Staying together and sticking it out for stream monitoring in Story County

posted by Guest Blogger on Friday, July 22, 2022

Volunteers in Skunk RiverI approach water quality monitoring the way some people approach an amusement park or an all-you-can-eat buffet. "If we're gonna do this thing, let's make it worth our while."

If you are monitoring a stream with the expectation of tracking progress (or lack of it) in your watershed, you may be disappointed.

I got involved in water quality monitoring because my organization Prairie Rivers of Iowa had been working with farmers in the Ioway Creek watershed, and we wanted to know if the woodchip bioreactor and cover crops that they had planted in Boone, Story, and Hamilton counties were translating into lower nitrate and total phosphorus levels in the creek. 

Phosphorus testing

I wasn't expecting big improvements after just three years, but I was shocked to discover that even with twice a month samples processed by a certified lab, even if the pace of conservation picked up, we could be waiting decades for a conclusive answer. Many Iowa streams can go from crystal clear to muddy brown and back in a few days, and if you're only testing 12 or 24 days a year, by chance you might catch too few or too many of those muddy days, making it look as if phosphorus is getting slightly worse when it's really getting slightly better, or vice versa.

Once you acknowledge that difficulty, you can find ways around it.  Nitrate and turbidity can be monitored in real time with sensors. It's possible to control for weather and get at underlying trends with the right study design, or with the right statistical analysis.

Glass of muddy creek water with creek in background

Or you can focus your resources on learning other things. We tested E. coli in streams that had never been assessed by the DNR and learned that the Impaired Waters List is just the tip of the iceberg. We've helped residents understand the relationship between their neighborhoods and local creeks. We've estimated how much nitrogen farmers lost down Walnut Creek in the month of May and how much it would cost to replace ($11 an acre). We've identified nutrient hot spots and narrowed down bacteria sources.  And regardless of how we use the data, getting people in the creek is a fun and eye-opening experience!

Farmer at field day eventThere is no question that in Story County, we're doing this thing. When budget cuts forced the Iowa DNR to shut down their long-running citizen science program, several groups stepped forward to ensure that volunteer stream monitoring continued in our area. 

The Ioway Creek Watershed Coalition offered experienced volunteers, Story County Conservation offered supplies and volunteer coordination, the Izaak Walton League offered training and a database, and the City of Ames offered laboratory services.

My organization facilitated meetings among these partners to develop a ten-year plan for water monitoring, and invited staff from some smaller communities (Nevada, Gilbert, Huxley) with drinking water and wastewater projects in the works to join the conversation. We received financial support from those partners plus the community foundation and the soil and water conservation district. By the end of the first year, 17 volunteers had signed up to test streams all over the county. Now there's a waiting list.

Kids in creek

I must admit, after finishing the report for our 2021 monitoring season, I felt like someone who had ridden too many roller coasters or eaten too much at the buffet. Maybe we shouldn't have started a water monitoring program during a drought. Maybe I could have done without the load-duration curves. But then it rained and I got to help some kids catch crayfish and mayflies, and my confidence has returned. This locally-led monitoring program is worth the effort!

About the Author

Dan HaugDan Haug is the Water Quality Specialist for IEC Member Organization Prairie Rivers of Iowa, a not-for-profit organization based in Ames. He holds an M.S. in Water Resources Management from the University of Wisconsin.

  1. clean water
  2. member org
  3. nitrate pollution
  4. nutrient reduction strategy
  5. phosphorus pollution
  6. water quality

About The Author

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