Low river flow not the lowest

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG The Iowa River is running low, but not as low as historical lows or even recent lows. Today’s image was made looking upstream from the Stanley Mill river bridge, which clearly indicates several sandbars within ankle deep wading distance of each other. The river gauge at Marshalltown indicates a reading of 9.30 feet, which is higher by one hundredth of a foot than last year. Remember, gauge readings are just a relative number used as a baseline by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The actual depth of the water in the river varies within the channel, a give and take exchange between exposed sand bars and low flowing water in other areas. Flow rates are another indicator of low flow. Right now, the flow rate is at 200 cubic feet per second. Slow seepage of water from adjacent lands bordering the river channel, called base flow, helps to keep water in the river at all times.

Water in the river is just one measurement, a barometer of sorts, or an indicator we can try to grasp, of how dry the land is after meager rains of this past summer. Has the Iowa River in Marshall County ever been lower? Yes, many times in past centuries and decades.

The flip side of that coin are flood conditions. And with floods, data shows many high water events of various magnitudes including the biggest flood of July 2, 2014. The gauge station at Highway 14 maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers showed a flood stage of 22.25 feet on that day, almost 13 feet above today’s trickle of water. Roadways were closed to vehicle traffic on Highway 330, Highway 14 and many local county hard surfaced roads leading into and out of Marshalltown.

Dry conditions are a weather phenomenon that goes with the territory of living in Iowa during August. No one year is the same as any previous year. Each year is unique and somewhat similar to what we can expect. Fall rains will return to recharge streams and rivers in Mother Nature’s cycle. We must live by adapting.

The Iowa River watershed contains 12,637 square miles of land. Rain water falling on any of those sections, if there was no absorption into the soil, would end up in the Mississippi River in eastern Louisa County. Obviously, most rainfall events contribute immensely to the soil profile soaking up as much water as it can. Excess water will run off to charge small to medium sized streams and rivers.

We can expect, on average, about 34 inches of rain in Iowa per year, less in western Iowa and more in southeast Iowa. Annual totals vary widely from year to year and locality to locality.

Clear Lake area folks had only 12.11 inches of rain in 1910. Same for Cherokee residents in 1958. Muscatine received 74.50 inches of rain in 1851. Reliable rainfall records for Iowa began in 1873. Overall, Iowa got the least rain in 1910 of 19.93 inches. The wettest year was 1993 with 48.22 inches.

Nearly three-fourths of our annual rains fall as precipitation between April and September, the growing season. Measurable rains happen on about 100 days per year. Snows average 32 inches per year across the landscape.

Significant snow events have happened as early as Sept. 16, 1881 and as late as May 28, 1947. Snow on the ground of one inch or more varies between 40 days along the Missouri border to about 85 days along the Minnesota border. The snowiest months are December, January and February, with on average seven inches in each month. However, drum roll envisioned now, late winter snow storms have dumped as much as 27 inches in one 24 hour period. The snowiest winter of record was 1961-62 with a statewide record of 59 inches. The lowest snows were during 1965-66 with only 11.9 inches.


The North American Model of Wildlife Conservation is a written set of statements that have helped guide thoughtful and sound science applications to wildlife habitats and wildlife for a long time. It evolved from noble beginnings even when market hunting in this country’s early years was still a way to make a living. Times have changed, and wiser applications have come to the forefront to help mold the conditions we find ourselves in now.

To review a bit, in the early years of this nation, wildlife resources seemed unlimited, there for the taking anywhere and via any method. Landscapes changed with the advance of civilization with little regard to how unregulated takings or misuse of the land would affect the future.

For one species, the passenger pigeon, it was decimated by unregulated hunting and the removal of large tracts of select forest lands to the point of no return. The passenger pigeon did go extinct.

Other species may have been on the brink of extinction but did recover thanks to interventions by sportsmen and women. The tide was beginning to turn for conservation with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It was followed by the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act of 1934 and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937. To follow on this same theme, 1950 saw the passing of the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act. These laws and documents served as the beginning formulation for the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.

There are principle outlines with a legal framework now in place.

1. Wildlife is a public resource, independent of the land or water where these species may live. Governments at various levels have a role in managing that resource on behalf of all citizens to ensure the long term viability and sustainability of wildlife populations.

2. Markets for game are eliminated. Prior to wildlife protection laws enactments, commercial operations decimated many species. By making it illegal to buy and sell meat and game or non-game animal parts removed a huge threat to the survival of wildlife. Markets for fur bearing animals continue, but they are highly regulated.

3. Wildlife takings are now managed via legal mechanisms so that allocations of seasons, limits and licenses is a huge factor to help sustain populations.

4. Wildlife can only be killed for legitimate purposes, not wasted, and the taking for frivolous reasons is prohibited.

5. Wildlife may be, for some species, an international natural resource. Migratory birds are in this category as they cross international borders regularly. The Migratory Bird Treaty spells out how these shared resources are to be managed.

6. Science is recognized as the best tool to implement and discharge wildlife policy. To do so with objectivity, and fairness, and thorough knowledge is the best way to make decisions based on fact, not emotion.

7. The democracy of hunting involves government allocations of access to wildlife without regard to wealth, prestige, or land ownership.

Sportsmen and women have long recognized the need for a sustainable source of funding for wildlife stewardship. In 1937, Congress passed the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act which put an excise tax on the sale of all sporting goods and ammunition. The Dingell-Johnson Act in 1950 added sport fisheries products into the same framework.

Whenever a person purchases these sporting goods, they contribute to the fund. The funds are distributed back to the states on a matching basis to help put in place the management practices required for all wildlife.

This successful method to work for science-based wildlife management is a system that works. Now that you know more about it, keep these thoughts in mind when you purchase hunting, fishing or trapping licenses for use this fall. Next month, sometime in September, National Hunting and Fishing Day will be celebrated to give recognition to the people who make wildlife resources their passion. Stay tuned.


Quote from Aldo Leopold, an Iowa native and wildlife professor. “We seem ultimately always thrown back on individual ethics as the basis of conservation policy. It is hard to make a man, by pressure of law or money, do a thing which does not spring naturally from his own personal sense of right or wrong.”


Garry Brandenburg is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. He is a graduate of Iowa State University with a BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology.

Contact him at: P.O. Box 96 Albion, IA 50005


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