Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Nature By Chance

Dew-covered prairie
My sister and I had a conversation a few weeks back about Polk County Conservation employees. It went a little something like this...

Sis: So the Naturalists - do they eat bark and pine cones and communicate with animals?

Me: Um, well, not exactly. Most that I know live in typical suburban homes and drive to work every day to educate the public on the natural world.

Sis: (with a shocked look on her face) Really?! Well, what about the ones working in forestry? Are they out chopping down trees, slinging them over their backs and hauling them to their acreage to build a home with their own two hands?

Me: I think you need to come out to our office and job shadow for a day!

This humorous exchange got us thinking...

What can we do to get individuals unaware or uninterested in opportunities in the outdoors...outdoors?! 

We all come from various backgrounds, levels of comfort, and sense of adventure. Some of us certainly are the pine cone chompin', squirrel chatterin', lumberjackin' type! Most of us lie a little more towards the opposite end of this spectrum and at various intervals in between of involvement in the natural world. And what about those who might lie completely at the opposite end? Maybe you have a friend or a family member you wish to encourage to get out there and enjoy all that nature has to offer. How do we go about getting them excited about the outdoors (but maybe leave out the lingering flavor of pine cone)? Or perhaps you are looking to further immerse yourself in natural settings.

Check out your local County Conservation organization!

And here in Polk County, our goal is to get you outside!

What better way to enjoy a summer evening than surrounded by beauty of a county park? How about we throw some tunes in there to make the deal that much sweeter and entice even the most wary to come out and relax amongst the flora and fauna of Iowa? Join us on July 4th for our Music in the Park Concert Series as we welcome Flying Pig Fiddle and Banjo to the stage at the Jester Park Amphitheater. Bring a lawn chair or blanket to sit on as we celebrate Independence Day Southern Appalachian style with old-time string band music on fiddles, banjo, washtub, washboard, pitchfork, fiddlesticks, feet, and more!

And don't miss an evening of food, fun, art and music at Easter Lake Park, Shelter #2 in Des Moines on Friday, July 17th, from 6-8 p.m. Food, beverages and local art will be available to purchase along with free nature programs and art activities. Our featured band, High Society Big Band, plays swinging jazz sounds of the Big Band era, performing compositions that span an entire century of music.

What about those who prefer to remain indoors and enjoy all things wild from the comfort of their homes? 

Insect hotel provides temporary and long-term shelter
Have we got a workshop for you! Contribute to conservation efforts and attract pollinators to your home and garden by building an insect hotel! The Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt Longhouse will be host to a workshop crafting willow homes for these critters on July 11th. Click here for more information and to register.

And for those curious about Iowa ecosystems but maybe unsure of where to begin exploration, don't miss the Discover Our Parks series in July. Come along as we discover life in a stream on a Creek Walk, happen upon creatures in a Marsh Stomp, and take in the grandeur of an Iowa grassland on a Prairie Hike. If viewing local wildlife excites you, come explore Carney Marsh with Polk County Naturalists. We will talk about how this area came to be before setting out on binocular exploration of its inhabitants. We may even dip a net or two into the marsh and see what aquatic critters we might find. Come dressed to go off trail and get a little muddy!

Be sure to check our calendar of events for full details on these outings!

Whether it is from within the comfort of four walls or waist-high in a wetland, fostering a need for the natural world is one of great importance in this ever-changing world in which we live. We look forward to seeing you in our parks!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What is a Watershed? Part II: Eco-Warriors in Action!

How we interact within our watershed affects all communities, both living and nonliving.
Last month we introduced you to watersheds. We learned what encompasses a watershed and the interconnected web each watershed weaves throughout the landscape - the most important takeaway from last month's message being that, "we all live in a watershed and are passively but intimately connected to one another because of we treat the land and the water that flows through it is vitally important for future generations of all communities including plants, animals and people". The Polk County Conservation Board recognizes these facts and laid out a 5-year Strategic Plan in 2014 with emphasis on water quality in four of the top ten priorities established.

So what are we doing here at Polk County Conservation to ensure that one of our most valuable resources is available for generations to come? 

Three major rivers flow through our county; the Raccoon, Des Moines and Skunk Rivers with numerous streams and tributaries flowing into these waterways. Urban and agriculture interests constitute the majority of usage within the watersheds of Iowa's most populous county. When the status of water quality took the spotlight as part of the Polk County Water and Land Legacy Bond Referendum passed in November of 2012, PCC contributed to small water quality projects here and there but is now in a position to address the larger issue at hand.

The Initial Holdup 

Polk County Conservation has been without baseline data to which we can compare our current state of water quality. In order to become a leader in managing for and advocating on behalf of improved water quality in the county and state, we must have baseline data to know where to begin and how to move forward. In essence, we don't know what needs to be fixed until we know what is wrong. And we have a lot of ground to cover - 38+ miles of stream bank and 710+ acres of lakes, ponds, marshes, and river access that we maintain. 

The Next Step 

Water monitoring coordinators, Heidi Anderson and Joe Boyles, testing water transparency and nitrate level at Paw Creek.

In an effort to determine the overall health of local watersheds and identify areas of concern, PCC staff will inventory and monitor approximately 40 locations around Polk County where water quality is not currently monitored. PCC will work collaboratively with several cities and watershed associations to prevent duplication of data, and also to share results as a means to form the best picture of what is occurring throughout our waterways.

Staff participating in this initiative are those who have completed IOWATER training. IOWATER is Iowa Department of Natural Resources' citizen volunteer water monitoring program. Twenty Conservation staff have been trained in conducting basic water chemical, physical and biological assessments as taught through this program. Records of water transparency, temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, nitrates/nitrites, chloride and phosphates will be taken. The resulting data will drive where we go to next as an organization committed to healthy watersheds. If we find long term trends in specific bodies of water, that watershed (and the behaviors playing out within said watershed) will be studied more intensely. The areas we will be focusing on in 2015 include the following:
Beaver Creek
Walnut Creek
Fourmile Creek
Spring Creek
Mud Creek 
Camp Creek well as some standing bodies of water within our family of parks and wildlife areas.

We are committed to long term health and sustainability of our local watersheds as well as those downstream. Join in our efforts by doing your part in improving water quality as well - check out Polk County Soil and Water Conservation District's website to begin your water stewardship journey today! Interested in becoming a citizen volunteer water monitor? Click here for further information!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What is a Watershed?

Graphic courtesy of

Iowans have probably heard this term thrown around in conversation lately as the issue of water quality in Iowa has taken center stage in recent months. But what exactly is a watershed? Surely not a shed full of water! So what, as informed citizens of a state on the cusp of change, do we need to know about watersheds?

A watershed is all of the land that collects and drains the water within a specific area into the same location or body of water. The highest points surrounding a drainage basin define the boundaries between watersheds. Water flows from these high points down to a common low point within these  boundaries. Every drop that travels through the land is channeled into various bodies of water as it percolates down through the soil into groundwater as well as into creeks and streams. From there, this water makes its way into larger river systems and eventually into oceans.

But a watershed is more than just the rivers, lakes, and wetlands that make up the landscape. Everything that sits within a drainage basin is an important part of a watershed - from housing developments to farms, from woodlands to schools, roads and parking lots as well as the soils resting beneath. And it is also you! What you do and how you live within the landscape has far reaching effects. Holding water where it falls through selected vegetation, rain gardens and the impervious surfaces of your home and concrete drives all have an effect on others. Most important to remember, we all live in a watershed and are passively but intimately connected to one another because of it.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Wilson-Crumb
Activities within our watersheds directly affect not only the environment, our economy and society but also the health of every organism living in our own watersheds as well as those downstream.  As water traverses the land and into waterways, pollutants are picked up and carried downstream. Can you guess what is Iowa's #1 water pollutant? Volunteer a guess in the comments below - answer to be revealed in next month's blog! How we treat the land and the water that flows through it is vitally important for future generations of all communities including plants, animals and people.

A healthy watershed = a healthier world.

Here at Polk County Conservation, local watershed health has become a high priority. Management of drainage areas specifically at Easter Lake Park, Fort Des Moines Park, Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt and in the Fourmile Creek watershed is taking precedence. In an effort to improve upstream behaviors, consistent inventory and monitoring in areas of concern will be occurring within Polk County.

Stay tuned next month to see Polk County Conservation in action as we work diligently to protect one of our greatest natural resources!