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SAC CITY, Ia. — A moment of terror on the North Raccoon River: Strange creatures are ahead, making loud noises.

A group of us is paddling down the river in Sac and Calhoun counties to document its life and challenges with water pollution, when we suddenly face a moment ripped from the pages of adventure journals.

“Moo,” the creatures said.

Thousands of pounds of hamburger and steak suddenly get the idea to swim across the river. More than a half-dozen cattle swim past the lead canoe, carrying our intrepid river experts, which narrowly misses the dog-paddling stampede. A second wave of the bovine swim team crosses, just as some of the rest of our group passes in canoes.

We chuckle at danger.

It was a humorously unexpected, yet appropriately symbolic, moment. We came to catalog the river’s wildlife, but the domestic livelihood of Iowans along the river could not be ignored. It’s too important to Iowa, where corn and soybean fields surround the river and cattle do the front stroke. The state leads the nation in corn production, often leads in soybeans, and ties for seventh in cattle and calf production.

MORE FROM THE RACCOON: A river of controversy and undiscovered beauty

Yet, the state's powerhouse agriculture industry takes its toll on the environment, particularly  Iowa's drinking water, some say. Des Moines Water Works has sued drainage districts in the counties we are paddling through, claiming that excess pollutants are draining into the river and end up in Des Moines.

On the second and third days of our journey, that struggle between working the land and protecting it came into clearer focus.

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Follow along as a team of environmentalists and two journalists take a three-day canoe trip on the Raccoon River through Sac and Calhoun counties to document problems, wildlife, erosion and more. The counties were sued for high-nitrate levels. Zachary Boyden-Holmes/The Register

A barometer of river health

Just before our impromptu cattle herding, we saw a tractor running in a field within feet of the cutbanks.

We’re halfway on the second day of our journey, from Hagge Park south of Sac City to 12 miles downstream. Mike Delaney gathered several species of mussel shells on a sandbar for our inspection.

Mussels are a good indicator of river health, and the Des Moines man was delighted. For the first time on the Raccoon, he had found a threeridge mussel. A larger diversity of species is a sign of livable conditions for them.

Delaney, 69, retired from full-time teaching at Des Moines Area Community College in 2005 but still teaches an online environmental sociology course. He spends significant time on the river, where he started to paddle at age 10, and is a familiar face in the Legislature, lobbying for water quality issues. He helped launch the nonprofit Raccoon River Watershed Association in 2005 and owns a riverside cabin downstream.

“There’s a lot of ridiculous destruction of the waters in Iowa, so we created this organization,” he said. “We are being heard now. People know we exist. Not that we have power, but we will continue to tell the story.”

He likes to go down the river and see minks, foxes and many of the 298 bird species his organization has spotted since 2005. He touts his low impact on the environment by using his own muscles to travel the landscape. Iowans don’t come from a paddling culture like his native Indiana, he said, and many of the avid paddlers have moved here from other states.

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But the numbers are increasing, along with new water trails and more outfitters. He’s pushing for the water quality to improve — among other things, to help the mussels lined up at his feet.

The number of species of mussels has declined in the North Raccoon in Sac and Calhoun counties. There were once 17 species recorded on some stretches of the river. Iowa mussel expert Jen Kurth could find only eight during her past field studies of the river.

The North Raccoon is about average in mussel diversity when compared with other Iowa streams, but it suffers in comparison with surrounding states such as Minnesota. In Iowa, 56 species were once found, but today only 44.

“Sediment is the biggest issue for mussels,” said Kurth, an Iowa Department of Natural Resources biologist. “Most of what is dumping into rivers is not stable, and when water flow is high, they don’t have anything to hang on to.”

The soil primarily comes from runoff from nearby fields or bank erosion. It’s undetermined, she added, how nitrates affect the mussels.

The fish in the river have fared better. The DNR’s John Olson, who has monitored fish in the North Raccoon near Sac City in years past, found that the river was above average for fish, with bass, channel catfish and numerous smaller species.

The nutrients that flow into the river from fields encourage plant growth, which helps fish populations.

“The problem gets to be when you have too much nutrient and have problems with dissolved oxygen. Then it’s a microcosm of Gulf hypoxia,” he said, where Midwest runoff settles in the Gulf of Mexico and threatens the shrimping business.

So far, fish populations have been stable.

Yet Delaney insists that changes are needed in a system that promotes large-scale corn and soybean production but doesn’t protect the environment. Delaney doesn’t lay the blame on farmers, who gathered with us the night before in Sac City.

Taking aim at nitrates

Ben Albright, 34, farms nearby in the watershed. He uses no-till farming, buffer strips and cover crops, all conservation methods designed to save soil from eroding and protect the river.

“Our goal is to leave the ground in better shape than when we started, and that’s one way to do it,” he said. “We don’t want our dirt to go down the stream more than anybody else.”

Like Dennis Degner, who farms near Lytton, he thinks the lawsuit is a waste of money. They aren’t sure what people expect them to do on a landscape that was once full of sloughs and wetlands before it was drained.

“Our land is flat. If we slow water down any more, we are hurting ourselves,” Degner said. “If the yield suffers, I suffer financially, and I am out of business. To feed the world, these methods raise the cost of production, and the people in town pay more for groceries.”

LAWSUIT 101: What you need to know about the Water Works lawsuit

He said he got government funding to plant cover crops, and he got feed value from it, but “everything costs money.”

He questions why drinking water is even pulled from the river.

“Didn’t your mom tell you not to suck icicles off the roof?” he said. “Drill a well.”

Des Moines Water Works officials say that wells cannot provide enough water for a population the size of Des Moines, and the river is needed as a source. Water Works said it used 10.1 billion gallons per year from the Raccoon River, based on a three-year average.

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Farmers here insist that more of their number are waking up to the problem and are willing to try conservation methods. The effort is aided by the state’s Water Quality Initiative, which was launched in 2013 to implement the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The strategy's stated goal is to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus losses into Iowa waters by 45 percent.

The criticism of the program is that it’s voluntary. But the Iowa Department of Agriculture touts a $3.5 million investment to help farmers with new conservation practices, and 16 watershed demonstration projects have been launched.

So far, data haven't been released to measure the reduction strategy’s effectiveness.

In Sac County, conservation programs such as cover crops are so popular that the 30 or 40 slots available for government funding each year are quickly filled, said Jim Frederick, chairman of the Sac County Soil and Water Conservation District.

“It’s the money issue,” he said. “But farmers have also got to be educated and willing to change. The problem is that half the landowners are absent, and renters might not want to do it.”

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Seth Smith, a farmer in Sac County, gives his thoughts on the Water Works lawsuit. "It opened my eyes to that there was a real problem, but I don't feel like we're going about it the right way," he said.

'This could be big'

The river can be a piece of art. Even a long eroded bank, washed out by high water flows, reveals a tapestry of orange tree roots snaking down to the river’s edge.

Delaney and his paddling cohorts, photographer Ty Smedes, retired environmental science teacher Ray Harden and paddling enthusiast Steve Roe, can show you where the old oxbows of the river flowed and lead you through a rock dam rapid with the calm and ease of old pros.

MORE FROM THE RACCOON: What we found on a troubled Iowa river

The largely unrestricted 180 miles of river from northern Sac County to Des Moines could be a recreation destination, said Delaney, who thinks that Des Moines officials who spend time and money on discussion of modifying dams are ignoring the potential of the Raccoon, which also flows downtown.

“I don’t know why people can’t see it; this could be big,” Delaney said after negotiating rapids on day three of our trip, a short 7-mile paddle through the corner of Calhoun County.

INTERACTIVE MAP: Click on the canoe icons to see memorable scenes and details from the North Raccoon River journey.

But the big issue is pollution, and nitrates, a drinking water contaminant, are key to the discussion.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that more than 10 milligrams per liter of nitrates in drinking water risks human health. In seven nitrate samplings we took on our river trip through Sac and Calhoun counties, all but one reading was 10 or more, which was consistent with five government water monitoring stations on the North Raccoon. The state's water utilities treat the water to remove nitrates.

Des Moines Water Works officials and some scientists say that agriculture practices have led to the high levels, principally from fertilizer that leaches into waterways.

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But Iowa Farm Bureau spokeswoman Laurie Johns wrote in an email that “a number of factors influence nitrate levels, and they can fluctuate day by day.” She said farmers are collaborating on solutions, but nitrate levels have trended down in recent years.

Chris Jones, a hydroscience research engineer at the University of Iowa, counters: “There can be no dispute that nitrate levels are far higher than what we think is the natural condition for Iowa streams.”

He said that annual median milligrams per liter of nitrates in Iowa streams were in the 1 to 2 range in 1905, 4 in 1940 and 9 today. And in most Iowa streams, the trend is upward since 1986, Jones said.

The entire hydrology of the river systems was dramatically changed by tiling, which began more than a century ago, draining swampland and making Iowa's land some of the most productive in the country.

FARMING 101: What you need to know about tiling runoff

But the changes have leveled off in the past 40 years, Jones said.

That plateau isn’t necessarily a good thing. The modern cropping system, the inputs to sustain it and the drainage cause water quality issues, he said.

“It is disingenuous to blame water quality on the weather,” he said.

Teeming with wildlife

By the time we neared the end of more than 30 miles of paddling along this river, we had seen a stark dichotomy.

We saw the beauty of the Iowa landscape, with huge oaks and cottonwoods lining the banks. The air constantly filled with birds darting past our bow — 42 species counted in three days.

We saw deer, raccoons, coyotes and snakes. We saw wild rose and columbine and sweet William growing on the banks.

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Yet we had not seen turtles, rarer mussels, or people on the water. We had sunk into mud and seen banks cut by high water flows changed by heavy tiling.

We had paddled with men who discovered the river as boys and thought “it was the most adventurous thing I could do in my life,” said Rex Harvey, who made his own canoe to paddle hundreds of miles downstream as a young man and is spending his aging years still plying rivers while fighting cancer.

We had seen farmers who had talked with irritation that they were being accused of pollution, yet who greeted us with an open mind and friendliness.

We had heard of eager Sac County residents ready to embrace recreation, yet on the last day of our trip, the nearby town of Wall Lake issued a high-nitrate warning for the city's drinking water.

As we exit the river at the Jackson access in Calhoun County, three men in a nearby field are fixing a broken tile. Mark Schleisman’s great-grandfather hand-laid the old clay tile generations ago.

The break had caused a large section of his cornfield to flood, killing the new corn plants. Such is the importance of draining the land.

Yet his 4,500 acres farmed between family members are part of a government demonstration project using stream-side filters and cover crops for conservation.

“We can all do better, but everyone cares,” he said. “Well, not everyone.”

The last words hang like the turkey vulture flying over the river as we load up to go home.

About nitrates

  • What are they? Nitrates are forms of nitrogen found in natural ecosystems. They include nitrates and nitrites, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nitrates are essential plant nutrients.
  • Why are they bad? In excessive amounts, nitrates can cause significant water quality problems. Together with phosphorus, excessive nitrates can lead to low oxygen levels, killing fish and other aquatic life in places such as the Gulf of Mexico.
  • How much is too much? The federal government requires that nitrates in drinking water not exceed 10 milligrams per liter — a level that, without treatment, can be deadly to infants 6 months and younger, the EPA says. Symptoms include shortness of breath and blue-tinted skin, a condition known as blue baby syndrome.
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