Polk County: Chichaqua Bottoms

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Polk County is the home to more Iowans than any other (by more than a 2-1 margin), housing the state capitol, Des Moines, plus numerous suburbs and other municipalities. Here at Chichaqua Bottoms, one could forget all of that, and enjoy some swampy natural areas. It’s a great place to think about the relationship between rivers and wetlands, too.

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(cue the music from Deliverance…)

Iowa has many creeks, streams, and rivers…and of course, is bordered on the east and west by two large rivers (Mississippi & Missouri)! A visit to Iowa of 200 years ago would reveal wooded ribbons snaking across the state, where trees grew in the river valleys. In some areas, the valleys were broad and flat, and swollen streams inundated the floodplains; that certainly happened here at Chichaqua Bottoms.

Life in a floodplain presents both challenges and opportunities. Plants are rooted in rich soils benefiting from a nutrient subsidy, i.e. floodwaters deliver nitrogen and phosphorus that had washed into the river upstream. Water can also bring scouring and damaging debris when it’s moving fast. And flooding can drown you (yes, plants can drown). Animals must obviously adapt, too.

Over time, the river slides back and forth across its floodplain, like a snake slithering along. The river curves are called meanders, and they can be abandoned when the channel carves a new path; the resultant isolated backwaters are called oxbows. Chichaqua Bottoms is just covered in oxbows! But none of the various meanders and oxbows are connected to the current Skunk River channel, actually.

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The Skunk River is an excellent place to see stream channelization up close. Running along the western edge of the Chichaqua Bottoms property, the Skunk flows straight as an arrow. The straightened channel is an attempt to drain the land faster, and keep the channel flowing in a line, rather than overtopping its banks (i.e., flooding adjacent land). In fact, long sections of this river have been channelized.

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So now the Chichaqua ponds and wetlands are isolated from their river…but they are in no way lonely. Many trees are growing up along the water, and plenty of evidence of wildlife is present. I noted bullfrogs, young turtles, Mallard ducks, as well as the usual yard birds. And other human visitors love this place, too: a recent Sunday found the place packed, especially with dog owners using the spot as a place to train their furry hunting partners. A campground looked quite full. I love to see people appreciating these ecosystems…and hopefully you, dear reader, can appreciate them too. Thanks for visiting with me.

Author: Paul Weihe

Associate Professor of Biology at Central College, traditional author (Textbook of Limnology, Cole & Weihe, 5th ed.; Waveland Press), and now...blogger!

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