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Stream flows bottoming out

Record lows could be set in coming weeks

A lawn chair sits comfortably in the sand on what should be the middle of the Cedar River, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, August 3, 2012. The Cedar River is far under its normal depth due to little rain and high temperatures. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette-KCRG)
A lawn chair sits comfortably in the sand on what should be the middle of the Cedar River, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Friday, August 3, 2012. The Cedar River is far under its normal depth due to little rain and high temperatures. (Nikole Hanna/The Gazette-KCRG)

Drought-induced low stream flows are disrupting commerce from Mississippi River barges to canoe liveries along the rivers of Eastern Iowa.

Apart from a few major fish kills in southern Iowa, aquatic life appears to be surviving the state’s worst drought in 76 years, but more trouble may lie ahead.

With seasonal stream flows typically bottoming out in late August and early September, “we could be hitting record lows if we get a couple more weeks of no rain,” said Dan Christiansen, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Iowa City.

The state’s largest interior river and one of the lowest, the Des Moines, was discharging just 334 cubic feet per second Friday at Ottumwa, just 3 percent of its normal discharge for Aug. 3.

The Cedar River fell below 3 feet Friday at its Cedar Rapids gauge, and its discharge of 719 cfs was about 21 percent of its mean average for Aug. 3, based on 109 years of records.

Indian Creek in Cedar Rapids is little more than a trickle, according to Rich Patterson, director of the Indian Creek Nature Center. But the Cedar River tributary is still better than it was on July 16, 1989, when it actually stopped flowing, he said.

The Iowa River on Friday was discharging 170 cfs at Marengo — about 9 percent of its normal Aug. 3 flow.

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With slackening currents and falling stream levels, paddlers have had to paddle harder and drag their vessels over shoals more often.

“We pulled all the tubes off the river three weeks ago,” said Angie McDonough, who with her husband Mike operates McDonough Canoe Rental on the increasingly shallow and sluggish Maquoketa River at Monticello.

The company, which often rented 300 float tubes per day, pulled them because tubers’ progress along the popular 7.8 mile route from the Mon-Maq dam to the Pictured Rocks Wildlife Area depends entirely upon the river’s current.

After an eight- to 10-hour float in often blistering heat, tubers were arriving upset, sunburned, inebriated or all three, McDonough said.

Canoeists and kayakers can still enjoy themselves and make the trip with minimal walking and dragging if they stick to the deeper water in the channel and steer clear of the shallows, she said.

Rainfall shortfalls across the Upper Midwest have resulted in extremely low water on the Mississippi River below its junction with its chief tributary, the Missouri River, hampering barge traffic below St. Louis.

Below Lock and Dam 27 near St. Louis, the river flows unimpeded to the Gulf of Mexico, and its level depends entirely upon the amount of rain that falls upon its watershed, which coincides this year with vast areas of severe and extreme drought.

While barge tows have had to lighten their loads and beware of shoals on the lower Mississippi, “river levels are not affecting barge movements” above St. Louis, according to Ron Fournier, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District.

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The upper river’s system of 27 locks and dams “is working as intended, maintaining the 9-foot shipping channel,” Fournier said.

“It would take another six months of no inflow before there would be shipping problems on the upper river,” he said.

Traffic was interrupted below La Crosse, Wis., last week when a barge ran aground. But the grounding was attributed to routine sand accumulations rather than to drought-caused low water levels.

Andy Crump, who operates Wapsie River Rentals out of Independence, said business has been good despite the low flows.

“Paddlers are telling me they dragged a little and worked a little but had a good time,” Crump said.

“How much you drag depends a lot on how much is in your cooler,” he said.

Crump said the Wapsipinicon in Buchanan County has been affording more favorable voyages than the lower Wapsie in Jones County.

At the Independence gauge, the river on Friday registered a flow of 50 cubic feet per second, which is about 10 percent of the mean average flow for Aug. 3 based on 78 years of records.

Farther downstream at Anamosa, the flow was 145 cfs, which is about 16 percent of the mean average flow for Aug. 3, based on 10 years of records.

Still farther downstream at Olin, Cindy Borst, proprietor of Lou Lou’s Landing, which rents tubes and canoes, said the drought has nearly ruined her season.

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Borst’s customers typically choose between two 7-mile floats: from the Newport boat ramp to her camp or from her camp to the Jungletown boat ramp.

“Upstream, I’m done,” she said last week. “There’s a milelong stretch so shallow you have to pull your canoe.”

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