2020 Spring Water Quality Snapshot

2020 Spring Water Quality Snapshot

It turns out that stream monitoring is quite compatible with social distancing.  28 volunteers participated in the Squaw Creek Watershed Coalition’s 13th spring water quality snapshot on May 30 and 31.  Together we tested water quality at 43 sites on Squaw Creek, its tributaries, and the South Skunk River!  This time, Prairie Rivers of Iowa assembled the equipment, organized the event, and entered the data.  We’re happy to support this dedicated group of citizen scientists in better understanding and drawing attention to our local rivers and creeks.

Update: The name “Squaw Creek” was officially changed to “Ioway Creek” in February of 2021, to be more respectful to native peoples. Over the next year, expect to see some changes to the name of the Coalition, as well as maps and signs.

Here’s a few selfies taken by participants, a mix of long-term volunteers and new faces.

selfie of Kopecky family

The Kopecky family by the South Skunk River

Jeff White at Gilbert Creek

Kelly Nascimento Thompson at Glacial Creek

Kurt Plagge and Mary Burnet at Onion Creek

As the name implies, this is a snapshot in time.   The water quality on one sunny weekend in May is not necessarily representative of the month, let alone the year.  As described here and here, water quality can change dramatically in response to a big rainstorm.  But for this moment in time, testing many sites gives us a very detailed picture of the Squaw Creek watershed.

For example, during May 30 and 31, nitrate in Squaw Creek at Moore Park and other locations in Ames was quite high (11-12 mg/L) exceeding the drinking water standard (10 mg/L).  Where is that nitrate coming from?  All over its 147,000 acre watershed, but in some tributaries more than others, as you can see in the color-coded chart below.  Nitrate was especially high in the upper reaches of Squaw Creek, Gilbert Creek and Clear Creek and especially low in Glacial Creek (which has a series of constructed wetlands and a lot of pasture) and College Creek (which has an urban watershed).  The upstream, rural parts of College Creek and Clear Creek have higher nitrate, which appears to be diluted they move through town.

For phosphorus some of the patterns are flipped.  Glacial Creek has especially high orthophosphate (the dissolved form of phosphorus) while Clear Creek is especially low.

There’s lots of interesting patterns to explore, and more data from this and previous snapshot events here.  If you’re curious about water quality, subscribe to our blog, I’ll be continuing to interpret data from this and other sources.

Thanks to all our volunteers for collecting it!

Questions about stream monitoring, or observations from our volunteers?  Post a comment.

Upgrade your sewage treatment plant, get a free bioswale!

Upgrade your sewage treatment plant, get a free bioswale!

Does the State Revolving Fund (SRF) do infomercials for its Clean Water Loans?  I think they should because SRF Sponsored Projects are a classic case of “buy-one-get-one-free.”

We usually focus on conservation efforts by farmers but today let’s give some credit to the municipal wastewater departments—they do a lot to keep our rivers clean.  As a nation, we’ve generally been more successful in regulating and treating the pollutants coming out from sewage treatment plants and factories than we have been in dealing with the pollutants that wash off of farm fields, turf grass and parking lots.  We’ve now reached a point where the water coming out of the local sewage treatment plant is cleaner in some respects than the water in the backyard creek.  I’m not kidding: Ames Water and Pollution Control can’t exceed 126 E. coli colonies per 100mL in their treated effluent—E. coli levels in Squaw Creek for 2016 were eight times higher.

Repairing an aging sewer system or installing a UV disinfection system to meet permit requirements isn’t cheap.  This year, the City of Gilbert will be borrowing $3.8 million from the State Revolving Fund (SRF) to upgrade its lagoons and the City of Ames will be borrowing $21 million to prevent inflows to its sanitary sewer system.  With that necessary expense comes an additional opportunity to clean up Squaw Creek.  A city can apply to do SRF Sponsored Project of up to 10% of the wastewater loan principal, and have the project cost offset by reduced interest rates.  Eligible projects include “green infrastructure” in town, conservation practices on farmland in the watershed, or erosion control and ecological restoration along the stream.


Ames has done SRF Sponsored Projects before, so on Monday I joined staff from Gilbert, Fox Engineering, and IDALS to hear from Ames Stormwater Specialist Jake Moore and get some ideas for projects.  Paved surfaces like parking lots can contribute to erosion, flooding, and water quality problems, because the rain that falls on them rushes via storm sewer to our waterways.  Modern ordinances require that more stormwater be detained and treated on site, or allowed to soak into the ground rather than running off the surface.  Ames rebuilt the city hall parking lot last year to absorb water.  The parking stalls are permeable pavers.  Up to 27 inches of stone underneath provides storage space for water after big storms to mitigate flooding.  Compost amendment to the landscaped areas around the building increase soil permeability and promote healthy vegetation.  The site was recently planted with the help of Ames High School students, so check back—over time the moisture-tolerant native plants in the bioswales should fill in and bloom, attracting butterflies.

Cool project, right?  Prairie Rivers of Iowa is eager to partner with Gilbert, Ames, and other towns in the Squaw Creek and South Skunk watersheds to help facilitate water quality practices both in town and on farmland.

Local creeks can be special places

Local creeks can be special places

March 1, 2017

I spent Sunday hiking along Clear Creek in the company of a curious herd of six deer, who came within 20 feet of me.  Bigger rivers may afford more opportunities for boating.  Cold-water trout streams in the northeast part of the state may have better fishing.  But the warm-water creeks in Central Iowa have their own charms.

Deer by Clear Creek

Deer by Clear Creek in Munn Woods

Clear Creek starts in Boone County and passes through Munn Woods and Pammel Woods in Ames before joining Squaw Creek.  As a boy, the woods along this creek was one of my favorite places, full of interesting rocks and animal tracks and birds and crayfish, the site of both noisy stick battles with my friends and quiet contemplation.

As my environmental consciousness grew, I would go to the woods to pick up litter.  At the time, I had no idea the storm drain emptied to creek, or else I would have stopped my friends from throwing pop cans down there.  A recent survey showed that 37% of Iowans imagine that storm sewers go to the wastewater treatment plan or soak into the ground, so labels like this one below are a valuable reminder.

Storm drain label: "No dumping - drains to creek"

Labeled storm drain in Ames: “No Dumping. Drains to Creek”

In revisiting Clear Creek, I was struck by what a marvelous thing a creek can be if given some space to roam. (Thank you Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation.)  I’ve heard from many people in both the city and the country who share my fond memories of time spent by the creek near where they grew up.  Not every Iowa creek has hills and woods this dramatic, but if we treat them as something more than drainage systems for our convenience, any local creek can instill in a child the same sense of wonder and discovery that this one did for me.

-Dan Haug, Watershed Educator

Clear Creek meanders through Munn Woods

Clear Creek meanders through Munn Woods