High nitrate this spring: where and why

High nitrate this spring: where and why

The Des Moines Waterworks was forced to use their nitrate removal system for the first time in five years. Our spring snapshot found high nitrate concentrations in streams across Story County. On my way to speak at the CCE Environmental Expo in Mitchell County, I dipped a test strip in the Cedar River near Osage and measured 16 mg/L. Looking at the Iowa Water Quality Information System there’s orange (nitrate greater than 10 mg/L) across much of the state and spots of dark red (nitrate greater than 20 mg/L) in Story, Hamilton, and Hardin counties. What’s going on?

 

 

flowing drain tile

Well, differences in land use, soils, topography, and farming practices make for strong regional differences in water quality.  For some streams like the North Raccoon River, this is a return to normal.  For some streams, like the Cedar River, current conditions are unusual. To illustrate this, I’ve invented my own graph, which compares highest nitrate concentrations observed this spring (the blue dot) to the entire 10-20 year record (a black band showing the range, and a black square showing the median). The data comes from Iowa DNR’s Ambient Stream Monitoring Network; I will update these graphs once June data is available. A sampling of sites is shown at right, but the entire graph can be downloaded as a PDF here.

nitrate in selected rivers

Northwest Iowa is still suffering from drought, and that means the Floyd River near Sioux City (which usually has some of the highest nitrate concentrations in the state) is barely flowing and has very low nitrate concentrations. As we saw last year, nutrient concentrations tend to be low during dry conditions except where there is a strong influence from point sources of pollution. Most of the rest of the state is back to normal, and nitrate that accumulated in the soil during two dry years is now getting flushed out. These maps are taken from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  I’ve drawn in the approximate location of the watersheds for the monitoring sites in my example.

map showing drought abating

Weather whiplash in agricultural regions drives deterioration of water quality.”  That’s the title and conclusion of a paper that studied previous episodes when a wet spring followed a dry summer and fall.  The 2012 drought was much more severe than 2021, impacting yields so that less nitrogen was taken up by the crop and removed in the grain, and maybe that’s why nitrate in 2013 and 2014 was so much higher than it is now.  I’ve compared spring highs for several sites and years, normalizing by the long-term average.  It’s not clear to me whether weather whiplash increases the overall mass (load) of nitrogen that gets washed away, or just alters the timing (moving in one year what would have been parceled out over two), but high concentrations are a concern for communities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids that get their drinking water from a river or river-influenced wells. 

map showing shift out of drought in 2013
map of weather whiplash in 2014
graph showing when nitrate was higher than usual for select sites

I’m procrastinating on the work I’m supposed to be doing because “Hey look!  Data!” and I have to satisfy my curiosity.  If you’d like to see us do more water quality analysis beyond Story County, let us know, and support us with a charitable donation so it can become work I’m supposed to be doing!

Byway Coordinator Retiring

Sad to say, but this is the last blog I will write as the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway Coordinator. It has been a fun-filled six years in this position. At times it doesn’t seem like that much time could have passed. But it has. As I reflect, we accomplished quite a bit.
Going back through quarterly and annual reports, I learned I gave over 65 presentations to cities, counties, and service groups. Some of these were in person and some virtual. I also manned booths at local celebrations and at the Iowa State Fair. At several community 125th or 150th year celebrations, we had an entry in the parade. These experiences allowed me to meet the people who live along the Byway and those interested in the Lincoln Highway. All are great people with a passion for their communities and I wish them well.

As with most non-profit programs, it takes a village to run a successful program. Thanks to the Prairie Rivers of Iowa (PRI) board members. They helped with events, manned booths, and supported the Byway efforts 100%. To Penny Brown-Huber, PRI Executive Director, I owe her everything. She took a chance on an older person who went back to grad school in her 50’s and gave me the job I know I was destined for. Still remember looking at the job posting and saying to myself, “I can do that. I can do that,” as I scrolled through the duties. Then I read through them again to see if there was anything I didn’t want to do. NOPE! I interviewed and was hired.

To the staff: I appreciate Dan Haug who helps the program by creating maps; Carman Rosburg who does the accounting work, keeps me in office supplies, and volunteers to help with events; and I appreciate those countless interns and now Joshua Benda, our Graphic Designer, as they have and continue to do the design work on interpretive panels and brochures- I owe you all a ton of gratitude. It is your unwavering dedication to your job and your professionalism that kept me motivated.

Mahanay Bell Tower in Jefferson by Mike Whye

The Iowa Byways program has seen some changes. Currently we are working with Travel Iowa with the Iowa Byways Passport Program. This program has allowed all 14 Iowa Byways to be more visible to the public and the program has really taken off. With summer approaching soon and vaccines available, I hope you all will get out and travel around Iowa. We have a beautiful and interesting state with much to see and do. I have new favorites from my travels along the Byway. Some of them are the Tremont and Taylor’s Maid-Rite in Marshalltown, the view from the Elijah Buell Terrace by the Sawmill Museum in the Lyon’s District of Clinton, and the view from Mahanay Bell Tower in Jefferson is breathtaking. You can see for miles and miles from the observation deck. And who can leave out Harrison County Historical Village and Welcome Center near Missouri Valley. Kathy Dirks and staff are so welcoming and they have tons of Lincoln Highway info – and even a movie! I could go on and on.

Old Car at Youngville by Mike Kelly

I appreciate Henry Ostermann who knew the Lincoln Highway better than anyone from 1913-1920. He lost his life in an accident on his beloved highway. And to all those auto pioneers who helped develop roads and cars – if they could see us now with our climate control, GPS, parallel parking aides, satellite radio, video monitors, back-up cameras and large SUVs. That’s all stuff they probably didn’t even imagine could be possible.

I appreciate the folks in the Lincoln Highway Association that brought attention back to the road in 1992 when they re-formed the national association. To Bob, Joyce, Dean, Jeannie, Bob O., Cathy, Lyell, Rex, Mary Helen, Joe, Kathy, Barbara, Mike, Sandii, and Van – your expertise and knowledge of the Lincoln Highway was invaluable. And a special shout-out to Russell Rein, the current LHA Field Secretary, who lives in Michigan. He has answered every question I’ve asked him in a super timely manner. I am amazed at his knowledge.

As I prepare for my last day on April 16th, I am extremely proud that we have a both a Corridor Management Plan and an Interpretive Master Plan to follow that outlines the direction for the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway. And I am over the moon that we can add “ – A National Scenic Byway” to our title. It is time to hand the baton off and let a new person take the lead.

I thank all of you for reading this and for your interest and support of the Lincoln Highway and the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway- A National Scenic Byway. I had to say it one more time!

Jan Gammon

Breweries, Distilleries, and Wineries Oh My!

Breweries, Distilleries, and Wineries Oh My!

What do you do during a pandemic? And while you’re at it, throw in a derecho too! Well, the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway created two videos and a brochure about Breweries, Distilleries, and Wineries in Eastern Iowa along the Lincoln Highway. It was a fun, challenging, and in the end – a very rewarding experience.

View of the Mississippi River from the deck at Wide River Winery north of Clinton.
Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery entrance at Swisher, Iowa.

Getting Started

Notification of partial funding for the Lincoln Highway project came from Iowa Tourism in November 2019 and we spent the winter months contacting and working with the four supporting businesses who are featured in the videos. Spring and the start of the growing season would work best for filming and then BOOM! Mid-March came with a pandemic and everything came to a screeching halt. Breweries, distilleries, and wineries were ordered closed and everyone was told to stay home. If you went out in public, you were asked to wear a mask. Schools and universities closed or went on-line. Oh, no! We were working with the University of Iowa’s Cinematic Arts Department and the Office of Outreach and Engagement and were counting on graduate students to do the filming and editing. Putting the videos on a temporary hold, we turned our attention to the accompanying tri-fold brochure that we hoped to debut at the Byways booth at the Iowa State Fair. Well, you all know how that went with the fair…… At times, we wondered if this project would ever get off the ground, but it did!

Work Gets Underway

Trevon Coleman, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) graduate student at the U of I, and Philip Rabalais, a recent MFA graduate, agreed to do the filming and editing. During mid-to-late summer, some restrictions were lifted allowing for partial business openings. We had the opportunity to film and we jumped at it. For safety precautions, we were masked the entire time. Patrons at the establishments wore masks except for when they were eating or drinking. At times it felt very surreal. But people were looking for a safe escape from their homes. One couple from Illinois rode a motorcycle down the Iowa side of the river to celebrate the wife’s birthday and stopped at the Mississippi River Distilling Company. Wide River Winery had two RV’ers stop in. One is featured in the film. She is from Virginia, retired, and decided to rent out her house and take off across America. She hasn’t been home for over a year.

Trevon Coleman interviewing Jeff Quint at Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery in Swisher. Philip Rabalais on the floor working the sound equipment.
Trevon Coleman (foreground) and Philip Rabalais, U of I graduate students, prepare their equipment at Big Grove Brewery in Iowa City.


Most patrons were willing to share their experiences. At Cedar Ridge, 4-5 groups were enjoying the spacious outdoor seating. Big Grove Brewery just added to their outdoor seating and it was being put to good use as well. Many people were tired of being at home and as long as they could travel at their own speed and social distance, they were having a great time. As said in one of the films, people need to “get off the couch and into the car.”


The four locations: Mississippi River Distilling Company (LeClaire), Wide River Winery (Clinton), Cedar Ridge Winery and Distillery (Swisher), and Big Grove Brewery (Iowa City) all were very accommodating and these videos show the owners’ passion for their business and products. Doing our part, we did taste test a few brews, spirits, and wines and brought some back to share with others…. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it!

Garrett Burchett moving newly delivered empty barrels to make room for the film shoot at the Mississippi River Distilling Company in LeClaire.

That’s a Wrap

Even throwing a derecho at us in August, did not deter Trevon and Philip from completing the filming. Once power was restored and businesses were open again, they forged on. We are so excited to share the end product with the public and we will see you on the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway as you patronize these 4 locations and the others in eastern Iowa. And have fun. “There’s always got to be fun!”

Big Grove created a’ “Beer Interrupted” named for the derecho hitting and a power outage interrupting the brew process. Big Grove leaves no brew behind so the hazy DIPA was aggressively hopped with El Dorado and Lotus.

The uploaded videos can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gV4zTBb73nM&t=9s (Big Grove- Cedar Ridge) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skoaBsqtbn0 (Mississippi River-Wide River).

Also available is the accompanying brochure about the history of breweries, distilleries, and wineries in Iowa and a map of their locations in eastern Iowa. Please find it on our Byway page at https://www.prrcd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/ILHA-Brochure-2.pdf

Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway Spring 2020

Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway Spring 2020

Monarch on a Swamp Milkweed by Carl Kurtz

There are signs of spring 2020 along the Lincoln Highway! In some places, snow has melted away and some flowers are busting through the soil. That means spring is just around the corner. Home and Garden Shows are being held in many communities across Iowa. Also Camping and Boating shows! These types of events get people excited for warmer weather and for the eventual summer.

Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway Recreation and Camping Guide

  Also check our our Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway Recreation and Camping brochure for ideas of where you can go along our route and enjoy the outdoors.  https://old.prrcd.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/10-18.UPD-Camp26RecBrochure.pdf What preparations are you making for spring? Cleaning closets? Raking the yard? Perusing garden catalogs and magazines? Getting your fishing gear ready? We all know that Thursday, March 19th is the first official day of spring, but, as Iowans, we know it can still snow in April and be chilly in May. What can we do in preparation in the meantime for the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway to get ready for spring? We know the Department of Transportation is tasked with handling the physical road repairs, but what can we do as a group or as an individual for the Byway? On my way to work today, I noticed some trash along the ditches and medians. Does your section of road have groups that participate in Adopt-A-Highway? If not, do you know of a group that could? Now I am not suggesting that you go into the median of a busy highway yourself to pick up trash without proper training or a safety vest, but if you are a landowner perhaps cleaning up your own ditch makes sense. (I know most do already.) If you live in the city, as I do now, ask your city how you can be part of a city-wide cleanup day. Perhaps there is a group that spruces up the entrance to your town to make it more inviting, not only for visitors, but for residents. This makes an impact on all and increases community pride. Some communities do a “swap” where leaders in one community go to another to view the community through “new eyes” as to what works well and what could be improved. Then leaders from that community go to the other and do the same type of review. Sometimes we don’t even notice things in our own back yard as we are accustomed to them. The official Iowa Byways sign for the Lincoln Highway Heritage BywayAre there buildings that could do with a fresh coat of paint? Every year Paint Iowa Beautiful offers, through a grant application process, a chance to obtain paint through their program. (Sorry the 2020 deadline has passed, but please remember this for next year.)

One of my spring goals is to finish the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway signage inventory. I know there are signs in 2 counties and 2 communities that I need to address. It’s been an on-going process for several years now. (There are 1200 signs across the state to monitor!)

Also on my list of to-do’s are to continue supporting attractions that are in need of restoration. Preston’s Station, Quirks’ Cabins, and a gas station in Montour are among the priorities. We are also planning several interpretive installations across the state that will increase education and promotion of the road.

Preston’s Station Historic District in Belle Plaine, Iowa taken by Mike Kelly

Let us know what spring events you have in the works and how we can help you promote them.

New Day for National Scenic Byway Designations!

The world of Byways changed on September 22, 2019 when “Reviving America’s Scenic Byways Act of 2019” was signed into law. It passed out of the U.S House of Representatives on a vote of 404-19 earlier this year and then was passed unanimously in the Senate.  The President signed it on 9/22/19. The bill directs the U.S. Secretary of Transportation to restart the nomination process for National Scenic Byway status within 90 days of enactment, and to make a round of designations within one year.We are very grateful to Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) for their leadership on the bill in the Senate and to Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) and Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA) for their leadership in the House. See what other groups have to say about the passage of this bill and what it means for America at  https://www.scenic.org/blog/president-signs-national-scenic-byways-bill-into-law/Image result for image of congress

We, at the Lincoln Highway Heritage Byway, are patiently waiting to see what the guidelines and nomination requirements are for this re-energized program. Only in Illinois is the Lincoln Highway a National Scenic Byway. The route in the states of Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, and half of Pennsylvania are state byways. The other states (New York, New Jersey, West Virginia, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California) have not designated their portion of the historic route as a byway. One must first be a state byway before becoming a national byway.

In Iowa, we have two National Scenic Byways- the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway and the Great River Road National Scenic Byway. The Loess Hills runs along the western edge of the state and the Great River Road is along the Mississippi River on the eastern edge of Iowa. The Lincoln Highway connects to both of them.

Now keep in mind that no funding was attached to this bill. This is only to take nominations and approve byways for this distinction. That does not mean that funding couldn’t happen in the future, but it was not part of this bill.

A Corridor Management Plan has been a requirement in the past. We completed ours in late 2016 and have been working hard to implement the projects identified in that process. Twenty interpretive panels in 8 communities have been created and we have plans for several more.  The route has also been promoted  in brochures, presentations, and at the Iowa State Fair. We have partnered with universities, government entities, other non-profits, and citizens to retain this historic road and its varied resources.

As we keep the momentum going, writing grants and planning projects, we desire to become a National Scenic Byway one day. We see the possibility on the horizon.