Nahant Marsh

A feature story from
Big River Magazine
July-August 2017

July-August 2017


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The staff is working to remedy another modern trend — kids disconnected from nature.




Reports of sick, dead and dying waterfowl prompted the EPA to survey this Mississippi Flyway stop in the late 1980s.
“We get a high number of migratory birds, but instead of getting grit, they were getting lead,” explained Ritter.








Nature Reawakens at Nahant Marsh
By Emery Styron
July-August 2017 Big River Magazine

Golden sunlight, blue sky and gauzy clouds glint in the waves of Nahant Marsh pond, stirred by a spring breeze. Coots bob in a calm inlet as pelicans nearby preen their blinding-white feathers with long blaze-orange bills.

Here and there, a pelican lifts off, dangling skinny legs and diamond-shaped webbed feet. A pair of fat geese sweep low over tawny cattails at the near bank, dark wings pumping in unison.

“That’s our view every day,” Lindsey Kennedy, marketing and events coordinator for Nahant Marsh Education Center, gestures from her office to the wall of windows overlooking the pond, a perk few can match.

“It’s exciting to come to work,” adds her boss, executive director Brian Ritter. “You never know what you’re going to see.”

Rare, daffodil-bright prothonotary warblers and yellow-throated Blanding’s turtles are among the creatures cataloged at this former Superfund site turned wildlife preserve in the armpit of the Quad Cities’ rusty, industrial river-bottom sprawl.
The clanks and screeches of coupling and decoupling railcars and the whine of freeway traffic blend with the calls of birds and slap of waves, but Ritter is unfazed by the urban din. To him, it only emphasizes Nahant’s value.

“Five minutes from downtown Davenport [Iowa] you have this incredible array of species you’re not going to see anywhere else.”

Staffers and volunteers have documented myriad species at the 265-acre marsh: 175 birds, 40 mammals, seven frogs and toads, and a dozen reptiles. Not bad for a swamp so polluted that 20 years ago it was growing mutated cattails and poisoning migrating waterfowl.

Settled, Unsettled and Restored

Lots of lead shot flew last century near the site of the short-lived town of Rockingham, which flourished until about 1850 across the Mississippi from the mouth of the Rock River. The Illinois Central railroad and town of Nahant arrived in the 1880s. “Nahant” derives from an Algonquin Indian word roughly meaning “land between the waters,” fitting enough for a place betwixt a former oxbow lake and the Mississippi River.

Hunters, trappers and railroad bulls fired guns in the marsh, no doubt, but Nahant gained most of its “lead poisoning” notoriety in the Roaring 1920s, for shootings connected to the neighborhood’s bootleg operations, speakeasies and brothels. But it wasn’t gangsters who dropped most of the lead pellets in the neighborhood. The upstanding members of the Scott County Sportsmen’s Association set up a trap and skeet range here in 1969. The U.S. EPA estimates shooters dropped 143 tons of lead into the marsh over the next 26 years, according to Ritter.

Reports of sick, dead and dying waterfowl prompted the EPA to survey this Mississippi Flyway stop in the late 1980s.

“We get a high number of migratory birds, but instead of getting grit, they were getting lead,” explained Ritter.

Cattails, which readily absorb lead, were an indicator. “Instead of looking like a corndog, they looked more like a deformed hand.”

Coyotes and eagles scavenged on waterfowl carcasses, resulting in “possible secondary poisoning.”

The EPA found high lead concentrations on 13 acres and declared the area a Superfund site. In 1999, the agency drained the marsh and scraped off the top foot of earth, which it mixed with phosphate and hauled to the county landfill.

The sportsmen’s club sold the original 88 acres to the City of Davenport to avoid any further liability and forfeited the proceeds to the EPA to help pay clean-up costs. The EPA required that the property remain a nature preserve in perpetuity.

Making Connections

Three partners manage the property: The non-profit Nahant Marsh Education Center holds title to most of the land and sets natural resources practices. The city of Davenport owns the building and provides maintenance. Eastern Iowa Community College coordinates the educational program.

Additional help comes from Americorps and Friends of Nahant Marsh volunteers, who raise funds, build trails and clear invasive species.

“When I started 10 years ago, nobody knew what Nahant Marsh was or where it was,” said Ritter. “Now we have success building on success.”

Marsh programs reached more than 17,000 people last year. Programs serve nature lovers of all ages. Nahant is a popular school field-trip destination and offers a program for homeschooled children and monthly “cottontail” programs for wee ones. An adult group meets at the marsh monthly.

Regional events like the annual pollinator conference are growing. The pollinator event, held in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rock Island Arsenal, Scott County Soil & Water Conservation District and others, drew 300 people from 11 states last year. It addresses a serious issue. “Monarch butterflies are just the canaries in the coal mine. All our pollinators are plummeting,” said Ritter.

Frequent flooding is another concern. Ritter notes that 17 of the 54 biggest floods recorded since 1860 have occurred since 2000. The marsh has been remarkably resilient, he said.

The center can’t stop the flooding, but the staff is working to remedy another modern trend — kids disconnected from nature. “Most urban kids who come out here are terrified of everything,” said Ritter. Catching bugs with nets and holding turtles and salamanders teaches them to encounter nature without fear. “We give them an experience they won’t get in their daily lives.”

Ritter sees a silver lining in the gun club’s lead legacy. “Had they not been here, this place would almost certainly have been filled in. It would be flat, dry land, and we would not be here today.”

Thanks to the marsh’s reclamation, Ritter, Kennedy and other staffers have another job perk — the looks of amazement on the faces of children and adults when they realize the natural abundance in their own backyards.

“It’s like an awakening,” said Ritter. “They had no idea that things like this exist in Iowa.”

Emery Styron lives in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. His last story for Big River was “The Last Calliope Builder,” January-February 2017.

©2017 Big River Magazine