Jan 10, 2023 - News

Volunteers document Iowa's poor water quality

A photo of a water quality notice.

Iowa has for years warned people of the potential of harmful bacteria in its water, including with this sign at Big Creek State Park in Polk City in 2013. Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP

Biological sampling at 150 stream sites across Iowa last year found that roughly two-thirds had poor or fair water quality, according to results from a volunteer program coordinated through the Izaak Walton League.

Why it matters: High levels of pollution can lead to harmful algae blooms, fish kills and human health problems.

  • Brain-eating amoebas killed a swimmer at Lake of Three Fires in southern Iowa last year, the first confirmed case in the state.

Catch up quick: The league’s "Save our Streams" is the only nationwide program that trains volunteers to collect scientifically valid data to assess the quality of local waterways.

  • The group launched a concentrated Iowa steam monitoring program in 2019, partly in response to the state dismantling IOWATER — a volunteer program coordinated through the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Zoom in: Only about a third of stream samples were deemed to be good or excellent — results that don’t bode well for Iowa water, Heather Wilson, a coordinator of the Iowa program, told Axios.

  • Soil erosion, excessive nutrients from chemical fertilizers and high fecal bacteria levels are among the factors harming our water quality, according to the league.

What they’re saying: Droughts and weather patterns with more freeze and thaw cycles are believed to be contributing to the water quality problems, Polk County Conservation director Rich Leopold told Axios.

  • His staff documented elevated levels of chloride in metro streams, which can be toxic to aquatic life.

What's next: Metro officials recently launched efforts to improve water quality by promoting cover crops and establishing hundreds of acres of native prairies.

  • But it could take years for some of their benefits to surface in ecological monitoring, Leopold noted.

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