Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Hydrologists classify watersheds using a hierarchical system that “nests” watersheds within one another, an idea that resembles a broad oak tree with the trunk being a large river such as the Mississippi and the countless branches its numerous tributaries. Each watershed or branch is given a number—a Hydrologic Unit Code (HUC) with the larger branches having the smaller numbers.

The continental U.S. is divided into 18 hydrologic regions, 6 of which drain through the outlets of the Mississippi River and its distributary, the Atchafalaya River, into the Gulf of Mexico. One of these six is the Upper Mississippi River, which is designated HUC 07, and thus all tributary subwatersheds draining to Upper Mississippi have a HUC number beginning with “07”.

Nested watersheds in Mississippi Basin

Scientists and conservationists commonly work at the HUC-12 (i.e. the HUC number has 12 digits) and HUC-8 (8 digits) scales when conducting watershed research. HUC 12 watersheds drain from 10,000 to 40,000 acres and in Iowa there are 1600 of them. Iowa HUC-8s (56 of them) cover about 1000 square miles on average.

HUC 8 Watershed Code and Map for North Raccoon Watershed

The Raccoon River watershed shown above is divided into two HUC-8s designated as the North and South Raccoon River. The Raccoon is actually fed by flows from three main branches: the South, Middle, and North, with the North being the main branch. The South and Middle combine in western Dallas County and this combined flow joins the North Raccoon a couple of miles downstream near the town of Van Meter. The South Raccoon HUC-8 (07100007) includes the area draining to the combined flows of the South and Middle Raccoon Rivers; the North Raccoon HUC-8 includes the area draining to the North Raccoon main branch, but not including South/Middle Raccoon areas, to its confluence with the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines. At the Raccoon outlet, about 70% of the water is sourced to the North Raccoon (07100006) while the other 30% is sourced to the South and Middle Raccoon (07100007).

Despite what some would have you believe (1), people do drink water from the Raccoon River—20% of Iowa’s population in fact, but probably closer to 100% when you include Iowans attending the state fair, sporting events, concerts, and the Des Moines farmers’ market. Because of its importance as a drinking water supply and because it may contain more nitrate than any similarly-sized stream in North America, there have been countless efforts spanning decades to engage landowners, agencies, utilities, NGOs, anglers, paddlers, local governments and the horses they all rode in on, in an effort to try to affect change. Frustration with the lack of change came to a head in 2015 when the Des Moines Water Works filed a complaint in US District Court against 13 drainage districts in 3 counties of the North Raccoon Watershed, a suit that was ultimately dismissed. At least a few reputations and careers have been muddied by the waters of the Raccoon River.

five year running annual average Raccoon River nitrate load

One effort at Raccoon River Watershed improvement was the formation of Watershed Management Authorities (WMAs). Iowa lawmakers passed legislation authorizing the creation of WMAs in 2010 (2). WMAs provide a framework for stakeholders, Soil and Water Conservation Districts and local and county governments “to cooperatively engage in watershed planning and management.” There are now 26 WMAs in Iowa and one in both of the Raccoon HUC-8s. There also is a WMA for the Walnut Creek Watershed which enters the Raccoon River in Des Moines Water Works Park. According to Iowa DNR (2), “The WMA is formed by a Chapter 28E Agreement by two or more eligible political subdivisions within a specific eight-digit hydrologic unit code watershed.”

So here is where the fun part begins.

The North Raccoon WMA has been in the news of late for a couple of reasons. It was awarded $2.5 million through a grant from the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to implement “flood first” practices as part of the Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA) project (3). The North Raccoon HUC 8 was one of nine Iowa watersheds where flood disaster declarations and other considerations created eligibility for the funds.

Water quality improvements were also expected to result from the implementation of wetlands, restored oxbows, and other structural practices in the IWA watersheds, but the pollution reduction component was by design not the primary consideration so as not to offend the sensibilities of landowners.

As of this writing, the North Raccoon WMA expects to spend about $545,000 on a nutrient reduction wetland, two stream restorations and a grade stabilization structure on Outlet Creek which drains Storm Lake (city and lake) (4). The balance will go unspent, untapped by the farmers in what is likely the cornbelt’s most high-profile watershed. Watershed coordinator Marius Agua said “Only four of the dozens of landowners authority staff approached signed onto new conservation practices. In many cases, the landowners weren’t agreeable to what we proposed. Most wanted their land still in production” (4).

In a second development (5), perhaps in response to the nonspending problem, some of the northern counties have apparently decided that the (urban) Dallas and Polk county portions of the WMA are no longer welcome at the table, and that the WMA’s watershed plan is unworkable. “There are serious fundamental differences between the developed Raccoon River area needs and the rural North Raccoon River area needs,” according to Palo Alto County representative and tile drainage engineer Don Etler. “I seriously believe that forming two WMAs would be a major step in the right direction” (5). To that end, the Pocahontas Board of Supervisors passed a resolution that states:

  • Polk and Dallas Counties are not in the North Raccoon Watershed, and maps that show this (like the one shown above) have been produced erroneously by Iowa DNR;
  • They (the supervisors) will not support any watershed management plan that the North Raccoon River Watershed Management Coalition may produce, which includes the Raccoon River, and any direct tributary land downstream from the mouth of the North Raccoon River.

Pocahontas County supervisor Clarence Siepker perhaps was the honest (if not noble) voice in this mess: “This just doesn’t make sense to me. We want to make a watershed plan so we can get more grants, but we can’t find a way to spend grant money on projects this cycle. What’s the point?” And four other northern counties agreed. Using an argument riper than a roadkill raccoon on a July day, they asserted the plan should have focused more on water quality instead of flooding.


I’ve only written one piece for this space since March 4, compared to 2-3 per month over the previous year. One reason for this has been the pandemic; there has been so much news that I figured I might have a hard time competing for your reading time. Then, I had this one mostly written about 10 days ago, and all hell breaks loose.  But another reason I haven’t written much lately relates to a harsh review of my essays by someone that gets paid to know the difference between good and bad writing.

One comment I received was that “we’re not all as angry as he is” and that, to paraphrase, I should plot more of a middle-of-road strategy that lets the facts speak for themselves. Well, you know what, the facts have been speaking pretty dispassionately for a half a century and here we are, still arguing whether or not certain counties lie within well-established watershed boundaries, because those counties might actually want some accountability when it comes to their drinking water. If this doesn’t make a person angry or frustrated, then I may not be their read du jour.

The multi-generational slog to improve Iowa water quality and especially that of the Raccoon River has often been portrayed as a struggle between city slickers and the hardscrabble rural Iowa underdog. Former Governor Branstad even said the Des Moines Water Works declared war on rural Iowa. My take on it is a little bit different.

At its core, the issue of Raccoon River water quality is this: a few holding as hostage the water belonging the masses. The real underdogs have always had to wallow in the downstream mud. How else do you explain a half century of bad water? I’ll just say it: this is about a recalcitrant minority’s license to impair the water, and ensuring that license lasts for as long as possible. How does a watershed's landowners leave $2 million in public funds lying on the table while more than 500,000 people are left to cope with the impairment? And, how are we to embrace and invest in voluntary strategies when there are no volunteers?

In a 2018 letter to the Des Moines Register (1), then-Des Moines Water Works General Manager Bill Stowe illustrated the contrast between the Iowa Great Lakes and the Raccoon River. Governor Reynolds had just signed a bill restricting pesticide applications near West Okoboji and other Iowa glacial lakes, upon whose shores lie some of Iowa’s most expensive real estate. Stowe quoted Iowa legislators that were fearful that West Okoboji would become “another Flint, Michigan”, and he lamented that the Raccoon River and Des Moines water customers didn’t merit this sort of consideration. It’s as clear as Lake Okoboji where our body politic deems water quality regulation appropriate, and where it doesn’t.

But I’m not hopeless and I’m certainly not always angry. I detect a different kind of vibe in this rotten raccoon story. Desperation. When you’re redrawing maps to prevent the tide from eroding your petrified position, the gig is about up.