116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
I was elated (and a little surprised but not shocked) to read in a recent blog post that my favorite fishing spot, the Wapsipinicon River in Buchanan County, has the highest water quality index of 45 representative Iowa streams.
But my buzz soon faded when, reading further, I found the Wapsi’s water quality would rate as not quite fair by justifiable standards.
The index was developed by Chris Jones, a research engineer with the University of Iowa’s Hydroscience and Engineering Department.
In a May 27 essay posted on his blog Jones listed the components of his index — dissolved oxygen, E. coli bacteria, total nitrogen, total phosphorus and turbidity — and using state data from the past five years ranked 45 rivers and creeks by their water quality index scores.
Since 2000, Jones said the water quality of only one of the 45 streams evaluated, the North River, has steadily improved, while the water quality at two others, Old Man’s Creek and the West Nodaway River, has steadily declined. The water quality at the other 42 streams has been static for the past 21 years, he said.
Using the Alberta, Canada, formula for calculating the index, Jones said only a few of Iowa’s most highly rated streams would fall between marginal and fair with the rest between poor and marginal.
Jones called western Iowa’s Floyd River, which empties into the Missouri at Sioux City, “the worst stream of its size in Iowa.” The Floyd drains a livestock-dense region, which contributes to its top rankings in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution over the past five years as well as the third-worst turbidity and the sixth-worst bacteria ratings.
At the cleaner end of the spectrum, the upper Wapsipinicon, Bloody Run Creek and the upper Cedar (including its Shell Rock and West Cedar tributaries) are characterized by comparatively low turbidity and bacteria levels.
I can’t see bacteria (or nitrogen, phosphorus and dissolved oxygen), but I can see turbidity, often caused by soil particles in runoff after heavy rains and less often by late summer algae blooms fueled by excessive nitrogen and phosphorus. At its worst, turbid water is as opaque as the chocolate milk it resembles.
My impression of the Wapsi’s water quality, based on thousands of days waist deep in it, is it is comparable to that of other highly rated northeast Iowa streams such as the Turkey, Maquoketa, Volga, Upper Iowa and the upper reaches of the Cedar and the Iowa. If the stretch of river at the top of Jones’ list has any other advantage as game fish habitat, it is the rocky shore and substrate that is prominent below Independence.
Turbidity, coupled of course with the high water that creates and sustains it, is the greatest impediment to my catching of game fish. Bass, walleye and northern pike, all sight feeders, can’t strike a lure they can’t see.
Despite continuing intensification of agriculture — the engine of modern Iowa water pollution — the fishing in the Wapsipinicon River is much better now than it was in my youth in the 1950s and ’60s. I attribute the improvement to the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, provisions of the 1985 federal farm bill and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ implementation of walleye fingerling stocking.
The Clean Water Act outlawed point-source pollution such as industrial and sewage discharges that had killed many fish before they ever reached maturity.
The ’85 farm bill introduced the Conservation Reserve Program, which in Iowa converted 2.2 million acres of cropland to runoff-filtering grass, and conservation compliance provisions that required farmers, in exchange for program benefits, to implement conservation practices on highly erodible land and to refrain from converting wetlands to crop production.
The DNR’s walleye fingerling stocking program greatly increased the numbers of catchable-size walleyes in Iowa rivers and, by giving catch-and-eat anglers a plentiful and desirable quarry, resulted in the release of many smallmouth bass that would have otherwise been eaten.
From the perspective of an Iowa stream angler, government action, including regulation, works.
We should try it again sometime.