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

Somewhere, All Of The Time

DSC_0155A professor once explained the concept of Conservation of Matter using the truism “Everything has to be somewhere, all of the time.” Therefore water (and all other matter on Earth) can change form or location, yet is always still somewhere, and it is always, undeniably, water. That’s also why we should thoughtfully consider the hydrologic (Water) cycle, and the role wetlands play in that cycle.

In many parts of Iowa, the Spring of 2019 has been a challenge. Record flooding has occurred in areas, in some cases with catastrophic results—enough to be an official, declared disaster. But any flooding is a problem for the landowners or residents affected—it’s a disaster to you, when it’s your basement, field, town, or a place you live or work that’s flooded. The functioning of the water cycle has very real, even deadly, consequences.


This was on my mind as I recently drove around a very soggy northwest Iowa. Teaching at Iowa Lakeside Lab gave me a home base to see some really wet areas and the effects of flooding. For example, just a little east of the Iowa Great Lakes in Emmet County is Estherville, site of significant flooding by the Des Moines River. I believe these photos tell the story of sandbags and flooded roadways and what happens when “the river is up.” I took the photos while scouting for a trip to Fort Defiance State Park, located just outside Estherville. I was later surprised and relieved to find that the river flowing through the park, School Creek, was only a little high, and I could still work in it with my Aquatic Ecology students. How fortunate for us, but…why such a dramatic difference in the water near Estherville??

DSC_0165No doubt, many factors affect a river’s flow. I certainly don’t believe that wetlands are the only difference between the Des Moines River and School Creek at Estherville. Nevertheless, School Creek does in fact drain a large nearby wetland complex, Fourmile Lake. Recall from previous blog posts, how wetlands “smooth out” hydrology, absorbing large amounts of rainfall or snowmelt, and then slowly releasing it to groundwater or surface outflows. So if water has to be “somewhere, all of the time,” perhaps a wetland is a good place to be—as opposed to a “flashy,” flood-prone stream.

As it turns out, my students and I also discovered that this wetland complex is beautiful, and filled with amazing plants and animals. For example, we enjoyed catching inverts in our dip nets, seeing red-wing blackbird nests and adults, hearing marsh wrens call, and much more.


I’m not the only Lakeside Lab instructor to visit Fourmile Lake! You might consider checking out the work of my colleague Alex Braidwood of the amazing Artist-In-Residence program (Lakeside AIR).

Have you ever visited the Fourmile Lake wetland? Are you familiar with the flooding situation this year? Leave a comment or question! Thanks for reading…


Flamingos Fly; Us, Not So Much.

DSC_0336Last week, we visited the Yucatecan coastal town of Celestun; the study-abroad students and I had a great time seeing birds, especially the iconic flamingos. Unsurprisingly, I chatted with the group about the landscape and ecology of the place—I believe appreciating the science and history of place only adds to the aesthetic enjoyment and fun of travel.

But let me add to that a bit. At Central College, we believe education (including study abroad) is about more than the individual student. Our mission is to be a force for good: the world should be a better place because of what we do. I hope that many travelers aspire to a similar mission: enjoyment and memories, of course…self-improvement, hopefully…but even more, our travels can make human connections, benefit the people we meet, and support preservation and enhancement of special places.

Celestun is surely such a “special place.” So, it’s great that we spent time and money there: we enjoyed the birds we saw, and our excursion fare financially supported the boat skipper and therefore, the local economy. We ate lunch at a restaurant on the beach, so the food-service staff earned income from our visit. We can all feel good about that!

DSC_0363Nevertheless, I look ahead to the future with some trepidation. Mangroves and other wooded areas of the Yucatan Peninsula are under threat. The loss of those mangrove forests, and the carbon added to the atmosphere as a result, exacerbates atmospheric warming…which in turn will accelerate sea-level rise. As the ocean surface creeps up, the shoreline will creep inland, submerging coastal areas. I’ve spent pleasant times in and near the coastal city of Progreso, and worry how it will fare—the whole town is barely above sea level today.

We have committed the world to an altered climate, for decades to come. Will the flamingos survive the resulting changes? Actually, I imagine they’ll have an easier time of it than we will. They are migratory, moving east-west across the Peninsula during the various seasons; they follow food, find nest sites, and will naturally adjust their behavior “on the fly” as it were. When the environmenta changes, they’ll adapt.

But what about the locals I met during my visit? Of course, they’ll need to adjust, as well. I’m optimistic that tourists will still come, even if the flamingos don’t flock and migrate in the same way at the same times. Those fishing/crabbing this inlet or the nearby Gulf may need to change their equipment and techniques, but let’s hope the seafood is still there and plentiful. I’m cautiously optimistic about some aspects of climate change.

DSC_0298However, the change could be scary, and I hope we will wisely think ahead and make appropriate plans. Part of my work while in the Yucatan was teaching a seminar called Climate Change: North & South. Students wrote term papers, including some predicting and planning for the world they will inhabit. With ideas like how best to warn coastal residents about the hazards they face; helping communities make climate-disaster contingencies; anticipating and avoiding climate-related health risks…the students are smart and energetic. They give me hope! I hope you’re mindful and determined, too.

To finish up: may I humbly request your assistance? Please travel to wetlands and other natural features, near and far, and support those working in them or to preserve them. Talk to others about climate change, and encourage our leaders to acknowledge and respond to the threat. And share your joy and wonder about our beautiful planet…we all need that uplift, now more than ever! Leave a comment here, post to your own blog, work the social media…or perhaps take a young person for a little fun in the outdoors. Have fun!!DSC_0291

Strolling through the Mangroves

DSC_0159In my continuing adventures in the Yucatan Peninsula, I took a leisurely stroll in a mangrove swamp located just outside the coastal town of Puerto Progreso.

“But Paul,” you say. “Aren’t mangroves a tangled, impenetrable thicket growing in smelly, squishy, salty mud?”

Yes indeed! But THIS one has been adopted by the locals, and made into a popular tourist attraction (really!!). Let’s have a look.

DSC_0155We start at the visitors center, located on a busy road at the edge of Progreso. I took a taxi from the bus terminal downtown.

A couple of bucks and a five-minute boat ride gets you the easiest and most fun visit in mangroves you will ever have. The reserve has a channel cut into the swamp and a dock where your boat pulls up for your convenience. Step out onto a hard-packed, dry path through the swamp. You can walk right up to these amazing trees with their pyramid of trunks and roots…and never get your feet wet. Signs guide you around the site; benches and restrooms are available for your comfort. Heck, you can even buy bottled water or rent a hammock!

But most people come to visit the cenotes. These freshwater pools are formed by the unique geology of the Yucatan: the whole peninsula is a flat limestone shelf, with scattered holes revealing the water table below. Here, that fresh groundwater happens to spring forth in an otherwise salty mangrove swamp! These cenotes are all beautiful, and you may swim in three of the four (and perhaps birdwatch at the other).

The whole site is beautiful and comfortable. The local residents have created a fun, accessible attraction that is inexpensive and fun for the whole family. I heard about it in the local tourism magazine (Yucatan Today), and I hope it gains more notoriety and visitors. I want people to visit the swamp! I want folks here to benefit from these wetlands.

Regular readers of this blog know that wetlands are hard-working ecosystems, providing tangible benefits (cleaner water, reduced downstream flooding, a safer climate…) every day. The wetland’s neighbors may not receive as great a share of those benefits; how do we make sure they truly benefit, too? Those employed at this facility would obviously have something to say in that regard. But I also pondered other benefits as I dined on the beach at Progreso. These shrimp I enjoyed eating came from the water nearby; they were part of a food chain supported by…you guessed it, inputs from the highly-productive mangrove ecosystems. My delicious dinner (mariposas coco—butterfly shrimp with coconut breading) was a result of the work of the wetland. My purchase benefited the local restaurant workers and shrimpers…and I hope, encouraged everyone to protect the swamp. I look forward to visiting again in the future. I encourage you to do the same. Thanks for joining me!DSC_0197

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:

“It will result in the loss of many of the nation’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.”

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

I also recommend a 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 everyone  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.  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!


What Ding Taught Me…

Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A giant of Iowa wetlands, Jay N. “Ding” Darling, came to Pella’s public library last week…sort of! Actually, the actor Tom Milligan performed a one-man play (The Art of Conservation: A Visit with Ding Darling) in character as Ding, followed by Q & A about this noted artist and conservationist, as well as Tom reflecting on his acting craft. This is part of a Humanities Iowa series of performances bringing historical figures to life. It was a lot of fun, and I especially enjoyed learning about this Iowan who did so much for wetlands and for conservation overall. In some ways, Ding is a predecessor to this blog, and frankly many of the Iowa wetlands I visit wouldn’t exist today without his efforts. You can learn more details about Ding by reading an Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation blog entry here. Suffice it to say, he was more than an amazing (Pulitzer-Prize-Winning) political cartoonist. Ding did ground-breaking work for wetlands, and showed us how to do the same. Let me describe some valuable lessons I learned from Ding Darling.

Look Honestly At The Situation

I see hints of sentiment in Ding’s work, and he certainly had a streak of idealism. But he was a keen observer of the people around him, and the conditions of the land and the body politic, and he was ready to paint an honest picture of what he saw. In his cartoons, he called out Iowa’s terrible roads and poor government agricultural policies and other challenges of rural life. And no politician, great or small, was beyond his criticism or ridicule. He faced all the challenging issues of the day.

And he was in the right place at the right time to see a breathtaking transformation: a landscape converted, before his eyes, from a diverse native grassland to an intensely-cultivated, citied “breadbasket of the world.” In particular, he personally witnessed the squeezing out of the last pockets of native ecosystems—the lower, wetter spots—being accomplished with haste and fervor. Ding recognized the alarming disappearance of waterfowl associated with this activity, and took up the cause of saving and restoring the wetlands, and protecting their feathered life.

I hope that we, today, can be similarly clear-eyed and honest about the problems we face, and what it will take to meet our own challenges.

DSC_0250Partner Up

Ding was also realistic enough to understand that saving the waterfowl and wetlands would take a group effort. Attending conferences, meeting wildlife biologists, approaching VIPs, and lending his name to worthy efforts was a start. Helping found or foster new groups like More Game Birds in America Foundation (later called Ducks Unlimited) or the National Wildlife Federation, was important to aid communication, coordinate the work  and to built enthusiasm.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded folk was a good start, but Ding reached out to government agencies and their leadership. Frankly, it was difficult: the Federal government had a Bureau of Fisheries and the Bureau of Biological Survey within the workings of the Agriculture bureaucracy, whose philosophy and procedures were misguided at best; and an office too small and disorganized to accomplish the work. So Ding, against his better judgment I imagine, took on a reorganization into what we now know as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), with much success. He led the agency, reporting to an ultra-liberal Democrat (FDR) while Ding himself was a conservative Republican (and good friend to Herbert Hoover). So, it appears that Ding found a way to work with government, and political adversaries, in a productive partnership.

Saving the wetlands will require trained workers, and a system for identifying and cultivating the talent. So Ding worked with a preeminent wildlife biologist and educator, Aldo Leopold, in his efforts. Ding also looked in his own back-yard, reaching out to the leadership at Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) to create a program for educating our future environmental professionals.

I’ll give myself a mixed review on the task of partnership—I surely enjoy teaching our students, and take pride in their subsequent successes. But today more than ever, it’s important to find productive ways to work with government, private landowners, conservation organizations, the media, educators…we must team up to complete the work Ding started, to write the next chapter in Iowa’s wetland story (and give it a happy ending!). I’ll try harder to make that happen…and I hope you’ll join me.


You’ll Need Money!

Let’s be honest: useful knowledge, willing partners and good intentions will only take you so far. We need to invest funds in these efforts. Ding realized that, of course, and donated his own money to worthy conservation causes, and encouraged others to do the same. Beyond that we also need to reach for the public purse.

Even though his political instincts worked against it, Ding nevertheless realized that taxes raised and spent on worthy public programs was necessary. He believed studying and protecting our wetlands was one of those worthy endeavors. Ding worked the political machinery to get funding for the new USFWS so that it could accomplish its work—because an agency existing on paper alone was useless.

Challenging stakeholders to financially support the cause was also key. Several ideas for taxes (such as on ammunition) to fund wetlands conservation were proposed; Ding instead supported a more direct appeal: hunters would simply pay a fee to fund work providing for their sport. Thus, the Duck Stamp was born. And the very first stamp featured artwork by none other than…Ding Darling. It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?

1stDuckStamp (1)
The first ever Duck Stamp was designed by Ding Darling!

Art Makes Things Better…

The Duck Stamp is a fine example of Ding’s artistry. Famous for his political cartoons in newspapers, Ding’s political and social commentary is regarded highly. But his cartoons also included environmental themes, encouraging us to notice and protect our natural resources…including, of course, wetlands.

Art can also be richly symbolic, and Ding understood this power, using it to support the cause. He personally designed one of America’s great conservation icons, the Blue Goose logo for the USFWS. Its clean lines and sense of movement are modern and evocative; the subject matter says “we care for wildlife.” The logo looks great on letterhead, or a shoulder patch, or a sign along a refuge boundary. It’s just really, really good design.

OK, here’s the thing: I’m no Ding Darling! But I, and you, should enjoy art too. We all need art in our life! So take some creative photos at the fen. Sketch the cattails and red-winged blackbirds at the marsh. Write a poem about your walk through the floodplain forest. I’ll keep loving these Iowa wetlands, and encourage you to love the wetlands wherever you are. And while you’re there, take a moment to think of Ding Darling and his legacy. You’ll be honoring that legacy.


Rollin’ on the River

DSC_0020Let’s talk about The Big Muddy, The Mother of Waters, The mighty Miss…in other words, the Mississippi River. Steeped in history, vital to our Nation’s commerce and defense, and the eastern border of the State of Iowa. We’ve visited the river before on our 99wetlands journey, such as when we thought about how the river threatens the remarkable burial mounds of Native American/First Peoples. We pondered the river’s role in The War of 1812 which indirectly led to Federal protection of wetlands. In this blog entry, we visit the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish refuge. It is nothing short of remarkable: a migratory bird flyway of global significance, a Ramsar site, a vast watery complex spread across four States (Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin…and of course, Iowa) and absolutely huge, encompassing nearly a quarter-million acres (100000 hectares).

Obviously, that’s way too much area to properly explore in this short post. I will provide a brief glimpse by way of my visit to a couple sites in Jackson County. However, if you ever have the time…a nice drive along the Great River Road, or even a cruise on the water itself, would be an amazing adventure!




My first stop was the town of Sabula, Iowa’s only island-city; it was completely surrounded by the river when navigation and flood control improvements (lock-and-dam system) was installed in the first half of the 20th century. This short video by canoeists on a Mississippi River voyage is fun, and shows a bit of the town. It is small, and bordered by water and wetlands, including Refuge property. I chatted up a local resident who made the whole “island life” thing seem rather ordinary; perhaps because highway bridges connect to both Illinois and Iowa, it’s not really so isolated. She did confirm that many tourists come through, and that some are interested in the wildlife in the wetlands. Plenty of opportunities to fish, photograph, hunt, and just enjoy the water, including as docks, jetties, and picnic sites.

If you look at aerial imagery, or a map, you quickly understand that the wide floodplain is a mix of small islands representing sand or gravel bars forming the braided channel on the floodplain. Some islands are treed, others covered in marsh vegetation, others may be bare mud. The water levels and ecology of the system are dynamic, representing the combined action of the river flow (coming down from Minnesota, and the many tributaries feeding the river) as influenced…more or less regulated…by the series of Locks & Dams, each dam forming a pool. So, in fact, this is now less a river, and more a series of reservoirs.

It’s definitely a working system. The locks allow commercial traffic, most notably the barges joined together en masse and pushed along by tugs, mile after mile. House boats, speedboats, patrol craft, even replicas of old-time riverboats (see photo above). Along the river is a really busy rail line and numerous sidings and yards, and modes of rail/shipping combined facilities.

DSC_0011Among it all, fish swim, birds fly, and life goes on. The backwaters and island swamps and marshes in particular teem with wildlife. A great place to watch is just north of Sabula, at Green Island Wildlife Management Area. The drive up from Sabula offers twisting roads with elevation changes; at times you get a glimpse out over the floodplain. Driving down into Green Island WMA is like entering a major river delta, or vast glades. I saw birds like Common Gallinule among beautiful lush vegetation. Egrets and swans hid out in the Hibiscus, Lotus, Smartweeds, and Buttonbush. It’s a spectacular wetland wonderland.

These wetlands, and the organisms living there, are intimately connected to the river. This is true every day of course, but dramatically so during significant floods, most recently in 1993 or 2008 when this area would have been inundated: the peak flood stage was 22.5 feet and 21.5 feet, in those respective years. But these marshes are well-adapted to floods. Our cities? Not so much. Unfortunately, evidence suggests the floods are worse, and more frequent, with about 75% of the increase due to human alterations of the river. It’s worth remembering that wetlands help absorb floodwaters, and even help lessen downstream flooding, a fact I’ve discussed numerous times already in this blog.DSC_0007

But today, I drive along the roads in the floodplain, among the marshes, yet dry and passable. I climb the rise above the floodplain, looking back at striking views. It’s a treat to see the river and its wetlands from bridges and bluffs and twisting roads. It’s truly a journey through a unique landscape: a working industrial waterway with barges passing by and trains and docks and industry; wildlife flying and swimming all around; verdant islands and marshes; and of course, a wide, rolling river…one of the world’s greatest. Come visit some time.


Floodplain, Reclaimed

impassableMy recent 99wetlands forays, and other travels, have been hampered by the flooding in much of Iowa. For example, two approaches to a wetland in Keokuk County were impassable, causing me inconvenience as I rerouted, followed by uncertain road conditions near the site (thankfully, it turned out all right in the end). However my frustration or disappointment means little compared to what others face: as I write this (October 14), flood warnings are posted for major rivers all over Iowa, affecting counties across the State; the Iowa Flood Center has 72 active alerts from sensors. Large cities such as the capital and largest city, Des Moines, but also Quad Cities (Iowa/Illinois), Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, Muscatine, Burlington, and Spencer are among the areas threatened by this flood event. Many families and business will be disrupted.

Then, there are the farms. The timing is unfortunate, as many fields across the State are still not harvested, and now the weather has turned cold (including widespread freeze warnings). Most farmers really should bring in the crop now. The fields are so wet in many cases that it’s too soft to run machinery for harvest. But in extreme cases, it’s not mud in the fields…it’s standing water. I imagine when the water recedes, it will leave behind damage to the soil and plant that present problems. A quick on-line search suggests that floods so late in the season are unusual, and farmers will need to proceed with caution as the grain or silage may be spoiled.

DSC_0251“But Paul,” you say. “This blog is about wetlands—what does any of that stuff have to do with wetlands?” Three things come to mind, actually.

First, much of the low-lying areas at danger of flooding, whether town or farm or other land-use, are located on an important wetland type: floodplains. In several past posts, I have taken you to floodplain wetlands. In Van Buren county, we made the hydrologic connection, seeing the surface connections between a floodplain wetland and the nearby river. In Wright County, we understood past flooding by observing snarled drift hung up in tree branches above the stream channel at Snarl Street wetlands. Not far from Des Moines in Polk County, we saw oxbows and other river-related wetlands at Chichaqua Bottoms.

DSC_0194But one of the very first wetlands I visited on this project, I revisited last week: Maskunky Marsh in Mahaska County. In my earlier visit, I explained that the marsh is in the floodplain of the South Skunk River, and is inundated through a horizontal pipe set at an appropriate elevation—a so-called “French Drain.” When the river is high, river water backs up through that pipe, and into the marsh…and therefore, areas downstream will experience less flooding.

On this quite recent visit, I saw that we were way, way past that type of flood stage. Indeed, the river was exceedingly high, and was completely reclaiming its floodplain. Roads, buildings, farm fields…all under water. The whole floodplain was a broad river channel. In such extreme flood events, the river will not be denied its floodplain.


This brings me to my second point: wetlands reduce flooding. Despite the extreme situation I just described, please remember: it can be worse. When I give talks about wetlands and flooding, I start by reminding listeners of their science lessons from childhood school days. Remember the famous hydrologic cycle (a.k.a. Water Cycle)? Yeah, that’s still a thing! Think of it this way: every drop of rain or snow falling within the borders of the State of Iowa must go somewhere. That water can basically go up, down, or sideways. Some portion of water falling from the sky, returns to the sky, through plants pumping it up (transpiration) or air lifting it up (evaporation). Only a very small amount travels down to deep groundwater (aquifers tend to recharge slowly). So, a lot of the water will flow sideways (laterally), across the land’s surface to ditches or streams or lakes or rivers; or, infiltrate only shallowly into the soil, and then emerge into a streambed or other surface water. And too much of that lateral flow means flooding.

Wetlands help reduce flooding, because water is held in soil and vegetation, and ponds up in the basin (standing water). Then, the accumulated water will slowly re-enter the air, or be more slowly released into streams and rivers.

The other big role of wetlands in flooding is indirect, through the process of climate change. This is a rather complex interaction, and I intend to discuss it in more detail in later posts. Suffice it to say, climate change can, among other things, make more extreme weather—and that will include flooding. Meanwhile, wetlands may—generally will—reduce a major driver of climate change, atmospheric carbon. For example, the carbon stored in peat—such as at Becky’s fen—is carbon NOT floating around the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. So, there’s a connection: wetlands reduce our risk from climate change. Add that to the flood reduction effects, and it’s clear that wetlands are here to help…and we need that help.

Everyone, please stay safe. Be careful with our current flood threats. And let’s work on measures to prepare for future risks. May I humbly suggest: wetlands will help us face our challenges…let’s protect, restore, and enjoy our wetlands…and help them, help us.DSC_0204

Bang, Bang…you’re a wetland.

DSC_0619Sometimes a wetland is a wildlife wonderland; sometimes it’s a hard-working chemical transformer; sometimes a place of beauty and quiet contemplation.

Nahant Marsh in Scott County is a story of hard-won rehabilitation, and a warning of a toxic threat.

In the floodplain of the nearby Mississippi River, in the Quad Cities area (Davenport), Nahant Marsh is now a nature center. However, it was quite different in its past:  the property is a former  Superfund site. That means at one time, it was so contaminated that the EPA listed it for priority in clean-up. But unlike Iowa River Landing in Johnson County, this site wasn’t polluted by a factory or a mine; it was contaminated by sporting goods…specifically,  firearms ammunition (bullets, slugs, shot) made of lead. Nahant Marsh was a gun club. Countless rounds of lead ammo accumulated in the sediments (muck), eventually reaching a concentration so high it needed a difficult and costly excavation of the poisonous sediments to protect the water, soil, and organisms living there.

DSC_0608Today, you can learn of this toxic history from informative displays at the nature center. The college student intern was matter-of-fact about it, but clearly preferred to talk about what’s in bloom today, or his wildlife sightings. And of course, I saw wildlife too: the vista of the wetlands near the building is terrific for spotting herons, ducks, geese, and other wetland birds. Later I wandered the trails, viewed wildlife from a blind, and observed the water from a viewing porthole in the dock. The infrastructure brings us up close and personal with the world of the wetland. It’s a unique perspective, and a lot of fun to explore.

DSC_0613What could be more fun than that? How about friendly goats! I found these animals working hard, nibbling away at encroaching weeds and woody vegetation. Despite an electric fence, they came over to say hello, so I showed them a little love…how could I resist? Putting goats to work in parks (or, natural areas on private lands) is a growing trend…I’ve been hearing more and more about it. Seems like safe and effective weed management to me.

Having met the hard-working staff (2-legged and 4-legged), and read Nature center informative displays, I wandered around, relaxing and enjoying myself. I love the garden/play area for the youngsters. A woman and child were enjoying them while I visited, and they had borrowed a net to go work from the dock, too. I elected to commune with nature over food, so I observed waterfowl as I enjoyed my lunch at the picnic table.

DSC_0609I really enjoyed my visit! Despite a toxic legacy, the cleanup was completed, and the marsh has new life. Nahant is vibrant, and beautiful, and educational. We can call it a success story.

But…we haven’t really learned the lesson of Nahant Marsh; not yet. I wish I could say Nahant is an aberration, an isolated case of toxins at one site alone. Alas, we have a much, much bigger problem. So in my next post, I’ll write more about the toxicity that so threatened Nahant, and still poses a threat across Iowa and beyond. Please check back, next week.