Nutrient monitoring

Watershed monitoring now includes tile lines


This summer Coe College chemistry students are monitoring 10 field tileline outlets, expanding Coe’s long-term stream water quality monitoring in the Lime Creek watershed. The tile line monitoring is part of a small grant made to the watershed council in 2013. The council is registered with the state as a non-profit.

Coe students have been taking water samples in the Cedar River watershed for more than a decade, and since 2006 in Lime Creek as part of the watershed improvement project. Though the watershed project was over in 2009, sampling continued to the present.

Weather in 2014 and other factors delayed planned installation of the nine water control structures until this year. Called inline water level control structures, they are vertical boxes made of thick PVC that tie into the tile lines close to existing outlets. Internal stoplogs, or PVC plates, allow control of the water level inside the structures for manual sampling as well as automatic flow meters.

The structures were delivered to the watershed in March and installed shortly afterwards.

Two Coe teams started their weekly trips from the campus in Cedar Rapids to the watershed in May, one team for the tile line sites and a second for the regular creek sites.

Late in May we met Laura Bybee of Pecatonica, Ill., who will be a senior this fall, and Maddy Jensen, Columbia Heights, Minn., a junior, in Brandon and followed them to a half dozen tile line sites. Both participated in student monitoring last year and their photos are part of the slide show on this page.

The morning field trip takes some 3 hours. After a stop at the Coe chemistry labs to calibrate instruments, the students drive northwest on I380 to the Lime Creek watershed.

The tile line sample sites are a little closer together than the creek sites, though a few are a short hike from the road. This day the sampling team drove north from Brandon to their first site, then winding back and forth on local roads to catch all nine (one tile line was dry already).

Tile line samples are collected for nitrate nitrogen, dissolved phosphorus, sulfate and chloride; creek site samples are also taken for water pH (acidity or alkalinity), conductivity and water turbidity.

Returning to campus, the students head back to the chemistry lab to test the samples for levels of e. coli levels (a common bacteria found in warm-blooded animals), phosphorus (ortho phosphate), nitrate, chloride and total suspended solids.

The lab testing is highly automated. The students do the routine work, transferring small water samples into vials or packets of cells, loading the test equipment then waiting for results. While some tests results are immediate but the e. coli takes 18-24 hours incubation and the suspended solids are allowed to dry a day.

The students say they enjoy both the field and lab work. “I think it is a lot of fun,” Laura told us last year when she was testing stream locations.

The two students on the “stream loop” this year are Christina Brown, a chemistry major who starts her sophomore year in the fall, and Ciera Rodriguez, who starts her senior year and is a biology major.

“We’ll be switching things up in terms of who is sampling what — it just makes things go more quickly to have two teams sampling,” according to Marty St. Clair, Coe College chemistry professor, who coordinates the sampling program and also downloads water level information from the automatic sites.

The students also sample two other watersheds near Cedar Rapids so work a full week, taking morning measurements and samples and spending the afternoons in the lab. Days they are not in the field they use the time to catch up on lab work.

In addition to doing field and lab work, the students can incorporate their experiences and data in their scholastic work and present the results in Coe’s annual scientific fair.

The Lime Creek tile line sites represent diverse crop (corn, pasture and alfalfa) and management practices in the watershed. Dick Sloan, a Lime Creek producer and former chairman of the Lime Creek Watershed council, and Chad Ingels, Iowa State University Extension watershed projects coordinator, identified and located the sites.

Bioreactor installation time lapse

This video depicts the installation of a denitrifying bioreactor on a farm in southern Black Hawk County, Iowa to treat the discharge from a farm tile drainage system on approximately 80 acres. Data collection from the bioreactor will be correlated to tile line data from sites in the Lime Creek watershed.


Waterloo Middle School student
builds model bioreactor

Model: a three-dimensional representation of a person or thing or of a proposed structure, typically on a smaller scale than the original.

Waterloo, IA — The mid-November 2013 installation of a woodchip bioreactor on Lanehaven Farms south of Waterloo sparked something in the mind of 12-year-old Thatcher Hollis. Not long after the bioreactor was installed, Thatcher, a sixth grade student at Hoover Middle School in Waterloo, received information about the Waterloo Science Fair.

“I really enjoyed watching (the bioreactor) being constructed and was anxious to learn more about how it worked. I started discussing this with my dad and decided I could build a model to learn more,” Thatcher says.

Thatcher is the son of Blake and Sally Hollis, Lanehaven Farms. The year before he entered “Invent Iowa” and made it to the state competition with a skateboard design. “I really enjoy all STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) related things,” he says.

The bioreactor model was a first of its type for Thatcher. With help from Blake and the winter weather, Thatcher used items he found around the farm, such as a large tub, and some snow days to construct the model.

They also used leftover woodchips from the bioreactor and purchased PVC pipe and plumbing for the reactor and outlets. “The size did require some special equipment we had on the farm,” Thatcher says. “For example, it was very handy to have a shed with multilevel racks and a forklift.”

“My presentation at the science fair went well. I had judges talk to me and ask questions about my project,” says Thatcher.

“I was honored to win first place in my category and be selected as the overall first place winner for the Middle School science fair.”

Thatcher will also attend the Science and Technology Fair of Iowa in Ames on March 28-29 to present his bioreactor project.

Thatcher and his father created a video on the bioreactor, which can be viewed on YouTube at

“Farmers keep eye on tile-line runoff”

Orlan Love of the Cedar Rapids Gazette writes about the Lime Creek watershed grant in a front-age story that appeared in The Cedar Rapids Gazette of July 23, 2013. The link below includes a short video featuring Coe College chemistry professor Marty St. Clair; Coe students are involved with streamwater sampling in the watershed.

Lime Creek watershed council
receives monitoring grant

(June 18, 2013) –– Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Association received a $73,760 two-year grant to measure tile-line delivery of nitrogen and phosphorus from 10 tiled, drained fields in the watershed. The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship State Soil Conservation Committee Research and Demonstration grant begins July 1, 2013.

“With 6 years’ experience addressing nitrogen and phosphorus leaching into our surface waters, we felt we still wanted more accurate measurements of the results of our attempts to control these losses,” says Richard Sloan, Rowley, president of the Lime Creek Watershed Improvement Association and producer.

“Iowa’s new Nutrient Reduction Strategy will rely on farmers believing that cover crops, reduced tillage and biofilters will work on their farms.  We designed our project to help our producers have confidence in the science behind the strategy,” he says.

Sloan is one of the ten watershed producers who will volunteer a field for the project. Field management will vary by farm to include continuous corn, corn-soybean rotation, other rotations, cover crops, and various nutrient applications.

First steps will be the installation of tile-line monitoring sites at the edge of each of the fields and as part of a denitrifying bioreactor and associated monitoring station at a separate site. Coe College students, who have been taking stream samples in the watershed since 2006, will take grab samples through the growing season while tile flow will be automatically collected. Other information, such as field-level management (crop rotations, nutrient applications, etc.) and precipitation and temperature, will be recorded.

Information from the monitoring will be made available to watershed residents and the general public through news releases and on this web site.

The Lime Creek Watershed Association is also an active member of the Cedar River Coalition.

Lime Creek is a 27,039 acre sub-watershed of the Cedar River in western Buchanan County with its outflow in northwest Benton County approximately 25 miles from Cedar Rapids. The lower one-half of the 16 mile stream was on the final 2004 Iowa list of Section 303(d) Impaired Waters. The cause/stressor was identified as biological, potentially flow alteration, habitat modification, nutrients and/or siltation.

In 2006, producers in the Lime Creek watershed organized a watershed improvement association, became incorporated and used a grant from the Iowa Corn Growers to initiate a watershed a watershed improvement project using performance-based incentives. The project focused on nitrogen (N) management and received an Iowa Watershed Improvement Review Board grant that provided funding through 2011.


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