Updated 2022-11-14 with final count: 53 mussels rescued, 13 of them threatened species!
Three fun facts about freshwater mussels
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.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
Ioway Creek recently got some love from the community. On Saturday, May 21, a group of seventeen volunteers (plus another four helping on land) loaded nine canoes with trash as we floated from Brookside Park down to S. 16th Street in Ames. We hauled out 14 tires and 1,560 pounds of other trash including 3 shopping carts, a tent, and two bicycles. Assembling the tools, canoes, food, and people was a collaborative effort involving Prairie Rivers of Iowa, the City of Ames, Story County Conservation, the Skunk River Paddlers, and the Outdoor Alliance of Story County. A few people got wet, everyone got dirty, my muscles are still sore, but we all had a good time on the river!
On Tuesday May 17, fourteen volunteers tested water quality in Ioway Creek and its tributaries. This is the fifteenth Spring Watershed Snapshot, and the fourth that Prairie Rivers organized. Thanks to the Outdoor Alliance of Story County for help with supplies. This year, some volunteers were already doing regular monitoring of a site for Story County Conservation and adjusted this month’s schedule to coordinate, or picked up a few extra sites. If we include other watersheds and other days tested during the same week, the count is 22 volunteers (and also some Story County Conservation staff) and 47 sites in Story, Boone, and Hamilton counties.
We scheduled the event for a weekday this year to coincide with Polk County’s snapshot, so while the event was less social than it sometimes is (volunteers could pick up a kit any time on Tuesday and test their assigned sites alone or with a friend), they were monitoring as part of a big coordinated effort of the kind that we haven’t seen since before the IOWATER program was cancelled! In Polk County, 75 people covered 115 sites!
A table with our findings are shown below, and a map of the sites can be found here. On Tuesday, the water was clear and phosphorus was low at all our sites. Chloride was highest and nitrate lowest in creeks with more urban watersheds. Dissolved oxygen fell into the “fair” range at several sites in Hamilton County, as well as the south fork of Worrell Creek in Ames. Nitrate was 10 mg/L or higher at most sites, but reached 20 mg/L in the middle sections of Ioway Creek and several rural tributaries. I did some followup testing to make sense of the high nitrate levels at Duff Ave, more on that later.
Thanks to all the volunteers who spent some time in a creek last week!
“Is this pollution?” I received this photo, taken at 1PM on March 24, from Ames High School student Oskar Niesen. I met Oskar and other students in Mr. Todd’s environmental science classes for the first time in February, when we talked in the classroom about issues and solutions in Iowa waterways. The class was interested in testing water quality, so I met them again at the creek on March 22 and showed them how.
Let’s call the site of the incident “Ames High Creek.” It joins Ioway Creek near the disk golf course and originates with a 60 inch storm sewer pipe near the Richard Pohl Memorial Preserve (Ames High Prairie). The pipe drains several neighborhoods in north Ames (including mine) that were built before modern development ordinances requiring detention ponds. I’ve taken video of the torrent of water that comes out of the storm sewer after a heavy rain, and have seen the bank erosion it causes. I’ve also tested the water after rains and found high levels of bacteria, sediment and phosphorus levels in this creek during heavy rains. If people don’t pick up their trash, pet waste, or yard waste, there’s nothing to stop it from washing into to the creek. So I was prepared to answer “yes, the orange-brown color must be pollution.”
Later that evening, I visited the site and chatted with Jake Moore and Liz Calhoun with the City’s stormwater program. If someone had let muddy water wash off a construction site, or someone was pouring chemicals down the storm sewer, this would violate city ordinances and they would be the people to check up on it. But the timing wasn’t consistent with construction site runoff. There hadn’t been more than trace rain since Tuesday March 22nd.
Oskar had talked with a geology professor at Iowa State (Dr. Elizabeth Swanner) and suggested another possibility: iron oxide (rust), perhaps formed by naturally occurring bacteria. As Oskar explained “there are generally 3 types of iron oxide formations. One is a stain that we see now, the second is called flocculent iron which is a cloud that I saw then, the third is an iridescent film on the top. Bacteria tend to form all three.” At 5:00 on March 24, when I followed up on Oskar’s tip, the water had cleared up and there was no iridescent film, but there was stain on the rocks and at the water’s edge all the way up to the storm sewer outlet.
Hydrant flushing is done every year with the express purpose of flushing out iron oxide and other mineral deposits that can clog water mains. Liz Calhoun confirmed that crews flushed hydrants in neighborhoods connected to this storm sewer on March 24. A little rust in water can stain laundry but is harmless to people and fish. A release of drinking water can kill fish if it causes a sudden temperature change (this happened last summer when a water main broke) but in this case, we think there’s nothing to worry about. Mystery solved! The only thing more gratifying than working with curious young people and helpful colleagues is a happy ending for water quality!
“If it never rained, we’d have great water quality in Iowa.”
“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.
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.
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!
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.
Update: June has been abnormally dry and Hamilton, Boone and Story County are experience severe drought. Droughts stress is impacting crops and smaller streams are drying up.
Learning the name of a person is a first step to building a relationship with them. It’s the same way with natural features. Learning to distinguish and name Iowa’s species of trees and wildflowers helped me me deepen my awareness of the landscape and seasons. That’s the thinking behind the road signs we helped Story County install, marking the creek crossings and watershed boundaries. Once you know the name of a creek and where it flows, you pay a bit more attention to it. If you begin to see the creek as something more than a garbage dump or drainage system, maybe you’ll take some steps at your home, farm, or business to make the water cleaner.
Now, the name of one of those signs is a word that is disrespectful to Native Americans. We apologize for perpetuating its use. We are delighted to hear that the U.S. Board of Geographic Names has approved changing the name of “Squaw Creek” to “Ioway Creek.” We commend the Story County Supervisors, Ames City Council, and others who pushed for this issue. It will take a little time and effort to change the signs, the logo and legal documents for the Watershed Management Authority, and our habits, but it’s a necessary and overdue change.
If you’re inclined to roll your eyes at this “political correctness,” hear me out. My white Norwegian-American elders did not share stories of racism and oppression, but they did teach me about pride in our heritage and showing respect for others. And since I have a hard-to-pronounce last name, I understand that when people take the trouble to get a name right, it’s a sign of courtesy.
The settlers who adopted the word “squaw” for place names did not take the trouble to get it right. According to a group that works to preserve indigenous languages:
Here’s a little thought experiment for white Iowans who enjoy, as I do, the celebrations of Dutch heritage in Pella, Norwegian heritage in Story City, etc. Imagine that there was no-one of Norwegian heritage left in Story City. Imagine they had all been killed or driven out generations ago, and there was no one left there to celebrate Syttende Mai, or paint rosemaling, or roll lefse, or bake sandbakkels. Imagine that instead of being celebrated in the town square, those customs had been suppressed by the US government and religious schools, and had only recently been revived by my Norwegian-American community in exile. Suppose that all that remained to acknowledge that Norwegian immigrants once lived here was a creek or housing development named “Sunbucker,” a corruption of the dessert “sandbakkel”, now understood to mean “those backward people.” Suppose I’d grown up being called a “Dirty Sunbucker” or worse because of my ethnicity. How would I feel about these place names? Uff da! Would I appreciate if people showed me the courtesy of using Norwegian words correctly, and talking about my ancestry without resorting to crude stereotypes? You betcha! It’s a silly analogy for a traumatic history, but you get the point.
At this point the etymology of the word “squaw” is beside the point.
If you can bring yourself to change your seed cap from “Monsanto” to “Bayer” over a corporate merger, surely you can get used to saying a different creek name to show a little more respect for the people who used to live in Story, Boone, and Hamilton County (the Iowa or Bah-kho-je people) and to avoid insulting our Meskwaki neighbors.
Recently, the students of Newton High School, having cleaned up their neighborhood creek, campaigned to change its name from Sewer Creek to Cardinal Creek. It was a way of changing the way people thought about the place. Water matters to us. Names matter too.