Former wasteland, now a fancy wetland

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In Johnson County, we have what I suspect is Iowa’s most expensive wetland, and the one I hereby declare winner of the Most Improved Toxic Wasteland award. Let’s visit the Iowa River Landing Wetland Park!

This amazing story starts around the time of World War Two, when the area was developed for industry. Decades of mining and manufacturing subsequently left behind a real mess, the site being what is known as a “brownfield.” According to documents referenced by city planners, the target area was previously occupied by a concrete mixing operation, a lumber company, railroad storage facilities, an electrical substation, and an old municipal dump. The EPA and others supplied grant funding to address the environmental contamination. Waste on the surface of the site and pollutants in the soil all needed to be removed. Then, something useful (residential, retail, entertainment) would be built. Of course this was made more challenging because part of the site is located on low ground along the Iowa River, and subject to flooding. What to do??

 

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“Brownfield” is a fancy term for a nasty, contaminated mess
Why, build a wetland, of course!! But not just any wetland, an award-winning design embracing the site and the challenges present, thoughtfully interacting with—and educating—the workers and visitors, and incorporating a striking and pleasing aesthetic. Because if you’re going to build an amazing wetland, you must celebrate your amazing muck.

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you had me at “amazing muck.”
Great design is just the start; it had to be built properly (and it appears to be…to my eye, anyway). And over time, the owners must adapt and maintain the property—hopefully they planned for that, too. For example, their Amazing Muck will be disturbed, and their plants beaten up, by the Carp if they’re not careful.These fish are non-native, but now common in rivers around the country. They move from the river channel up into the wetlands during flood episodes. Their activity muddies the water and uproots vegetation, both obvious during my visit.

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Still, the wetland shows hallmarks of success: resident kingfishers and hawks, red-winged blackbirds and toads. A diversity of floating, emergent and woody vegetation. More remarkable, a number of people were enjoying the water, flora and fauna. Numerous visitors strolled the boardwalks and climbed the observation tower, and plenty of photos were snapped. I was not alone in reading the informational signs. The whole complex is adjacent and connected to the hotel and conference center, with shops and restaurants just beyond.

In all my years mucking about, this is the first wetland that charged me for parking. I was happy to pay, and so should you. Go make a visit, and consider what we can do when we decide to clean up our messes, and embrace our wetlands too.

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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!

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