River under threat

By B.A. Morelli
Iowa City Press-Citizen

Fridays are fishing days for Randy Von Lienen, 51, and Bonnie Nicely, 52, of Homestead.

On a July morning, the Amana Society members lowered their 15-foot Lowe flat-bottom boat into the Iowa River near Amana. That’s about where the river begins its 55-mile path through Johnson County.

Their lines are baited with crawdads. Their goal: hopefully a catfish dinner.

“You sit out here, and it’s beautiful, peaceful,” Von Lienen said.

In the next breath he describes the conditions: “But, what you see is lots of erosion, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.”

The Iowa River is one of the oldest, most powerful and most valuable resources in Johnson County, but its health is threatened by the hand of humans and nature. The river remains a popular getaway, but it faces many problems as it flows through the rich agricultural land near the Amana Colonies and the decommissioned 1922 Greencastle Bridge before filling Coralville Reservoir, which serves as an attraction for hundreds of campers and boaters daily during the summer.

The reservoir catches some of the sediment and pollution before the river continues moving south through the urban stretches of Iowa City and Coralville.

Pollution and erosion can be seen downstream as well. By some measures, progress is being made, but by others conditions are worsening, most notably through increased erosion and nitrate levels.

Five segments of the Iowa River in Johnson County and eight of its local tributaries are considered impaired by Environmental Protection Agency standards. The river also is a key contributor, via the Mississippi River, to the pollution that has created an expanding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

“Like a lot of rivers in Eastern Iowa, the Iowa River is suffering from a long period of neglect. We haven’t invested in resources. The river is muddy, and there is a low level of quality. Runoff from farms and other things are preventable,” said Mark Langgin, executive director of the Iowa Water and Land Legacy.

Recreation, scenery remain draws

Jim Deatsch, 65, of Holbrook, has been coming to the river for fishing or camping since he was a little boy. The past 10 years, he has settled on a shady stretch off an Iowa Department of Natural Resources access road on the south bank of the river for pitching a tent.

“It’s the tranquility,” said his wife, Sandy Deatsch, 65, with her Yorky, Sally Mae, underfoot. “I like the quiet and the nature sounds.”

They set up camp for the weekend. Jim lines the banks with diddy poles — narrow, four-foot PVC pipes — for catching crawdads. Sandy reads a book. They eat and relax. Friends and family often join. They don’t enter the water though, and children are not allowed to either.

The river remains a popular draw for recreation, such as fishing and motorized and non-motorized boating.

Private and municipal developers, while mindful of flooding, continue to look along the Iowa River for choice views. Countless cottages and homes line its banks, and Coralville’s emerging Iowa River Landing entertainment district capitalizes on the river’s appeal.

“It’s a great focal point. People love being by rivers and anytime you can bring people closer in contact with the natural setting, it’s a good thing. It’s a beautiful stretch,” Coralville City Adminis-trator Kelly Hayworth said.

Erosion, bacteria plague the water

Part of the Deatsches’ routine in packing up is leaving their camp the way they found it.

“We make sure we keep it clean. We pick it up every time,” said daughter Paula Shull, 46, of North Liberty. “Hopefully, other people respect it, too.”

Back on the water, debris such as plastic bags and empty soda bottles sail by.

Along the river, banks are crumbling. Trees are falling into the water or roots are so exposed that their fate is inevitable. In some places, the water is so cloudy an oar vanishes as it sinks into the water to propel a ca-noe.

Heavy rains, high, rapid-moving water and a lack of a buffer from farmland have taken their toll.

A February Iowa Department of Natural Resources Watershed Monitoring and Assessment report listed the 20-mile stretch west of Coralville Lake as impaired for high bacteria levels and said a remediation plan is needed. Coralville Lake also is considered impaired for turbidity.

Some studies show efforts are making a difference, but in some cases, the river’s condition is worsen-ing.

Craig Just, a University of Iowa research engineer, co-authored a July study that shows a gradual increase in nitrate levels on the Iowa River upstream from Coralville Reservoir. In the last 30 years, it’s climbed from 4.6 milligrams per liter to 5.9 because of over-fertilization of the river, he said.

“There is a real economic impact now for letting nitrate get into the river at high levels. Our taxes are used to remove it once it gets in the river. It would be cheaper to keep it out of the water in the first place, but that would require different land use policies than we have currently,” Just said.

His study also found a slight re-duction in phosphorus and a sharp decline in suspended solids levels since 1985 when the government instituted policies that en-couraged implementation of soil conservation practices, Just said.

Thanos Papanicolaou, a UI civil and environmental en-gineering professor, and others say erosion is the top concern on the river. The cloudy water is deadly for some marine life, unap-pealing to recreational users, is a fertile setting for toxic algal blooms and is stealing agricultural land.

“We are losing land,” Papanicolaou said.

Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy reports that Iowa loses five tons of soil per acre to erosion each year, and that is increasing. The Environmental Working Group reported in its “Losing Ground” project that 10 million acres of Iowa farmland “lost dangerous amounts of soil” in 2007.

Alarming statistics raise awareness

In 2007, the Iowa River was named the third most endangered river in America, by a group called American Rivers. Some saw that as a wake-up call.

Pollutants such as nitrates, phosphorus and bacteria are washed in from only mildly productive but still valuable agricultural land that creeps up to the banks throughout the county and beyond. Tiles, drainage pipes and canals offer a clear path into the river.

Because of the condition of the Iowa River, the city of Iowa City stopped using it as its drinking water source in 2003, said Carol Sweeting, with the city’s public works department.

In recent years, Sweeting has been leading river cleanup efforts.

“I would say that endangered rivers report helped inspire the cleanups,” Sweeting said. “It made people more aware of what is running through it.”

In June, the EPA approved an Iowa DNR list of 474 impaired waters that require restoration plans. This included 103 new water segments and 56 that were removed from the list. An additional 126 waters were listed as impaired but did not require restoration plans. Some of those waters already had plans in place.

“Yes, Iowa waters are improving due to their extensive effort to add a number of waters that have not been protected in the past to the list,” said Kris Lancaster, EPA public affairs specialist.

Much is at stake with Iowa River

At stake here in Johnson County and beyond is the health of aquatic life, the safety of drinking water, color and odor of the river and the enjoyment of rec-reational users.

But stakeholders — farmers, recreational users, policymakers and municipalities — are often pitted against each other with the best course of action. For example, farmers don’t favor more regulations that can add costs and time when they are trying to keep their farms out of financial ruin.

And budget cuts have left less money and staff to address and monitor problems and fund solutions.

The EPA met this week with officials from the Iowa DNR and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to discuss steps to improving Iowa’s waters.

“Hopefully, we’ll do this balancing act effectively to prevent any kind of future tipping point where the river shuts down biologically and simply becomes a waste stream headed to the Gulf. Humans need the river to remain alive,” Just said.