The River Quality of the Iowa River

Written and Photographed by Alexandra Knospe

Figure #1 The Iowa River

The Iowa River water quality has been on the decline over the past few years and more. Danika Patten explains some of the causes and what Iowans can do to help. Over the course of half a year the Iowa River has become more cluttered with debris along the riverside, and has been overflowing with trash that has floated downstream. Several algae blooms have been developing at the ends of the river as well debris under the bridge that has not been removed after months of it resting there. 

Figure #2 Under the surface of the Iowa River

One of the main things affecting the Iowa River water quality is the dangerous rise in nitrite levels. Normally this would not have as much of an impact; however, due to the dangerous levels of nitrates, this has a direct impact with the aquatic life in the river by making it difficult for aquatic life to survive. Algae thrives when nitrate levels are high because nitrates are their main food source. When this happens it can lead to algae blooms. 

Figure #3 Algae Blooms in the Iowa River

Algae blooms are another problem with the Iowa River. There are several algae blooms at the sides of and one large bloom at the end of the river. An algae bloom is an overabundance of algae in a condensed area. They can be toxic and has a bad smell to it. These algae blooms don’t have to make toxins in order to harm the environment. They deplete oxygen from the river as well as block sunlight from the life below it. If there is a lot of nutrient pollution then a dead zone is created. Dead zones are places or periods of time when nothing happens in that area and no life exists there.

Figure #4 Trash in the River

Nitrite levels and algae blooms aren’t the only thing the Iowa River has to worry about though. There is an even more damaging aspect to rivers across the globe. Humans. Humans have contributed a lot to worsening our river quality with more than just our trash, although that has had an impact on its own. Tile drainage for instance has had an impact on rivers. Tile drainage takes water and removes it from the subsurface of the soil. This makes it more ideal for farmers by creating the ideal setting for their crops. On the other hand the water that once was there sometimes finds its way through the tile and into nearby streams and rivers. 

There is also a significant impact that farm runoff has towards rivers. While farmers use nutrients like nitrogen for their crops it will eventually runoff into the rivers and when it runs off into the rivers it leads to an increase in nitrate levels that may be drastic so that it can an algae bloom, which may in turn create a dead zone. Farm runoff has a direct impact on the river quality and life there as well as the quality of our drinking water.


Figure #5 Danika Patten

Danika Patten has been dealing with flooding and rivers her entire life. As a member of the Land and Water Stewards AmeriCorps she says their main goal is to educate people on why it is important to be aware of river and water quality. When asked about what she thinks is causing the most harm to rivers in Iowa, Patton said “In the big picture its humans.” As for what Iowans can do to help not only the Iowa River, but other rivers as well she says that we should educate ourselves and others, we should be knowledgeable about what is hurting our rivers, we shouldn’t be spraying our rivers with chemical sprays, and we can learn to conserve our water usage more. All of this would help improve the not only the Iowa River, but also rivers around the globe.