Making the (hydrologic) connection

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In Van Buren county, just outside the town of Mt. Sterling (population 36), the modern, straightened Fox River flows southeast and crosses into Missouri. It carries Iowa water, and whatever is in that water, out of our great state. The wetlands of the Fox River Wildlife Management Area and the Mt. Sterling Marsh are connected to that river, and are functionally part of that river. Let’s make the connections.

Anyone would agree that the frogs, bald eagle, dragonfly, or gall wasp I observed at these sites all move between river and wetland to hunt, drink, or reproduce; they all make connections between ecosystems. Consider however that water drains adjacent lands and flows into the wetlands; that makes another connection. When particularly full of precipitation and runoff, the wetlands overflow into the river…a connection. And when the river is high, it spills onto the floodplain, and fills the wetlands…a connection. Undoubtedly water travels through the ground in an out of these systems…well, you get the idea.

It may all seem quite logical, even perhaps obvious. Nevertheless we have historically tried to sever these connections. The goal in Iowa (and often elsewhere) was to keep a stream in a defined channel (walling it in with levees if necessary), and straighten that channel to keep the water moving. Nearby land was tiled and ditched to remove water ASAP, and send it to that channel. Here at Fox River, historical photos show the channel straightened and surrounding ground drained by the 1930’s.

And we’re not done yet. In recent years a debate has raged about so-called “isolated” wetlands. Some argue that such systems should not be legally protected as “waters of the United States” under provisions of the Clean Water Act. Landowners should be allowed to drain, fill, or otherwise remove such wetlands.

Such an interpretation ignores the reality of the hydrologic connection. Even a small wetland with no channel to a stream, may nevertheless be floooded by a nearby river when it is swollen, or the wetland may send water out through the ground beneath. The ironic part is that in many such situations, the “isolated” wetland is removed by…adding drainage. The developer puts in a ditch or drain tile (pipe), literally making the hydrologic connection.

Our choice is to recognize the connections, and protect our wetlands (and thereby, our rivers and everything downstream)…or we can continue to miss the connection. I hope we go with the flow here, and hop to it. Let’s protect our wetlands.

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Author: Paul Weihe

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

9 thoughts on “Making the (hydrologic) connection”

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