Mapping this blog…

Feb2019_map

A friend and regular reader pestered me for update on the 99wetlands project, with a special request for info on blog visitors with a MAP. Although on “semi-hiatus,” here’s a brief rundown. (If you have questions or suggestions, add a Comment below, or Contact Me).

The map above indicates where my readers live. I’ve had about 13,000 “views” or individual pages read by a visitor—some visitors read several pages at a time. As you can see, those readers live all over (58 countries represented), although the vast majority reside here in the USA. As might be expected, many visitors live in countries where English is widely spoken. African visitors are few. I might get a few more Latin Americans when I post about some Mexican wetlands in a few weeks, using some Spanish terms for wetland features.

DSC_0433To date, I have visited and blogged about wetlands in 85 out of the 99 Iowa counties. The remaining counties are clustered in the west and north of the state. I have visited countries in no particular order; really it’s been determined by other travels (family or business trips) or clusters of counties I’d visit together out of convenience (sometimes with an overnight stay in the area). I’m also sort of saving my home county for last, since I thought it would be a nice ending to the project—we’ll see if that works out.

This 99wetlands journey has been built on a certain geography, but is really about thematic connections. For example, the water in northern Iowa counties may flow downstream to affect residents in southern counties, or leave Iowa and join the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers, and eventually the Gulf of Mexico. A bird I will soon observe in southern Mexico might very well fly to Iowa this Spring, raising a family. The politicians who traipse across Iowa seeking support of its residents in a campaign, might later enact policies affecting our wetlands (and our way of life generally).

We grow as individuals, and make better decisions collectively, when we see connections. Recognizing the ecologic, economic, cultural and other connections between us and our wetlands, and with each other, is important to me. I’m pleased to be part of a community founded by immigrants. I’m proud of the contributions Iowa makes to benefit our friends and neighbors elsewhere. I hope this blog can help us appreciate the wetlands, and also help bring us together in conversation. Thanks for joining us!Calamus_Paul_square

 

 

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Input on WOTUS rule…?

DSC_0195Americans are encouraged to provide feedback and guidance on a proposed change in how the Nation defines, and therefore protects, our wetlands. The comment period ends on Tax Day (April 15). I hope you’ll have your say!

At issue is how to define “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) which are the lakes, rivers, wetlands, and similar water bodies to be regulated by the Clean Water Act (CWA). President Trump ordered Federal agencies to look at the issue, and propose a new rule to define and regulate WOTUS. The proposed rule and related information, including how to comment on the proposed change, and the written public comments already received, may be found on-line at those links. Readers of this blog might very well wish to input on specifics of the proposal, or simply express support for a particular point of view regarding the issue. (All public input is solicited).

A consortium of nine different aquatic-related societies issued a statement in December about this proposed change. None other than Iowa State University Professor and past President of the Society of Wetland Scientists, Arnold van der Valk, is quoted in the statement:

“It will result in the loss of many of the nation’s wetlands. This decision is shortsighted and counterproductive. It will significantly reduce the multitude of ecosystem services that these wetlands currently provide us at no cost. As a result the taxpayers will have to pay to build elaborate and expensive infrastructure to replace these free ecosystem services, such as flood reduction
and cleaning up polluted water.”

…and he is 100% correct. This rule will result in the Nation losing many wetlands, and all the services they render.

I also recommend a New York Times article on the issue:

Regular readers of this blog have heard my thoughts on why wetlands should be protected, i.e. the various important work they do. New visitors (welcome!!) or those wishing a review might consider clicking on the “tags” in the sidebar for categories of “ecosystem services,” listed under Hydrology, Pollution, and so forth.

“But Paul,” you say. “How would a rewording of the definition of ‘Waters of the United States’ affect wetlands?” Because most of the wetlands in the USA will be protected (or not) through the Section 404 provision of the Clean Water Act. If wetlands are WOTUS, then the US Army Corps of Engineers must regulate their physical structure (“dredge and fill”) and the EPA must regulate their water quality. But if wetlands are not WOTUS, then…individual States may choose to protect them, or not.

DSC_0235Supposedly this new rule will “…increase predictability and consistency…” of wetlands regulations, and that certainly sounds appealing. But actually, since 1986 the Federal government has had a Rule about WOTUS that was, more or less, consistent and effective. In 1987, the Corps of Engineers published a Manual for determining what is/is not (i.e., delineating) a wetland based on that Rule. Although an Obama-era rule tweaked it slightly, the 1987 Manual, and the Rule it’s based on, has worked just fine. That’s over 30 years of practice—and this new Rule proposes to stick to it, with an important difference: adjacency.

The new Rule would require a wetland (as defined by the 1987 Manual) to be physically adjacent (“abut”), and connected to, a surface water body relating to other WOTUS (“jurisdictional waters”). In other words, a wetland must have a surface flow (in or out) connecting to a stream, river, lake, or other waterway already considered a WOTUS. That surface water flow or connection must exist in a “typical year,” not just a year with high water (i.e., flooding conditions).

I admire the honesty of frank statements in the Federal Register regarding what this rule is designed to do: eliminate protection for all wetlands not linked by a surface water flow to other WOTUS. Here are specific quotations:

(the proposed rule) would exclude isolated wetlands with only physically remote hydrologic connections to jurisdictional waters. Under the proposed definition, ecological connections alone would not provide a basis for including physically isolated wetlands within the phrase “The Waters of the United States.”

(the proposed definition) of “adjacent wetlands” and the categorical treatment of jurisdiction over wetlands adjacent to tributaries as proposed in informed by, though not dictated by, science.

Wetlands separated from other “waters of the United States” by upland or by dikes, barriers, or similar structures would not be adjacent and would not be jurisdictional wetlands under the proposed rule…

That last one is interesting. Several statements in the proposed Rule seem to suggest that even a wetland physically adjacent to a stream or lake will not be regulated, as long as you put up a barrier (like an earthen dam or berm) between the wetland and the adjacent WOTUS. You could even put in a pipe or culvert (because the wetland is so very wet…) and yet it’s no longer, legally, a wetland.

DSC_0119I encourage you to read the proposed Rule yourself, and/or those analyses linked above. And then, please consider weighing in with a comment on the proposed Rule. As you might expect, I plan to do so. This is a time we need to speak up. Our Government needs to know that we value wetlands (whether they do, or not). We must remind our public servants that whether a wetland is physically adjacent to a stream or not, it nevertheless DOES affect the hydrology of that stream. The wetland absorbs water that otherwise (even if by groundwater, rather than a surface connection) would contribute to downstream flooding. The wetland improves the water quality of the downstream WOTUS. So-called “isolated wetlands” simply aren’t isolated, and they do important work…but only if we allow them to exist!!

And beyond reacting to this specific government action, I hope we can think about the long-term future of our wetlands. Personally, I would like our Nation and its government to provide effective and uniform legal protection for all of our aquatic resources, including wetlands. I certainly believe in making that task as straightforward as possible for everyone  involved: landowners, regulators, and environmental professionals. How do we serve our citizens best? Protecting wetlands is surely part of that…so how do we get it done??

Change of Pace, Change of Venue

Hello Friends!

I appreciate your support of my journey across Iowa. So far I have profiled wetlands in 85 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Every “Wetlands Wednesday” beginning in April 2017 has seen a new blog post, with most weeks adding a new county to the list. It’s been great fun!!

DSC_0430But work demands and some international travel force me to take a semi-hiatus. I’ll still post an essay, photo, or news from time to time, but not as regularly as before. And a few posts might be from outside Iowa.

I hope you’ll join me for these coming posts, and also watch for a blog post announcing my resumption of the 99wetlands quest…I’ll clearly label it “Back in IOWA!” and give you an update on the project.

This might be a good time to suggest subscribing (“following”) this blog—each post will arrive in your Inbox whenever I get them published—you’ll never miss a thing! And of course I’d love to read your comments and questions. Perhaps you could also refer a friend to this blog? There’s plenty more fun to be had, so I hope to reach out to you again, soon. Stay swampy, friends!!

–PaulDSC_0233

The Nitrate Commons

P1140132Over the past three weeks, we’ve visited a cluster of three northwest Iowa counties: first Calhoun (Twin Lakes WMA), then Buena Vista (Storm Lake Marsh), and last week it was Sac County (Kiowa Marsh). The center of that cluster is about 90 miles (145 kilometers) due northwest of the state’s capitol (and largest city), Des Moines. It might be more useful, however, to measure the river miles—how far water flows downstream from those counties. And therein lies the tale of a serious nitrogen pollution problem, recent legal action, and a glaring example of our collective environmental commons.

This concept of The Environmental Commons was explained by Garrett Hardin in a classic 1968 paper in the journal Science entitled The Tragedy Of The Commons. That article is about human population growth, but the premise of the Commons itself works for any shared resource. In the article, Hardin presents a parable of a shared grazing space (a village green), called The Commons, and presents the choice faced by any user of a commons (e.g., sheep herder):

…The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another… But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.

The tragedy, of course, is that everyone acts rationally, until the Commons (shared resource) is “ruined” (depleted). Every user of the Commons only takes a little bit, and never intends to cause harm. And yet overall, harm is the result. This certainly has happened with overgrazing on shared public lands in the United States, a giant “village green” if you will.  However The Commons can be ANY shared resource, such as harvesting  from ocean fisheries. Little  by little, through innocuous individual actions, populations crash, and a shared resource (commons) is ruined.

dsc_0810Now, let’s think about water pollution. A common form of nitrogen (nitrate, NO3) is found in Iowa’s waters: rivers, lakes, groundwater. Its presence is normal and natural. Adding just a little bit from a pipe or through runoff over the land surface is to be expected, and not a problem. Organisms in ecosystems, such as found in an Iowa stream, can and will use/process/transform the nitrate. In fact, nitrogen is a fertilizer: it helps plants grow. This is not inherently a problem.

However—at some point, the individual contributions add up, and we collectively add so much nitrate that our water bodies become degraded. This affects the stream or lake ecology (they become “impaired” in the regulatory sense), and the nitrate flowing downstream joins the Mississippi River, where it eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Down in the Gulf, it contributes to hypoxia, the infamous Dead Zone.

The nitrate problem isn’t just ecological, however. Some water suppliers draw from surface water bodies, or shallow groundwater connected to surface waters. Their customers will then drink the high-nitrate water. For example, the Des Moines Water Works supplies domestic (drinking) water to half a million residents in central Iowa. The Water Works draws from the Racoon River whose large drainage area (watershed) lies to the north and west. Nitrates within the watershed are carried to the river flowing downstream and then affect the water quality, raising levels of nitrates above the legal limit (10 parts per million of nitrate-N). Nitrate levels exceeding the limit happens several times a year, and forces the Water Works to use an expensive nitrate-removal process.

As a result of this added operating expense, the Des Moines Water Works then sued three public drainage districts located in upstream counties. Those are the counties featured in the last three weeks on this blog.

Note that nitrates are added to water in many ways: effluent from wastewater (such as septic systems or a city wastewater treatment plant), animal waste, runoff from farm fields or golf courses, and the very lawns at our residence—literally, our own back yard. They can all add nitrates, and they are all implicated in our common nitrate challenge.

The Water Works lawsuit was dismissed, and that isn’t surprising. Too large an area of watershed, with too many sources of nitrates, are contributing to the river’s water pollution—it would be quite difficult to assess damages against a few particular entities. The watershed, and its ability to safely process nitrates, is a shared resource–a commons. We all own it, we all are effected by it, and we all contribute to a common nitrate problem.

dsc_0168What then shall we do?? I believe there are three parts to this challenge:

First, we should have an honest conversation. It’s long past time pretending that no problem exists, or that it will solve itself. When I arrived in Iowa in 1998 and learned of ongoing legal battles about nitrates in water, I never dreamed we’d be fighting about it all these years later. We need to acknowledge the multitude of evidence, consult with the people who have worked hard on this problem, and commit to finding solutions.

Second, we must strategize about the possible solutions. Knowing how nitrates get into the water, and what acceptable levels (water quality standards) should be, we can talk about ways to account for the sources and how to reduce the inputs.

Third, we must implement well-planned measures to get the job done. This is where economic and political reality comes in—what strategies will be widely supported, and workable? What is cost-effective and achievable in a timely manner? We should think about buffer strips and cover crops, and better wastewater treatment, and bioreactors, and many other great ideas.

Oh…and wetlands. As discussed many times on this blog, wetlands “clean the water,” including removing nitrates. Preserving and protecting our existing wetlands, and building or restoring others, will surely help us save our Nitrate Commons. Let’s get to work!

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Clean-Water Factory (with ducks…)

dsc_0369Before visiting an area on this 99wetlands quest, I sometimes read a technical note or scientific journal article to provide some context. Before visiting Kiowa Marsh in Sac County, I found a 1917 study in the Wilson Bulletin by J.A. Spurrell, described the condition of the County before settlement by Whites. The eastern half of Sac County had been covered by the Des Moines Lobe, a giant glacial surface coming down from Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Canada, and looking like a giant tongue. In eastern Sac County it formed a classic pothole landscape, prairie dimpled with shallow water features and wetlands. To quote the article,

“Correction pond, Lard lake, Rush lake, and many smaller ponds are now farm land.  …The drainage from Wall lake, the only one remaining, flows into Indian Creek.”

dsc_0371And this is where we have good news: a large wetland restoration at Kiowa Marsh, part of the Indian Creek watershed. The marsh is owned by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, but the restoration was a cooperation withUS Fish & Wildlife Service, and Ducks Unlimited and used funds from the Environmental Protection Agency. That link takes you to an Ammoland.com article, and yet other than the headline, only a passing mention of wildlife is made. However, statistics about the wetland and water quality are provided:

  • Indian Creek is part of drainage leading to the Raccoon River…which provides critical drinking water for more than 450,000 Iowans—or roughly one-sixth of the state’s entire population
  • ditches that empty into the marsh…drainages have for years served as a superhighway for soil particles and nutrient runoff that enter Kiowa Marsh and eventually flow into downstream creeks, rivers and reservoirs.
  • the restored wetlands will reduce sediment delivery to Indian Creek by approximately 652 tons/year and will help trap and recycle an estimated 847 tons of phosphorus per year
  • total cost of these restoration efforts was nearly $300,000 and will pay back significant dividends to Des Moines area water users
  • …and so, once again we face the clear truth. Yes, these wetlands WILL provide valuable habitat to waterfowl (and thereby, to hunters or birders). But the reasons wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act, or the reason this particular wetland was restored using monies from the EPA, is that—whether they provide for the classic wildlife triumvirate of “Fur, Fins & Feathers,”—they first and foremost are about the water. No wetland is ever “isolated.” Our wetlands work to clean our water.

dsc_0365In correspondence with Clint from the DNR, he mentioned the considerable work in making sure that drainage from neighbors is properly incorporated, and that water storage and movement in the wetlands can be adjusted to attain project goals. Additional work on the north basin was in progress during my visit; this hard-working wetland will have even more benefits very soon.

The great thing is, in restoring wetlands for water quality benefits, we also support habitat for wildlife. A sign at Kiowa refers to the Waterfowl Production Area…AKA “duck factory.” That’s in addition to the restoration funding having the stated goal of being…a clean water factory!

Come back next week as I “connect the dots” of water quality in these three recently-profiled counties, and think about the recent news reports and legal action involving Iowa water quality, and the considerable work we still have to do. And I may have a suggestion to help with all this (spoiler: it involves wetlands!!). See you then.dsc_0363

The Wetland as Traffic Cop

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entrance near the south end of the marsh, along Hwy 110. Note the wood duck housing complex.

Last week, we visited the Twin Lakes in Calhoun County. We saw how a wetland adjacent to South Twin Lake sits at the base of a slope, catching silt, sediments, nutrients, and other substances in runoff. Wetlands naturally “clean the water,” as we have discussed many times. This week, let’s expand that idea a bit.

Little Storm Lake in Buena Vista county is not really a lake at all: it is a wetland adjacent to the northwest edge of Storm Lake, an actual (shallow glacial) lake. It’s a great place to think about a wetland “cleaning the water.”

In my Limnology class, I sometimes ask students to think of a lake as a giant container of water in which chemical reactions happen. Much like the glassware holding aqueous (watery) solutions in their chemistry classes, a lake will be affected by light and heat energy, circulation (that is, mixing), atmospheric pressure, and other inputs to the system from outside. Reactions in the water will depend on pH, dissolved gasses, and the activity of organisms. Particular chemical reactions all occur (or not) in that context. This “lake as a big glass beaker” mental image is then kept in mind as we discuss specific chemical parameters and reactions.

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access road leads in to water control structures, and forms a berm or dike

Then again, a wetland (like Little Storm Lake) is perhaps like a chemist, adjusting the characteristics of water entering the lake. It’s often said that a wetland “cleans the water,” but truly a wetland transforms chemicals in the water in ways we categorize as “cleansing.” For example, silts and sediments settle out of the muddy water, depositing (and slowly filling) the wetland; the water leaves the wetland “cleaner.” Phosphorus sorbs (adheres to) the silts and sediments, and so are removed from the water as well. Nitrogen is transferred from water to air, by an entirely different process—denitrification—and we’ll consider that next week. These are all examples of the “wetland as chemist.”

Little Storm Lake is a natural marsh, but it was recently extensively modified to move beyond that role as “chemist,” into a role as “Traffic Cop.” Much like a public safety officer directing vehicles safely and efficiently on roadways, this wetland is now equipped to direct the flow of water safely and efficiently. Let’s have a look!

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dueling water control gates

About eight years ago, the DNR partnered with the local lake association, non-profit groups, university staff and others to undertake a large wetland restoration (more correctly, engineering enhancement) and lake protection project. This Storm Lake page describes the project, and a DNR lake restoration white paper has more details (starting on page 17). The basic idea is this: construct walls (dikes), and channels or culverts (plumbing) store and move water as desired; they prohibit fish movement (ideally, keeping nuisance species like carp under control); and workers periodically dredge out the accumulating silts and sediments.

If a wetland like Little Storm Lake exemplifies the slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry” by the transformations cleaning the water, then this project now adds “Better Living Through Plumbing.” Water in this wetland can be adjusted to appropriately process high flows, normal flows, or even to drain the system of water. Drying out a wetland seems counterproductive, but an occasional decrease in water depth and even emptying (“drawdown”) encourages seed germination, facilitates maintenance, and kills off undesirable aquatic species. If the wetland (and adjacent lake) function is determined mainly through water dynamics, then this project provides a powerful tool.

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Probably a pumping station, although it also reminds me of a nuclear reactor. Cordoned off, so I couldn’t examine it well enough to know which.

Furthermore…let’s be honest: Iowa’s streams and rivers, such as the one flowing into this wetland (Powell Creek), carry a heavy load of runoff…and everything runoff brings. Wetlands are helpful—perhaps critical—in protecting our water quality. It’s a theme we’re considering in these weeks, with wetlands from three counties and an upcoming essay considering the challenge we face regarding Nitrogen in particular. I wish to address the news reports and controversy, and ask if wetlands might just help us solve the problem. Please come back in the coming weeks for that discussion.

In the meantime, if you’re near Storm Lake, check out the marsh. On the north side, near the intersection of state highways 7 and 110, you’ll find the Little Lake Discovery Boardwalk. Informational signs adorn a floating walkway among the cattail, and a tall tower provides a stunning view (complete with free telescope!). Admire the flora and fauna and another hard-working wetland…”at your service.”

 

 

“Pond,” “Lake,” or “Wetland…?” Whatever.

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Pretty houses and cottages along North Twin Lake. A State Park with pavilion and restrooms is nearby, but no camping is available.

The Twin Lakes (North and South) of Calhoun County are a good example of the old question, “what’s in a name?” As a Limnologist–someone who studies water bodies on the continents: ponds, lakes, rivers, streams…and of course, wetlands!—I am sometimes asked how to differentiate between these systems. People want to know for example, when does a pond have sufficient surface area, or depth (or both?) to properly be called a lake?

For better or worse, there IS NO “official” distinction between these terms. (Really!) Suggestions involving the photic zone depth, or stratification, or minimum area…they are all attempts to be helpful, but are nevertheless always arbitrary. Here, someone decided that (likely in consideration of surface area), the Twin Lakes are each truly “lakes,” and of course the name reflects that. According to the Iowa DNR, North Twin Lake is deeper (ranging in parts to 12 feet/3.7 meters), while South Twin Lake is mostly between four and five feet (1.2-1.5 m) deep. South Lake is about a third larger in surface area, however (600 vs 453 acres/243 vs 183 hectares). In this part of the world, those are large enough to be considered lakes, and who am I to say otherwise?

DSC_0350Whatever name or category we choose, these are certainly shallow, productive systems (i.e., lots of algae or pondweed growing). That productivity will support a food chain and provide habitat for fish. But too much productivity makes murky water which is less appealing for swimming/boating/other recreation. A common question asked of any limnologist is “how do we reduce the algae/weeds in our pond/lake?” Of course, the answer is “stop fertilizing the pond/lake.” If you don’t want so much plant growth, don’t put silts/sediments, or growth-enhancing chemicals such as nitrogen or phosphorus into the water. Those chemicals increase the productivity of the green photosynthetic organisms—that’s why we consider them “fertilizer.” A nutrient and erosion control strategy is exactly the prescription for Twin Lakes proposed by experts from Iowa State University.

“But Paul,” you say. “Where do wetlands enter in?” Regular readers know that defining, delineating, and characterizing ecosystems are part-and-parcel of the wetland business, more so than other ecosystems. So, we are simply expanding our questions and checklists for “how to define a wetland” to use in ponds/lakes. Fair enough.

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Water flows from lands upslope (left) down to South Twin Lake (right)

More importantly, wetlands lie between the land and water. Ecologically, wetlands have characteristics intermediate between terrestrial and aquatic systems. Hydrologically, wetlands often catch runoff, located in a spot where they physically intercept water flowing overland towards a water body (like a lake!). Near the south shore of South Twin Lake, down-slope from farm fields and US highway 20, lies a classic “cattail marsh.” This wetland contains a large area of cattail (Typha) plants, with muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and a few willow (Salix) trees. The wetland surely catches runoff heading toward the lake, removing silts and nutrients. Wetlands really do “clean the water,” so visitors to the lakes and lakeshore residents benefit from the work done by the wetlands.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll visit another couple wetlands designed and managed to protect or improve water quality. Let’s think about the challenge of water quality of the specific lake or stream near those wetlands; also keep in mind that the challenge of water quality in Iowa, in particular a form of nitrogen in our waters, is bigger than any particular water body. We have to think bigger, and face some contentious issues. As always, I’ll do my best to explain it all in a straightforward manner…and I’ll have pretty pictures, too! I hope you join me for the journey.

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Willows, cattails, and Muskrat. Yup, that’s an Iowa wetland…