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These eastern Iowans learned how to monitor the water quality of a prized trout stream near a massive feedlot

A photo of Bloody Run Creek in Clayton County, a prized cool water trout stream in northeast Iowa's Driftless region.
Clay Masters
IPR News
Bloody Run Creek in Clayton County is one of Iowa's prized cool water trout streams in northeast Iowa's Driftless region.

With the grass covered in frost and the sun beginning its morning climb, Heather Wilson with the Izaak Walton League introduces herself to a handful of volunteers in a shelter at the Bloody Run County Park outside of McGregor.

“There's a lot of things you could do on a Saturday morning,” Wilson tells the volunteers bundled-up in warm clothes on the chilly October morning. “I think this is a great way to spend our time in the outdoors doing something for the environment.”

The group stands on the banks of Bloody Run Creek, a prized trout stream. Close by, a massive cattle feedlot near the headwaters operates despite environmentalists' efforts to stop it. Fearing manure runoff from the feedlot will impact the stream, the group of volunteers has gathered to learn how to help monitor the water quality.

The Iowa chapters of the Sierra Club and Trout Unlimited hope a permanent change comes out of the courts. The organizations sued over the DNR's approval of Supreme Beef’s Manure Management Plan based on faulty data and that the DNR manipulated its rules to approve it. Oral arguments in the lawsuit are expected early next year.

But right now, there are a few citizen scientists in the area that can keep an eye on the quality of the water in Bloody Run Creek. Wilson, the Midwest coordinator of Save Our Streams, leads water quality monitoring trainings across Iowa.

“We're looking at places that we have active volunteers who are looking to expand their efforts, or places where we've had inquiries or like interest from volunteers,” she said.

There’s a lot of interest in the quality of the water in Bloody Run Creek here in Clayton County. The cool water trout stream is on the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ list of outstanding waters. It’s in the Driftless region known for its fractured limestone which allows ground and surface water to travel quickly.

A company called Supreme Beef LLC has constructed a massive feedlot nearby.

Larry Stone, who serves on the Committee to Save Bloody Run and attended the training, tells the other volunteers about the lawsuit against the Iowa DNR for approving the feedlot, and how the suit is tied up in the courts.

“The short version is there's 10 to 12,000 head of cattle upstream about six miles from here right now,” he says. “We're crossing our fingers and hoping that that manure does not escape somehow and get into the groundwater or into the streams for surface water when they're having to spread that manure this fall.”

Wilson sets up two tables along the bank and lays out the supplies for both chemical and biological tests.

She instructs the group to take samples of the stream water and they test for things like PH, phosphate, chloride and dissolved oxygen. She fields questions from the group.

“Is there an advantage or disadvantage to like headwaters versus tail waters at a stream?” asks volunteer and Decorah middle school teacher Scott Boylen.

“A lot of times when people are choosing where to monitor, it's either, 'This is a place that I recreate, so I want to know about it,'” Wilson says. “Or it's like with Bloody Run, where there's a potential polluter here, I want to measure upstream and downstream to compare.”

The chemical tests shows the stretch of stream is in good health at this moment in time. Next, the volunteers use a large yellow net to capture bugs.

Two volunteers hold the ends of the net while another volunteer rubs rocks to loosen the bugs that float in.

The net is then brought back to one of the tables on the bank and spread out. The volunteers use tweezers to separate the common insects in ice cube trays filled with stream water. When they're done sorting, they tally up the species. It's not a very diverse sample, so the test receives a “fair” rating.

Once the group completes the fieldwork, Wilson tells them they’ll be certified to help her organization track pollution.

“You have the knowledge of your area,” she says. "You can send that letter to the editor or write the letter to your congressperson or your city councilor… That's where some of this change is going to happen.”

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.