DECORAH — The Upper Iowa River seemed an unlikely candidate for Iowa’s impaired waters list, noted for its exceptional water quality and stellar outdoor recreation opportunities. Still, native freshwater mussels were struggling to survive in the river – until a local effort stepped in to make major changes on the land. That effort was just recognized as a water quality success story by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The Upper Iowa River boasts numbers of stream miles designated as having exceptionally better quality beyond levels listed in Iowa’s water quality standards, in addition to having significant recreational and ecological importance. It’s the only Iowa river to be nominated for the national Wild and Scenic Rivers Program, and canoeing the Upper Iowa River has been listed as one of the top 100 adventures in the United States by National Geographic Adventure magazine.
But in 2002, three segments of the river landed on the impaired waters list. With increasing amounts of soil washing in, the scenic Upper Iowa River was struggling to support the native freshwater mussels living in its waters.
Studies showed the mussel population declined between 1984 and 1998, largely due to extra sediment and nutrients washing into the river from row-cropped fields in the watershed (the area of land that drains to the river). A freshwater mussel survey done in 1984 found 13 species of mussels in the river, while a follow-up in 1998 only found four.
Concerns about water quality in two coldwater trout streams that feed the river – Coldwater and Pine creeks – as well as in the Upper Iowa River, led to the creation of the Coldwater/Pine Creek Watershed Project in 2006.
The partnership effort, based out of the Winneshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District in Decorah, worked with almost 50 landowners