River Stomping with ILF

As Dr. Tom Isenhart, Iowa State University Professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, tells his students,

“You can’t understand the health of our rivers by driving by in a car. You have to get down to the bank. Better still, get in the river…”

So we partnered with Tom this week to do just that with a group of our farmer leaders on a section of the Skunk River north of Ames.

The dozen farmer leaders from across the state were joined by members of our Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee and our summer college interns. Tom divided the group into four teams, upon which they donned boots and waders and got to work looking for the biological indicators of river health.

SouthSkunkRiverThe group was told to explore under branches along the bank, stir up the bottom, and capture the insects that might call that location home…

MattWaders

… pick up rocks and search the moss for insects…

Annie

Participants like southwest Iowa farmer Seth Watkins were not afraid of getting wet and going to deeper sections of the river where the little creatures would make their home.

SethIowa doesn’t get any prettier than the Skunk River was that day as intern Kate Sanocki and farmer leaders Craig Fleishman and Tim Smith would tell you. The water was clear and the bottom was rocky. Rumor has it that there are good smallmouth bass to be found here!

CraigTimKateParticipants were told to put their finds in insect collection receptacles (i.e. ice cube trays).

TrayJakeJim Gillespie, Director of IDALS-Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality, was heard to comment that he hadn’t done something like this since he was in college — that was a long time ago!

MattJimAfter about 45 minutes, it was with big smiles that the group left the river with their finds. Their job was not yet done.

SteveHTom put them to work identifying the insects using tools from IOWATER.

InsectIDThe group was happy to learn that they found macroinvertebrates such as caddisfly and stonefly that are pollution intolerant. Their presence suggested that this section of the South Skunk River is fairly healthy.

RickNathanThe crawdads they found belong in the “somewhat pollution tolerant” category. Tom pointed out that they make good smallmouth bass bait.

CrawdadsThis damselfly was as curious about us as we were about her. Damselflies belong to the somewhat pollution tolerant group and are good to find at our rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

DamselflyTom told the group that the health of a stream or river fluctuates by season and rainfall. During times of drought and floods, life on the river can be stressed. The Iowa DNR has put a lot of resources into making the Skunk River a healthier body of water.

While the group would have been content to stay at this beautiful stretch of the South Skunk River for the day, we headed on to our next stop at one of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands where Dr. Matt Helmers discussed the use of these wetlands as part of our new Conservation Learning Labs project (stay tuned to the blog for further information).

WetlandWe ended at the site of the very first saturated buffer in Iowa (possibly the world) along Bear Creek. Here the group asked Tom many detailed questions about how the buffers worked.

SaturatedBufferAll in all, the group had fun and asked great questions at every stop of the field day. The participants went away with a better understanding of river ecosystems and its relationship to our land management choices. Everyone returned to Ames grateful for the quality time spent near (and in) an Iowa river!

Jacqueline Comito