Wetlands Wednesday: Share My Surprising Trip Across Iowa

By Cynthia Cassel

The third leg of our journey to the fascinating wetlands of the four Region 7 states has surprises in store, as we continue our May series to celebrate the 25th anniversary of National Wetlands Month. After my trip to Kansas’ wet meadows and farmed wetlands in last week’s blog, we now travel northeast to inviting Iowa.

In search of something to do that was slightly goofy while on a trip to the state, I planned a visit to the Amana Colonies in an effort to recreate Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic painting. We brought our own pitchfork and steel-rimmed glasses, and made complete fools of ourselves. Maybe not such a great idea, after all.

However, the rest of the trip all around Iowa was one of the best road trips we ever took. While admiring more of the beautiful green and gold croplands of the Heartland to be sure, we beheld a wonderful surprise: prairie potholes and fens.

Prairie Potholes and Fens

Washington State has an entire state park created around its potholes, but I never knew they existed in the Midwest until that trip. Seeming otherworldly, potholes look like craters created by shrapnel from a cosmic shotgun. We also marveled at the multitude of fens – rare, groundwater-fed places that feel like walking on a water bed. Think of peat bogs.

Prairie potholes and fens

Prairie potholes and fens

So here’s a tip: Go see the Grant Wood home, but be sure to make time to visit the potholes and fens, and take note of the rare plants and animals support by these wetlands. And then go ahead and visit the rest of the state. There’s much to do and see in the beautiful state of Iowa!

Prairie potholes are wetlands (primarily freshwater marshes) that develop when snowmelt and rain fill the pockmarks left on the landscape by land-scouring glaciers. Groundwater input is also important. Submerged and floating aquatic plants take over the deeper water in the middle of the pothole, while bulrushes and cattails grow closer to shore. Wet, sedgy marshes lie next to the uplands. In addition, many species of migratory waterfowl are dependent on the potholes for breeding and feeding.

Flowering plants in Iowa wetland

Flowering plants in Iowa wetland

Fens are alkaline (slightly acidic) wetlands less than 10 acres in size that are groundwater-fed and peat-forming. Their water supply is by surface water runoff and/or seepage from mineral soils. Fens are important sources of groundwater discharge and indicators of shallow aquifers. Most are found along stream terraces or at the base of slopes. Fens in headwater streams are difficult, if not impossible, to replace due to their unique hydrology. They’re often called “quakers” because the ground beneath them is saturated and spongy. A good jump on a fen will cause the ground to ripple for many feet.

These Iowa wetlands are important for environmental sustainability. Prairie potholes absorb surges of rain, snowmelt and floodwaters, thereby reducing the risk and severity of downstream flooding.


Cynthia Cassel has worked as a Senior Environmental Employment (SEE) Program grantee with EPA Region 7’s Wetlands and Streams Protection Team for 5½ years. She received her Bachelor of Science from Park University. Cynthia lives in Overland Park, Kan.

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