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Great Rivers Partnership

Cedar River Restoration Gets Boost

by Cate Harrington

Matt Fisher has seen what can happen when rivers stop functioning as they should. In June of 2008, many of Matt's friends and family lost everything when the Cedar and Iowa rivers in the Upper Mississippi River basin overflowed their banks, inundating homes, city centers and farm fields and displacing thousands of Iowans.

While it doesn't make the aftermath any less devastating, as The Nature Conservancy's Eastern Iowa Project Director, Matt understands why it happened.

"In watersheds like the Cedar River, we've lost most of our wetlands, prairies and perennial crops" he commented. "Without this vegetation to absorb water, the volume of water flowing through the Cedar River year round has increased significantly. When we get major rain events, the river can't handle all the water and damaging flooding occurs."

New Initiative to Restore Cedar River

Thanks to a $100,000 grant from the Alliant Energy Foundation, the Conservancy has launched an initiative to restore the health of the Cedar River, improving habitat for wildlife and helping reduce the catastrophic flooding that is becoming increasingly more common. This initiative builds on the Conservancy's ongoing work with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other partners to restore floodplain habitat in the Lower Cedar River, for which the foundation has also provided support.

"Many agencies, organizations and individuals, including the Conservancy, are already working in the Cedar River watershed to improve the health of the river," Fisher said. "With the Alliant Energy Foundation funding and additional support from Cargill, we can improve communication and collaboration among our existing partnerships and hopefully inspire new ones."

The Conservancy's new initiative consists primarily of three activities:

Capacity Assessment of the Cedar and Iowa River Basin: The Conservancy is in the final stages of developing an assessment of the existing partnerships and projects in these watersheds, their ability to make measurable changes to river hydrology, the tools and other resources they need to be successful and the potential for new partnerships. A final report is expected later this month, which could help lay the groundwork for hiring a basin coordinator to facilitate communication and coordination between many public agencies, universities, businesses, nonprofit organizations, elected officials and concerned citizens.

Surface and Groundwater Research: The Conservancy will support research by scientists at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Grinnell College and the University of Iowa's Iowa Institute of Hydrologic Research that will help guide restoration efforts in the basin. One study will look at how row crop fields, degraded riparian woodlands and other types of landscapes absorb water and nutrients in comparison with healthy wetlands and prairies. The results will help the Conservancy and other partners decide where in the watershed restoration efforts are likely to have the greatest impact on the hydrology and overall health of the river.

Update Conservation Action Plan: The Conservancy has been working with multiple partners on conservation and restoration in the Lower Cedar River Valley for more than a decade. Starting this fall, Conservancy staff will work with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Iowa Institute of Hydrologic Research, Natural Resources Conservation Service, county conservation boards and other partners to expand the Conservation Action Plan that currently guides work in the Lower Cedar to the entire Cedar River watershed and include an effective strategy for restoring a more natural flow to the river.

"The issues we face here in the Cedar River Watershed are not unique," Fisher said. "Through the Great Rivers Partnership, the Conservancy is addressing altered hydrology, habitat loss and damaging flooding on many tributaries to the Mississippi River. We have great partners here in Iowa, and this new initiative will help us all work more strategically together for many years to come to not only improve the health of the Cedar River but contribute to a healthier, more resilient Mississippi River as well."

Cate Harrington is a senior conservation writer for The Nature Conservancy.

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