What The Wetlands Say

DSC_0062I’ve now traveled throughout all of Iowa, meeting amazing people and seeing remarkable wetland ecosystems. Across 124 blog posts, I’ve tried to share my excitement with readers about the sights, sounds…and yes, smells…I’ve experienced.

“But Paul,” you say. “Just what is The Big Picture of Iowa’s wetlands…?”

Well, certainly no one can deny that Iowa has more diversity than is immediately obvious. Despite the loss of more than 90% of the State’s wetlands, I still found natural fens, potholes, sloughs, bottomland forests, brushy swamps, wet meadows, and marshes. I observed resident and migratory amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and insects. Gorgeous wildflowers, intricate mollusk shells, gnarled driftwood, and the water itself, all have unique beauty.

DSC_0382My interest in history appears in stories about Native American burial mounds, traditional uses of plants, a profile of “Ding” Darling and the modern American wetland conservation movement, “ghost towns” and changing land use, and Superfund and other serious contamination…and how we’ve addressed our legacy. The story I didn’t tell, and the sites I couldn’t show, were the countless missing wetlands. The landscape still has scars and remnants of drained or filled wetlands, often quite obvious in Spring when fields are still wet, or at high flow events in streams and rivers which attempt to reclaim old oxbows or floodplains where the water naturally moved from time to time.

Sometimes a blog entry was less about the site itself, and more about what we do at wetlands—the business of wetland science and management. It’s fascinating to “read” signs of hydrology (water movement or characteristics) when a site is in fact very dry. Identifying plants and animals is a useful tool, and Iowa has knowledgeable and generous naturalists—mostly unpaid, yet quite expert—who help each other to learn the species and about their biology. We all use maps, aerial photographs (including fancy Infrared or decades-old historic shots), soil samples and marker horizons (glitter, anyone??), chemical analyses, and a well-developed series of procedures to accurately identify, delineate and classify wetlands.

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Redheads are handsome, yes…? ūüėČ

I haven’t talked much about how to care for our wetlands, and I’d love to do more with that in the future. Science and my personal observations all confirm that wetlands are never isolated, but are connected to other elements of the landscape. Healthy ecosystems are dynamic and adaptive, always-changing. Although we attempt to isolate or standardize the condition of a wetland, that’s always a bad idea, even if well-intentioned.

This blog is proof that, deep down, I’m a teacher…and in particular a teacher who loves to share stories. Most of my favorite memories are of wetland visits spent with my students. We get wet and muddy. We try to observe the organisms close-up (but hopefully, gently and respectfully). We learn about the conditions of water and air and soil that together, over time and through the work of life itself, make these unique and beautiful places.

bottle_itFor some additional reflection on this quest, I encourage you to listen to an interview I gave with the news director at our local radio stations, KNIA-KRLS. You’ll find answers to questions like why wetlands are important, which of the 99 was my favorite site, recurring themes through the project, and what this all means for my other professional activity.

What was your favorite memory? What would you still like to learn?DSC_0264

Number 99 at last!!

HOME AT LAST, to the final visit in my tour of Iowa’s 99 counties: my home for 20-some years, Marion County! In fact, this wetland is right on the campus of my home institution, Central College, where I’ve worked since moving to Iowa.

It seemed fitting to profile a site in my own backyard, as a sort of homecoming. Better still, I can turn over the blog to my students for this one! They’ve worked hard at the site, an old farm pond on the west end of campus, and I will let them tell the story. Please visit the web page they created as part of a group project for my colleague’s class (link below). But first, let me add a little background for context…

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The environs near the wetland/pond, part of the athletic complex. Service Day started with a rare October snow…melted off as the day warmed.

This pond has been used for years, by myself and other profs, for aquatic ecology activities. When we did bathymetry in Limnology class years ago, we found the bottom to be fairly uniform, with firm footing and water depth of about 60-70 cm throughout. Obviously siltation has occurred since then, and it is shallower and more “squishy.” However, the notched outflow on the berm (earthen dam) has eroded a bit, likely to decrease the maximum water depth as well.

As far as I know, runoff from surrounding grassy fields—combination golf practice area and cross-country course—provides the sole water input aside from direct precipitation falling on the surface. During dry weather, no water flows out; however I haven’t seen the pond actually dry.

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The pond is visible in the right half of this photo. It is almost completely covered by the tiny duckweed plants. Extensive trees and brush surrounded the pond before the crew got to work

The pond has minimal emergent macrophytes (cattail, bulrush) around the edge. Filamentous algal blooms in early Spring are followed by a thick covering of Duckweed, so an impetus for the project was my observations that the duckweed diminished both the habitat quality and our ability to use the pond. I suspected that clearing the dense plant growth from the slopes around the pond might help reduce the duckweed, and facilitate access for visitors.

Link to the student web page:

https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/6cd2c0ff4997425d8063650c97589e34

Pretty great, isn’t it? They did an outstanding job with both organizing a Service Day project (and follow-up extra work day), and then all the additional analyses. The web page tells the story, although there’s yet another product of their labors (I’ll share THAT, next week).

This is the last of the 99 wetlands for my epic trek across Iowa…but this is certainly not the end of the story. This campus wetland will allow this coming semester’s classes, and many well into the future, to learn more about wetlands and their inhabitants and functioning. I’m looking forward to that. But beyond this, I believe we need to step back and review the journey, and consider what it all means. Come back next week for my musings on 99wetlands, and beyond. Thanks for visiting!!

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TEAMWORK. I really do appreciate the student’s hard work and the willingness of my colleague to “loan” me her Environmental Studies class…

Ecosystem Sales and Service…

In days past, at the end of every email I sent out was my name and address and the tagline “Ecosystem Sales & Service…at Reasonable Rates!” I thought I was pretty cute and clever, but it also served to prompt the question: why do we build wetlands, and how will we know if we’re doing it properly? It’s a type of question that is both obvious and yet far more complex than at first seems. It’s also imperative to answer, and worthy of the efforts of many smart, hard-working wetland scientists.

And so I found myself last August in Winnebago County with Paul Bartelt, a colleague  at Waldorf University. He is familiar with my interest in how wetlands function, especially how the presence of different plants may be important.  As it happens, Paul has for years been studying animals in wetlands, and as we chatted recently, we realized we both were curious about amphibians such as frogs, toads, and salamanders.

DSC_0493Amphibians seem a good candidate to show us how wetlands function: they spend their entire lives, or at least their most vulnerable juvenile stages, in wetlands. Breathing through and absorbing toxins across their skin, being “cold-blooded” and responding to changes in weather and climate, being sensitive to various pathogens…amphibians may be “the canary in the coal mine” for wetland stresses, or strong evidence for success when we do things right. And Paul knows amphibians and wetlands, even tracking the movements of individual animals with telemetry (radio transmitters). Tricky work.

DSC_0487As we visited several field sites together, we were discussing population-level questions: how do amphibian numbers and diversity compare across wetlands of different ages? How does the type and structure of cattails or other plants affect amphibian population ecology? In general, how can we better understand the function of Iowa wetlands? I’m fortunate that Paul has access to a group of sites restored up to 30 years ago, and that some have multiple basins. Even better, Paul is a personable guy and referred to conversations with local landowners—knowing and working with them can make all the difference.

Perhaps in future posts, I can detail specifics of the research. I do hope that Paul and I find some way to collaborate, perhaps with Lakeside Lab classes. His previous work has provided fascinating insights into Iowa animal life. I’m hoping that we can not only better understand the population ecology of amphibians, but also use that knowledge to help us better manage our lands and water. For example, during our conversation in the field, I learned that small but thoughtful actions by a landowner can greatly increase the ability of frogs or toads to move between sites, find food or safe spaces to rest, and in general avoid a fate Paul referred to as “toad jerky.” (yes, it’s what you’re imagining…). If I learn such helpful strategies, you’ll hear about it here at 99wetlands! Thanks for reading.

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In Good Hands…

DSC_0131Last year, I visited The Land of the Swamp White Oak Preserve, in Muscatine County. This 4,000-acre (1600-hectare) facility is truly outstanding, and open to the public. I recommend a visit! Let me tell you why this place is so special, and show a few photos and stories. We start with some Oak…but note that it blends with Willow, sedges, and glorious, sticky¬† mud.

DSC_0149As I’ve explained in past posts, the concept of “public land” varies widely. Who owns a property, who may visit, various uses and maintenance of the land can all differ. My observations suggest that the Nature Conservancy is a most pragmatic organization, focused on preserving the ecological integrity of the land forever. That goal still allows for a variety of ownership, partnership, care, and use. For example, I’ve stayed on a facility that had a beautiful cabin for groups (like my Ecology class) and yet is also was a working ranch. Other sites may allow only very restricted use. Land may be privately owned, and even worked, with the conservation goals nevertheless achieved through partnerships and various legal arrangements.

This particular property has a focus on wetlands and savanna habitats, and the amphibians, reptiles, and other animals found there. Dale and his crew from the local office showed me around, answering questions and explaining their work. It’s impressive! Let’s start with a look at some of those “herps,” the amphibians and reptiles.

Perhaps the variety and abundance of reptiles and amphibians tell us more about the quality and health of the wetland ecosystem, than any other indicator. These animals are exquisitely sensitive to disruptions of water dynamics and chemistry, weather patterns, alteration of structures in the habitat, etc. I’m delighted to report the presence of many such species, a few of which I got to see close-up! Check out the Newt with its bright yellow belly, or the fancy scutes (think treads on an armored vehicle) on a snake.

Care for some Arthopods? I’ve got some photos from around the site. Land, water, or…both? Check out the Mantis, some Odonates (Dragonfly/Damselfly nymph). Dale had a dip net, and we sampled slough, fen, and pond waters.

These habitats (and nearby uplands) are ideal for Crustaceans, and I love this duel of the great pincers. (Hey…what do YOU call these guys? Leave a comment with your preferred common name.)DSC_0217

This place is fun, even if you never see that wildlife. Just a nice walk along a stream, a bounce on the quaking peat, beating through a “reedswamp,” or rolling logs in a floodplain Bottomland Forest. This is time well-spent, and an amazing beauty to linger and appreciate.

I’m gladdened that The Nature Conservancy will protect this unique, ecologically-important site. Even more, I was delighted to interact with such dedicated, energetic young conservationists. With friends like these, our wetlands are in good hands.

 

 

Run Noisy, Run Shallow

in_culvertBoth a recent wetland visit, and a recent news item about wetlands, made me think of the phrase “run silent, run deep” which of course is a famous novel and movie about submarine warfare. However, my experiences are quite the opposite—both hydrology, and news about wetlands, appear noisy and shallow.

In Worth County in far northern Iowa, I found a wetland complex (designated a Waterfowl Production Area or WPA) called Hanlontown Slough. It’s a miniature Everglades: broad, flat wetland with scattered higher and lower areas, but generally a “river of grass” (or cattail). The area has classic wetland conditions: most importantly, it’s plenty wet! As I drove around, I found a spot where the WPA boundary met a farm field and a culvert going under the adjacent gravel road. I stopped to snap a photo, and heard…hydrology! Specifically, I heard noisy, rushing water emerging from a pipe and entering the surface channel.

DSC_0507It reminded me of a demonstration I do with my Aquatic Ecology students at Iowa Lakeside Lab. We stop on a roadside along the north edge of Lakeside’s property, and look over an adjacent farm field. It’s dry on the surface and all is quiet. But a few steps onto the Lakeside property, and we encounter an old clay tile (buried pipe) containing a thunderous torrent! Seriously, the water rushing through is amazing…all the more so, since the nearby farm field gives no hint of all this water rushing just beneath the surface.

At Hanlontown Slough, that noisy torrent enters a large wetland complex, spreading out into a wide, shallow “sheet flow” with deeper ponds here and there, and backwaters where water just sits. Unless you identify an outflow under another road, you might not realize that a large volume of water is moving through the site.

DSC_0510So much for noisy, shallow water flow into a wetland. Out in the public sphere, we have lots of discussion about wetlands (and other environmental issues), and it can be a bit noisy and shallow, too! While this blog is based on the idea of a political campaign (traipsing through all of Iowa’s 99 counties), I actually prefer to stay away from politics. The most recent policy news about wetlands, however, deserves our attention: a Trump administration action eliminates key protection for wetlands. This is unfortunate (I’ve already written about my opposition), but sadly it is just another chapter in a checkered history of national wetland policy. For decades, we scientists have demonstrated the “ecological services” that wetlands provide to reduce flooding, improve water quality, and store climate-damaging atmospheric carbon (CO2). For decades before that, conservationists recognized and worked to preserve the value of wetlands to wildlife. The value of wetlands, and that they deserve protection, has been well-established.

And yet, we must once again argue about wetland protection and the “law of the land.” Truly, I believe we need to revisit policies when we have new information, and we need a thoughtful, honest discussion of how to best understand and interact with our environment. However, our current political climate doesn’t seem to lend itself to this approach. We have a more “noisy, shallow” approach it appears. Clearly this decision ignores all the science and other facts about the value of wetlands. Folks, we need to honestly accept the reality on the ground, and use a “conservative” approach (in the root sense, to conserve, as in conserving our environmental quality). We shouldn’t roll the clock back to the 1980’s and lose the progress we’ve made.

Soon, I’ll have visited all 99 counties, and my quest will be complete. But I hope the conversation continues. I’d love my kids, and future generations, to have a healthy environment…including my beloved wetlands. We need to continue to study, visit, enjoy, and advocate for wetlands. I hope you join me and together, work to protect these amazing ecosystems.DSC_0509

Noticing the little animals

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This frog has sprouted legs, but needs more time before maturing to adulthood

Most of these blog posts are about Big Things, taking a whole-ecosystem or landscape-level view of wetlands. No surprise, as my PhD work was a big project advised by a big thinker. But, I do enjoy a close look at the little things, and in particular if I have a dip net with me at a wetland, it’s fun to get up close and personal with the animal life. At Christy Pond in Carroll County, I did just that.

You’ll most likely find the animals near plants which provide cover (shade, hiding space). Big “emergent” plants like cattail and bulrushes grow up out of the water, but how about Common Bladderwort (Utricularia macrorhiza)? This species holds pretty yellow flowers up in the air, but is a tangle of stems in the water. Attached to those submersed stems are bag-like traps (bladders) which catch and digest animals. (Admittedly, they will catch only really tiny animals).

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Bladderwort plant with aerial stem bearing flower, and a tangle of bladder-laden aquatic stems

You’ll find plenty of “primitive” or “lower” animals in a wetland pond. Sneer at them if you wish, but their lineage goes waaaaayyy back, and they have been very successful at what they do, for a very long time. For example, few animal movements are as graceful as a leech swimming, it’s like a ribbon undulating in watery flight. Snails adhere (even upside-down) to slippery, slimy surfaces, using a mouth shaped like a paint scraper to graze on surface growths.

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Medicinal leech with a bunch of snail comrades

Amphibian larvae (tadpoles or polliwogs) come in many forms, some hopping about on land in one season; some frogs take years to develop in the pond, becoming in some cases almost as large as your fist!

I should probably have a whole blog just for aquatic insects—so diverse in form and lifestyle and rich in species. Let’s look at this water bug as just one representative. Now, I’ve heard people refer to just about anything as a “bug,” from butterflies to earthworms (seriously!). But technically, a “true bug” is a particular type of insect with sucking mouth parts. Either as a member of the Hemiptera (“half-wing”) or specifically grouped as Heteroptera (“different-wings”), they all wear the mark of their clan on their back: a big X where the wings cross (one folded over the other). The leading portion of the wing (forewing) has a heavy, protective texture (it even looks like a shield!), while the trailing portion (hindwing) is thin and flexible. To my eye, this animal looks like a little, streamlined dinosaur. Fierce and beautiful.

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Water bug, ventral (belly) surface…sorry, I didn’t get a photo of the X-back.

If you visit this park, bring a snack. The wetland is on the lower part of the property, but near the street is the old farmstead. It’s a nice shady spot to rest, and you can even explore an old farm outbuilding. All in all, I’d call this an excellent spot to experience rural Iowa and its wetland life. Enjoy!!

“Land Without Soil Or Water”

DSC_0608Greetings from Mexico!

This is the first of several entries about my time in the Yucatan Peninsula, where I’ve been working as the visiting faculty member for my institution’s study-abroad program. I’m teaching classes on climate change and introductory environmental science, and of course I’m visiting wetlands when I can.

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Map by Kaldari [CC0], at https://commons.wikimedia.org

The Peninsula sticks up into the Gulf of Mexico (separates it from the rest of the Atlantic Ocean), and is almost exactly due south of Iowa. The land is karst: most of it is a very flat, limestone shelf. Supposedly early Spanish visitors referred to it as “a land without soil or water,’ because of the thin soil and exposed bedrock; that karst is very porous, so no lakes or streams/rivers exist, either. Much of the region is scrub-shrub (very open, dry habitat) punctuated with sinkholes/caves (some filled with water).

The southern part of the Peninsula rises into the Puuc Hills, and is more lush and forested. Our Program participants visited the Millsaps College Biocultural Reserve known by its Mayan name, Kaxil Kiuic. What a wonderful place, and doing really interesting and important work on archaeology, rural development, and conservation.

DSC_0659AND THEY HAVE A WETLAND! Because of the geology, not many wetlands exist on the Peninsula (except of course along the coast—watch for more about that in future posts). This wetland was made by the staff here, and for a purpose: this is a working wetland. Specifically, this system “treats” (cleans) wastewater. It’s especially important to use care with wastewater here—in this karst landscape, any polluted water will quickly find its way down into the groundwater, and the pollution will flow through it.

And any surface water is precious to wildlife. Lacking ponds or streams, any little puddle is effectively a “watering hole” and valuable to the animals here. We visited such a water feature, and were delighted in all the birds we observed during our short daytime visit.

Of course, this is the land of the Jaguar, and yes, they can be found here. You are most unlikely to see one of these cats, but tracks and scat tell the story—but now, camera traps can “catch” El Tigre as well. And a watering hole is just the place to do it.

DSC_0673I hope to visit this place again, and take a closer look at this little wetland. There’s much else to see at Kaxil Kiuic, too…and some wonderful people. In the meantime, watch for future posts of my wanderings in the Yucatan. Thanks for stopping by!!

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‚Äôs 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

Our Carbon, Our Wetlands, Our Future

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Carbon cycles around the biosphere. It may be stored as fossil fuel, then burned and released to the atmosphere, incorporated into plants or soil, dissolved in water, etc.

A couple weeks back, the United States Government issued a report on the threat posed by Global Climate Change. It made a lot of important points, but unfortunately much of the message was drowned out by reporting on President Trump’s unwillingness to fight, prepare for, or even acknowledge the threat of climate change. Lest you imagine the report as ramblings of tree-hugging, granola-munching, nature freaks…rest assured, the report is interdisciplinary and a collaboration, and focused on the threat to the health and well-being of the American people. And that threat is considerable.

Why think about a threat to the American people and society when contemplating climate? A little historical perspective might be useful, before we head to the swamp…

We’ve had climate change before, and it was incredibly disruptive. For example, a major immigrant group in the USA are those of Irish descent. A major factor in Irish emigration to North America was The Great Hunger (so-called potato famine) of the mid-1800’s. That event was the result of a fungal pathogen (blight), as is widely-known. Less-known is the contribution of climate: cool, wet conditions—and flooding—aiding the spread of the disease. This great human disruption, and all the historical ramifications, is due at least partly because of meteorological conditions.

More recently, an All-American diaspora happened with the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. As the name implies, great clouds of dust (wind-blown soil) blackened the skies and blanketed the cities of the East. This resulted from poor agricultural practices, but was triggered by an intense drought. It was mainly residents of the Great Plains affected, but also Iowa. And our nation was forever changed by this event—socially, economically, politically.

All in all, it’s obvious that climate disruption leads to disruptions of human society, too. Those examples are two of many around the world, localized or regional, demonstrating the danger of climate change; we would be wise to take heed.

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We have transformed the Iowa landscape (such as at the abandoned town of Owego, seen here). We have also transformed the carbon cycle with our land use and technology…but the change to the atmosphere is not visible.

Our science has improved steadily over decades, helping us understand the contribution of human activity to a changing climate. In short, we ARE changing the chemistry of the atmosphere (by adding carbon to it), and we know the increased carbon concentration changes the climate—to become warmer overall, but with many variations in effects, especially locally severe events. I have added my name to a series of statements about climate change, the most recent (2018) calling for buildings and other infrastructure to be designed with climate change in mind; we need to prepare for what climate change will do…or rather, is doing. (It’s no coincidence that the press conference was held in downtown Cedar Rapids, site of devastating flooding).

Now to the wetlands! Swamps, marshes, fens, and the rest—they affect, and are affected by, climate.

  • Wetlands store carbon, especially in soil or undecomposed organic material (peat), such as the spongy layer in a fen. Preserving intact, functional wetlands keeps that carbon locked up, and continuing growth adds more stored carbon.
  • Wetlands store water, a valuable service to lessen downstream flooding. (Climate change will mean more severe weather events, and worse consequences).
  • Climate change will impact biodiversity, so preserving the few remaining Iowa wetlands—in good condition—is even more important. Rare, threatened and endangered species of animals and plants are found more frequently in these wet habitats than might be expected by the area wetlands cover.
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Will climate change increase the risk of fire in ecosystems? It is a likely scenario.

What will climate change do to Iowa wetlands (or those in other places)? And what will our wetlands do to the climate? I’d like to explore those questions further. One important consideration might be decomposition processes: the decay of organic matter (such as tissues of dead plants) and the subsequent return of carbon to the air. I recently did a little trial run using the Tea Bag Index and shared with my Ecology class. It might be fun and useful to follow up on this in the future, including “tea bags” of a more traditional design: plant tissues from local sources placed in mesh bags (fashioned from window screen). Understanding wetland decomposition could provide useful insights into global carbon dynamics.

Two other recent episodes in my Ecology class also come to mind. This week, we are talking about chemical cycles in ecosystems—including the carbon cycle—and as we look at a box-and-arrow diagram in the textbook, I like to remind students that real ecosystems don’t exist in boxes—they are connected to the rest of the biosphere. Energy, water, chemicals, and even organisms move in, out, and through ecosystems, all the time. And we would be wise to remember our connections with the Earth’s ecosystems.

Also, we had a special visitor in class last week. Derek, a former student now employed by Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, came to recruit summer interns. Even better, as he described that worthy organization, he made a point of distinguishing what they do—stewardship—with the more typical idea of land or natural resource “management.” Indeed, we really should recognize that our predecessors bequeathed us a beautiful, life-filled planet to enjoy and be nurtured by. And we should care for, then pass along, a healthy Earth to those that follow us.

The Society of Wetland Scientists has asked us, the membership, to reach out beyond our group, reminding everyone of the significance of wetlands in climate change. We are asked to encourage you to take measures to address our shared carbon problem. Consider this blog post an invitation. What can we, together, do to raise awareness, and to help us work towards solutions?

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Our actions now, will shape the environment for centuries. Let’s work to make a brighter future!