Tale of the Swale


American Toad, Anaxyrus americanus–the amphibian formerly known as Bufo americanus.

At the risk of repeating myself, let’s think again about hydrologic connections. While we’re at it, why not expand the thought to social connections as well? A visit to the E.C. Lipke Wetland in Plymouth County, and a recent presentation at the Tuesday Seminar series at Lakeside Lab, make my musings flow!


First, the literal connection: a ditch-like swale runs through the Lipke wetland site, connecting low spots on the floodplain (including nearby farm fields) to the adjacent Big Sioux River. Most of the time, water is draining from the adjacent fields, and flowing towards the river, through subsurface plumbing (drain tiles), ditches, and this swale. During times of “overbank flow,” when the river is above flood stage, water will spill out onto the floodplain, flowing all the way back onto the farm fields. The river and its floodplain are connected.

Now, the literary connection: two days after my visit to the Lipke Wetland, I heard Lisa Dill, of the University Of Delaware, give a talk entitled Forgotten River: Why Science Writing Matters to an audience at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory. Unbeknownst to me, this talk both encouraged us scientist-writers to tell stories (basically, to do what I’m attempting with this blog), and also describing her own project, writing about her family’s amazing adventure boating down the Missouri River, and interpreting the big water for us.

That epic journey started not far from the Lipke wetland, as it turns out. Lipke is about 17 miles (27 km) upstream from the confluence of the Little Sioux meeting the mighty Missouri River. Lisa’s family is from this area, and was already familiar with the river, and the people who live, play, or work on it. During her trip, and in researching the book she’s writing, Lisa also read historical accounts and interviewed scientists and other experts. She met and spoke with people who live on, and with, the river. No one book could possibly tell the story of a river as large and important as the Missouri, but this book is sure to provide a thoughtful and engaging perspective. I plan to get my copy when it is published!DSC_0333

In the meantime, let’s think about the Little Sioux, and the Missouri, and the swale, and the wetland…and yes, the adjacent wet areas in the farm fields…as all being part of a larger, linked  system. Truly, water flows around and around in this space. Most years, the lowest areas in the floodplain, cultivated or not, will have at least a little standing water in the spring. Some years, the floodplain will live up to its name, and much of this land will be under water. It behooves us to remember that anything sprayed or spread onto the ground could become part of these connected waters.

I observed many animals as I walked around, and they all live with this water, too: damselfly, crayfish, snails, geese, or that handsome toad pictured above. Our treatment of the land, our attempts to regulate the river, and anything we put in the water will affect both them and us. The old saying is true: we all live downstream.

Author: Paul Weihe

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

4 thoughts on “Tale of the Swale”

  1. Thank you for the nice toad photo. One of the happy surprises of restoring a little wetland complex on our land was discovering that thousands of little toads dispersed from the wetlands in spring. There is nothing cuter than squadrons of very tiny toads, though not stepping on them in the driveway can be a challenge. And a few of them manage to grow up into full-sized toads, hooray.


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