In a significant water quality success, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) participated in a long-term land conservation project to reduce soil runoff into the Upper Iowa River and restore native freshwater mussels. Partners and funding sources involved in the Coldwater/Pine Creek project include the DNR, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa Resource Enhancement Assistance Program, and U.S. EPA.
The river once seemed an unlikely candidate for Iowa’s impaired waters list, noted for its exceptional water quality and stellar outdoor recreation opportunities. Still, native freshwater mussels were struggling to survive in the river, and in 2002, three segments of the river landed on the impaired waters list due to increasing amounts of soil washing in.
The partnership effort, based out of the Winneshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District in Decorah, worked with landowners to adopt conservation practices on their land that would help protect and improve water quality. Landowners and farmers installed grassed waterways, filter strips, cover crops, streambank protection and more practices to slow erosion and filter runoff before it could enter the streams.
As a result, there are now about 6,223 fewer tons of sediment reaching the river each year, enough to fill 415 dump truck loads annually. That’s been a boon to mussels and other aquatic life. A Statewide Mussel Survey in 2012, led by the DNR and funded by U.S. EPA Section 319, found that the number of mussel species in the Upper Iowa River segment just downstream from Coldwater and Pine creeks had rebounded from zero in 1998 to six in 2012, including the creek heelsplitter (Lasmigona compressa), a threatened species in Iowa. As a result, the aquatic life impairment was removed from the state’s list of impaired waters for one segment of the Upper Iowa River in 2014.
“Mussels are good indicators of the health of a stream system, so the fact that they are making a comeback after the efforts of the watershed project shows the value of these projects for our lakes and rivers,” said DNR biologist Jen Kurth.
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