Prairie Rivers of Iowa Releases Story County Water Quality Monitoring Annual Report

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Releases Story County Water Quality Monitoring Annual Report

Prairie Rivers of Iowa has just released an annual report investigating water quality in streams and lakes around Story County. Prairie Rivers of Iowa worked with Story County Conservation, the City of Ames, and other partners in 2020 to initiate a locally-led water monitoring program including both volunteer and laboratory testing.

The report’s author Prairie Rivers of Iowa Water Quality Specialist Dan Haug states, “Our partners and volunteers have gone to a lot of trouble to test rivers and lakes across the county, so we take seriously the job of interpreting the data.”  He continues, “It’s only the second year of the program, but we’re starting to see patterns that can help us evaluate nutrient reduction efforts and improve our streams for recreation and fisheries.

Water Quality Monitoring in Story County Annual Report Cover

Volunteer Rick Dietz and Prairie Rivers of Iowa Board President Reed Riskedahl test phosphorous in a tributary of Ioway Creek.

Some of the key findings detailed in the report include the risks of waterborne illnesses, algae blooms in lakes and streams, the impacts to aquatic life and the effects of excess nutrients being sent downstream, eventually to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The water monitoring planning team is working hard to bring together all the resources we can to conduct monthly water testing, equip volunteers, educate elected officials and the public about the many water quality issues in our lakes, rivers and streams,” according to Haug.

In 2021, E. coli bacteria was usually low at swimming beaches and parts of the South Skunk River, but high in most creeks. The influence of nitrogen and phosphorus loads from Story County did not have as much influence on hypoxia contamination to Gulf of Mexico in 2021 due to a dry year, but the plan calls for continued monitoring to determine the effects during normal to wet periods helping to identify hot spots and evaluate whether conservation practices are working.

Water quality monitoring results in Story County did however reveal that during dry conditions in 2021, the highest levels of nitrogen and phosphorus were found below wastewater treatment plants. Wastewater effluent may be contributing to low dissolved oxygen levels in some streams harming aquatic invertebrates yet more monitoring is needed to establish patterns.

Other findings during the past year conclude that untreated stormwater from older neighborhoods has extremely high levels of sediment, phosphorus and bacteria.

Water monitoring was guided by a ten-year plan written by nine local partners and facilitated by Prairie Rivers of Iowa.

Water samples were collected monthly from 15 sites and weekly from three sites, with laboratory support provided by the City of Ames. Story County Conservation launched a volunteer monitoring program with 17 individuals and one business participating. Prairie of Iowa used special hardware to collect samples of runoff from rainstorms.

The entire Story County 10-year Water Quality Monitoring Plan, Annual Report, water quality updates, real-time data and educational articles can be found here.

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.