By: Margot Dick, IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering Communications Assistant
County fair-goers in four southwest Iowa counties got more than food on a stick and a ride on the Ferris wheel this year — they also had the opportunity to learn more about how rain gardens can reduce runoff and flooding while also filtering pollutants.
Cara Marker Morgan is project coordinator for both the East and West Nishnabotna River watershed coalitions. Morgan and local watershed partners received a Water Quality Initiative Grant through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) to implement rain gardens on fairgrounds in Fremont, Mills, Montgomery, and Pottawattamie counties. The rain gardens both filter and hold water and act as demonstration practices to support public outreach and engagement.
Morgan says the rain gardens were constructed in a matter of months to insure they would be ready in time for the county fairs this year. Watershed partners and staff from Golden Hills Research Conservation and Development (RC&D) spent a day at each county fair demonstrating how the rain gardens work. By working with local youth to build the gardens, the project has kept young people engaged in learning about water quality in their community.
“They’re the next generation,” Morgan says. “They’re the ones [who are] going to take care of the water next.”
Vegetation planted in western Iowa must be carefully chosen because of the vulnerable loess (pronounced luss) soil in that part of the state. Loess soil carries the nickname “sugar clay” because it begins to erode as soon as it gets wet, causing dangerous gullies that can collapse roads or eat up farmland. Deep rooted plants are the safest choice because the roots will hold the soil in place even when water would normally erode it.
The plants chosen for the rain gardens are native to Iowa and purchased from local distributers. They have deep roots that mimic Iowa’s historic vegetation, allowing them to soak up water and filter out pollutants; they also provide abundant habitat for wildlife and pollinator species.
Rain gardens require more than just the correct plants; they also need soil testing, knowledge of the surrounding environment, utility line mapping, and more. IDALS was instrumental in designing and finding ideal locations for the gardens. Morgan says partnerships with other organizations are what keep the watershed coalitions running. Other organizations such as Iowa Corn, local soil and water conservation districts, and the 4H fair boards also helped get the rain gardens up and running in time for the fairs.
“We like partnerships—we don’t want to be a standalone at all when it comes to projects like this,” Morgan says. “We want to bring in as many partners and work with anybody that should be involved.”
For further information, contact Cara Marker Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 712-249-6024