End of the Year Thoughts

Steve Lekwa

It’s early Sunday morning as I write this week’s column, the last one for 2015. The past year turned out to be a pretty good one, all things considered. It was a wet year, but spared us heavy flooding that easily could have happened if any of several major precipitation events had tracked even a little differently. Record December rainfall led to lowland flooding that was most unusual, though. We appear to be shifting toward a more winter-like pattern with the unexpected Christmas Eve snow event that gave us a beautiful white Christmas. The entire state is under new winter storm watches and warnings as this is written. We can only hope that all the El Nino moisture we’ve been getting doesn’t continue as snow in the new year.

Story County opened its new Dakins Lake Park at Zearing early last summer. The lake’s water quality looked good throughout the summer, despite heavy runoff. It was reported to be one of Central Iowa’s clearest lakes all season, due in no small part to the excellent planning that went into its construction. Stilling basins and wetland cells that were built into major drainage ways flowing into the lake trapped silt and captured nutrients before they could cause damage. Growth rates on newly stocked fish were good to excellent in 2015, meaning that the next several years should offer very good fishing there.

Water quality (or lack of it) was a big issue for Iowa in 2015 and will continue to be in the new year. Thankfully, actions are being taken to begin addressing long-standing water quality issues for Hickory Grove Lake. Banks were stabilized and livestock was excluded from the stream that feeds into the upper end of the lake. Several septic systems in the watershed were being upgraded as well. It’s great to see funding finally available to allow action to be taken on issues that have been discussed for at least 20 years! Much remains to be done to ensure that Hickory Grove Lake can continue to offer good fishing and human contact outdoor recreation for years to come. A multifaceted plan is finally in place, though, and we can expect more progress in the next few years. Statewide progress will only be made when all levels of government and the private sector come together so that the rest of the state’s equally important waterways receive a similar level of attention and commitment!

Pheasant numbers finally began struggling back in 2015 from all-time lows since records were kept. Recovery is still patchy, with miles of barren fields separating islands of improved habitat. Monarch butterfly populations continue to plummet, though. There is now worry that the once ubiquitous butterfly is threatened with extinction due to continuing habitat loss and unusually adverse weather across its North American breeding and wintering range. Interestingly, a big part of the solution to improved breeding conditions for ring-necked pheasants and monarchs, as well as improved water quality, is the same – more permanent diverse vegetation on the land. Monarchs require milkweeds for their caterpillars, but the adults need all kinds of flowering plants all season long for nectar sources. So do wild and domestic bees that are also suffering severe declines. Those same flowering plants provide food and homes for insects that feed little pheasants and nearly all species of upland songbirds. One idea of making I-35 a monarch supper highway with improved plantings makes good print, but could also make it a super monarch killing field as the low and slow flying butterflies are lured into a narrow corridor they’d have to share with large volumes of high speed traffic. Far better to create corridors and patches of diverse permanent vegetation well away from traffic where butterflies, birds and animals have a better chance of survival.

2016 will doubtlessly see more planning and discussion on these and other issues of conservation concern. The as yet unanswered question is how much action will be taken to put practices in place on the land to address them.

(Steve Lekwa is retired director of Story County Conservation. He and his wife, Sue, live in Nevada.)