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Ripe as a Roadkill Raccoon

Posted on June 3rd, 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 of the Raccoon, Des Moines, and Upper Mississippi River Basins. Map credit: Dan Gilles.

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.

North Raccoon watershed, HUC 07100006. Source: U.S. Geological Survey

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.

5-Year Running Annual Average Nitrate-N load for the Raccoon River at Des Moines. Since 1974, about 1.8 billion pounds of nitrogen have exited the Raccoon River at its confluence with the Des Moines River in downtown Des Moines.

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.





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38 Responses

  1. Jeannine Laverty says:

    I have definitely noticed your silence and missed your writing. I do not agree with the criticisms of your writings. Thank you for the maps, for the ridiculous and very sad news. Or I guess it is not news. Shamefully selfish, which seems to be the lead many are following, or have held for a very long time.

    • cjones says:

      thanks for reading Jeannine!

    • Ty Smedes says:

      As a fellow writer I believe your article is honest, succinct, and well supported by the science you provided.Now its our job as concerned citizens, to vote for those who will take action. Its way past time to provide clean water for ALL Iowans. Your Blogs are a beacon of light during these dark times Chris.

  2. Kenneth says:

    The reasons that we are not all angry has little to do with truth, and much to do with power, and willful ignorance. Keep speaking truth to power. I am just as angry, just not as eloquent.

  3. Larry Stone says:

    Chris: We’ve missed you, and now glad you’re back bringing us the truth about these critical issues!

  4. Jim Ruebush says:

    I am glad to see you are back. Your voice is needed. Get angry now and then if it suits. I don’t find your writing angry. You speak the truth. That makes some others uncomfortable and angry.

    Will there be a follow-up post on dead skunks lyin’ in the middle of the road, stinkin’ to high heaven?

    • cjones says:

      Thanks Jim. Yes there are lot “critter” rivers in Iowa and I suppose there could be a story for them all.

  5. Dennis Goemaat says:

    Glad you are back writing about the sorry state of Iowa’s water. I’m unsure how you secede from a watershed. Compiling your writings into a book would be great. I appreciate all you do to keep this important issue alive by sharing facts.

  6. Allie Rath says:

    New to your writings. Very much appreciated reading your article and look forward to more! Please continue with bringing us direct and thorough information on topics Iowans NEED to know.

    Thank you!

  7. Mary Beth Stevenson says:

    It’s really sad to see the erosion of a partnership that was formed out of an intent to collaborate for watershed improvement. Kudos to those who are working to keep it alive. Thank you for this story.

  8. Cindy Hildebrand says:

    I am very happy to see this new essay. I don’t understand the point made by the “person that gets paid.” The gradient of good-to-bad writing is a separate gradient from neutral-to-angry writing. Writing does not have to be neutral to be good. And frankness is not the same as anger.

    Iowa already has lots of “middle-of-road” neutral non-frank careful tactful politics-avoiding writing about water, as well as lots of water-progress puffery and misdirection. The latter is what deserves harsh reviews.

  9. Jean Perri says:

    I don’t see how we Iowans can remain so passive about the condition of our water ways. Voluntary measures don’t work. You lay out the history of a problem, possible solutions, and the inevitable lack of progress.

  10. Orlan Love says:

    Can’t tell you how many times I’ve googled “Chris Jones blog” since April 15. Finally paid off. As one who can tell good from bad writing, I hold yours in the highest regard.

  11. Dan Haug says:

    Keep blogging, Chris. Even when I don’t share the anger, I sure appreciate the candor.

    I have to chuckle at the irony. The WMAs in my area have focused on water quality, so as to avoid lingering bad feelings over a proposed flood control reservoir. As to footnote 1, I am currently drinking a glass of “groundwater influenced by surface water” (the Des Moines River, by way of Xenia) with 5 mg/L of nitrate.

    When watershed plans and WMAs are framed as a means for entities in an arbitrary hydrologic unit (see to become eligible for grant funding, it’s easy to beat around the bush. What’s the real problem in the water body under discussion, why should the folks at the table care about it, and do they have any real influence or resources to address it?

    Still, I just got off a friendly and productive conference call with City of Ames staff and 3 Hamilton County farmers, so am optimistic about the potential for WMAs to build bridges.

  12. […] Ripe as a Roadkill Raccoon Chris Jones, IIHR Research Engineer (Late Introvert). Good stuff on Iowa hydrology. […]

  13. Jim Riggs says:

    Thank you for your words, Chris. It is unbelievable to me that northern Iowans are unconcerned about the affect of what they put into the Raccoon River watershed; they have shown; they do not seem to worry about the drinking water of other Iowans. Their lack of care about what Iowa’s nitrogen is doing to the Gulf of Mexico Is unconscionable. Keep raising your voice.

  14. Paul E Hamer says:

    The well water on our Iowa farm is undrinkable. Cancer seems to be a problem in our area. My grandson stepped into the local river, had a small almost like a paper cut on his leg
    and it became infected in 24 hours. If everyone in Iowa is happy about this, then good luck with this getting worse.

    • cjones says:

      thanks for reading the essay Paul. Yes the water from many shallow wells in Iowa is not suitable for drinking.

  15. Brad M says:

    Hi Chris, thanks so much for another excellent article. You may want to know that I forwarded it to another blog that featured your work.

    You don’t have to post this comment unless you want to. I check back on a regular basis and am always glad to see another missive from you.

    • cjones says:

      thanks Brad, and thanks for forwarding. I was not aware of this. I appreciate you reading the blog.–CJ

  16. Libby Reuter says:

    A friend shared your blog with me and I Shared it on our Facebook page. I appreciate your clear explanation of the HUC numbers. It made sense for the first time. Your anger is appropriate. Here in Missouri and Illinois (I live near St. Louis), agriculture also resists conservation measures that would lesson the nitrogen they are dumping into our streams and groundwater. Watershed Cairns is an art/education project by photographer Joshua Rowan and me. Our aim is to inspire people to take care of their freshwater, We have created work in Iowa following the Mississippi and Missouri rivers and our recent work at the Dubuque Art Museum Flow exhibition included two work from the DUbuque- Davenport area. I invite you to visit our Here’s a link to an image “Silo No Till” from the Johnson Farm near Warsaw, Illinois
    If there is anyway we can help you spread the word, please contact us.

    • cjones says:

      Hi Libby, I have been to the Dubuque museum many times but I have not been there since last summer. not sure if I saw your work or not. Thank you for reading the essays; I can’t say that I am much of an expert when it comes to getting the word out, although the essays that get a lot of reads tend to be ones where the hits come from Facebook. Keep up the good work and I will keep my eye out for it.–CJ

  17. Pat Conrad says:

    Great to have you back writing – I love reading your essays. I wish you had a podcast!

    BTW – If you’re interested in seeing the North Raccoon River Watershed Management Plan there is a link on the Coalition Facebook page.

    • cjones says:

      Hi Pat, thank you for kind words and the information on the Watershed Mgt Plan, greatly appreciated!. Take care–CJ

  18. David Kirchman says:

    Like the others who have commented on this post, I’m also glad to see you’re back. I’m not so sure about a podcast (I’m so far behind on those already), but I bet a book on these important topics would be read by many.

  19. Tim Wagner says:

    I’ve been writing in professional settings now for going on 25 years, including a gig as a journalist. I think I know bad writing when I see it. Yours ain’t it, man.

    The time is way past for the favored “Iowa Nice” label to be used in light of this particular issue. People are dying, literally, because of the old adage, “Privatize the profits, socialize the costs.” That’s exactly what some are doing in this state with regards to our water supplies. What’s ironic is that those profits could so much greater with just some simple attitude adjustments and the willingness to try new but research tested approaches to farming. As I often say in my outreach presentations on regenerative ag, “Let’s just remove “agri” from the bigger word and just call it what it is: culture. It’s long overdue for a new norm across the Iowa landscape.

    Keep on blogging.

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