Water quality volunteer program key to Iowa watersheds

I recently attended the Iowa volunteer water quality monitoring certification program (Iowater). I am relatively new to water testing (other than checking pH levels in my hot tub). This was an excellent hands-on introduction for the beginner. For only $20, we got a full day of instruction (lecture and practice), got to keep all the chemical test equipment and measuring equipment for the habitat assessment, and were provided free lunch, snacks and drinks. What a deal!

The best part is that all of this information is available on their website as a free download. You don’t have to live in Iowa to take advantage of their education and testing methods.

Iowater Brochure

IOWATER is part of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and it was setup to help the DNR with water testing, since it has a limited budget (like most EPA and DNR departments). The volunteers go through a training workshop, are provided equipment, then decide which sites they want to test, and record any date they gather into the online database. The data is free for all to use, but only certified testers can enter the data.

I was really impressed with the program. They have trained over 4000 volunteers since 1999, and it has greatly increased the knowledge of Iowa’s watersheds. There is no obligation to become a volunteer, but they give you everything you will need to perform the task. It’s left up to the volunteer to decide how much involvement they want to have (if any).

We learned how to test for levels of pH, Nitrate, Nitrite, Dissolved Oxygen, Phosphate, and Chloride. We also were able to take physical measurements of water velocity, depth, width, temperature and transparency. In addition, we also learned how to make physical assessments of the area, in terms of habitat type, bed substrate, general observations, stream bank properties, riparian zone coverage, and land/human use purpose.

I’m going to research some local sites, and think about my upcoming schedule, before I commit to anything. As a data analyst, it was really important to see how the testing is performed, what type of tests are available, and how these tests are affected by testing methods and any external factors. If I am ever working on another water data analysis project, I can now ask better questions about how the data was gathered.

In the big scheme of things, Iowa water quality is very important to the US. Iowa is directly responsible for much of the hypoxia (dead zone) issues near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. This is a result of our huge agriculture industry. They add fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals to the crops, and those chemicals make their way into the rivers, and get carried down the Mississippi River. So despite these issues, we actually do not have any limits on what the nitrate levels can be in the water, much to my surprise! I was told there is legislation coming soon, but you know how fast these things get implemented. I’ll add updates if I hear anything new…