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Drought impacting Iowa’s shallow lakes and wetlands

  • 8/25/2021 8:21:00 AM
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Parkersburg, Iowa - With much of Iowa currently under drought conditions, many shallow lakes and wetlands will either be dry or nearly dry, making scouting an important part of hunter’s preparation ahead of the 2021 waterfowl season.

The issue is most pronounced at Big Marsh Wildlife Area, near Parkersburg, that relies on the West Fork of the Cedar River to provide water for its expansive network of wetlands.

“Our permit requires us to maintain a minimum of 64 cubic feet per second flow in the river and last Sunday, it had dropped to 59 CFS,” said Jason Auel, wildlife biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “That basically means we can’t take any water from the river.”

The rain that recently passed through northern Iowa provided a temporary bump in the river level but unless rain begins to fall consistently in the watershed, Big Marsh will struggle to fill this year.

“Under normal circumstances, it takes us up to two weeks to fill the marsh. The river reached 100 cubic feet per second from the recent storm and at that level, it will take about six weeks,” Auel said. “We’ll take as much rain as we can, but hunters shouldn’t expect normal water conditions in there anytime soon.”

Roughly 30 miles to the east, Sweet Marsh Wildlife Area, near Tripoli, is close to typical water level for teal season.

“My advice is to get out and scout as most areas are dry with a few exceptions being the larger or deeper wetlands,” he said. “What we need is a couple of inches of rain each week for a month.”

In southwest Iowa, the pumps have been running at Riverton Wildlife Area, near Sidney, as soon as it was allowed, but because of the drought, it will take time for water to reach the main boat ramp.

“There should be water in the channel in the Jensen Tract. Smaller boats with mud motors should be able to operate at least in the channels on the north end, but larger boats with outboard motors will probably have trouble getting around,” said Matt Dollison, wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR in southwest Iowa. “For the early season, the main marsh will have water for birds and be better for walk in hunting.”

As for the other areas in his district, Dollison said many of the other marshes are completely dry, but there is a little water in the deepest portions of the wetland excavations along the Missouri River. “We’re in a drought and when we’re in a drought, scouting becomes important,” he said.

At Goose Lake Wildlife Area, in Clinton County, the drought conditions combined with a construction project means hunters who use the north pool to hunt ducks will probably need to change their location.

The project to replace the dam at Goose Lake is behind schedule and the north pool is mostly dry, said Curt Kemmerer, wildlife biologist with the DNR covering Iowa’s east central region.  

“The center pool, which is the smallest pool, will have boatable water and the south pool will have water as usual, but it is walk in hunting,” Kemmerer said.

The drought has impacted Muskrat Slough, in Jones County, that underwent an annual drawdown to revegetate the popular natural marsh. But once the boards were in place to begin holding water, the rains haven’t come.

“One to two big rains could change that,” Kemmerer said. “But it’s likely walk-in hunting unless the rains come. It’s a Mother Nature thing.”

He said the Green Island and Princeton areas have good vegetation and duck food and should be fine unless something happens to the pumps. They will begin pumping water to those areas by the end of August.

In central Iowa, Todd Gosselink, wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR said the options in his area has been limited by the drought. “We can’t pump at Hartford Marsh is the water being released from the Red Rock dam is at the minimum outflow.”

He said the options for hunters include the Boxcars at the delta, where the Des Moines River meets Lake Red Rock, but the area is so shallow that only kayaks or mud motors can get to the mudflats where teal are feeding on invertebrates. Access will also be difficult to get to the oxbows at Chichaqua, he said.  

“The Runnels Marsh has water, but it’s not reaching the vegetation,” Gosselink said. “It’s walk-in hunting and has had good hunting in the past. Other than that, we’re pretty dry.”

The only area not suffering from severe drought is southern Iowa from Lake Rathbun east to the Mississippi River.

“Each impoundment varies in water level. The majority of our wetlands are either half or two thirds full, but hunters will need to put in some time scouting to find huntable water,” said Heath Van Waus, wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR covering Iowa’s south-central region. “It’s probably not enough water for the big boats but small boats with mud motors, canoes, kayaks can get in to the areas.”

The Iowa DNR posts a report on wetland habitat conditions to its website at The first report will be posted on Aug. 27.