A Paddler’s Perspective

NOTE: Today’s guest blog post was written by water resources intern Sam Phillips. He is starting his junior year at Iowa State University in Agricultural Engineering (Land and Water Resources option). Originally from the Manchester area, Phillips is an avid and active outdoorsman!

My whole life I have had a passion for being outdoors and exploring new places. One of my favorite ways of doing this is by paddling and fishing Iowa’s rivers. This past weekend I had the opportunity to float one of my favorites, a stretch of the Yellow River starting in Volney, Iowa.

MeetTheInterns-SamIt had recently rained and when we arrived at the put-in we could tell immediately. According to the USGS it was flowing at around 425 cubic feet per second, nearly three times faster than usual this time of year. This huge influx of water had torn massive amounts of sediment from its usual place and brought it into the river. The normally clear stream now looked murky brown.

In my classes at Iowa State and over the course of this internship I have learned about sediment being the number one pollutant in Iowa’s rivers and lakes. While Iowa is rightfully known for its world class soils, that resource becomes a hindrance when it gets misplaced into our waterways.  I’ve also learned about the countless conservation practices being used by farmers and other landowners. Some I knew about before, but I never really took notice until I started thinking about their functions.

YellowRiverWhile going down the Yellow I paid much closer attention to these practices. Along the banks there was riprap (essentially large rocks) to keep water from eroding away the land and buffer strips to filter out runoff. I got out at a sandbar and looked at nearby fields. There was lots of no till and conservation till to protect topsoil from rainfall. On hills in the distance there were beautiful terraces. While these couldn’t stop the river from getting dirty temporarily, they surely will help it return to its normal clarity sooner.

A single one of these practices would not be able to stop sediment from reaching the Yellow River. However, a strong combination of conservation practices from in-field to edge-of-field all the way to the riverbank can make a huge difference.

Even though the high water prevented me from catching the fish I came for, I enjoyed seeing the trip from a new perspective!

Sam Phillips

Wetlands and Water Quality

Wetlands are often viewed as filters, or kidneys of the landscape, and that’s for good reason as they have great potential for improving water quality!  Today let’s dig in and investigate how wetlands help to improve water quality and the mechanisms at work to make that happen.

Wetlands can be strategically placed to improve water quality through the removal of nutrients, specifically nitrate, like the wetlands in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). Water enters these nutrient removal wetlands coming from a series of tile drains, often carrying a substantial load of nitrogen in the form of nitrate.

As water moves slowly through the wetland, microbes breathe in and consume nitrate (NO3), the way humans use oxygen when we breathe and respire, converting the nitrate to inert N2 gas (comprising 80% of the atmosphere).  This process is called denitrification. In turn, cleaner water is sent downstream. 


Put simply, these wetlands are strategically designed and placed to allow the natural microbiology to happen – the microbes are doing all of the heavy lifting! These nitrate removal wetlands are ideal locations for denitrification to occur because they provide saturated anaerobic soil conditions, and the system is supplied with a source of nitrate from agricultural drainage water. Aquatic plants and wetland soils provide surfaces on which those microbes live, in addition to providing organic carbon to help maintain growth and metabolism of the denitrifying microbes. Strategically designed and sited wetlands can reduce nitrate loads to downstream water bodies by 40-70%.

Hear more about this process from Dr. Bill Crumpton and others in our award-winning video Incredible Wetlands:

Sediment Capture
Wetlands can also improve water quality by slowing the flow of water and capturing sediment, if the contributing water is coming from overland flow.  When the velocity of water slows down, as in wetlands, sediment is unable to stay suspended.  Think of it like a salad dressing with herbs and spices … when you give it a good shake, it gets well mixed throughout, but after letting it sit for some time, the herbs/spices sink to the bottom.

The same thing happens in wetlands.  When the speed of the water slows down, the suspended sediment (soil) particles gradually settle to the bottom where wetland plants hold the accumulated sediment in place, again sending cleaner water downstream.


Role of Wetlands in Nutrient Reduction Strategy
Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy lays out several different scenarios of conservation practices in which the targeted 45% reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus can be achieved.  Wetlands play a really key role in reaching those goals, particularly on the nitrogen side of things!  One of the combined scenarios of practices calls for ~7,600 wetlands strategically placed for nitrate removal.  There are currently 77 CREP wetlands across the state of Iowa, with others in the works.


The amount of human and financial capital to reach these goals is huge, but we continue to make forward progress in increasing the number of wetlands acres (see last week’s blog post, Wetlands: By the Numbers, for more information about ongoing wetlands restoration efforts).

Check out our previous posts celebrating American Wetlands Month:

Stay tuned next week for the fun tools and techniques we use to help teach young people about the amazing benefits of wetland ecosystems on our landscape!

Ann Staudt

Guest Post: River Restoration

Rosalyn Lehman, executive director of Iowa Rivers Revival, is our guest blogger.
She offers solutions to restoring stream banks on Iowa’s rivers and streams.
Watch her Oct. 21 webinar live at 1 p.m. by logging on at: https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/ilf/

You can watch the recorded webinar after Oct. 21 by clicking the link
on the ILF webinar archive page.

Project AWARE 2010 025

How can I fix my eroding streambank?

Protecting the condition of Iowa’s soil and streams are essential for a thriving economy, healthy environment, and quality of life experiences. Natural river restoration practices are an affordable and practical solution for addressing streambank erosion across Iowa.

Eroding streambanks can mean the loss of crop buffer areas, productive farmland, and local infrastructure (i.e. bridges, roads, trails), as well as a major contributor of sediment and nutrients to our water. Standard engineering practices for keeping streambanks in place often calls for extensive armoring using riprap revetments or other expensive approaches with questionable long-term results. “Softscape” restoration approaches can enhance streambank stability at a fraction of the cost. Understanding river dynamics can lead to much more cost-effective, sustainable, and natural results while protecting land and infrastructure, improving water quality, reducing flood effects and enhancing fish and wildlife.

Natural river restoration is complex and starts with asking what a river would do naturally. Iowa Rivers Revival advocates for an Iowa River Restoration Program that would provide guidelines, criteria, cost-share, training, and the expertise necessary for protecting Iowa’s landscape, streambanks and river ways. Currently, Iowa lacks these resources to offer natural river restoration opportunities to landowners and communities across the state.

Natural river restoration provides many benefits to landowners and the surrounding community. It:

  • Offers affordable and sustainable options to reduce streambank erosion.
  • Keeps productive cropland and stream buffers in place.
  • Protects local infrastructure such as bridges and roads from erosion and flooding, and reduces taxpayer expense to repair, replace and maintain.
  • Improves water quality by reducing sediment and nutrient loads into the stream.
  • Reduces flooding and flood effects.
  • Enhances aquatic and riparian wildlife habitat and ecosystem.
  • Improves river recreation, fishing, and hunting – boosting local economies and providing public health and quality of life.
Interstate 94 protection-before

Streambank before “softscape” restoration.

Interstate 94 Protection- After

The same streambank after restoration.

Iowa Rivers Revival is a non-profit, statewide organization dedicated to river education and advocacy. IRR is working with Iowa’s towns, policy leaders and river lovers to restore our waterways as beautiful, safe places to for residents and visitors to enjoy, work and recreate.

Helpful links:
River restoration background:  http://iowarivers.org/legislative/river-restoration/
River restoration fact sheet:  http://iowarivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/River-Restoration-web.pdf
River basics fact sheet:  http://iowarivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/IRR_River-Basics-web.pdf
Des Moines Register op-ed (March 1, 2013):  A Call to Iowa to Revive Our Rivers


Contact: Rosalyn Lehman, executive director, Iowa Rivers Revival, rlehman@iowarivers.org; 515.724.4093

Raining Cats and Dogs

Earlier this summer, I shared a Dog Blog in which J-Dog and I explored the stream bank restoration and watershed improvement work done along College Creek here in Ames.

On Saturday night into Sunday morning, we were hit with a healthy dose of rain: 4.20” reported by the National Weather Service, with amounts upwards of 6” reported locally. Join us on another walk to see how the College Creek restoration efforts are holding up when really put to the test.

Conservation Dog Jackie checking out the creek as the waters rise

Conservation Dog Jackie checking out the creek as the waters rise

What is usually a quiet stream practically narrow enough to walk over in places, College Creek turns into a fast-moving, churning stream after a 4+ inch rain.

Usually a quiet stream practically narrow enough to walk over in places, College Creek turns into a fast-moving, churning stream after a 4+ inch rain.

As part of the restoration efforts, a combination of trees, shrubs, native grasses, and forbs are being used to protect College Creek from sediment and nutrient loads from the surrounding watershed.

The riparian buffer appears to be doing its job well!  While the force of the moving water has laid down many of the grasses along the stream’s edge, this dense vegetation is providing ground cover and protection from erosion along the stream banks.

The riparian buffer appears to be doing its job well! While the force of the moving water has laid down many of the grasses along the stream’s edge, this dense vegetation is providing ground cover and protection from erosion along the stream banks.

In addition to bank stabilization, these buffers also add great beauty to the neighborhood.

College Creek’s riparian buffers include trees, shrubs, native grasses, and forbs. Native vegetation, such as the grayhead coneflower shown above, also supports healthy populations of pollinators!

College Creek’s riparian buffers include trees, shrubs, native grasses, and forbs. Native plants, such as the grayhead coneflower shown above, also support healthy populations of pollinators!

One happy husky, even during the dog days of summer…

One happy husky, lovin’ the dog days of summer…

While I don’t have any photographs to document it, the neatest part of the walk was an up-close-and-personal encounter with a great blue heron, fishing right along the edge of College Creek, just minutes from my door.

The husky wanted to befriend the heron much more than the heron cared to meet the husky.  This prompted the heron to quickly take off in flight – so graceful, and at the same time, so awkward – quite the moment to experience.

Ann Staudt

Pummel in the Prairie (Cruse vs. Helmers)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning and welcome to the greatest slow jam battle in history! This is without a doubt, the greatest pound-for-pound bout we’ve seen this side of the Mississippi, and promises to be a classic in every sense of the word.slowjambattle

In the red corner, we have the man known by many as The Soil Whisperer. He is an Iowa State University Professor of Agronomy and undisputed champion of all things soil, Rick “The Soil Savant” Cruse!

And in the blue corner, we have a gentleman that needs no introduction, but we’ll give him one anyways. The Dean of Mean, Iowa State University Professor of Agricultural & Biosystems Engineering, and too many other titles to mention, Matt “Wise Guru of Water” Helmers!

This bout consists of one 5 minute round to slow jam their respective topic. At the end of the bout a winner must be chosen.


Red corner


Blue corner


Let us know who “won” through feedback on the blog or through Twitter @WaterRocksISU

Dog Blog: Scoping out urban conservation practices

Join J-Dog and me on our walk as we take a look at several urban conservation practices happening in the neighborhood!

Leashed up, ready to rock and roll!

Last week, I shared my #1newthingforwater for 2015 – working with my HOA to repair several areas on the property that have experienced significant amounts of erosion, and working to get new vegetation established there. Let’s take a look at where things are at now…

We're starting to get some growth here on this slope

We’re starting to get some nice growth here –  this slope used to be completely barren!

Close-up shot

Close-up shot of new grass establishment


We have many different walking routes through the neighborhood, but one of our favorites runs along College Creek.  Iowa State University and the City of Ames partnered on the College Creek Restoration Project several years back (read more on the City of Ames Smart Watersheds page – you’ll have to scroll down a bit to get there).  Take a look at College Creek today!

A combination of trees, shrubs,

A combination of trees, shrubs, native grasses, and forbs are being used to protect College Creek from sediment and nutrient loads from the surrounding area.  In addition to stream bank stabilization, these buffers also add great beauty to the neighborhood.


Five adjacent homeowners agreed to participate in a

Five adjacent homeowners agreed to participate in a stormwater garden research/demonstration project with Iowa State University and the City of Ames.  Established in 2008, these backyard gardens help to intercept and slow the flow of water that would otherwise run directly into College Creek.

Time for a little break… as the song says, Everybody Poops!


“Dogs are poopin’ on their walks; geese are poopin’ at the beach.  All these things impact our water, that’s the reason for this speech!” – Lyrics from Everybody Poops



Scoop the poop

Scoop the poop! Did you know… 1 gram of dog waste contains 23 million fecal bacteria!

OK, time to finish up the walk…  we’ll leave you with one final view of the College Creek restoration project.


Very tempting to go for a little swim!

A beautiful walk on a beautiful evening… thanks for joining us.

Ann Staudt

Recap of September Webinar with Tom Isenhart

StreamResponseThe Iowa Learning Farms September webinar, presented by Dr. Tom Isenhart, combines stream ecology, hydrology, and water quality.  There’s also quite a good amount of history woven in, as well! Isenhart’s webinar, titled “Do we know enough about stream bank erosion to mitigate damage to stream ecosystems?”, can be viewed in its entirety on the ILF Webinar Archives page.


Tune in for a very interesting look at historical stream straightening/channelization, stream equilibrium, and the interactions between land management practices, stream hydrology, and sediment transport.

Ann Staudt

Iowa erosion rates are greater than we think

In the Iowa Learning Farms April webinar, held yesterday, Iowa State University Agronomist Rick Cruse painted a dirty picture. He said that sediment runoff rates in Iowa are much higher than official reports state.

erosion_bettsEphemeral gullies–those channels that are created in fields after a rainfall–carry a large amount of sediment away from the fields. These gullies are not accounted for in official erosion reports from the NRCS and the Iowa Daily Erosion Project.

Farmers are losing precious topsoil, especially when the gullies are graded over and filled again. Water will recreate these channels at the next rain, carrying the soil with it that was replaced earlier.  Cruse says “this is an incredibly efficient way of removing soil from the field.”

People seem to be complacent when we talk about soil erosion in Iowa. The national standard Tolerable Rate of soil loss (T) is an average of 5 tons per acre per year. The key word here is “average.” When erosion rates are averaged, Iowa is within the 5 T standard. But what about those fields where the loss is much greater than the tolerable rate?

Iowa_Soil_erosion_mapThe Iowa map is a “snapshot” of the erosion rates per township for one day. The map is taken from the Iowa Daily Erosion Project website. Note the townships shaded in colors other than green–these are areas where soil erosion rates were 5 tons and greater. And this map is not accounting for the ephemeral gullies and small channels that are whisking away that topsoil with every rainfall event.

Cruse’s presentation was highly informative and there was a lot of discussion with those who logged on. I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard a collective “gulp” from those who were watching.

You can watch the archived session to hear Rick’s message:

You can watch all of the ILF webinars here, too. There is a great variety of topics to choose from.

-Carol Brown


Combating ephemeral gully erosion


Ephemeral gullies are those channels that appear in fields after a rain storm and  disappear when tilled, but show up again after another big rain.

This type of erosion is like the company embezzler—quietly robbing from the account with no one noticing until a large amount comes up missing.

A new Iowa State University (ISU) project will focus on research and education to help control ephemeral gully erosion. The USDA National Integrate Water Quality Program project is led by ISU agronomy professor Richard Cruse, ILF faculty adviser and Director of the Iowa Water Center.

“Current soil erosion models can only estimate sheet and rill erosion, which occur in small channels that can only be seen up close, where water flows and moves off the surface in very thin layers. Unlike gully erosion, those types of erosion cause soil movement and not necessarily removal from fields.”

Read about this project here: Iowa State project aims to reduce major cause of of soil erosion on Iowa farm fields

Ephemeral gully erosion doesn’t only occur in spring and summer, winter can also generate these soil stealers. A recent article from Penn State University Extension explains how to combat this as soil freezes and thaws.

“The problem is increased if the subsoil is frozen but the surface starts to thaw because the water cannot infiltrate. The surface soil turns into a liquid and soon after water starts to puddle, runoff is the inevitable result.”

The article offers tips on rill erosion prevention: Rain and thawing snow on frozen soil can lead to rill erosion

Sjoerd Duiker, associate professor of soil management and applied soil physics at Penn State says that “soil erosion is still our number on enemy in agriculture.” We need to work on keeping it in place as best we can.

–Carol Brown

Muchakinock Creek watershed making progress

NRCS_terrace_closeIn an article from Iowa Farmer Today, the Muchakinock Creek watershed in southeast Iowa is making good progress in reducing erosion and improving water quality.

Read about what they are doing together and the improvements they are making.

Watershed efforts hold sediment in place