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…? šŸ˜‰

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

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 colleagueĀ  at Waldorf University. He is familiar with my interest in how wetlands function, especially how the presence of different plants may be important.Ā  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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The Waters Linger…

DSC_0285De Soto National Wildlife Refuge sits in an oxbow of the Missouri River, along Iowa’s western border. I visited in late October of last year, so I could X-off Harrison County on the 99wetlands map. It was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm. The migrating waterfowl were present in force, and I was enjoying myself, being right there and living in the moment.

Or, I was trying to. But memories of the previous spring’s flooding were ever-present. Trails closed, roads and culverts washed out, high water under the Visitor’s Center building. Perhaps the Redheads, Coots, and Ibis all benefited from the water sitting here and there on soggy fields. But I had heard all the trouble it caused to the Refuge personnel. Emergency conditions, and all-hands working to keep things safe and secure. Up and down western Iowa, areas along the river were inundated, and the effects will be felt for years to come.

But let’s be thankful for the good news. De Soto is a beautiful facility in the perfect spot: a major flyway for birds such as the iconic Blue Goose, symbol of the entire Refuge System. When I visited, they had (finally!) reopened most areas of the Refuge, including the terrific Visitor’s Center, complete with attractive and informative displays, helpful staff, and—as I was excited to discover—an excellent bookshop!! You should come visit.

The staff here, and all those living along the river, are inexorably tied to a mighty force of nature. It affords opportunities for recreation and trade. The waters are always changing as they flow; one day a lovely vista, the next a dangerous threat. But…we really shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders at the inevitability of flood risk. As regular readers of this blog have discovered, we humans have changed the very nature…of Nature. We have altered the drainage of Iowa’s surface, delivering more water, more quickly to streams—thereby increasing flood risk along this river. We are also changing our climate by dumping huge quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. Climate change is happening, and it includes alterations to the water cycle. Expect more flooding here at De Soto, and elsewhere across Iowa…and beyond.

DSC_0303In less than three weeks, I’ll head to my local caucus. We Iowans are the first Americans to express our opinion about those running for President. You can count on this: I’ll chat about climate change with my friends and neighbors who share my party affiliation, if an opportunity presents itself. I will urge those around me to step up to the challenge of climate, and call on our leaders to do the same. I hope that you’ll have that conversation in your caucus, or with a parishoner over coffee after church, with a friend at the pub, or through social media. Please…we need to talk about the future, about the climate, about our wetlands…and what we leave as a legacy. Let’s make sure our care and dedication are what lingers after us.

“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!!

Input on WOTUS rule…?

DSC_0195Americans are encouraged to provide feedback and guidance on a proposed change in how the Nation defines, and therefore protects, our wetlands. The comment period ends on Tax Day (April 15). I hope you’ll have your say!

At issue is how to define “Waters of the United States” (WOTUS) which are the lakes, rivers, wetlands, and similar water bodies to be regulated by the Clean Water Act (CWA). President Trump ordered Federal agencies to look at the issue, and propose a new rule to define and regulate WOTUS. The proposed rule and related information, including how to comment on the proposed change, and the written public comments already received, may be found on-line at those links. Readers of this blog might very well wish to input on specifics of the proposal, or simply express support for a particular point of view regarding the issue. (All public input is solicited).

A consortium of nine different aquatic-related societies issued a statement in December about this proposed change. None other than Iowa State University Professor and past President of the Society of Wetland Scientists, Arnold van der Valk, is quoted in the statement:

ā€œIt will result in the loss of many of the nationā€™s wetlands. This decision is shortsighted and counterproductive. It will significantly reduce the multitude of ecosystem services that these wetlands currently provide us at no cost. As a result the taxpayers will have to pay to build elaborate and expensive infrastructure to replace these free ecosystem services, such as flood reduction
and cleaning up polluted water.ā€

…and he is 100% correct. This rule will result in the Nation losing many wetlands, and all the services they render.

I also recommend aĀ New York Times article on the issue:

Regular readers of this blog have heard my thoughts on why wetlands should be protected, i.e. the various important work they do. New visitors (welcome!!) or those wishing a review might consider clicking on the “tags” in the sidebar for categories of “ecosystem services,” listed under Hydrology, Pollution, and so forth.

“But Paul,” you say. “How would a rewording of the definition of ‘Waters of the United States’ affect wetlands?” Because most of the wetlands in the USA will be protected (or not) through the Section 404 provision of the Clean Water Act. If wetlands are WOTUS, then the US Army Corps of Engineers must regulate their physical structure (“dredge and fill”) and the EPA must regulate their water quality. But if wetlands are not WOTUS, then…individual States may choose to protect them, or not.

DSC_0235Supposedly this new rule will “…increase predictability and consistency…” of wetlands regulations, and that certainly sounds appealing. But actually, since 1986 the Federal government has had a Rule about WOTUS that was, more or less, consistent and effective. In 1987, the Corps of Engineers published a Manual for determining what is/is not (i.e., delineating) a wetland based on that Rule. Although an Obama-era rule tweaked it slightly, the 1987 Manual, and the Rule it’s based on, has worked just fine. That’s over 30 years of practice—and this new Rule proposes to stick to it, with an important difference: adjacency.

The new Rule would require a wetland (as defined by the 1987 Manual) to be physically adjacent (“abut”), and connected to, a surface water body relating to other WOTUS (“jurisdictional waters”). In other words, a wetland must have a surface flow (in or out) connecting to a stream, river, lake, or other waterway already considered a WOTUS. That surface water flow or connection must exist in a “typical year,” not just a year with high water (i.e., flooding conditions).

I admire the honesty of frank statements in the Federal Register regarding what this rule is designed to do: eliminate protection for all wetlands not linked by a surface water flow to other WOTUS. Here are specific quotations:

(the proposed rule) would exclude isolated wetlands with only physically remote hydrologic connections to jurisdictional waters. Under the proposed definition, ecological connections alone would not provide a basis for including physically isolated wetlands within the phrase “The Waters of the United States.”

(the proposed definition) of “adjacent wetlands” and the categorical treatment of jurisdiction over wetlands adjacent to tributaries as proposed in informed by, though not dictated by, science.

Wetlands separated from other “waters of the United States” by upland or by dikes, barriers, or similar structures would not be adjacent and would not be jurisdictional wetlands under the proposed rule…

That last one is interesting. Several statements in the proposed Rule seem to suggest that even a wetland physically adjacent to a stream or lake will not be regulated, as long as you put up a barrier (like an earthen dam or berm) between the wetland and the adjacent WOTUS. You could even put in a pipe or culvert (because the wetland is so very wet…) and yet it’s no longer, legally, a wetland.

DSC_0119I encourage you to read the proposed Rule yourself, and/or those analyses linked above. And then, please consider weighing in with a comment on the proposed Rule. As you might expect, I plan to do so. This is a time we need to speak up. Our Government needs to know that we value wetlands (whether they do, or not). We must remind our public servants that whether a wetland is physically adjacent to a stream or not, it nevertheless DOES affect the hydrology of that stream. The wetland absorbs water that otherwise (even if by groundwater, rather than a surface connection) would contribute to downstream flooding. The wetland improves the water quality of the downstream WOTUS. So-called “isolated wetlands” simply aren’t isolated, and they do important work…but only if we allow them to exist!!

And beyond reacting to this specific government action, I hope we can think about the long-term future of our wetlands. Personally, I would like our Nation and its government to provide effective and uniform legal protection for all of our aquatic resources, including wetlands. I certainly believe in making that task as straightforward as possible for everyoneĀ  involved: landowners, regulators, and environmental professionals. How do we serve our citizens best? Protecting wetlands is surely part of that…so how do we get it done??

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.Ā  However The Commons can be ANY shared resource, such as harvestingĀ  from ocean fisheries. LittleĀ  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.Ā  …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 stateā€™s 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

The Wetland as Traffic Cop

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entrance near the south end of the marsh, along Hwy 110. Note the wood duck housing complex.

Last week, we visited the Twin Lakes in Calhoun County. We saw how a wetland adjacent to South Twin Lake sits at the base of a slope, catching silt, sediments, nutrients, and other substances in runoff. Wetlands naturally “clean the water,” as we have discussed many times. This week, let’s expand that idea a bit.

Little Storm Lake in Buena Vista county is not really a lake at all: it is a wetland adjacent to the northwest edge of Storm Lake, an actual (shallow glacial) lake. It’s a great place to think about a wetland “cleaning the water.”

In my Limnology class, I sometimes ask students to think of a lake as a giant container of water in which chemical reactions happen. Much like the glassware holding aqueous (watery) solutions in their chemistry classes, a lake will be affected by light and heat energy, circulation (that is, mixing), atmospheric pressure, and other inputs to the system from outside. Reactions in the water will depend on pH, dissolved gasses, and the activity of organisms. Particular chemical reactions all occur (or not) in that context. This “lake as a big glass beaker” mental image is then kept in mind as we discuss specific chemical parameters and reactions.

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access road leads in to water control structures, and forms a berm or dike

Then again, a wetland (like Little Storm Lake) is perhaps like a chemist, adjusting the characteristics of water entering the lake. It’s often said that a wetland “cleans the water,” but truly a wetland transforms chemicals in the water in ways we categorize as “cleansing.” For example, silts and sediments settle out of the muddy water, depositing (and slowly filling) the wetland; the water leaves the wetland “cleaner.” Phosphorus sorbs (adheres to) the silts and sediments, and so are removed from the water as well. Nitrogen is transferred from water to air, by an entirely different process—denitrification—and we’ll consider that next week. These are all examples of the “wetland as chemist.”

Little Storm Lake is a natural marsh, but it was recently extensively modified to move beyond that role as “chemist,” into a role as “Traffic Cop.” Much like a public safety officer directing vehicles safely and efficiently on roadways, this wetland is now equipped to direct the flow of water safely and efficiently. Let’s have a look!

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dueling water control gates

About eight years ago, the DNR partnered with the local lake association, non-profit groups, university staff and others to undertake a large wetland restoration (more correctly, engineering enhancement) and lake protection project. This Storm Lake page describes the project, and a DNR lake restoration white paper has more details (starting on page 17). The basic idea is this: construct walls (dikes), and channels or culverts (plumbing) store and move water as desired; they prohibit fish movement (ideally, keeping nuisance species like carp under control); and workers periodically dredge out the accumulating silts and sediments.

If a wetland like Little Storm Lake exemplifies the slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry” by the transformations cleaning the water, then this project now adds “Better Living Through Plumbing.” Water in this wetland can be adjusted to appropriately process high flows, normal flows, or even to drain the system of water. Drying out a wetland seems counterproductive, but an occasional decrease in water depth and even emptying (“drawdown”) encourages seed germination, facilitates maintenance, and kills off undesirable aquatic species. If the wetland (and adjacent lake) function is determined mainly through water dynamics, then this project provides a powerful tool.

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Probably a pumping station, although it also reminds me of a nuclear reactor. Cordoned off, so I couldn’t examine it well enough to know which.

Furthermore…let’s be honest: Iowa’s streams and rivers, such as the one flowing into this wetland (Powell Creek), carry a heavy load of runoff…and everything runoff brings. Wetlands are helpful—perhaps critical—in protecting our water quality. It’s a theme we’re considering in these weeks, with wetlands from three counties and an upcoming essay considering the challenge we face regarding Nitrogen in particular. I wish to address the news reports and controversy, and ask if wetlands might just help us solve the problem. Please come back in the coming weeks for that discussion.

In the meantime, if you’re near Storm Lake, check out the marsh. On the north side, near the intersection of state highways 7 and 110, you’ll find the Little Lake Discovery Boardwalk. Informational signs adorn a floating walkway among the cattail, and a tall tower provides a stunning view (complete with free telescope!). Admire the flora and fauna and another hard-working wetland…”at your service.”

 

 

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!

The Buzz About Bee Branch

DSC_0161Last week, I attended the Building Sustainable Cities conference in Dubuque (Dubuque County), held at the convention center down on the Mississippi River. A few blocks away is the Bee Branch Creek restoration project, an innovative public-private partnership designed to address both the problem of recurring flooding in this urban neighborhood, and also provide a better standard of living and improved community life for its residents. Strategic use of small wetlands in Bee Branch Creek is part of this exciting success story! I learned that story during a bicycle tour on a recent beautiful autumn day.

We started at the end of the line: the downstream portion—Lower Bee Branch. Our first stop was at a small pavilion overlooking a large detention basin—a sizeable reservoir for floodwater. Near the inflow to the basin (that is, where the creek enters the basin) are floating wetland islands. A series of these islands are found along the creek as we head upstream. Allow me to quote from the project website:

The project consisted of 14 floating islands of various sizes with a total combined area of 2,674 sq. ft. The buoyant raft structures are made from a 100% recycled BPA-free PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic. This is the same plastic used to make plastic bottles. The islands in the Bee Branch Creek kept around 67,000 plastic drinking bottles out of landfills! The islands are planted with aquatic vegetation such as Sedges, Wild Rye, Blue Flag Iris, New England Aster, Marsh Marigold, Swamp Milkweed, and Cardinal Flowers. The islands are anchored to the bottom of the creek so they can adjust to the changing water level.Ā The plastic raft material and suspended root systems create an ideal growing surface for bio-filmĀ and microbes to break down pollutants such as phosphorus and nitrogen that cause odor and algae issues.

The vegetation was a bit faded when I saw it (to be expected in October in Iowa), but still pretty. I hope to go back and see them again in other seasons.

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We biked through industrial areas and busy roads until we reached the old neighborhood at the heart of the project—the community which had been so challenged by aging infrastructure, declining socioeconomic status, and repeated flooding. A run-down brick warehouse and scrapyard symbolized the old, decaying urban environment.

DSC_0165A short distance away, one enters a different world: an example of what a rejuvenated urban neighborhood can be. An attractive sign tells the story of this remarkable transformation.

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The educator in me loves the use of maps and graphics to draw in the reader, and I hope and believe that engaging the visitor in the history and science of the project will aid in its appreciation. There’s even a list of action items for those wishing to do their part.

Our tour guides explained that in fact, a great deal of time, money, and effort were required to make this happen. It required sacrifices from residents as well. But now, those living in the area can really enjoy their waterway. They take pride in the fact that residents of other, tonier neighborhoods come here to enjoy these amenities. I saw walkers and bikers on the path running through the site. Children climbed on the structures and refreshed at the drinking fountain. During part of our tour, local youth joined us on their bikes and skateboard.

DSC_0176Along the way, we saw areas of lawn or sidewalk covered by silts and sediments from flooding; a portion of the path had just been reopened, in fact. The project was doing its job: Bee Branch was flooding in a more acceptable manner. I believe that clever use of wetlands can help clean other streams and rivers, and ameliorate flooding elsewhere too. The flora can beautify a neighborhood, and help citizens enjoy their natural environment. Having people walk their dog, sit on a bench, enjoy live music or kids playing outside, are all ways we can connect and build community, and make our cities–and our lives—better. We can choose to celebrate our wetlands, and enjoy the many benefits they provide, including enhancing our municipalities—as we saw at Coralville, for example. It’s time to work with, and celebrate, our wetlands. I hope you’ll join me!DSC_0178