Oxbow Restorations: The fix for many water problems in rural Iowa

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LU VERNE, Iowa – On a cold wet November morning, a couple dozen people met in the Lu Verne Community Center to learn about oxbows and all the benefits of restoring an oxbow. The planned tour of a recently restored oxbow and nearby restoration a few years old was called off due to the wet conditions but Drone13 was able to fly over both sites, as seen in the video above.

Oxbows are a wetland feature formed when a stream changes course and what was a bend becomes more of an elongated pond. Some of those course changes occur naturally while others are manmade as farmers long ago worked to improve drainage in order to put more land into crop production.

Now, as water quality has become a focal point in Iowa, several groups have joined forces to restore oxbows in the Boone River watershed. The Nature Conservancy, Iowa Soybean Association, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program were all represented at the workshop in Lu Verne. Together they presented benefits of oxbow restoration which include:

  • Habitat for the endangered Topeka Shiner – they show up in most restorations within two years
  • Floodwater storage, up to 1 million gallons in a 1 acre oxbow.
  • Nitrate removal (45-90%) when used as part of an edge-of-field strategy.
  • Migratory bird habitat.
  • A water source for cattle.
  • Enhanced esthetics for the landowner.
  • Pollinator habitat.

Karen Wilke of the Nature Conservancy says many landowners take her up on her offer to improve their property, especially when she adds “It’s not going to cost you any money and I’m going to do all the work for you.” Wilke has been a part of over 30 restorations so far and is trying to line up more.

Camille Rogers accepted Wilke’s offer and is glad she did, calling her oxbow “A little piece of heaven.” While the drought this year meant her restoration was dry, she spent a day there exploring with her granddaughter, gathering rocks, looking for animal tracks and watching birds and butterflies. At the end of the day Rogers’ granddaughter exclaimed “Gramma, this has been the best day of my life!”

The Nature Conservancy offers a detailed toolkit to help interested landowners not only learn more about the oxbows but also the steps involved from start to finish. Most restorations take several months depending on various approvals required to do the work.

The Iowa Soybean Association works with landowners in the North Raccoon watershed in addition to the Boone River watershed, pointing out wildlife habitat improvements as well as the water quality benefits.

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