Fish should swim, not float
The stream raced by, intent to join the Missouri River. Unhindered by Evan De Groot's rubber boots, water gushed over his waders and continued on its course.
A solitary figure in northwest Iowa's nature, the 40-year-old Sioux Center resident proved a small obstacle to the water's journey as he stood knee deep in the West Branch of the Floyd River.
"Sometimes I feel kinda lonely out there," he said.
While wading through the stream, the IOWATER volunteer takes sharp notice of how isolated he is.
The river's fish stock is depleted. In the past 10 years, nearly 1.6 million fish have died in the Floyd River and its tributaries. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has listed the Floyd on its impaired water list since 1998 as a danger to aquatic life.
Few visitors choose the Floyd, as pollutant problems have decreased recreational activity.
Therefore, De Groot heads to the stream by himself to test and monitor pollutants. While De Groot thinks his efforts have bridged a gap, he still feels like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dam.
"There is so much to be done," he said.
'No such place as away'
The Floyd River carves its path along 90 miles of northwest Iowa. It rises northeast of Sheldon and snakes past Hospers and Alton. The rivers largest tributary, the West Branch of the Floyd, starts near Boyden and flows another 40 miles by Middleburg and Maurice.
Gaming speed and size, the waterway spurts toward Sioux City, where it dumps into the Missouri River. The journey continues as the river then joins the Mississippi River. That combined then force barrels into the Gulf of Mexico.
De Groot said that proves that local environment affects life over a thousand miles away.
"As a college professor always told us, 'There is no such place as away,'" he said. "Every type of pollution ends up going somewhere."
‘More problems than others'
The river churns where De Groot dips a test tube in the flow.
"Looks like hot chocolate," he said.
The biology major said the muck and mud discoloring the water is only one indicator of the water's poor condition.
The Iowa DNR began placing inferior quality streams on an impaired waterway list in 1998. It repeats the process every four years. The Floyd River has appeared as a danger to aquatic life on all three lists released since.
Once the DNR classifies a river as impaired, workers compute a formula pinpointing where the stream's pollutants originate. From there, the DNR determines how many pollutants the water can safely hold and how to stop the grime's flow.
But for the Floyd, no single source has been identified, with the river's condition being impacted by numerous problems such as high copper levels, excess amounts of lead, repeat chemical spills, numerous fish kills and natural elements like drought.
The DNR does not have lists ranking one river as better or worse than others.
"We don't have any real ranking, other than the best professional judgment approach," said DNR water quality specialist John Olson.
His 23 years of experience tells him the Floyd is a substandard stream.
"It's a little below average in terms of quality, for whatever reason," Olson said. "It probably has a few more problems than most of the other rivers in the state. It tends to have a few more violations of our water quality standards."
'Not following the mandate'
Humans contribute to the problem, DNR officials said.
Spills kill fish. Crop fertilizers wash into the river. People discard trash. Neighbors manicure yards and chemicals trickle to the stream.
Intentional or unintentional, the intent matters little compared to the results.
"I think everyone wants clean water," De Groot said. "I guess, as a Christian, I think that all creation is something we're mandated by God to be a good steward of. Well, I don't think we're really following that mandate."
Nature lends its disadvantages, too. Dirt and other types of silt naturally pollute the river.
And despite all the regulations the government can sanction, contamination still happens.
'We get used to it'
Fish nipped at the surface. An alarmed passer-by reported the stressed activity to the DNR. Hours later, more than 97,000 fish were dead.
On Aug. 5, rainfall flooded manure from Brian Hofmeyer's cattle feedlot west of Hospers into the Floyd, and the incident — one of 27 tallied for Iowa this year — accounted for nearly half the state's total fish killed so far in 2007.
Accidents happen. Hofmeyer had no citation history, and the runoff control system was under construction for improvements at the time, making it temporarily vulnerable to the rain.
Still, such incidents — accidents or not — riddle the region.
In the last 10 years, the Floyd and its tributaries have suffered 10 fish kills. Three of these rank among the worst 15 recorded by the DNR since the organization started tallying in the 1980s.
The Midwest Farmers Cooperative of Sheldon accounted for two larger incidents. In 2002, a broken pipe spilled ammonia into the Floyd and killed more than 1 million fish.
More than 400,000 fish were killed in 1998 when fertilizer-contaminated water was cleaned out of a containment basin surrounding nitrogen tanks and flushed downstream.
Northwest Iowa's 10 fish kills have their causes. Humans were responsible for eight while two were caused by natural events, such as excess heat and drought.
In De Groot's opinion, all evoke insignificant reaction.
"I think we should be outraged by it, but we just get so used to it," he said. "It's like watching the news on TV. It's something that should be disturbing but that becomes run of the mill over time. Pretty soon, you get hardened to it, and it seems like it's just the way things are, but it's not the way things were at one time."
'What's the big deal?'
DNR spokesperson Kevin Baskins provides perspective about the Floyd's fish kills, asking the public to consider several factors.
Firstly, the public reports incidents more often. A decade ago, when industrial plants dumped chemicals into the river unregulated, nobody considered fish kills problematic.
“I think people now have learned that a massive fish kill may show that something in the environment is happening that shouldn’t,” he said.
High fish casualties actually show improvements in population control. When more fish die, that means the river’s stock had replenished. If chemical problems ran unchecked, no aquatic life would remain to kill.
Secondly, every fish kill is a problem, no matter the affected species.
“When you have a kill and several hundred of the smaller fish die, people say, ‘What’s the big deal?’” Baskins said
Yet any alternation in the stream affects more than the fish found floating after the event. Depletion of the smaller stock – such as minnows – means bigger fish have less food to attract them to the area.
Finally, smaller stock rebound quickly, while game fish take longer to recover.
“If the water conditions are favorable, we do see the smaller species repopulate fairly well, but if you had a sport fishery with game fish, those take years to grow,” Baskins said.
A stream can start to improve within a year or two, but it takes three or four years to completely recover.
Todd Tracy routinely helps students fish through the Floyd’s murky waters.
Old boots, dead branches, decaying fish — the biology professor from Northwestern College in Orange City let science students look at each concern adding to the Floyd's problem.
At day's end, findings proved worrisome.
"The Floyd River is nasty, to use an unscientific term," Tracy said.
During his own tests in November, he found E. coli bacteria levels that registered three times the DNR's maximum allowance.
E. coli indicates fresh human or animal waste in the water, and while the E. coli itself does not make humans sick, the undetectable pathogens that accompany it do, said DNR research geologist Lynette Seigley.
She helps monitor data from the Floyd River near Sioux City, and she said Tracy's findings are consistent with those she have seen.
"But you really need to do the testing over a period of time to compare it to others for perspective," Seigley said. "A single sampling does not provide all the information you need."
Volunteers and DNR officials have spent eight years testing the Floyd River near Sioux City, and the test tubes continuously deliver alarming news.
The Floyd River contains the second highest E. coli levels in the state, after the Little Sioux River near Spencer.
While the tests near Sioux City might indicate high bacteria levels in the Floyd segments in Sioux and O'Brien counties, Seigley said it is hard to compare the water quality of one stream portion to another without exact, time-proven tests.
'Our dollars are elsewhere'
Fish decay within days, and the chemicals sweep out and away from our counties.
Nature has a way of providing rain after droughts, and our water supply comes from elsewhere.
People have other lakes and rivers to swim and fish in, and hardly anyone stops at the river just to take in the view.
So why care about the Floyd?
"For our next generation," De Groot said.
But beyond posterity, local economies suffer.
"I see a lot of people packing up their boats and heading to Minnesota to go fishing, and it's a shame, because we have a lot of waterways right here that should have fish," he said. "These are all dollars that are going to Minnesota or elsewhere."
De Groot understands the inclination.
"I wouldn't go swimming in it,” he said.
The DNR agrees. The Floyd rates as "Class A1," a classification that says direct, prolonged contact with the water poses a health risks. Activities like swimming, water skiing and recreational canoeing could cause an illness to those enjoying them in the Floyd.
'We can make a difference’
Time is not running out.
"We can make difference for the Floyd," De Groot said.
He said citizens have can make their mark on the river by taking actions such as calling their local officials, by volunteering to test water ways along the river banks and by reporting any unusual action in the stream.
But if nobody speaks out, then the waterway will remain a “degraded, muddy little river,” De Groot said.
“And that’s just a straight up shame,” he said.