Where is the Watershed?

Jul 21, 2014

Water quality has been a problem in Iowa since the late 1800s. To improve it, where do we start?

There are lots of ideas about this, but Iowa Geological Survey research scientist Keith Schilling says it's really a question of scale."When we talk about improving water quality, we all have to want to improve it. There's so much land and so many people contributing."

When he talks about contributing, he's talking about all our contributions to the watershed. But wait, what is a watershed again?

Greg Brenneman is an agricultural engineer with Iowa State University Extension. He says it’s simple. Anytime rain falls, that rain fall has to run off to somewhere. "The area where run off comes from is the watershed for any given river or stream."

There are several watersheds in Iowa, and they are organized in the same way we organize our cities and counties.

For example, if you’re in Iowa City, you’re also in Johnson County, and in Iowa, and in the United States. Similarly, you'd also be in the Iowa River Watershed, in the Lower Iowa Watershed, in the Mississippi River Watershed. Brenneman compares them to a pot luck.

“We get together with some friends in the fall and have a big chili supper. We all bring a little, and we dump it into one big pot. Ultimately what we have is a mixture of what everybody has brought to it. Essentially, that is what we see here. It’s a mixture of all our land uses, all of the things that we do that end up contributing water.”

So, the next time you flush the toilet or dump something down the drain, think about our water quality issue. What dish are you bringing to share with the rest of us? 

Editor's Note: This story was originally a part of a Talk of Iowa program about Iowa's water quality.