The Watershed Around You

By Larry Stone


Just south of Fairfield, a gurgling creek meanders through a gallery of silver maples, willows, and cottonwoods. On the nearby uplands, huge, gnarled white oaks – “wolf trees” – dot an oak-hickory woodland that has filled in a former savanna. Wild plums and chokecherries grow at the forest edges.

This is Jefferson County Park, with “a little bit of everything for people who love nature,” said Therese Cummiskey, naturalist for the county conservation board. It’s a 190-acre oasis where birders can watch redstarts, red-eyed vireos, indigo buntings, and a host of other species. Other visitors may explore a nature center, rent an overnight cabin, wander through a restored prairie, photograph trilliums and other spring flowers, catch bluegills in a 3-acre pond, or frolic on a playground. Some even play in the creek.

  Ah, the creek . . . “It’s kind of generic, like so many nameless Iowa creeks – an X stream,” mused Fairfield resident Jack Eastman.

Some Fairfield residents still refer to the creek by a vulgar nickname from the days when septic tanks drained into it. But Eastman prefers to call it Indian Creek. Whatever the name, however, there’s no hiding the stream’s sad legacy. The urban watershed drains a foundry tailings yard, parking lots, storm sewers, an industrial area contaminated with petroleum and chemicals, old landfills, a Superfund site, and sanitary sewer overflows. Developers have bulldozed trees in alongside the banks. For the first half-mile of its length, the creek flows underground through storm sewers.

“There just isn’t a lot of good about Indian Creek,” sighed Eastman, as he pondered the myriad problems of the little stream. A coal gasification plant that operated from the 1870s until 1950 left behind lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals, along with benzene and several similar chemicals. Alliant Energy has spent nearly $3 million to clean up the site, and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to monitor it.

The EPA and the Iowa Department of Health also have studied an abandoned industrial site that had been contaminated with spilled fuel oil, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, and lead. After a clean-up, the agencies said the site could be used for industrial purposes, but that public access and trespassing should be restricted.

But Eastman, who’s vice-chair of the Leopold Group of the Iowa Chapter of The Sierra Club, hasn’t given up on Indian Creek, which first caught his eye when he became a volunteer stream monitor for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) IOWATER program. “You had to be blind not to notice all the trash and tires that littered the banks,” he said.

Eastman organized Sierra Club clean-ups in the park, then on Earth Day 2003 expanded the effort to include dozens of volunteers. Local businesses donated money for trash hauling and disposal. City crews and a National Guard unit brought trucks and heavy equipment to help. As they removed the debris, Eastman and others began to realize that Cooper’s hawks, songbirds, deer, and other wildlife were drawn to the wooded urban corridor.

Still, Eastman wonders how pure the water really is, as it trickles through culverts, around buried car bodies, past former dumpsites, and over broken concrete. An Iowa DNR check found small concentrations of aluminum and extractable hydrocarbons, but no detectable levels of most other chemical pollutants. Eastman and other volunteers plan to continue testing.

Across town, David White also sees hope for the Indian Creek watershed. As district conservationist for the Jefferson County Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), White is coordinating a proposal to manage runoff from 28 acres on a stream tributary in an industrial park. Water from rooftops would be tiled into small wetlands, water gardens, and a pond. Infiltration trenches in parking lots could slow runoff. Native prairie plantings would absorb rainfall where it falls.

White envisions a large pond that could double as a stormwater retention basin and a recreational area. Trails could connect to Jefferson County Park and the nearby city of Libertyville. The site could become an outdoor classroom and a demonstration area for good water management. Partners in the effort include the Fairfield Economic Development Association, several businesses, Trees Forever, Pheasants Forever, and the Jefferson County Trails Council.

Dennis Lewiston, director of the Jefferson County Conservation Board, expects the project to reduce the flood surges that sometimes overtop a creek crossing in the park. And he hopes to see improvement in the quality of the water, which is a magnet for children who come to the park.

Eastman doesn’t expect miracles. But he likes to think that Indian Creek can help build people’s awareness for what’s in their water.

“We’re getting people to think about the watershed,” he said, “and that’s the first step.”

“Isn’t it amazing how much of a story there is in a mile of stream?” Eastman marveled.

After the first clean-up, Eastman brought a friend to see the creek – and was amazed to see a young buck deer bedded down at an old landfill site near “a few washing machines and a half-buried truck bed. The truck, it seemed kept the bank from collapsing,” he wrote in a Sierra Club newsletter. “The deer, it seems, helps keep my hopes for the creek from collapsing.”

What’s ahead?

“We found ourselves talking about next steps,” Eastman wrote. “We would meet again with the Mayor and organize another clean-up. We would plant trees and shrubs and stabilize the banks. We would investigate making the water cleaner and considered putting in benches,” he said.

“A natural consequence of getting out in nature is the desire to preserve it,” Eastman added. “We went out to restore a creek and in the process discovered someplace new. And there it was right under our nose . . . We have chosen a small length of stream to clean? Is that so extreme?”

About the author:

Larry Stone has never outgrown his fascination with the creeks, fencerows, ponds, and fields on the southern Iowa farm where he was born.  He shares that love of nature in his books, magazine articles, lectures, and photographs that connect people with their environment.  In 1979, while outdoor writer for the Des Moines Register, he received the Iowa Sierra Club’s environmental journalist award.  Larry and his wife, Margaret, joined the Sierra Club in 1970. They now live in northeast Iowa, where they manage woodlands and small prairies on their farm along the Turkey River near Elkader.

Editor’s note: A shortened version of this article first appeared in the September/October 2004 issue of the Iowan Magazine and is used with permission of the author and the Iowan.