Area river inspires a small army of ecology volunteers

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

When your area of concern is more than 2 million acres of Iowa countryside, it takes a special kind of commitment to help get things done.

That's the case with water testing in the Raccoon River Watershed. For the last three years a small army of volunteers have helped collect samples from close to 50 locations throughout the 2.3 million acre watershed.

The Raccoon River and its watershed has been a continuing source of concern for possible pollution and nitrate content, most importantly because the Raccoon River serves as the water source for more than 370,000 people (one-tenth the state's population) in the Des Moines area.

For the past decade the Raccoon River Watershed Project has been educating people about watershed issues and encouraging environmental enhancements to improve water quality. It is in part sponsored by the Agriculture Clean Water Alliance, a group made up of co-ops and other fertilizer dealers in the watershed.

Part of that has been monitoring water quality at 44 different sites throughout the watershed - no small feat given the size of the watershed. The Raccoon River Watershed Project has enlisted the help of volunteers to collect water samples in their areas.

For one rural Newell family, Dan and Julie Sievers, they made collecting samples a family project, something Julie said is important to help her sons have a better understanding of water quality issues.

The Sievers started helping in 1999, when sons Adam and Eric were 13 and 11. Both of them were more than willing to help.

"It was something they wanted to do, and this was a good way to involve them because the water quality is something that will affect them," Julie said.

During the first year the Sievers collected samples monthly, and then every other week during 2000.

"It's a way to see what we're doing in the watershed, and just a good way to get them involved," Julie said.

Both boys have been involved in Boy Scouts and have done different environmental and community service projects with that group, but never anything specifically aimed at water quality issues.

The Newell-Fonda FFA club has taken over much of the water monitoring for the past year after being asked by organizers of the Raccoon River Watershed Project. It was something all of the students seemed interested in, said FFA advisor Charlie Hogrefe.

There were a total of five sites the students monitored every other week, including two around Newell in Grant Township, one near Sulpher Springs on Outlet Creek and another on Cedar Creek by Fonda. "All eventually drain into the Raccoon River," Hogrefe said.

Roger Wolf, executive director for Agriculture Clean Water Alliance, said the volunteers are one of the most important parts of the program. Volunteers collected samples between April and August of this year.

"They're the ones committed to collecting the samples on this rotating basis," he said. "Without their commitment we would not have this kind of information on the scale that we have it. It takes a tremendous amount of horsepower to get this kind of water quality information and to collect samples on a timely basis."

Samples are essentially tested on the same day they are collected by volunteers across the sprawling watershed. A driver starts in Newell at the Newell Cooperative and drives south picking up samples so they can be at the Des Moines Water Works by 2 p.m. the same day.

For the Newell-Fonda FFA students, Hogrefe said they wholeheartedly took on the responsibly of participating in the water monitoring program.

"The students took care of getting the samples collected and having them turned in to the elevator at 8 a.m.," he said.

About 15 different students were involved, and while they haven't seen the results they are excited to find out what they are.

"The kids were kind of interested to start with the project because the media makes such a big deal about the nitrate levels, and being farm kids they were interested in seeing whether farmers contributed or if there are other sources in the watershed," Hogrefe said.

All of that data is valuable to the Raccoon River Watershed Project. "That information has provided the Clean Water Alliance as well as the Des Moines Water Works a better understanding between the differences in the sub-watersheds and different landforms in the region within the Raccoon River basin," Wolf said.

"We didn't have this kind of information four years ago - now we have three years worth of data providing some important insight as we continue to work toward finding a solution to nitrogen levels in rivers and streams," he added.

Monitoring on such scope and scale has not been something done before in the Raccoon River watershed.

"The project changes from year to year. We're learning more as we go here. It's really exciting to see the co-ops supporting this also, and we're all learning a lot about what it's going to take to improve water quality in the watershed," Wolf said.

"The plan is to continue that," Wolf said. "Certainly we have year-to-year variations in rainfall and weather, and we've had three successful years of water sample collection."

Wolf said the Agriculture Clean Water Alliance has been successful in part to the area co-ops that have supported the program. Also, a volunteer appreciation dinner is being organized, tentatively scheduled for Dec. 13, he said.

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