Last week at the Iowa Water Conference, I attended several sessions that illustrated of the consequences of paving over wetlands and streams.
This week, the Supreme Court is revisiting the question of which wetlands and streams are subject to the jurisdiction of federal agencies–another chapter in the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) controversy. The importance of this legal back and forth for agriculture and water quality has been greatly exaggerated. In practice, the definitions haven’t changed much and it mostly concerns Section 404 of the Clean Water Act: if your construction project involves running a bulldozer or backhoe in a stream or wetland, do you need to get a permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers?
Prairie Rivers of Iowa generally avoids getting mixed up in politics and policy, but maybe I can shed some light on what’s at stake and what isn’t. Last week I was at the Iowa Water Conference with colleagues from Story County and the City of Ames to give a presentation on our locally-led water monitoring program. While at the conference, I attended several sessions that illustrated of the consequences of paving over wetlands and streams. Shout out to Michael Jansen of Strand Associates, Steve Brown from the City of Dubuque, and Tim Olson and Ryan Benjederdes of Bolton & Menck for sharing their projects.
In Dubuque, a creek called Bee Branch had been put into a pipe to build a business district and a residential neighborhood, but had the habit of backing up into the streets and basements whenever the Mississippi River was high and there was a summer downpour. What used to be the 100 year storm is now the 50 year storm, so the complaints from residents were getting louder and more frequent. The solution was to daylight the creek and turn it into an amenity. The Bee Branch Greenway is beautiful and very thoughtfully designed, but it took a decade to build and cost $250 million.
In a Minneapolis suburb, a wetland complex had been paved over for commercial development prior to the passage of the Clean Water Act. The water the wetlands used to store was regularly backing up into the streets: a 4 inch rain caused 3 feet of flooding). A new transit line opened up some redevelopment opportunities, but the water the wetlands used to store had to go somewhere, so they put it in massive underground chambers. The project included a lot of clever engineering to detain and treat the water within a limited footprint, and a lot of innovative construction to get it installed while keeping the restaurants and stores open, but it came at a cost of $10 million.
A highlight of the conference was seeing Tracy Peterson (who’s helped us with many watershed projects and events) get an award. As an engineer for the City of Ames, Tracy regularly deals with the consequences of past development on rivers in the City of Ames, overseeing projects to reduce flooding on South Duff, clean up runoff on Welch Ave, and control erosion on the South Skunk River and Ioway Creek.
Bottom line, when developers are allowed to pave over wetlands and streams without limit and without mitigation, we pay for it later with flooded basements or big infrastructure projects. There’s a debate to be had over what level of government has the authority to regulate construction in wetlands and waterways and how we should balance the competing interests, but that’s not the debate we’ve had. For a decade, some politicians and interest groups have been claiming that an expanded definition of WOTUS is a threat to farmers. I don’t get it.
In a previous job, I had the pleasure of reading boxes of old permit files and learning about what kinds of activities require a federal dredge/fill permit or state water quality certification. As I recall, farming activities are exempt except for cranberry bogs (this was Wisconsin) and some new drainage ditches. Best I can tell, this issue isn’t really about farmers, it’s about developers. It’s not really about water quality, it’s about flash flooding. It’s not really about the EPA, it’s about the US Army Corps of Engineers. It’s not just about federal overreach, it’s also about state under-reach.
This election season, remember the true meaning of WOTUS.
“If it never rained, we’d have great water quality in Iowa.”
“If it never rained, we’d have great water quality in Iowa,” joked a volunteer at our May 15 water quality snapshot. 15 of us spent the morning testing Ioway Creek and its tributaries in Boone, Hamilton, and Story County and were marveling at the low nitrate levels and crystal clear water at the majority of our sites.
Well, we’ve had some much-needed rain in the week since, and water quality has gone from good to bad. I’ve written before about “weather whiplash” that explains some of the big swings in nitrate over the past decade and here’s an early hint of it. Here’s data from a nitrate sensor in Ioway Creek installed by IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering. A five-fold increase in nitrate concentrations in just one week! The water has gone back down but the nitrate levels are still above the drinking water standard.
And here’s some water samples I collected on Friday May 21. No, that’s not my coffee thermos, that’s some of the world’s best top soil washing down the Skunk River!
That’s not to blame the weather. It does rain in Iowa and if your farming practices let a plume of topsoil, manure, or fertilizer wash off the field every time that happens, you’re doing it wrong! Some farmers are doing it right (I saw some cover crops this spring near Nevada and lots driving on I-80) but not enough, especially in the Ioway and South Skunk River watersheds.
Water quality monitoring has been top of mind for Prairie Rivers of Iowa lately and I see an challenge and an opportunity. It’s a challenge to interpret data and track our progress when one good rain can cause water quality to go from clear to coffee-colored overnight! There’s an opportunity to be more strategic about how and where we test, so we notice and communicate more eye-opening moments like this one, and hopefully persuade a few more people to protect soil and water.
Update: June has been abnormally dry and Hamilton, Boone and Story County are experience severe drought. Droughts stress is impacting crops and smaller streams are drying up.
Several of our staff attended the Iowa Water Conference on March 12 and 13. The event brings together hundreds of smart, hard-working people that are working to improve water quality, restore aquatic habitat, and control flooding across the state of Iowa. We always learn a lot from both the presenters and the other attendees, and come away energized. Here are our top three lessons we learned this year:
1. Farms can simultaneously improve water quality and wildlife habitat
Adam Janke, Extension Wildlife Specialist, talked about how the practices being used for nutrient reduction can also benefit many of Iowa’s species of greatest conservation need. For example, trumpeter swans like CREP wetlands. Migrating ringneck ducks and Topeka shiners use oxbow wetlands. Meadowlarks use prairie strips. We will be pursuing these kinds of synergies in three watersheds with a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, so it was great to hear specifics.
2. Retailers of agricultural products need to be part of water quality solutions
Chris Jones from University of Iowa shared some disturbing data from northwest Iowa. In the Floyd and Rock River watersheds, livestock production and manure application has doubled since 1980, but commercial fertilizer sales have remained the same. In those watersheds, nitrogen is being applied at 80-100 lbs/acre above the MRTN (Maximum Return to Nitrogen), leading to nitrate concentrations in the Floyd and Rock rivers that are twice as high as other streams in western Iowa. Clearly, some farmers aren’t thinking about their manure management plan or water quality when they purchase nitrogen fertilizer, and their retailers aren’t bringing it up. When our conversations about agriculture remain siloed (pardon the pun), water quality suffers.
However, at another session, we learned how ag retailers with the Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance are showing leadership on water quality — including water quality monitoring in the Raccoon River and developing a code of practice for nitrogen application to reduce losses from farm fields while increasing return on investment (ROI). Precision agriculture tools are also being used to identify land where inputs aren’t generating a good ROI, and use that information to make conservation decisions that benefit both the bottom line and the environment. Gregg Schmitz of Nutrien shared an example where revenues from a 140 acre farm were increased by putting 70 acres into CRP and redeploying inputs into the other half. Surveys show that agriculture retailers and crop consultants are trusted sources of information for farmers, so their involvement will be essential to solving our water quality challenges. We’re grateful for the support of Key Cooperative and Heartland Cooperative on field days and producer engagement in the Squaw Creek watershed.
3. Water quality improvements are possible, but require a commitment of both time and money
Neil Shaffer, an award-winning watershed coordinator in northeast Iowa, shared some heartening success stories. Nitrate leaving the Staff Creek and Beaver Creek watershed was reduced by 47%. Brook trout were reintroduced to a tributary of Silver Creek. In both cases, it took over 8 years of monitoring and $3-5 million of funding for conservation practices to see those changes. We’re well aware that water quality requires a long-term commitment and are in this for the long haul.
An update on our watershed planning efforts is long overdue. Our NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant for the “Keigley” watershed project wrapped up in September of 2018. Here’s some of the highlights from 2017-2018 and what we’ll be doing next.
A change in focus: No more need to explain that by “Keigley Branch Watershed” we really mean “part of the South Skunk River.” In the future, we’ll be working with the entire 200,556-acre watershed that drains to the South Skunk River above the confluence with Squaw Creek in Ames. On paper, a single ten-digit hydrologic unit (HUC10) seemed like a more manageable project, but as we talked with the public it became clear that watershed plans and partnerships would be more effective if the river’s headwaters in Hamilton County were included sooner rather than later.
Hamilton County Soil & Water Conservation District
City of Ames
City of Story City
City of Roland
City of Randall
We hope more jurisdictions will join as the partnership takes shape. Good communication between the cities, counties, and conservation districts in a watershed leads to more and better projects that improve water quality and soil health.
Great public input: 80 people—56 residents, 15 high school students, and 9 ISU students—attended our public workshops. The goals and implementation strategies they suggested will provide a great starting point for the WMA to develop an actionable plan for conservation in the Headwaters of the South Skunk River watershed.
An interactive map of conservation opportunities: Between this project and Story County’s assessment of its watersheds, we have identified suitable spots for bioreactors, grassed waterways, constructed wetlands and other agricultural conservation practices across 728,144 acres! Check out our interactive map to get ideas for conservation practices that might work on your farm or in your watershed, along with an explanation of each practice.
Winter is a busy season for grant-writing. We are currently looking for funding to provide education and technical assistance to farmers and landowners in this watershed, to build partnerships with more groups in Hamilton County, to fill in missing information identified during the planning process, and to support the new WMA in completing a plan for the Headwaters of the South Skunk River watershed. This is just the beginning!
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 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.
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.