Sharing a video…

My colleague and friend Anya suggested that I share this video by the nearby Army Corps of Engineers office. It’s less than three minutes in length, and sort of summarizes my main talking points from this blog.

“But Paul,” you say. Why don’t YOU make videos? Well, I’ve made a couple, actually, but not (yet??) about wetlands. In a few weeks I’ll write up a post about this 99wetlands experience, and a vision for What Comes Next. If you have ideas…please share!!

The Wetland Remembers When

DSC_0256Visiting Little Rock River Wildlife Area in Lyon County called to mind the old country tune “The Song Remembers When” by Trisha Yearwood (Edit: not Martina McBride, as originally posted…sorry!). It’s a melancholy tale of lost love, and played in my head as I was walking on ground that surely had an ecological memory, of a wetland now gone.

This story needed to be told eventually on this blog. Upon hearing about my plan to profile a wetland in each of Iowa’s 99 counties, I was often asked “will you be able to find a wetland in every county??” Actually, my biggest concern was access: would there be a wetland on public property, or where I would be granted permission to visit? But what about the wetlands that simply aren’t there?? I knew at some point, we needed to talk about wetlands lost through human action (filling or draining the wet ground). It’s an all-too-familiar story across Iowa, where over 90% of wetland area has been lost. And my observations suggest that, although we do build wetlands, we are not finished removing them, either.

DSC_0257At this particular location, I found prairie and a food plot for wildlife (standing corn from last year) on the public ground. At the base of a nearby slope was a wet area, bisected by the fence marking the property line between county land and a recently-plowed farm field. This fence ran straight through what I believe was historically a wetland. On one side, we had grass, mostly matted down and silted; a layer of algae,  mostly dried and bleached white. In the farm field on the other side, we had…mud. Black, rich, well-plowed mud. Deer and bird prints dot the sticky wet surface.


Back on the public ground, at a similar elevation, I noted a wet area bisected by tire tracks. The vehicle had obviously sank low in this other wet spot, leaving deep ruts from the tires. A few scattered wetland plants (sedges, dock, cocklebur) grew from the bare mud. In the deep tire ruts, in the open water, swam familiar amphibian larvae.

“But Paul,” you say. “How can those tadpoles/pollywogs survive when that water dries up, as it soon surely must?” Indeed, these little black tadpoles must develop quickly—and so they do! Unlike our frog tadpoles which can stay larval for years, these American Toads (Anaxyrus americanus) will grow legs, lose their tail, and leave the water in perhaps two months.


So, this might be a challenging place to live. A short-lived “emphemeral” habitat with standing water for a few weeks to (at most) months. It’s also likely that historically, the spot would flood some years and not others—we’ve discussed variable or intermittent hydrology in other posts. This naturally-variable habitat has then, at this spot, been modified by humans—thus adding new challenges to the ecosystem. We might even ask,  have we in some sense “broken” the system beyond repair, or could it somehow still function, ecologically? Despite whatever modifications we make to the habitat…the memory of wetland persists. The soil characteristics, the soggy conditions, and the biota all remember. Insects, algae, and even amphibians can successfully inhabit this place. These are memories worth preserving, and when possible, recalling and celebrating.

Iowa Wetlands-The Talk

99_profileToday (Monday Sept 18, 2017) we have our inaugural presentation for a new Central College lecture series. This year’s theme is Water, and the first speaker is me!

Guess what I’m talking about…?

If you are near Pella, come to the Boat/Moore rooms of Maytag Student Center on campus. Talk begins at 7:00 Central time.

If you wish, you can watch a live stream of the talk by following this link. Later, that link will access a recording of the presentation.

The PowerPoint from the talk is stored on a Google Drive, linked here.

Thanks for your support of 99wetlands.

Osceola County: Rush Lake

A wetland at the Top Of Iowa seems like a good place to talk about…wind! The highest spot in the state (Hawkeye Point) is about 10 miles from this shallow lake/wetland outside Ocheyedan, in the far NW part of the state. The landscape nearby is dotted with wind turbines (did you know that Iowa is a leader in both wind energy production, and turbine manufacturing??). DSC_0014[1]

Rush Lake has a fringe of emergent vegetation (i.e., plants growing up from the water), presumably the shallow edge of the basin. The central area is open water. This is a sizable lake (about 350 acres/140 hectares) and in open country: wind-swept, no doubt. So…how are the “rushes” at Rush Lake affected by the wind? From a plant’s point-of-view, is the wind a blessing, or a curse?


The clear answer is “Yes.” First, it is almost certain that wind is the reason those “reeds” (actually, Cattail, Typha) found this wetland in the first place. A cattail seed is attached to a bit of fluff, appearing under a microscope like a parachute. Wind-borne seeds blow everywhere, colonizing any newly-formed wetland (or ditch, or mud-puddle). All that wind blowing across the lake also helps oxygenate the water, and that aids the plant’s metabolism (all those cells down in the mud need oxygen, as so many cells do!).

The downside is the kinetic energy of that blowing wind; at times the wind moving across the water creates destructive wave action. I noted a section of interwoven cattail, torn from its mat and bobbing about in the open channel (visible in the photo above). A stiff wind blowing consistently across a water surface, can set up a considerable physical force, so these plants must literally contend with the force of nature. Their narrow, smooth, flexible leaves move well in the air and water currents. Quickly rooting wherever the wind plops the plant, is another important adaptation.

In the end, the wind is gonna blow, and we must all adapt. I can report that the Cattail is doing all right, here at the Top Of Iowa.

Can I find 99…??


While explaining the 99wetlands blog concept to a friend, he asked a pointed question, expressed with genuine concern: what if you can’t find a wetland in one or more of Iowa’s 99 counties?

Actually, that’s a legitimate consideration! According to government reports, the country has lost over half of its wetland area, often for conversion to agriculture—in other words, drained to plant row crops, orchards, or pasture grass. And as you might predict, Iowa is a leader in this landscape transformation, with an estimated 90% wetland area lost.

Still, a county is a fairly large area: a typical Iowa county is maybe 500 square miles/1300 square kilometers. I’m fairly confident I can find at least one wetland in each county.

“But Paul,” you say. “What if the only available wetland is small, or weedy, or drained, or just not very appealing? How can you blog about that?” My goal with this project is to share, to educate, to tell the story of the wetlands. Sometimes the stories will be happy and beautiful, and sometimes not. I just believe there’s something worth learning from each wetland, and I want each to tell those stories.

Of course, some blog entries will not be about specific wetlands, but instead general topics…like this one! I encourage you to keep the questions and conversation going.

Thanks for reading!

What is a wetland?

1987manualA wetland is an ecotone: the gradient between two different types of ecosystems. It is ecologically transitional between terrestrial and aquatic, with characteristics of each. So that’s an ecological definition.

However in the United States, we need a legal definition, because these ecosystems are protected by Federal law, and we need a way to draw a line around the system to know what we’re regulating. That legal definition is:

“Those areas that are inundated or saturated by surface or ground water at a frequency and duration sufficient to support, and that under normal circumstances do support, a prevalence of vegetation typically adapted for life in saturated soil conditions.
Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas.”

…and that is included in the US Army Corps of Engineers 1987 delineation manual. It says, step-by-step, how to draw a line around a wetland (de-line-ation). Voila!

“But Paul,” you say…”how exactly does one determine whether a spot really would have saturated soil and support wetland vegetation?” Well friend, that’s no small task. And it takes considerable education and training to do that work. But don’t despair! Here at 99wetlands, I’ll help you navigate the ecology and regulation of wetlands, regaling you with thrilling tales of hydrophytic vegetation, field indicators of inundation, and probing those stinky, mucky soils! Yay wetlands!!


First blog post: why blog?

Need to start somewhere…

Why am I blogging? I’m hoping people will read this, and be inspired to learn more about wetlands, visit natural areas, and talk to others about science and nature. I also just want to share cool stuff that gets me excited, and start conversation.

Wetlands are an excellent springboard for lots of conversations. How do we study Nature? What can science tell us about what an ecosystem is, and how it works? What are distinctive aspects (history, geography, chemistry, biota…) about these places? Why are wetlands valuable? (What can wetlands do for me?)

Why now? Because I find I’m enjoying writing. Because scientific societies to which I belong (Ecological Society of America,  Society of Wetland Scientists) are encouraging members to reach out to the media and individual citizens, educating and encouraging more engagement with nature. And I truly believe that wetlands are beautiful, can help us clean up our messes, and are worth protecting and celebrating.