IIHR Offers Water Quality Class: Learning from the River

Thursday, June 17, 2010

By Jacqueline H. Stolze
Editorial Associate
IIHR--Hydroscience & Engineering

Fishing with electricity can earn you a hefty fine in Iowa, but it's a valuable tool when used by scientists and fishery management teams to gauge the health of a stream. Students in the University of Iowa Water Quality class offered by IIHR--Hydroscience & Engineering, part of the UI College of Engineering, recently got the chance to try electrofishing for themselves.

Water Quality is a hands-on class taught out of LACMRERS (the Lucille A. Carver Mississippi Riverside Environmental Research Station), IIHR's Mississippi River field station near Muscatine, Iowa. Class work is combined with field work, so students get the opportunity to experience some of what they study.

Collaborators from government agencies and other organizations are an important part of the class. Mike Schueller, a scientist with the the State Hygienic Laboratory at The University of Iowa with more than 20 years of experience in water quality, helped LACMRERS Director Doug Schnoebelen teach a recent class at LACMRERS. Although fish are only part of the water quality equation, Schueller says, they can provide a lot of useful water quality information. "Fish are at the top of the food web, and they're consumed by humans," he says. "So we're always interested."

After an hour in the classroom at LACMRERS, Schueller took the students to Pine Creek at nearby Wildcat Den State Park. Wearing a backpack electrofisher unit over his waders, Schueller instructed his two net-wielding student assistants, Lee Southwick and Adam Nielsen, on the finer points of netting. It's not as easy as it looks.

Walking three abreast with the students, Schueller lowered the device into the water, where it emits a low pulse of electric current. Southwick and Nielsen netted the stunned fish and put them in a plastic bucket full of stream water. After the fish are identified and analyzed, they're released back into the stream unharmed.

Later, the students climbed in a special electrofishing boat operated on the Mississippi River by Bernie Schonhoff of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Schonhoff knows the best places on the Mississippi to look for legendary channel catfish.

Southwick and her team netted a 15-pound female catfish--big, but not nearly as big as the 40-pounder one of the other student groups hauled in. Most of the fish are set free, but the 40-pound catfish went back to the DNR fish hatchery to impress the kids scheduled to attend a fishing education session over the weekend. After her 15 minutes of fame, the big catfish went back to her home in the Mississippi.

Later, the UI students dug for mussels in the shallows of the Mississippi River, where they see firsthand the invasive zebra mussels that are choking out Iowa's native species, such as Higgins Eye and others.

"It's been fun getting out on the river," says Nielsen, a graduate student at IIHR. Sean Murphy, also an engineering graduate student, agrees. "It's a nice change of pace to actually do some of what we talk about," Murphy says.

Doug Schnoebelen shares their enthusiasm. "That's the next generation that's going to doing something about water quality," he says.  "It's good to get them excited about the river."

To view a slide show of the Water Quality class, go to http://www.iihr.uiowa.edu/featured/images/Water%20Quality%20Class/index.html.