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Red ball icon IOWATER  
Making a Splash
with Volunteer Monitoring 


by Richard A. Leopold and Lynette S. Seigley
photos by Clay Smith
Water fall
Volunteers are trained to test Iowa's waters for nitrate, pH, phosphate, and dissolved oxygen.
Woman testing water



As we enter the new millennium, water quality continues to be one of Iowa's top environmental concerns. To help address this issue, a volunteer water monitoring program known as IOWATER was established in 1998. It provides an opportunity for Iowans to take an active role in protecting and restoring Iowa's waters by monitoring the quality of streams across the state.

So why monitor? Information is needed to answer the most basic questions about Iowa's water resources. What is the condition of the state's surface water and groundwater resources? How has Iowa's water quality changed through time? Is water quality improving, remaining the same, or declining? While Iowa has increased its funding for a statewide water monitoring program, most of the state's 72,000 miles of streams remain untested. With the help of trained volunteers, we can begin to acquire some valuable information on the quality of Iowa's water resources.

Although volunteer monitoring in Iowa is not new, IOWATER is a new citizen-based program directed by the needs of local communities. It focuses on solutions and is interested in results. The program is flexible, allowing local groups to design their own monitoring plans, including site selection, monitoring frequency, and which parameters to monitor. Plans will vary, from a fifth grade class testing water once a year, to a conservation club testing several sites in a watershed on a monthly basis, to a concerned farmer testing a stream along his adjoining fields during spring planting. IOWATER uses a watershed approach, integrating land use, soils, and drainage basins (see map below) with water quality. IOWATER is committed to developing local working partnerships and sharing information and resources among state and federal agencies.

Major watersheds map


All of us live in a watershed. One of the first things volunteers are encouraged to do after selecting a monitoring site is to familiarize themselves with the surrounding watershed. What lies within a watershed directly impacts a stream's water quality. How is the watershed's land used? Is most of it urban or rural? Do paved parking lots move water quickly into the stream? What type of vegetation grows along the stream? Does most of the land receive fertilizer and pesticide applications? Being familiar with a watershed and its land use can help when interpreting the water quality data.

During the year 2000, volunteers were trained at 18 workshops across Iowa. Indoor and outdoor sessions included a "State of the Water" address, how to start a monitoring plan, networking and media relations, the "how" and "why" of stream monitoring, and how to handle the data.

Rich Leopold   Woman in class   Man in class


Workshop participants are provided with all the equipment needed to start monitoring. They are trained to identify the benthic or bottom-dwelling organisms (benthic macroinvertebrates) that live in streams, to chemically test the water, and to evaluate the stream's habitat. Bottom-dwellers and other organisms such as mayflies, caddisflies, and leeches occur in streams across Iowa and have different tolerances to pollution. These organisms serve as "environmental thermometers" of the water in which they live. The presence or absence of certain organisms provides information about the health of that stream. Repeated sampling of benthic organisms at a site can help identify changes in water quality. For example, a decline in the number of organisms with a low tolerance for pollution at the same time as an increase in organisms with a high tolerance for pollution may be an indication that water quality is declining.

The chemical quality of streams is highly variable and is influenced by season, time of day, weather, and land use. Unlike biological monitoring, results from chemical monitoring are a snapshot in time of a stream's quality. For IOWATER, chemical monitoring involves use of a dissolved oxygen kit and chemical test strips for nitrate-N and nitrite-N, phosphate, and pH. In addition to chemical parameters, physical measurements include water temperature, as well as stream width, depth, and velocity. Water clarity is also measured using a transparency tube.

Iowater equipment   Iowater equipment


Assessing stream habitat is important in tracking changes through time. What is the composition of the streambed? What is the condition of the stream banks? Is sediment eroding from the banks and affecting the habitat of benthic organisms in the stream, or is the sediment affecting the transparency or water clarity? By collecting various types of data, one can begin to assess the health of a stream. And by monitoring a site through time, collected data reveals whether water quality is improving, declining, or remains unchanged.

Picnic   Class at stream


Upon completion of the 10-hour workshop, participants are certified Level 1 IOWATER citizen monitors. Additional Level 2 and 3 training includes more specialized water testing methods. Over 500 participants, including people from local, state, and federal agencies; educators, from kindergarten teachers to college professors; farm and commodity groups; city and county planners; conservation organizations; and interested volunteers have attended workshops in 2000. The diversity of these participants will be a strength as coalitions form and establish monitoring programs of their own around the state. Visit the program's web site (www.IOWATER.net) for information on attending a future workshop in your area.

man collecting insects Aquatic insects, snails, and leeches are used as indicators of a stream's general health. These organisms can serve as "environmental thermometers" to indicate if a stream has been impacted by pollution. The habitats of these organisms vary from the bottoms of rocks to floating vegetation.

Looking on rock for organisms Hand with organism


IOWATER is promoting clean water by giving local groups the tools needed to encourage advocacy on water quality issues. A public database provides volunteers a place to submit their data and to access data collected by other volunteers in their watershed and across Iowa.

What's in the future? IOWATER will provide ongoing statewide networking through additional workshops, periodic newsletters, and annual conferences. Although currently focused on flowing streams, the program will be expanded to include lake and wetland monitoring in the near future. It may broaden even further to include air, soil, groundwater, or other natural resources.

Measuring stream width    

Stream width, depth, velocity, and temperature may be measured at the same time chemical and biological sampling are done.


IOWATER is a vital component of our new statewide water monitoring program. Citizens who participate in the monitoring process will benefit the environment by becoming actively involved in local water-quality issues and by assisting in restoration of Iowa's waters.  And they'll have a little fun and some muddy exercise to boot! One thing is certain, IOWATER is here to stay, "making waves of difference" across Iowa!

Man measuring turbidity Man measuring turbidity Man measuring turbidity

Water clarity is affected by the amount of suspended sediment and is measured with a transparency tube.


IOWATER is a statewide partnership including volunteer monitors, Area Education Agencies, Community Colleges of Iowa, Iowa Assoc. of Naturalists, Iowa Conservation Education Council, Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources, Iowa Environmental Council, Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Resource and Conservation Development, Iowa State Univ. Extension, Iowa Student Environmental Council, Izaak Walton League, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Trees Forever, and the Univ. of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory.

Adapted from Iowa Geology 2000, Iowa Department of Natural Resources