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Community rallies behind Catfish Creek

  • 4/7/2017 11:52:00 AM
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Read more about the work in Catfish Creek, and other water quality successes, in Working For Clean Water, the DNR's annual watershed success story publication.

The urban development surrounding Upper Catfish Creek had taken its toll. 

Newly-paved sidewalks and streets provided an easy route for sediment and pollution to run off into the coldwater stream. Excess runoff sped up erosion in the stream and raised water temperature, threatening naturally reproducing trout and other aquatic life. In 2007, watershed project coordinator Eric Schmechel brought together a diverse crowd of local partners to form a watershed council, monitor water quality, clean up streams, install conservation practices, and more. Now, almost a decade later, what began as a 9,000-acre watershed project has snowballed into a county-wide water quality effort.

Work to improve water quality in Dubuque's Catfish Creek has brought together a community and improved trout fishing | Iowa DNRA watershed authority board formed in 2011, and a strategic Watershed Management Plan for the 46,000-acre basin followed in 2012, spanning urban, agricultural, industrial and commercial areas. Since the beginning of the project, Dubuque’s college community has helped monitor water quality. “There was a lot of momentum in the area to continue that original project, and partnerships kept growing,” says Schmechel, now the urban coordinator for the Dubuque County SWCD. In addition, the City of Dubuque had a $1.4 million sponsored project through the Iowa State Revolving Fund, which the city suggested go toward the watershed effort. “After we did the upper portions (of Catfish Creek) and pilot urban projects, we had officials that recognized the importance of these practices,” Schmechel says. He adds that Dubuque was one of the first Iowa counties to pass an erosion and stormwater ordinance, and it’s working on a comprehensive plan that focuses on watersheds.

Citizens had their say as well. Over the course of about a year, Schmechel walked creek banks with landowners and held public forums to gather input into the watershed management plan. “Having the public involved in that planning process was big,” he says. Now, the management plan is being put into action, with streambank restoration, permeable pavers, biocells, soil quality restoration, and other conservation practices going into place, all cost-shared through the watershed authority board.

And a decade’s worth of work already pays dividends. When the project began, the portion of the creek that supports trout – known locally as Swiss Valley – was ranked 21st in angler use among trout surveys. In the 2011 survey, it rose all the way to the fourth spot. “Water quality is an essential habitat component for all fish, and trout are particularly sensitive to thermal stress, excessive sediment, and pollutants,” says DNR fisheries biologist Dan Kirby. 

Trout eggs and larva are even more sensitive to water quality than adult trout, so successful trout reproduction especially depends on good water quality all year. “Swiss Valley receives considerable fishing activity on a year-round basis and at periods not associated with a catchable fish stocking – I believe this is a reflection of improved water quality,” Kirby says. “As the Swiss Valley watershed is by no means perfect, we need to remember that water quality requires continuous work by everyone involved in and living in the watershed.”  

Moving forward, the watershed effort will continue its work to put practices on the ground and to educate residents about the importance of water quality and watershed improvement. Kiosks at Mines of Spain State Recreation Area and Swiss Valley Nature Center educate visitors on the issues, and an annual low-impact development conference helps advance urban stormwater efforts.

Work to improve water quality in Dubuque's Catfish Creek has brought together a community and improved trout fishing | Iowa DNR