Urban Wetlands Play a Part in Improving Iowa Water Quality

Oct 30, 2013

The Raccoon River in Des Moines.
Credit Clay Masters / IPR

 Iowa homeowners and municipalities can use urban wetlands to capture nutrients that pollute state waterways and improve water quality. That’s according to a new report out Wednesday. But researchers say it would only be a small part of improving the state’s water quality.

The amount of pollution municipalities put into the state’s rivers and streams are regulated. This new report from the Iowa Policy Project documents what else cities and homeowners to reduce polluted storm runoff. 

“It improves the situation within their limits, they get a good improvement in the quality of their waters," said co-author Arthur Bettis, an associate professor of Soils Geomorphology at the University of Iowa. "You may end up not feeling bad about your kids playing in the creek.”

Researchers at the non-profit Iowa Policy Project say the report offers a “how-to” guide for developers interested in implementing urban wetlands. 

"When cities start to employ them and citizens begin to see they can be useful and functional then citizens begin think to themselves think gee maybe I can put one of those in my own yard,” said co-author Elizabeth Maas, an Iowa City landscape consultant. 

But David Osterberg, founding director of the Iowa Policy Project, said these practices are just another instance where urban populations are cleaning up for rural areas.

“If every one of the 1.2 million homes in Iowa actually had a quarter acre lot, which of course they don’t, that would hardly be anything compared to 24 million acres of soybeans and corn," said Osterberg. "That’s where the problem is coming from.”

This spring high levels of nitrates in rivers that supply Des Moines with drinking water caused officials to implement voluntary water rationing; because the city was close to violating the clean drinking water act. Maas said urban wetlands could be a tool in reducing nitrates. 

“It would need to be done on a larger scale, a lot of nitrate issues in Des Moines are not just localized to one particular location,” Maas said.  

Urban wetlands range from $15,000 to $40,000 an acre.