Making Sense of Water Quality Data – A Paddler’s View

Making Sense of Water Quality Data – A Paddler’s View

Later this month, we are releasing a report with the findings from Story County’s 2021 water monitoring season.

In some ways, 2021 was an unlucky year to launch a water quality monitoring program. Story County was in drought conditions for much of the year, and smaller streams were frequently dry when we did our monitoring routes.

In some ways, it was an ideal year to launch a monitoring program, because weather always has an influence of water quality and the challenging conditions in 2021 forced us to better account for it. 

For the report, this means asking a simple question: “was there enough water to float a canoe on the day you sampled?”

Iowa's first African American female mayor LaMetta Wynn being sworn in on January 3, 1996 as mayor of Clinton, Iowa.

When the South Skunk River is too low for paddling:

  • Not much water (and not much nitrogen and phosphorus) reaches the Gulf
  • “Hot spots” for nitrogen and phosphorus are below wastewater treatment plants
Nitrate levels during conditions suitable for paddling.

When the South Skunk River rises high enough for paddling:

  • “Hot spots” for nitrogen are in the Headwaters of the South Skunk River Watershed upstream of Ames, as shown in the graph
  • E. coli levels upstream of Ames (and Ioway Creek) get worse but still meet the standard
  • E. coli levels downstream of Ames (and Ioway Creek) get better, but still exceed the standard

If I had less curiosity and more sense, I would have written a short report:  “great job everyone!  We collected a lot of data.  Here it is! It’s possible that drought had an influence on water quality.”  This was more work, but I hope you get more out of it.

Roots and mussels on the South Skunk River

This is a good time of year to enjoy the South Skunk River Water Trail and other local waterways!

I joined the Skunk River Paddlers this weekend, paddling my kayak from Anderson Access to West Petersen Park.  While the main purpose of the outing was fun, we also hauled out some tires, cleared some smaller obstructions, and made note larger logjams for followup.  The water was chilly but the air was pleasant. Bluebells were blooming on the bank and we found live mussels in the water (this one is a plain pocketbook).

While central Iowa has been spared the extreme flooding that has devastated communities on the Missouri and Mississippi, it’s been a wet fall and a wet spring, and we saw the evidence of that on the river. Bark had been scraped off trees by ice flows, lots of bank slumping, and lots of exposed roots.

The roots here illustrate the value of riparian buffers. A good stand of perennial vegetation can hold a bank together and keep phosphorus out of the Gulf.

If you’re interested in establishing a riparian buffer on your farm, especially if you live near West Indian Creek, Long Dick Creek, Clear Creek, or Worrell Creek give Prairie Rivers of Iowa a call!