Outdoors

An unwelcome sound of rushing water

Wildside: It's time to take global wetting serious

Large flakes of snow dissolve in the unseasonably elevated Wapsipinicon River at Quasqueton on Dec. 31, the last day of the second-wettest year in Iowa’s 126 years of record keeping. (Orlan Love/correspondent)
Large flakes of snow dissolve in the unseasonably elevated Wapsipinicon River at Quasqueton on Dec. 31, the last day of the second-wettest year in Iowa’s 126 years of record keeping. (Orlan Love/correspondent)

QUASQUETON — On a calm and quiet early January day I can stand on the front porch of my house and hear the shoosh of the Wapsipinicon River as it courses over the rock arch rapids about four blocks away.

When I first noticed the phenomenon a few days ago, I could not believe my failing ears.

To confirm my suspicion I walked slowly toward the river, noting as I went the increasing volume of the shoosh, which peaked as I approached the site of the former dam.

It’s a soothing sound but unsettling in the sense that I’d never noticed it in the nearly 60 years I have resided in this river town.

Since my hearing is not improving, I could conclude only that the river is getting louder, which seemed consistent with the volume of water — 3,500 cubic feet per second, at least 10 times a normal early January flow — crashing over and around the boulders that constitute the rock rapids.

That early January flow is the remnant of a sneakily sodden 2018, which, though it yielded no widespread catastrophic floods in Iowa, proved to be the state’s second-wettest in 126 years of record keeping.

While Iowa rivers made few headlines last year, rain gauges overflowed.

State Climatologist Justin Glisan said the statewide average precipitation was about 45 inches — still preliminary because he has been unable to extract some needed data from federal websites during the partial shutdown.

That, he said, is 9.73 inches above normal and the second-wettest on record, behind only 1993 with a statewide average of 48.22 inches.

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About 30 reporting stations in northern Iowa recorded their wettest years, including Independence, which topped its 1993 mark by 10 inches, and New Hampton, which recorded an astounding 65.12 inches.

Both cities are near or astride the Wapsipinicon, which not surprisingly afforded me a record low six days of decent fishing in 2018.

On those six late July-early August days, a succession of leaping lunkers, largely unmolested during the previous two excessively wet summers, inspired visions of another late summer-early fall smallmouth bass bonanza.

On the morning of the seventh day, that vision dissolved in the 6-inch column of water in my rain gauge, and information since provided by Chris Jones, a University of Iowa researcher at IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering, has convinced me I may already have experienced the last of those once-expected annual idylls.

Jones and colleagues have analyzed discharge data collected since 1935 at a gauge on the Wapsipinicon near its confluence with the Mississippi River. Here are some of their findings:

— More water has discharged from the Wapsi in the past 11 years than in the first 24 years of the record.

— The 2018 discharge was the second highest (after 1993) in the 84 years of records, and the discharges in September and October were the highest ever recorded for those months.

— Eight of the 10 largest discharge years have occurred since 1993, and four of the five biggest years have occurred since 2010.

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— The five-year running annual average, which scientists use to highlight trends, did not exceed 2,000 cubic feet per second until 1972. It has since topped that level 28 times and has done so in each of the last 11 years.

No wonder a guy in chest waders finds fewer days suitable for fishing.

Precipitation in the Wapsipinicon watershed has increased 49 percent since 1935, but that alone does not account for the 141 percent increase in annual flow, Jones said, citing the proliferation of ag drainage tile and the post-1940 conversion of perennial vegetation to row crops, primarily soybeans, as contributing factors.

I realize my obsession with water flowing down the Wapsi is personal and petty, and I’m ready to move on. But every Iowan, from elected officials and public employees to homeowners and farmers, needs to understand the implications of global wetting.

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