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Nahant Marsh Comeback


How a toxic wetland in eastern Iowa became an environmental rallying point for an eastern Iowa community and a safe haven for wildlife.


At one time eastern Iowa’s Nahant marsh was home to Quad Cities Trap and Skeet Gun Club. After 25 years of use, mud in the marsh contains heavy doses of lead.

If ingested, just a single pellet of lead can sicken or kill many of the native birds. The lead contamination led the Environmental Protection Agency to list the Nahant marsh as a super fund site in need of cleanup.

But in the ensuring years in toxic wetland became something greater, an environmental rallying point for an eastern Iowa community and a safe haven for wildlife.

Since 2003 the Friends of Nahant have gotten together each spring to clean up the marsh in eastern Iowa just south of Davenport.

When you pick up bags of trash, don’t try to overstuff it. If you see anything hazardous or looks hazardous, let us know and we’ll take care of it. But just leave your bags of trash in piles along the road and we’ll be circulating and pick them up.

For some, the cleanup at Nahant Marsh is an annual family event.

The kids and I have been doing this for three years and they enjoy doing it, not so much her, but he, this morning he said, Mom, where are we going? He was so excited this morning when he found out what we were doing.

This year’s cleanup included picking up trash and items dumped in and around Nahant Marsh. The removal of invasive plant species and the planting of a variety of trees donated by the city of Davenport.

In this forested area there are a lot of undesirables, such as mulberry, which is hanging over us. There are silver maples, which can become invasive in wetland areas like this, and we’re going to replant with native species these that are hearty, flood tolerant and will create a good diversity.

The annual cleanup at Nahant Marsh is a local effort. But in 1999 the cleanup was a $2 million national project that occurred after the Environmental Protection Agency declared the 265 acre marsh a threat to human life.

There’s so many things we did in the early parts of the 20th century as far as waste disposal and our practices and our wetlands and we didn’t have any idea. We just didn’t understand. And we come to learn this in the 60s and the 70s and that’s when a lot of the environmental laws came into play.

Between 1969 and 1995, the Quad Cities Trap and Skeet Gun Club owned the marsh and used it as a shooting range. In 1994 reports of sick and dying water fowl found at Nahant Marsh triggered a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation.

I don’t know if this was gun club or the other one but when we stepped in the meeting they actually had taken a bowl of water and put a goldfish in it and they filled the bottom with a lead shot. And they were in my face saying what’s wrong with a lead shot in the water? This goldfish is doing just fine. And so it was, it was not a smooth or easy transition for anybody. The emotions were high.

The investigation revealed that after 25 years of use of the shooting range, an estimated 240 tons of lead shot had accumulated in and around the marsh. The volume of lead shot was so high that it was impacting not only water fowl but a variety of animals that called the marsh home. Even the vegetation at the marsh was being adversely affected. Some of the deformities found in cat tails left them looking more like a hand than a single finger.

When they were looking at geese, the water fowl, they were seeing they were ingesting the lead pellets and they were passing away due to lead toxicosis.

Just a single pellet of shot can lead to lead poisoning and is enough to even kill a bird. At Nahant Marsh there were places where a handful of mud contained over 100 pellets of lead shot.

And one thing led to another after that. We were able to get the United States Environmental Protection Agency involved and actually qualify the site for a cleanup.

In 1996 Nahant Marsh was listed as an EPA super fund site. The agency estimated the cost of cleaning 13 acres of the marsh, which would involve the removal of a layer of marsh bottom sediments and shoreline at $2 million.

Some dispute the need. One columnist pointed out that only four poisoned geese have been identified. That’s $500,000 a goose.

I don’t feel the numbers of geese that are found, is that an issue you have an area that has the possibility of continually killing animals, and you have an area that also has human health risk.

In 1999, the EPA removed nearly 50,000 cubic yards of sediments taken from the bottom of the marsh and over 10,000 cubic yards of lead contaminated soil. In total, 143 tons of lead were removed from the marsh.

Is it a wasteland or is it a wetland? And you always have those differences of opinions of how valuable these places are, and what kind of value you placed on them. But I think the local folks here have done a really good job of highlighting the value of this. And based on the folks that come out here and enjoy it, I think it’s been a positive thing.

There was a stipulation that came with the cleanup. EPA insisted that the Nahant Marsh be maintained by the city of Davenport as a natural habitat and that it would be used for educational purposes. It was the first time in history that a super fund site would become a nature preserve and education center.

Today we do educational programs for almost 10,000 people a year. We have tremendous outreach. We have college classes here that need on site and do research. And we reach people of all ages from toddlers on up to senior citizens. And it’s amazing. You get these city kids that are first terrified of everything when they come here and they think everything is going to eat them or attack them or kill them. And after a week or so of being here or even a few hours, they’re right at home here. This is tour natural home. It’s great to have kids out here.

Nahant marsh is no longer toxic. It’s become a safe haven for wildlife, a place where people can go to observe and learn about nature and an example of what can be accomplished when a community comes together to make the world a better place.

Considering we’re right in Davenport city limits, it’s remarkable that we have this, that this place has survived this long because if you consider all the marshes, the wetlands that once existed the majority of them are gone now in Iowa. And the fact that this is in Davenport close by to people makes it a real treasure.


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