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Ecological Services Program in the Upper Midwest


Oxbow restorations go international

A restored oxbow lake in Iowa.

Restored oxbows in Iowa are the model for efforts in Ontario, Canada.

Photo by Aleshia Kenney/USFWS.

December 2016


There’s a new kid in town when it comes to restoring habitat in and along streams, and it all started in Iowa! Oxbow restoration began as a tool for restoring habitat for the federally endangered Topeka shiner, a species found in prairie streams, and has transformed, from its humble beginnings in Iowa, into a regional and now international phenomenon. Oxbow restorations are now studied for more than their fisheries benefits, but also for their potential to improve water quality.


In 2002, the Rock Island Ecological Services Field Office began restoring oxbows in the North Raccoon River watershed in Iowa. In terms of fisheries benefits those restorations are a great success. The practice then took off in the Boone River watershed with a focus on diverting drainage tile into the restored oxbows. The goal was now to improve water quality and reduce nitrates, with improvements to Topeka shiner habitat as a secondary goal. So far, the preliminary results have been impressive. Recent monitoring indicates a 45 to 90 percent decrease in nitrates leaving the oxbow, and Topeka shiners were recently found in a restored oxbow – a first for the Boone River!


Rock Island Field Office is at the forefront of transforming and expanding oxbow restoration into a widely accepted habitat restoration method, and was recently invited to present their methods to Canada’s Alternative Land Use Services Conference. Alternative Land Use Services is a unique incentive program in Canada that recognizes the role farmers and ranchers play in producing food and sustaining a healthy environment, similar to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program.


The landscape in Ontario is similar to the prairie pothole landscape in Iowa, surrounded by agriculture, heavily drain tiled and extremely altered. After reading an article about oxbow restorations in Iowa, a biologist from Ontario contacted Rock Island with questions about potentially implementing oxbow restorations as an Alternative Land Use Services practice.


Rock Island's Aleshia Kenney gave a presentation at the program's annual conference in September highlighting her office's successes and sharing lessons learned from past oxbow restorations. The presentation was warmly received and generated lively conversations. Plans are in the works for representatives from the Alternative Land Use Service program to visit Iowa and see, first hand, some oxbow restorations.


By Aleshia Kenney

Rock Island Ecological Services


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Last updated: December 22, 2016