DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Jared McGovern stood ankle-deep in the Bee Branch Creek in Dubuque on Thursday. Slowly, carefully, he lowered into the water a small, cylindrical concrete “silo” containing 30 freshwater mussels.

After repeating the process with a second silo, he released more than 500 additional mussels freely into the creek’s calm waters, then splashed back to shore with a thumbs-up.

“You have no idea how exciting that was,” said McGovern, curator of conservation programs at Dubuque’s National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. “This has been a year and a half in the works, and it just happened. That’s amazing.”

The Dubuque Telegraph Herald reports McGovern and his team released 2,500 juvenile freshwater mussels into the Upper Bee Branch Creek. Their goal is to increase the biodiversity and ecological health of the waterway, while also engaging the community with the watershed and the mussel conservation process.

Workers from the Dubuque County Conservation Board, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, City of Dubuque and river museum measured, counted and bagged the 10- to 15-millimeter-long animals from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Genoa National Fish Hatchery prior to their release.

After they were sorted, McGovern released the mussels at intervals along the Upper Bee Branch. And 11 concrete silos, each containing 30 mussels, were placed at various release sites so staff can easily find them and measure their growth biweekly.

“We will be able to use (the mussels) as indicators of water quality,” he said. “They are sensitive to changes in water quality, so… if we see lower growth in certain silos, that is an indicator that there’s something interfering with their growth in that section of the Bee Branch.”

The mussels won’t simply be reporting the water quality, however. They also will alter it for the better.

“(Mussels) are a natural filtration system for water, so they can improve the water quality just by their mere presence,” said Deron Muehring, City of Dubuque civil engineer and Bee Branch project manager.

Not only do the mussels clean the water as they filter feed, but they also deposit nutrients and oxygen in the sediments of the creek bed as they burrow, preventing erosion and providing a physical habitat for other organisms.

“We’re trying to incorporate elements into the project that would promote an aquatic habitat,” Muehring said. “Anything we could do to make it be a healthy creek, that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

Museum staff will be joined by students from St. Mark Youth Enrichment, Multicultural Family Center and, later, Audubon and Fulton elementary schools in measuring the mussels.

“We’ll be engaging students in real-world conservation,” McGovern said. “People are the most important aspect of a successful conservation program.”

The students will participate as part of the City of Dubuque’s “Beekeepers” initiative. The watershed stewardship program provides volunteer opportunities for citizens of all ages to help with cleanup, monitoring, water-quality testing and more in the Bee Branch as part of an effort to connect citizens with nature and help them engage with their environment.

“We all have a role to play in keeping our waterways healthy and clean,” said Kristin Hill, City of Dubuque communications specialist with the Bee Branch project.

Students will help check on the mussels throughout the summer and into the school year. They also will participate in educational programming led by McGovern and Hill, during which they will learn about the Bee Branch, conservation farming, wildlife restoration, Mississippi River history and more.

“The more people we get out down there to understand (the Bee Branch), its vulnerabilities and its strengths, everyone’s better off,” Muehring said. “They can take pride in knowing they’re helping to preserve that creek and keep it a local treasure.”

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