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Iowa groups look across border to improve Spirit Lake water quality

A large field is flooded with water.
Courtesy of Spirit Lake Protective Association
The 195 acre land will be restored to wetland and prairie in the Spirit Lake North Watershed Project.

A new land acquisition could help boost water quality in northwest Iowa’s Spirit Lake.

Iowa conservation groups are partnering with Pheasants Forever Minnesota to restore almost 200 acres of land north of Big Spirit Lake back to wetland and prairie. The Spirit Lake North Watershed Project hopes conserving land across Iowa’s northern border in Minnesota will translate to greater water quality for Spirit Lake.

The land has long been a protection priority for organizations like the Spirit Lake Protective Association (SLPA). Before the acquisition, the land was cropland that often flooded. The groups will be working to remove the three pumps that drain its water, and sediment, into the lake.

SLPA vice president John Smeltzer said the organization has committed $150,000 to the $2.1 million project. He said the lake’s water quality is paramount, since its surface water is a source of drinking water for the town.

“Every little bit we can do to reduce these kinds of insults to water quality is really important to maintain and improve the water quality for the potable water in this area,” Smeltzer said.

“It's going to be critically important for a whole slew of species in that part of the state."
Josh Divan, Iowa Pheasants Forever

The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation (INHF) also supported the acquisition. INHF Communications Director Joe JayJack said the hope is to significantly reduce the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen that makes its way from the land into the lakes system.

The watershed protection project is expected to decrease phosphorus and nitrogen deposits by 85%, according to project partners. Jayjack said it's an extension of water quality projects already being spearheaded on the Iowa side of the border.

“It's a place for this water to go into to slow down, have the plants that are naturally occurring in these wetland areas pull out a lot of those nutrients and clean the water before it can go into these bigger lake systems,” he said.

A map points to where the Spirit Lake North Watershed project, just across Iowa's border in Minnesota.
Courtesy of Spirit Lake Protective Association
Iowa and Minnesota conservation organizations had to collaborate to acquire the wetland.

The wetlands will also accommodate diverse types of wildlife and waterfowl. Josh Divan, of Iowa Pheasants Forever, said the newly acquired land will provide a refuge for birds that rely on either prairie or wetland for habitat.

“It's going to be critically important for a whole slew of species in that part of the state,” Divan said.

Iowa has lost between 89% of its original wetlands, according to the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service.

It will take around two to three years until the natural habitat is restored, according to the SLPA. The land will then become a Waterfowl Production Area and be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Smeltzer said he looks forward to seeing species like Sandhill cranes and nesting trumpeter swans find a home on the wetland. He said he expects the Minnesota acres will have a lasting impact on the Iowa Great Lakes.

“Iowans drink this water. Iowans come to this area to birdwatch to enjoy the wildlife, and also to know that the wildlife is being cared for,” he said.

Kendall was Iowa Public Radio’s western Iowa reporter based in Sioux City, IA until Jan. 20, 2023.