Metrics from the 2023 monitoring season

Metrics from the 2023 monitoring season

Amelia Whitener leads a water monitoring demonstration at a trash cleanup event.

Monitoring a stream once or twice a month is a big commitment, but our locally-led water monitoring program (which started in Story County but has expanded to Hamilton County) has no shortage of committed volunteers!  The following metrics show the continued growth of the program in size and consistency. 

Also, let’s give a shoutout to the people who work behind the scenes to make it happen!  Sara Carmichael of Story County Conservation keeps everyone on track and equipped with supplies.  Heather Wilson of the Izaak Walton League of America helps train volunteers and has been leading up the new Nitrate Watch initiative.  We rely on the IWLA’s  Save Our Streams program for training materials and the Clean Water Hub for data entry.  In addition to volunteer monitoring, Maryann Ryan and her team at the City of Ames Laboratory Services Division process weekly samples from 3 sites and monthly samples from 15 sites.

2022 Season

Volunteers participating

Sites tested at least once

Sites tested at least 20 times

Data sheets entered in the Clean Water Hub

2023 Season

Volunteers participating

Sites tested at least once

Sites tested at least 20 times

Data sheets entered in the Clean Water Hub

In March, Prairie Rivers will release a report detailing the findings.  Here are a few preliminary numbers that give a sense of how 2023 stacks up to the previous year.  

2022 Season

Weeks in Drought

E. coli (geomean) at best site

E. coli (geomean) at worst site

%

"Poor" readings in Clean Water Hub

2023 Season

Weeks in drought

E. coli (geomean) at best site

E. coli (geomean) at worst site

%

"Poor" readings in Clean Water Hub

Drought continues to limit where we have flowing water.  Sometimes, most of the water in a creek is coming from sewage treatment plants, which are able to remove some pollutants but not others.  E. coli bacteria (an indicator of fecal contamination) continues to be high in most waters, likely coming from multiple sources.  Looking at E. coli averages (geometric means) for the 2023 recreation season,  two swimming beaches in the county met the primary contact recreation standard (126 colonies/100mL) but only 1 of 14 streams with enough data to evaluate did, and three exceeded the secondary contact recreation standard (630 colonies/100mL).   Due to restrictive state laws about “credible data”, these sites might appear on a list of “Waters in Need of Further Investigation” but won’t be counted on the 2024 Impaired Waters List.

We continue to work with partners locally and around the state on ways to interpret water quality data and make it more accessible.

Mayflies Should Be Normal

Mayflies Should Be Normal

In April, I joined a class of Ames High School seniors to survey benthic macroinvertebrates in Ioway Creek.  If you had asked me “what on earth are you doing?” here’s what I would have said:

Hello!  I’m Dan and I work on water quality for a local non-profit.  And these are environmental science students from Ames High School.  Why are we standing in the middle of the creek wearing hip waders and doing what looks like a funny dance?  Why, this is a perfectly normal thing to do! We are citizen scientists and we are “science-ing”!  The dance is called the benthic shuffle, and is an important part of the protocol for biological monitoring. We are dislodging aquatic insects from the rocks and catching them in our net.

And look at what we have caught from a mere 1 square meter of rocks! 170 mayflies! This too is normal! We are at Brookside Park, and here is a brook babbling over rocks and gravel.  It would be strange if we did not find a healthy population of mayflies in such inviting habitat!

No, they don’t look like the mayflies that spatter windshields in Dubuque. But this is indeed Baetis, the blue-winged olive mayfly, imitated with success by many a trout fisherman. In its larval form, we call it the “small minnow mayfly”, for its quick swimming. They live about a year in the creek before they pupate and get their wings, assuming a fish doesn’t eat them first!

benthic macroinvertebrates in Ioway Creek

As I was saying, what you see here is perfectly normal, though maybe not as common as it should be in Iowa streams.  If you find a riffle in the stream with no mayflies, well, that would mean something is not right. Perhaps insecticides have washed into the creek from upstream farms and lawns and killed them. Perhaps we’ve inadvertently fertilized the algae in the creek, turned the water a shade greener and the making the water a little less oxygenated at night.  There are other insects that can make a living under these conditions.  In the creek near the Story County Fairgrounds, you can find plenty of these net-spinning caddisflies, but no mayflies!  If all you find are these wriggly little midge flies, well, that’s a sign of more serious pollution.

Nice to meet you!  Time to get back to counting bugs!

Results from Ioway Creek (Ames) in 2023

Results from W. Indian Creek (Nevada) in 2022

An Impressive 2022 Stream Monitoring Season

An Impressive 2022 Stream Monitoring Season

Jess Lancial testing water

Jess Lancial testing water quality (photo credit Story County Conservation)

Volunteer Water Monitoring in Story County

A round of applause for all the volunteers and Story County Conservation staff who have diligently been monitoring their assigned stream twice a month in all kinds of weather!   Also, let’s give a shout-out to the people who work behind the scenes.  Sara Carmichael of Story County Conservation keeps everyone on track and equipped with supplies.  Heather Wilson of the Izaak Walton League of America provides training and support to volunteers around the state.  We rely on the IWLA’s  Save Our Streams program for training materials and the Clean Water Hub for data entry.  The three of us will be meeting the volunteers at a training event later this month to kick off another great season.

Three ways to get involved:

  • There’s room for one or two more volunteers to cover a site in Story County, so contact Sara.
  • If you’d like to try water monitoring without committing to a schedule, Prairie Rivers organizes a one-day volunteer event in the Ames area each May, so keep an eye on our events page.
  • If you don’t live in Story County, the Izaak Walton League is launching a new Nitrate Watch program and you can request a bottle of test strips while supplies last.

In March, Prairie Rivers will release a report detailing the findings, but for now let’s admire the scale and consistency of the effort, which has really improved since last year. (Updated 2023-02-18 to include some data sheets that were entered late)

2022 Season

Volunteers participating

Sites tested at least once

Sites tested at least 10 times

Sites tested at least 20 times

Data sheets entered in the Clean Water Hub

2021 Season

Volunteers participating

Sites tested at least once

Sites tested at least 10 times

Sites tested at least 20 times

Data sheets entered in the Clean Water Hub

Story County Water Monitoring & Interpretation Plan, 2021-2030

Prairie Rivers partnered with Story County and 8 other organizations to develop a ten-year Water Monitoring & Interpretation Plan for Story County.  Regular communication between the various groups testing water helps avoid duplication and leads to new opportunities to improve water quality.  Planning for how data can be used over the long term ensures that we get the most value from our time and effort.   Read the plan here

It’s Rude to Point, but…

It’s Rude to Point, but…

By my calculations, over 65% percent of the nitrogen load in Ioway Creek on May 20 came from less than 1 percent of the land area in the watershed.  We still don’t know why.

Revised May 31

Many people assume that fertilizer applied to turf grass is a major source of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in Iowa.  At a presentation to the Ames City Council, I was asked if a public awareness campaign aimed at lawn care professionals and homeowners would be an effective way to improve water quality in Ioway Creek.  If we’re talking nitrogen, I don’t think so:

  1. Because turfgrass covers a tiny proportion of the land in most Iowa watersheds, compared to cropland.
  2. Because turfgrass is a perennial. Having something growing and taking up available nutrients year-round is the principle on which cover crops reduce nitrogen loss.
  3. Because there was a study by Dr. Keith Schilling that found very low nutrient levels in shallow groundwater below six Iowa golf courses.
Turf grass in the rain

To that list, I can add local water quality monitoring including lab testing and sensor results from May.  Nitrate in Ioway Creek and the South Skunk River were the highest we’ve seen for a few years, but while rural tributaries ranged from 12-20 mg/L of nitrate, College Creek (an urban watershed with plenty of turf grass) measured only 2.3 mg/L.

But even if turf grass in general isn’t a serious water quality problem, maybe some specific areas of turf grass are a problem.  That’s what I thought after reviewing the data from our spring water quality snapshot on May 17.  Volunteers found a big difference in nitrate levels between South Duff Ave and other sites in Ames.  I wondered if it could be a mistake, so I went back out on May 20 with a bottle of test strips and a smartphone app that enables more precise measurements.  It wasn’t a mistake (nitrate in Ioway Creek increased from 8.6 mg/L to 24 mg/L in two miles), but the results still weren’t making sense, so I kept testing and testing until I assembled the map below.  By my calculations, 65% of the nitrate load in Ioway Creek that day was coming from just 1,500 acres!

map showing nitrate results on May 20

The 1,500 acres includes Coldwater Golf Links, and the pattern looks like what I’d expect to see if the golf course was overapplying fertilizer.  However, the golf course superintendent has informed me that fertilizer has not been applied since fall, and then only at a low rate.  A volunteer tested two ponds on the course and found low levels of nitrate (1-2 mg/L).

The 1,500 acres include some developed areas north of creek drained by storm sewers, but I tested water trickling from two outfalls on May 20 and found very low nitrate levels: 0.5 mg/L and 3.1 mg/L.

Worrell Creek at golf course

The 1,500 acres acres also includes two construction sites: a flood mitigation project near South Duff Ave and an ISU recreation complex east of Jack Trice Stadium.  The photo shows severe bank erosion where drainage from the ISU construction site enters the creek.  An inspector with the Iowa DNR noted problems with erosion control earlier this spring on the South Duff project.  However, if the nitrate spike were linked to erosion, I’d expect to see high phosphorus and low transparency.

Honestly, I’m not sure what’s going on here.  It’s not a pattern we’ve seen in previous years.

erosion on Ioway Creek between Grand and Duff avenues

When interpreting this kind of data, there is a risk of jumping to conclusions and unfairly pointing fingers.  In my first draft of this article, I suggested that Coldwater Golf Course was the source of the nitrate and the bank erosion.  That was premature.

However, there is also a risk that we will waste time and money on the wrong solutions or the wrong areas if we don’t test water or don’t follow where the data is pointing.  It’s clear from this month’s data and many other rounds of testing that water quality impacts are not uniformly distributed across the landscape.

Our October 2021 volunteer monitoring event is a little different

Our October 2021 volunteer monitoring event is a little different

Thanks to the 15 volunteers who helped to catch benthic macroinvertebrates (bugs) and test water quality over the weekend!

Volunteers capture benthic macroinvertebrates with a kick net, one of two methods we tried.

Ioway Creek “Snapshots” in May and October are a tradition going back to 2006.  Volunteers test water quality at many locations on the same day to get a better picture of what’s going on in the watershed. Since the IOWATER program ended, Prairie Rivers of Iowa has gathered supplies and planned events to keep the tradition going, but this year there was just one little snag: there was barely any water in Ioway Creek or its tributaries!

For most of this fall, our usual gathering place at Brookside Park has looked more like the photo on the left.

Not a problem.  The South Skunk River still had flowing water, and this was as good an opportunity as any to survey benthic macroinvertebrates (aquatic bugs), an indicator of water quality and habitat quality in rivers.  We were helped in this task by Susan Heathcote, a trainer with the Izaak Walton League’s Save Our Streams program.  If you’d like to become certified and missed out on this opportunity to complete the field portion of your training, keep an eye out for more training events with Susan in early spring.

Photo credit: Rick Dietz. Volunteers pick invertebrates off rocks and leaves and sort them in ice cube trays.

In addition to crawfish and dragonflies (always a hit with kids), we found a variety of smaller critters, including sensitive mayflies and stoneflies.  Overall, the invertebrate community in the South Skunk River was “good.”  In contrast, another stream we surveyed this week (West Indian Creek south of Nevada) had a “poor” score with mostly net-spinning caddisflies.  We’ll discuss some possible reasons for this difference at a webinar on November 2nd.

Another option for when streams are dry is to spend some time interpreting the data we have.  Following some water quality testing in the Skunk River, I gave a presentation to put those measurements into context.  I think the data feels more relevant when you’re at the water’s edge and have just gone through the process of collecting it! If you prefer to do your learning somewhere warm and comfortable, we’ll be covering similar information at a webinar on November 2nd.

This fall, nitrate is zero in most streams that have any water, but over the past 15 years we’ve been able to see which tributaries have the highest and lowest levels.

Another hitch.  Thunderstorms were forecast for Sunday!  We changed the date to Saturday and are glad we did; the weather was beautiful.  This also gave us the opportunity to set up equipment so we could capture water samples from the big rain on Sunday. Three volunteers helped me retrieve a dozen samples on Monday.  The samples will be tested for E. coli bacteria and optical brighteners, which may help us find and fix septic and sewer leaks.

Ryan checks a crest stage recorder (a low tech tool for seeing how high the water got) and puts a fresh bottle in a storm sampler.

Many thanks to all who participated. We hope to see you at the next watershed snapshot in May, and hope the water levels will be back to normal!