Prairie Rivers of Iowa Participating in Iowa Gives Green – A Day of Giving

Prairie Rivers of Iowa Participating in Iowa Gives Green – A Day of Giving

This article was produced in conjunction with the Iowa Environmental Council

The natural beauty of Iowa is a gift to behold. We have a picturesque landscape like no other. We have incredible soils. We’ve had a stable climate. We’ve had diverse flora and fauna in the tallgrass prairie. The Iowa of today may look different than it did 200 years ago, but our state remains a beauteous marvel that deserves to be celebrated.

Too often in Iowa, we’ve put productivity ahead of beauty. We’ve put efficiency ahead of diversity. On August 3 nearly 30 environmental organizations across the state, including Prairie Rivers of Iowa and the Iowa Environmental Council will participate in Iowa Gives Green, a day of giving that shows Iowans’ commitment to our environmental promise.

PRI board member and founder Erv Klaas teaching Iowa youth water quality testing

Prairie Rivers of Iowa board member and founder Erv Klaas working with youth to teach water quality monitoring as part of our efforts to address water quality issues in the state. 

This environmentally-focused day of giving empowers diverse groups to work together to support conservation, preservation, and recreation, and to engage Iowans on the same day with intentional action to support those efforts.

Gifts to Prairie Rivers Iowa and other organizations participating in Iowa Gives Green clean and protect Iowa’s waterways.  During Iowa Gives Green and throughout the month of August a gift to Prairie Rivers will have twice the impact due to a matching gift by one of its founders and well-known and respected champion for the environment ISU Professor Emeritus of Animal Ecology Erv Klaas.

Ag leadership has been touting the same ‘solutions’ for Iowa water quality, without results to show for it. Our environmental and conservation groups have ideas to bring to the table. Your support will help these groups implement new ideas and practices to deliver real results.

  • protect and invest in habitat and landscapes. Iowa is one of the most changed landscapes on the planet. By supporting the efforts of groups that are preserving and rebuilding ecosystems through land management and conservancy helps, you can help to build rural economies and critical pollinator and wildlife habitat.
  • provide recreation and education opportunities. Iowa offers incredible recreation opportunities, but our state ranks one of the lowest in the nation for public land. Your support can help these organizations to expand and improve our recreational spaces.
  • take action on climate. Extreme weather events in Iowa are no longer the exception, they are the norm — hotter summers, intense but erratic rain events, or the December 2021 tornadoes. We need to address climate change together, now. With your support, organizations across Iowa can implement their plans and help you to get involved.
  • Grow clean sources of energy. Our state is a wind energy leader and solar power is poised to grow exponentially. These groups seek to improve the landscape for clean energy development, so our state can transition to true, 100% clean energy 24/7.
  • Address environmental injustices in Iowa. Right here at home, the majority burden of pollution from fossil fuels damages the health and well-being of lower-income and minority communities. Drinking water across the state is threatened by polluting chemicals, lead pipes, and aging infrastructure. Rural Iowans struggle to gain access to transportation improvements, recycling initiatives, and other environmental efforts. All Iowans stand to benefit when we address historical injustices.

Iowa Gives Green helps to create an environmental movement that makes access to Iowa’s natural beauty available to all Iowans regardless of their economic status or the communities where they live. Join us in celebrating and supporting Iowa’s environment on August 3 for Iowa Gives Green by coming together to show how much Iowans truly care about our environment at www.iowagivesgreen.org.

Iowa Gives Green/Erv Klaas Challenge
High nitrate this spring: where and why

High nitrate this spring: where and why

The Des Moines Waterworks was forced to use their nitrate removal system for the first time in five years. Our spring snapshot found high nitrate concentrations in streams across Story County. On my way to speak at the CCE Environmental Expo in Mitchell County, I dipped a test strip in the Cedar River near Osage and measured 16 mg/L. Looking at the Iowa Water Quality Information System there’s orange (nitrate greater than 10 mg/L) across much of the state and spots of dark red (nitrate greater than 20 mg/L) in Story, Hamilton, and Hardin counties. What’s going on?

 

 

flowing drain tile

Well, differences in land use, soils, topography, and farming practices make for strong regional differences in water quality.  For some streams like the North Raccoon River, this is a return to normal.  For some streams, like the Cedar River, current conditions are unusual. To illustrate this, I’ve invented my own graph, which compares highest nitrate concentrations observed this spring (the blue dot) to the entire 10-20 year record (a black band showing the range, and a black square showing the median). The data comes from Iowa DNR’s Ambient Stream Monitoring Network; I will update these graphs once June data is available. A sampling of sites is shown at right, but the entire graph can be downloaded as a PDF here.

nitrate in selected rivers

Northwest Iowa is still suffering from drought, and that means the Floyd River near Sioux City (which usually has some of the highest nitrate concentrations in the state) is barely flowing and has very low nitrate concentrations. As we saw last year, nutrient concentrations tend to be low during dry conditions except where there is a strong influence from point sources of pollution. Most of the rest of the state is back to normal, and nitrate that accumulated in the soil during two dry years is now getting flushed out. These maps are taken from the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  I’ve drawn in the approximate location of the watersheds for the monitoring sites in my example.

map showing drought abating

Weather whiplash in agricultural regions drives deterioration of water quality.”  That’s the title and conclusion of a paper that studied previous episodes when a wet spring followed a dry summer and fall.  The 2012 drought was much more severe than 2021, impacting yields so that less nitrogen was taken up by the crop and removed in the grain, and maybe that’s why nitrate in 2013 and 2014 was so much higher than it is now.  I’ve compared spring highs for several sites and years, normalizing by the long-term average.  It’s not clear to me whether weather whiplash increases the overall mass (load) of nitrogen that gets washed away, or just alters the timing (moving in one year what would have been parceled out over two), but high concentrations are a concern for communities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids that get their drinking water from a river or river-influenced wells. 

map showing shift out of drought in 2013
map of weather whiplash in 2014
graph showing when nitrate was higher than usual for select sites

I’m procrastinating on the work I’m supposed to be doing because “Hey look!  Data!” and I have to satisfy my curiosity.  If you’d like to see us do more water quality analysis beyond Story County, let us know, and support us with a charitable donation so it can become work I’m supposed to be doing!

The Mystery of the Orange Creek

The Mystery of the Orange Creek

orange colored water in a creek

“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.

orange stain at water's edge

 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.

water flushed from hydrant

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!

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.

Legacy Sediment for Fourth Graders

Legacy Sediment for Fourth Graders

For Iowa History Month, I’d like to talk about legacy sediment—historic erosion that has a big influence on sediment, phosphorus, and fisheries in rivers today.  For a change of pace, this article is written at the fourth-grade reading level.  I like big words like “fluvial geomorphology” but not everyone does.  Okay!  Let’s have some fun learning!

The faster the water moves, the more stuff it can carry. Fast-moving water washes away the tiny stones (sand and silt).  It leaves behind the bigger stones (gravel). Slower moving water washes away the silt but leaves behind the sand.  If a beaver or a person dams up the water and it really slows down, even the silt settles out. That’s why mountain streams have rocky bottoms but lowland streams have muddy bottoms. It’s also why there are sand bars on the inside of river bends where the water moves more slowly.

Photo by Dan Haug. Note the transition from silt to sand to gravel to rocks going left to right from slower to faster water.

Plants’ roots and leaves can keep dirt from washing away, and so do the tiny things that live on plant roots. They actually make a glue that holds the dirt together!  There’s been a few times when dirt and rocks moved a lot faster than normal because there weren’t any plants growing. Twelve thousand years ago, there weren’t any plants in my part of Iowa because the land was covered in a big sheet of melting ice. It happened again 190 years ago when farmers started moving in and plowing up the grass to grow crops. The ground was bare for most of the year, so dirt washed off the hills and filled up the valleys. 90 years ago, farmers realized this was a problem and got more careful about how they plowed. But then 50 years ago some of them forgot and weren’t as careful.  But they remembered again, so it’s better now. (Read more about this history here)

Figure adapted from Beck et al. 2018. Photo by Hanna McBrearty.

There’s still lots of soft mud in the valleys from those days.  That’s a problem because the water moves a lot faster now. Partly that’s because there’s more pavement and fewer marshes. Partly that’s because people straightened out some of the curves in the rivers. The fast water hits the soft mud and makes little canyons all over Iowa. The water can’t get out of the canyons unless there’s a really big flood so it almost never slows down. The canyons are not as pretty as the Grand Canyon and the fish don’t like them as much. The soft mud in the river valleys also has fertilizer in it that can make the water turn green. The fish don’t like that either.

Photo by Dan Haug. Steep bank in Ioway Creek in Ames.

If you like fish and want the ugly canyons to turn into normal-looking rivers you have two choices.

1. You can stop dumping concrete on the river banks and wait. The water will keep washing away dirt on the outside of the river bend. That makes the valley wider. Some day, the bank will cave in. That will make the valley less steep. Some houses and bridges might fall into the river too. That would be exciting!

2. You can use a backhoe to move the dirt around so the valley isn’t as steep and narrow. I like that idea better.  It would also be a good idea to have trees and grass near the river to hold the dirt together.

Photo by Dan Haug. The stream at the Tedesco Environmental Learning Corridor doesn’t look like a canyon anymore because the county brought in a backhoe to restore it.

If you like reading about science and engineering with very small words, I recommend a funny book called Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe.

If you want to learn the big words too, then I think you should listen to Jeff Kospaska at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Tom Isenhart at Iowa State University, or Billy Beck at ISU Extension.  I learned a lot from them!