: there was barely any water in Ioway Creek or its tributaries!

For most of this fall, our usual gathering place at Brookside Park has looked more like the photo on the left.

Not a problem.  The South Skunk River still had flowing water, and this was as good an opportunity as any to survey benthic macroinvertebrates (aquatic bugs), an indicator of water quality and habitat quality in rivers.  We were helped in this task by Susan Heathcote, a trainer with the Izaak Walton League’s Save Our Streams program.  If you’d like to become certified and missed out on this opportunity to complete the field portion of your training, keep an eye out for more training events with Susan in early spring.

Photo credit: Rick Dietz. Volunteers pick invertebrates off rocks and leaves and sort them in ice cube trays.

In addition to crawfish and dragonflies (always a hit with kids), we found a variety of smaller critters, including sensitive mayflies and stoneflies.  Overall, the invertebrate community in the South Skunk River was “good.”  In contrast, another stream we surveyed this week (West Indian Creek south of Nevada) had a “poor” score with mostly net-spinning caddisflies.  We’ll discuss some possible reasons for this difference at a webinar on November 2nd.

Another option for when streams are dry is to spend some time interpreting the data we have.  Following some water quality testing in the Skunk River, I gave a presentation to put those measurements into context.  I think the data feels more relevant when you’re at the water’s edge and have just gone through the process of collecting it! If you prefer to do your learning somewhere warm and comfortable, we’ll be covering similar information at a webinar on November 2nd.

This fall, nitrate is zero in most streams that have any water, but over the past 15 years we’ve been able to see which tributaries have the highest and lowest levels.

Another hitch.  Thunderstorms were forecast for Sunday!  We changed the date to Saturday and are glad we did; the weather was beautiful.  This also gave us the opportunity to set up equipment so we could capture water samples from the big rain on Sunday. Three volunteers helped me retrieve a dozen samples on Monday.  The samples will be tested for E. coli bacteria and optical brighteners, which may help us find and fix septic and sewer leaks.

Ryan checks a crest stage recorder (a low tech tool for seeing how high the water got) and puts a fresh bottle in a storm sampler.

Many thanks to all who participated. We hope to see you at the next watershed snapshot in May, and hope the water levels will be back to normal!

Watershed maps tell us how big the solutions have to be

Watershed maps tell us how big the solutions have to be

You may have seen a “Swimming Not Recommended” sign at an Iowa lake this summer. In order to prevent those signs from going up, the first step is often to find the watershed or “beach shed.” That may sound like the place you go to change into your swimming suit or store your boat, but in this case we mean the land area that drains to and influences a given body of water.

For example, while Hickory Grove Lake in Story County is only 100 acres, the phosphorus that stimulates algae blooms could be washing into the lake from over 4000 acres in its watershed. Farmers and homeowners in the watershed have been working since 2008 to install conservation practices and fix up septic systems, with the help of Story Soil and Water Conservation District and other partners. When the rains come and water refills the restored lake, these efforts will ensure that the lake doesn’t refill with algae.

Water quality solutions can get a little smaller and more manageable if we can focus in on a problem area with a smaller watershed. As part of a water quality improvement plan (TMDL) for beaches, the Iowa DNR has done detailed studies of Hickory Grove Lake and five other lakes. They found that in all cases, fecal bacteria (the other cause of beach closures) were higher in the wet sand than in the water, higher at the shoreline than the deeper parts of the swimming area, and lowest outside the swimming area. It means that we can focus on just the 2.8 acres that drain directly to the beach at Hickory Grove (the “beach shed”, as the DNR put it) rather than in the entire lake and its watershed. Solutions for this beach and the other five include regular grooming of the sand, making the shoreline less attractive for geese, and redirecting or treating polluted runoff from parking lots and picnic areas.

But if the water quality problems are big enough (like the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico) then our solutions need to get bigger. All Iowa is part of the 1,151,000 square mile Mississippi River watershed, so all Iowans can do their part to keep nitrogen and phosphorus from washing downstream.