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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

August 26, 2005

Unabashed lover of rivers

by Mike Krapfl

Donna Lutz handed over the 368 pages of the 2004 annual report.

Then she apologized as she handed over a second volume containing 213 pages of appendix data.

That's more than you'd ever want to know, she said.

But those appendix pages, with their neat numbers and counts and averages, are what her work is all about. They record flow. They measure turbidity. They chart oxygen gas saturation. They monitor pH. They track total nitrogen transport. They count fecal coliform bacteria. And then, at the very back of the volume, they report a water quality index for various sampling stations. The 2003-04 average at station one on the Des Moines River near the Boone Water Treatment Facility, for example, was 70.7.

That "fair" rating is slightly better than the historical average. And that's just three-tenths of a point from a "good" rating.

Lutz, an assistant scientist for the department of civil, construction and environmental engineering, manages the Des Moines River Water Quality Network. She's been working with those pages and pages of numbers since 1980.

Getting started

Lutz grew up in Ames -- "a nerd as a kid," she said -- who hatched and tagged monarch butterflies, studied pond water under a friend's father's microscope and was happy to enroll in a high school environmental chemistry class.

She did her first water quality tests as part of that class.

So when she moved on to Iowa State University in the mid-1970s, she knew she wanted to study biology. Along the way to a bachelor's degree, she discovered Iowa State's environmental studies program and added that major to her studies.

Before her junior year, she accepted a semester-long internship at the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. The job included work on a research vessel and studies of trace metals in Lake Michigan. Lutz calls that experience a pivotal point in her development as a scientist.

Now -- after decades of scientific work and an Iowa State master's degree in water resources -- she tries to offer the same kind of experience to student assistants and interns.

"I try to encourage them," Lutz said. "And I tell them that science is very interesting and that they can do it. But the key is to get experience early."

Brandy Niles, an Iowa State senior from Aurora, Neb., who's studying animal ecology, said Lutz always is willing to teach.

"If you come across something you don't know, she takes the time to explain why we do something and not just how," Niles said.

And Ashley Jessick, who worked for Lutz this summer as an intern sponsored by the Program for Women in Science and Engineering, said Lutz taught her some important lessons about science.

"I learned that you shouldn't give up," said Jessick, a senior in biochemistry and chemistry at Wartburg College in Waverly. "You have to keep plugging away. You have to be flexible and always thinking of new ways to approach the experiment."

The network

Iowa State crews have been monitoring the water quality of the Des Moines River since 1967. The work is for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The goal is to measure the effects of the Saylorville and Red Rock dams on the river.

The data allows the corps to tell visitors whether beaches are safe for swimming and fish are safe to eat. The numbers also help the corps manage the dams so water passing through isn't so saturated with atmospheric gases it kills fish.

The long-term goals of the monitoring include identifying trends in nitrate levels, sediments, pesticides and other pollutants.

According to project reports, the monitoring has found that non-point sources -- such as farms and urban areas -- are the main contributors of river contaminants. And the reports say sediments are the main water quality concern in Iowa. An average of 5,000 metric tons of suspended solids -- that's surface runoff of clay, sand and silt plus algae and the like -- enter the Red Rock Reservoir each day.

The numbers also show nitrate levels increased until 1982, but there's been no discernible trend since. And they show pesticide levels in fish are generally low.

"This is one of the largest, continuous water quality monitoring projects in the country," Lutz said.

And it's one that's in good hands, said Clint Beckert, a hydrologist with the Corps of Engineers in Rock Island, Ill., who works with the project.

He said Lutz stays on top of things, handles whatever comes up and thinks of ways to improve the project.

"I think she does like this work," Beckert said. "I know she's doing a good job."

A river person

No matter how high she wears her waders, Brent Francois said Lutz can't keep dry when she's on the river.

"She's just really into the field work," said Francois, an Iowa State research associate and the leader of the project's field crew.

Lutz doesn't do as much field work as she used to. Francois and student workers take care of most of it, especially in the summer. That allows Lutz to concentrate on data management, analysis, report writing and Web site updating that's done back on campus in Town Engineering (the project's site is at But even on campus, it's clear Lutz loves having a river to study.

"They flow, they're peaceful, they change with the seasons from torrential to calm and smooth," she said. "They can be beautiful in the winter -- even just to watch. And there's so much under the water, you can't even imagine it. I just love being out there."

Donna Lutz

Donna Lutz has been managing the Des Moines River Water Quality Network for 25 years. Photo by Bob Elbert.


"They can be beautiful in the winter -- even just to watch. And there's so much under the water, you can't even imagine it."

Donna Lutz