The environmental group American Rivers lists two waterways that either border Iowa or flow through the state on its annual list of the nation’s ten most endangered rivers.
Olivia Dorothy, director of the group’s Upper Mississippi River Basin, says the 2019 flooding on the Lower Missouri River brought massive levee breaches. It’s concerning, she says, because the river is too constricted and there’s not enough room for water that comes downriver during floods.
“We need to take strategic action to set back levees,” Dorothy says, “to give the river a little bit more room to flood so that we know the water is going to basically go into areas of the flood plain where people and critical infrastructure aren’t located.”
This is the second year in a row the Lower Missouri River has made the group’s most-endangered list. “We are again calling on Congress and the states along the Lower Missouri River to work together to set up a framework to prioritize areas where levees can be set back and where we can do critical habitat restoration which is much needed for a lot of species, including the pallid sturgeon,” she says.
That fish is threatened, she says, in part due to a lack of access to quality habitat. The Raccoon River is on this year’s most-endangered list for the first time. Its three forks run for 226 miles across western and central Iowa.
Dorothy says the Raccoon is most threatened by pollution due to agricultural runoff, which she attributes to “industrial agriculture.” “In the Raccoon watershed, we have a lot of confined feeding operations, we have a lot of confined factory farms,” Dorothy says. “They spread manure in excess across the watershed on farms for fertilizer. A lot of times, that fertilizer is running off and getting into our drinking water.”
It’s forced cities like Des Moines to install expensive nitrate removal equipment, while she says it’s continuing to threaten the drinking water in rural areas, especially for people who use wells. Dorothy says nitrogen is particularly toxic to children, infants, and pregnant women.
“We are calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in in Iowa and step up their enforcement actions,” she says, “and really start regulating these factory farms that we know are being installed in excess throughout the state of Iowa but especially in the Raccoon watershed.”
The full report is online at AmericanRivers.org. Dorothy encourages Iowans to log on and learn more, and find links so they can contact federal agencies and officials to demand action to protect our rivers — and people.