IRR Service Squad: Perspectives on Iowa's rivers

posted by Guest Blogger on Thursday, July 20, 2023

Iowa Rivers Revival re-launched their Service Squad initiative in 2023, focused in Polk County. In this guest blog post, three Americorps members share their summer experiences. 

Katie Bowden

Katie Bowden stands in front of a brick wallMy experience working with the Iowa Rivers Revival Service Squad has been eye-opening to the condition of our streams and creeks here in Iowa - a creek that appears to be in good shape could be coated in plastic bags on the bottom. More often than not, there could be discarded plastic cups or wrappers hiding in the brush of the stream bank. Once you start looking for trash, your eyes begin to pick it out - the more you look, the more you find! Trash has become an all too familiar presence in our waterways, so being part of an organization that strives to improve upon issues like this has been very impactful.

One of the most rewarding parts of this experience has been seeing the tangible results of our efforts. Sometimes it’s hard to conceptualize how much trash we have removed from the creeks until it's piled high, tied up in garbage bags at the end of the day. Even the smallest pieces of plastic we pick up make a difference. It's jarring to think of all the trash that had been sitting in the waterways for months and the negative impacts it has had on the streams and its inhabitants. 

While physical pollution like trash is a big part of water quality issues, it is not the only problem plaguing our waterways. To further our understanding of the complexities of water quality issues, we have done water quality monitoring and chemical testing training through the Polk County Water Quality Monitoring Program. It was quite an informative experience to do the hands-on work for tracking pollutants like phosphate, nitrates, and chloride in the water.

Katie, Ava, and Amelia sorting bugs during trainingWe also completed the Save Our Streams water monitor certification program from the Izaak Walton League of America, a protocol that taught us how to identify benthic macroinvertebrates that live in the water. This learning experience has given me a newfound appreciation for even the smallest bugs, as they can provide insight on the quality and health of a stream. 

Ava Hohn

Ava Hohn in front of brick wallAfter starting my service term with Iowa Rivers Revival, I never have, nor will ever look at Iowa’s land or waterways the same way again. Working under Polk County Conservation super volunteers Mike Schaffer and Karen Stiles, we learned how to best plan and execute land and water-based clean-ups. Since then, trash I would likely have overlooked is now glaring me in the face. I simply cannot leave home without a bucket, grabber, and trash bag in my trunk for when I see trash off the clock – not if.

However, they have also shown us the undeniable beauty of our waterways in places where we would never know to look. There is something special about lopping through vegetation to get to a creek and wading in the water, shaded by a tall canopy and listening to Phoebe's iconic birdsong (listen here) that feels so serene compared to the adjacent urban parking lot.

Group with yellow vests surrounded by vegetationFurther, this program has allowed me to become more cognizant of the small actions happening around us that are visibly and invisibly impairing Iowa waterways. We know the most significant player invisibly impairing Iowa waterways is the agricultural industry. Unlike the detrimental runoff from agriculture, with our cleanup work, we can see firsthand how trash goes from being thrown out a car window to in the river or creek across the way. While it may feel daunting to get involved in advocacy for Iowa’s waterways, anyone can pick up or prevent litter to help clean up our watersheds and prevent toxic leaching from plastics, tires, or styrofoams. There is so much beauty to protect! 

Amelia Whitener

Amelia Whitener in front of a brick wall with colorful art displayedSince I was nine, I spent every summer camping on the Texas Gulf Coast. We kayaked, paddle boarded, and surfed; most importantly, I played in the water and searched for as many creatures as I could possibly find. My childhood love for water and ecology only got stronger as I grew up, and it was evident that I wanted to specialize in water quality as a future career. Working with Iowa Rivers Revival this summer has been a deeply enriching experience; I’ve been able to work with and learn from professionals in the field and help make a difference in the water quality locally.  

My first day doing a trash cleanup is one I will never forget. We were working Yaeder Creek along SE 14th Street in Des Moines, and I was so excited to get my muck boots on and get in the water. Even though we were picking up after other people’s messes, I was still amazed by the beauty of Iowa’s rivers and excited to start my summer term working to keep the rivers beautiful. 4 people in vests picking up trash in a creekAfter not much searching, we found some “big ticket” items at this location, including a tire stuck in a storm drain and a shopping cart buried so deep you could only see one of its wheels. We were determined to get the shopping cart out, and after about three hours of digging, we were finally able to pull it out and drag it up a hill to the nearby street to be taken away. Sadly, this would not be our last encounter with shopping carts or tires.  

Volunteers next to truck with bed full of trash from clean upDuring our cleanups, we’ve faced many moments where it feels like nothing will ever be fully cleaned, and it's as though the bits of styrofoam and plastic mock us. But seeing how much trash we collect at the end of the day is truly inspiring. While it’s exciting to find those big items, it’s even more important that we focus on the details and pick up the small tedious objects like cigarettes, plastic bags, and broken styrofoam cups. These little items have the power to be incredibly damaging to both the ecosystems and the water quality.  

The majority of Iowa’s rivers and streams lead to the Gulf of Mexico and impact the water quality downstream, ultimately leading to the dead zone. Kids, like I once was, deserve to play in clean, safe water. I’m proud to be a part of a team that cares so much about Iowa’s rivers and keeping them clean for people to enjoy in Iowa and beyond.

About the Authors

Katie Bowden is a summer Green Iowa AmeriCorps member serving with Iowa Rivers Revival. She studied Environmental Policy and Planning at the University of Iowa and is passionate about sustainability, conservation, and pollinators. 

Ava Hohn is a rising senior at Drake University studying Environmental Sustainability and Resilience who loves cooking, gardening, and all things outdoor recreation. This led her to begin serving Iowa Rivers Revival through the planning and execution of small to large clean-ups this past May when she joined Green Iowa Americorps’ summer of service.   

Amelia Whitener is a senior at Iowa State University studying environmental science. She is working with Iowa Rivers Revival through Green Iowa AmeriCorps this summer. She is from El Paso, Texas, a desert region that sparked her deep interest in water conservation. Coming from an area where water is scarce, Amelia developed an appreciation for this precious resource and a commitment to prevent its wastage.  

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