Notes from the Field: French Creek, Northeast Iowa


French Creek flows through the limestone country of northeast Iowa. Two nearby towns are Waukon and Decorah. French Creek had long been famous for the trout that inhabited its waters. Deep holes and hidden cut banks held browns, rainbows, and brookies.  Brown trout, some well over twenty inches in length, swam between its grass and brush-lined banks. The rainbows and brookies tended to be smaller, but they were still sizable.

The clear, sparkling waters of French Creek flowed over gravel bars, limestone riffles, and large limestone boulders. Water cress grew on the edges of the stream, while mats of aquatic vegetation grew atop the riffles and gravel bars. The riffles continually oxygenated the water, which was necessary for the health of the trout.  The streambed vegetation spurred impressive insect hatches, which fostered the growth of big fish. In a state that has always placed the production of corn above all else, including environmental quality, outdoor recreation, and human health, French Creek was truly a jewel in the rough. For much of the year, it ran crystal clear and super cold, which stood in sharp contrast to almost every other polluted stream in the state, including the Missouri, Big Sioux, Raccoon, Des Moines and Skunk.  In 2012, the Big Sioux received national notoriety for being named the thirteenth most polluted river in the United States. Farm runoff – in the form of cow manure and nitrates – fouled the Big Sioux. That same toxic stew has contaminated almost every other stream in Iowa.  It now threatens French Creek.

In the last few years, high corn prices convinced farmers in the French Creek watershed to convert grassland, pasture, and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres to corn. Farmers hoped to cash-in on the new corn bonanza. A lax Iowa Department of Natural Resources, charged with protecting Iowa’s natural wonders for future generations did little to protect the fabled trout stream from farming. The results have been predictable.

In June 2013, a series of thunderstorms drenched northeast Iowa. In a matter of days, record amounts of precipitation fell across the region. Scientists believe the uncharacteristic rains likely resulted from climate change.  The rains were just too intense to have been a normal occurrence. Within the French Creek watershed, the heavy rains struck barren, recently plowed and seeded soil. In a short period of time, a toxic mixture of manure, mud, nitrates and water poured down the steep slopes bordering French Creek. Over the course of subsequent days, French Creek filled with pollutants and muck. When the floodwaters receded, tons of gray, stinking mud filled in French Creek’s holes and covered its riffles and gravel bars. In fly-fishing parlance, the stream had “blown out” in apocalyptic fashion. In July and August 2013, the polluted mud lying atop the bed of the stream contributed to a massive algae bloom. The algae lowered the stream’s oxygen levels and smothered the natural, bug-producing vegetation.

By the fall of 2013, French Creek looked nothing like it did even a year earlier, let alone five years ago. Fish numbers had fallen off, the average size of fish had shrunk, and algae flourished everywhere, especially in the reach flowing through the lower pasture. Farmers, and their political stooges (including Governor Terry Branstad) are primarily responsible for the creek’s ecological decline. It’s a tragedy that French Creek is being destroyed in order to grow more corn. But what makes the loss of French Creek particularly galling is that no one is willing to protect a few miles of prime trout water from the rapaciousness of modern agriculture. The people of Iowa are going to stand idly by while ag interests destroy their state’s last few remnants of environmental quality. That outcome reflects poorly on the people of Iowa and their government representatives; it’s also just downright pathetic.

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