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Nature’s View: Raccoon River pollution snapshot

Ray Harden
Ray Harden
Testing the water at Jordan Creek is Dr. Susan Heathcote, water program manager for the Iowa Environmental Council.  She is determining the amount of  phosphorous in the water.
Testing the water at Jordan Creek is Dr. Susan Heathcote, water program manager for the Iowa Environmental Council. She is determining the amount of phosphorous in the water.

On Saturday, Nov. 2 sixteen people who are members of the Raccoon River Watershed Association and Iowa water volunteers met at the Adel Library to receive their instructions and testing locations to do a pollution snapshot of the Raccoon River. A similar group was meeting in Lake View, Iowa to test the water conditions in the north section of the watershed.

This was the third testing of the Raccoon River that the group has done. Tests were made to determine the levels of chloride, nitrates, nitrites, phosphates, dissolved oxygen, and the amount of sediment in the water. Water samples were also collected at each site and will be sent to the Des Moines Waterworks to test for additional nutrients and bacteria.

The volunteers were sent out in pairs. My partner was Ben Klostermann, who works for Wells Fargo Bank. Twenty different locations along the North, South, and Middle Raccoon Rivers were tested for pollutants. Also, the teams tested the waters at Jordan, Walnut, Mosquito, Hickory, and Swan Branch Creeks; these are streams that flow into the Raccoon River. As expected the chemical analysis at this time did not show any serious pollution problems at any of the sites. This is because of the cool fall temperatures and reduced sunlight, but mainly due to the dry summer and fall that has not caused any runoff from the farm fields. The testing was done to gather data for future reference in order to establish water quality standards at the federal and state levels.

There were two locations did show a level of phosphorus that was higher than the desired amount. At the Spring Valley Boat Ramp south of Perry on County Road P-58, the level was .8 parts per million (ppm) and a Walnut Creek location had a level of .6 ppm. If the reading is above .2 ppm the water is considered to have an excess amount of phosphorus. These high readings are probably due low water levels causing a higher percentage of sewage water and industrial effluent. The Raccoon River is a major river in Iowa. It is used for canoeing, boating, fishing, and other recreational activities. It is also the source of drinking water for thirteen percent of all Iowans. The river begins in Buena Vista County near Storm Lake and meanders through seventeen counties for 186 miles and terminates in downtown Des Moines. The river drains 3,600 square miles, of which eighty-six percent is used for agriculture.

In the spring and summer the Raccoon River is very polluted; it is on the federal governments list of impaired waterways. It is sometimes loaded with nitrates, phosphates, agricultural chemicals, and bacteria, of which 80 percent to 90 percent is from the runoff from farm fields. Only ten percent is from city sewage and storm water from streets. Last spring and summer record high levels of nitrates were causing serious problems for the Des Moines Waterworks.

The Iowa Department of Agriculture has put forth a plan to reduce the nutrient and chemical runoff by 45 percent, by increasing conservation practices, such as buffer strips and cover crops to keep the soil and chemicals on the fields. Also, they are encouraging farmers to reduce tillage and change some chemical application methods.

A cleaner Raccoon River can be a great asset to our county. As people look for leisure enjoyment closer to home they will consider fishing, boating, and camping on the river. Also, riding a bicycle on the Raccoon River Trail would be more enjoyable along a cleaner river.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources and our elected representatives need to hear from citizens that are concerned about the environment and water quality. Iowa’s waterways and lakes need your help.