Ecopolis Iowa City: Envisioning a Regenerative City in the Heartland

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The University of Iowa
Flooding on the University of Iowa campus, when the Iowa River was about 31 feet high. Flood stage for the Iowa River at Iowa City is 22 feet. The previous record was set in 1993 at 28.5 feet.

This is an abbreviated version of the multimedia “Ecopolis” theatre show performed in the spring of 2016 by author Jeff Biggers and the Awful Purdies musical group in the historic Old Capitol in Iowa City. “Ecopolis” has also been adapted and performed in Chicago, in various cities in Iowa including Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Cedar Falls, and in Carbondale, Illinois.

Herbie Girardet/Rick Lawrence
Ecopolis

Act I: Nebi

I don’t get to see my grandchildren very often, but we never miss the Ralston family reunion in Iowa City. The kids always want to know how it happened. How did Iowa City become an ecopolis, the first regenerative city in the heartland?

There’s only one way to answer that question, of course. When we return home to Iowa City now, we arrive at the train station, where kinetic panels power the electrical grid, and while the kids always want to take the kayaks into town along the river, or race their bikes downtown along the green wave without a traffic light or car, I feel there’s only one way to understand our city—and that is by walking.

Iowa City began as a vision on foot; one of the first cities west of the Mississippi that was named, surveyed, and laid out before a single limestone was lifted from the river to build this historic capitol.

The capital of Iowa, Iowa City was envisioned before it came into existence—envisioned as a laboratory of democracy. My great-great-grandfather, Robert Ralston, was one of the three commissioners who picked this spot; he stood right on this bluff above the river, gazed out at the amphitheater of limestone, the Big Grove of 20 square miles of hardwood forests, and had the audacity to envision a city of risk takers, innovators, and visionaries.

As Robert Ralston always told the story, Iowa City was not unoccupied—it was on the edge of the so-called Black Hawk Purchases. Purchase, of course, is a misnomer; with Black Hawk in prison, the surrender of Iowa by the Sauk and Meskwaki came easy. That is why I first take my grandkids to Black Hawk Park and show them the solar road memorial to the Sauk and Meskwaki.

The past is always a presence, as Mexican poet Octavio Paz once wrote, and the spirits of the past—of the people, the landscape, and the river —still speak to us, if we listen.

Grandpa, grandpa, my kids shout, tugging at my shirt: Look, I created a sail on my canoe, just like the Meskwaki did on the Iowa River.

The Ralston family reunion, of course, takes place on Ralston Creek. It’s a troublesome creek—but we were a troublesome family. The city staff just wanted us to go away, so they could do their jobs. The Chauncey was always a problem—Chauncey Swan that is. He was a towering presence, another administrator who wanted to grow our river town into a Midwestern city.

At the creek that bears our name, we play a game: What’s that? A freckled madtom. And that? A spotted bass. And that? An American eel. And that? A redear sunfish—and oh, the paddle fish—the shark of the Iowa River, squeals my little grandkid. Not all sharks are in the city hall.

What a wonder: the native fish have returned to the creek and river, and along Iowa Ave, I take them to the mineral springs site that once brought visitors to our town. Ralston Creek had healing waters. But didn’t they know how to protect them, my grandkids ask? Yes, but they needed lights in those days, gas lights manufactured at the gas plant on Burlington Avenue, and the coal tar bled into Ralston Creek, along with cyanine, lead, and arsenic, until it became a Superfund site in 2002.

This kind of oversight, of not understanding the river valley, led to the “great crisis.”

You see, the town leaders said it would never happen again. We could mitigate the flooding. Didn’t even need flood insurance. That we could mitigate climate change—adaptation, we called it. But what if you are adapting to a failed system?

The city council had voted to use USD$60 million dollars of concrete to raise the main road one foot above the 100-year flood plain. But that didn’t matter much with a 500-year flood.

And the rain came. And it came hard. When it rains in Iowa, thanks to industrial agriculture, three out of every four inches runs, runs hard across the erosion, with no native prairie or forests to stop it and the natural drainage system gone. The water runs through the gateway into the river, into our city. First, it was 1.5 inches in a day. Then, 2.5 inches in a day. Then up to five inches in a day. For days. And the waters rose.

Nebi. Nebi. The Meskwaki warned us about nebi—water. You must understand the water. You must understand our watershed—that trees and native prairie are your only gateway to a future.

Over a hundred years before, in the 1890s, the President of the University of Iowa had always warned the town. President Thomas MacBride declared: Iowa’s woodland should be religiously preserved and in a thousand places extended. Every rocky bank, every steep hillside, every overhanging bluff, every sandhill, every clay-covered ridge, every rain-washed gully should be kept sacredly covered with trees; every gorge, sinkhole, should be shaded, every spring be protected, every streamlet and every stream and lake bordered and overshadowed…The question is whether we do the right thing now or wait until the expense shall have increased a hundredfold. Macbride was ignored.

Soon we will be gone, the Meskwaki told Robert Ralston, and your people will plant corn where we bury the dead. And you will regret it.

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University of Iowa Libraries
Mildred Augustine Benson diving into the Iowa River at Iowa City in the mid-1920s.

In 1827, a flood wiped out the riverfront; boats topped log cabins in the 1872 flood; 300 tons of coal spilled from a barge on the 1885 flood, and after the floods of the 1940s we came together to build that little dam and all those drainage systems. The engineers told us that they could control nature. Until the next flood. In the great flood of 1993, the water reached 26.81 feet, then 30 feet in 2008, and then 50,000 cubic feet per second of water raised the river 45 feet high, and raw sewage came knocking on our doors.

Iowa City was wiped out.

A crisis is never a crisis until it’s validated by disaster—and that is exactly what happened when the 500-year flood hit. It was 2016 or 2017—I forget now, the year doesn’t matter.  No, it was 2016, because a new group of people came to power with some exciting ideas to create a regenerative future.

At first, we waited for city hall to act. I mean, I recycled my beer bottles. My wife drove a Prius, and we bought organic (most of the time, well, sometimes, well, at least the first week of the month). But we knew we were part of the problem—that 60 percent of the grid, burning fossil fuels, came from coal. We didn’t pay attention to the waterways or the retreating land. We were trying to do less bad.

My grandchildren don’t believe me when I tell them about my generation in the year 2016.

They mock me. Grandpa, Iowans knowingly dumped five billion gallons of hog manure as fertilizer, even though you knew it ran off into your waterways? You burned toxic fossil fuels, even though you knew it had huge health care and environmental costs, and produced the highest CO2 emissions, and even though you knew Germany, Scotland, and Denmark already had 100 percent renewable energy regions? You imported 90 percent of your food in the heartland? You couldn’t even eat the fish in your river because of mercury and other problems?

Grandma said you ate asparagus imported from Chile? And tomatoes picked by the hands of a 7-year-old migrant worker in Mexico?

Yes, yes yes…but we changed. Thanks to the “great crisis,” the 500-year flood. And thanks to Ayman, a father and University of Iowa student, originally from Sudan.

I’ll never forget Ayman and the crowd huddled at the Tim Dwight Solar Stadium—I think we used to call it Kinnick Stadium. We were standing in line for rations—you see the flood had knocked out the roads of commerce, and therefore the food stores.

But Ayman didn’t need rations. He brought a box of food from his farm. And so did another man, David Burt, who brought loads from his community garden, and then farmer Shanti Sellz brought sacks of potatoes. And Miriam Alarcon arrived from the food coop, and said, ellos tienen que comer. I will make tamales.

Gars me greet, David said, the best laid plans gone aft agley.

Yalla’ naaquel, Ayman said.  Yalla’ naaquel. Come let us eat. It’s time Iowa City sits down and has a shai magreb.

Ayman commented, if you can get 60,000 people to fill a football stadium to watch grown men chase a pig skin, now is the time to sit and eat and talk about our future.

And David, Ayman, Miriam, Shanti, and everyone else set a table. And the table grew. And people brought food. A food truck arrived from the Mennonites in Kalona. And the table grew across Burlington Avenue, across the river, across our segregated neighborhoods. And Kurt Freise, the pioneering slow food author and chef, offered recipes. And Iowa City came together at the same table, black and white and Indigenous and newcomer, for a table that grew three-miles long.

Let us talk about our future, Ayman said, as a regenerative city. Khalena nict quellem. An mostakbelna.

And then I heard a voice: Dianne Dillon-Ridgley, the great environmental justice activist in our town, stood up, rang a bell, silenced the table, and said, it’s time for Iowa City to rethink our ways in an age of climate change, to rethink ways that regenerate our energy, our food, our land, our ways of getting around—beyond sustainability, we must heal our damage to this land. We need to go back to our roots as a laboratory of democracy on the river.

Act II: The Laboratory

They made the declaration on a beautiful June day in 1840 in Iowa City. “From this day forward, a new era will commence in the destinies of our neighborhoods. We are no longer dependent upon others for our imports nor are we subjected to the labor and expense of drawing across the country all articles brought from abroad. From this day forward, blessed with this beautiful river, we shall depend upon ourselves for our livelihood.”

This capital town, the great laboratory of democracy, would become self-sufficient.

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University of Iowa Libraries
View of Iowa River from the President’s House at the University of Iowa, September 25, 1908.

We lived in an agropolis in those days. It was a circular town with a navigable river; houses adjoined by gardening, ducks, and dairy; surrounded by wodos, three-tier diversified farms, and livestock.

Agropolo—what you see in Italy today. La citta, circondata dall’agricola, allevamenti, le vacche, le pecore, poi il bosco. This is why we spend thousands of dollars and love to tour Italy—this ancient, beautiful rapport between people, the city, and nature. Oh, look, people hang out their laundry. Take a photo, John. Look at those buildings made from rock and stone and wood that last centuries, not just years like dry wall. Walking.  Eating real food from the open markets. Oh, Agnes, I’ve never eaten so much food and drank so much wine—and I still lost weight.

Who has a problem with that? Well, Thomas Edison and Francis Peabody the coal baron did. So did Wall Street, bankrolling their coal-fired plants and factories, keeping the dirty secret of coal mines and their burial grounds from the world. Henry Ford had a problem with it, too, and built his cars, as we took a dragline to our communities, widened the roads, built the suburbs, segregated ourselves from people who didn’t look like us, and created the Petropolis. Petro-towns. Petroleum states of mind.

The circle was gone. The road became linear. We brought in our energy and spewed out the waste, like coal ash. We brought in our food and goods, we spewed out the waste and created landfills. We started cutting our grass in tidy squares and using pesticides to stamp out evil dandelions.

We lost the circular metabolism of the city.

And we lost our contact with nature, the Big Grove, the oaks, the hickories, the diversified farms, and the native prairie. Over 99 percent of the Iowa prairie has been ripped from its roots, making us the most altered state in the union.

Suddenly, the Old Capitol no longer faced the river, but now faced the highway. The river was behind us, next to the garbage dump and coal-fired plant. The Iowa River, which used to define us, was gone from our view—and ways.

Of course, we weren’t the only people facing this realization. Back in the 1990s, the Germans, among others, began to rethink this linear relationship, especially with their energy. And they asked a simple question: Why don’t we produce our own energy, especially electricity? In the US, of course, there were plenty of reasons—namely, the powerful lobbies of big utilities and oil and coal companies whose profits depended on subsidized fossil fuels.

Yet, the Germans, thanks to the ragtag efforts of the Greens, passed a feed-in tariff, the first seed of energy independence. The first step back to the Ecopolis. A feed-in tariff allows you to sell back to the grid any excess energy you produce. And here in Iowa, we were starting to understand this. There were 136 municipally owned utilities, and towns like Bloomfield had declared their intention to become independent from fossil fuels. Thanks to the Eagle Point Solar company’s Supreme Court decision in 2014, even towns like Iowa City finally had a chance to purchase solar energy from third-party providers, breaking the grip of the utility companies.

So, in order for Iowa City to make the first step, we created a model eco-district, based on 100 percent renewable energy, as a living laboratory for the residents to not only envision but experience a clean energy way of living.

We sent an Iowan down under. Do you know that a decade ago, Adelaide, Australia convened the town to rethink its use of energy, committed to a regenerative city, put solar panels on 120,000 households, and created the model Lochiel community, among other neighborhoods, that use 100 percent renewable energy?  Do you know that there are hundreds of total renewable-energy communities in Denmark and Germany, like the Vaudan district in Freiburg. Last October, dark, dreary, cold Germany got 60 percent of its electricity from clean energy—and 65 percent of that came from small, decentralized producers.

Campus flooding on Sunday, June 15, 2008.
The University of Iowa
Flooding on The University of Iowa campus on June 15, 2008.

In 2016, Iowa City realized it had an incredible opportunity. Rising from the mud, the Riverfront Crossings District, the very neighborhood that had been wiped out because of extreme weather and flooding in 2008, could become the eco-district. One developer, Kevin Hanick, made the first step, putting hundreds of solar panels on his Riverfront Crossing apartment complex. An ordinance was passed that all new buildings had to meet energy efficiency standards set by local expert Martha Noerbeck, and all were required to be equipped with solar and geothermal energy.

Funny enough, the walkable neighborhood along the river, with its solar-lit bike and walk paths, solar sculptures, and green infrastructure and gardens became a national attraction.

But it wasn’t as simple as just putting solar panels up. It needed to be a lifestyle change.

Now, I didn’t want to live in Iowa City’s first eco-district. It was my wife. She’s said we had to do something about this climate change. And I’m like, can we wait until the game’s over? This is a big game. Iowa is in the quarterfinals of March Madness. And she turned off the TV. Climate change ain’t no game, she said. Do you know where your electricity comes from? And I said, yeah, the plug, can you turn the game back on? And she said, no, not until you realize your juice comes from a utility company, and while they get brownie points for wind energy credits, they mainly burn fossil fuels like coal and fracked-up gas that release global warming-inducing methane that makes CO2 emissions look like cool whip. So, no game until you get off the grid.

She wasn’t done. But there’s a catch, she added. We have to use less energy—a load limit, we have to commit to a capacity-based tariff. You have to get rid of your electric toothbrush, your mixer, and your large screen TV. She said, this is your new batting average: 2,000 watts a day. That’s all you’re getting—a bunch of Swiss people figured it out. That’s all you can consume to keep this Titanic planet from going down. Capito? Just 2,000 watts.

Out of curiosity, I asked, how many watts do I typically use now? The answer was 12,000 watts, she told me, so open the windows and start getting some fresh air and light.

Of course, the eco-district had to pay more to retrofit homes, build more efficient and smaller homes, commit to green roofs, solar water heaters, or revamp some of the area for geothermal and energy-efficiency measures. But the savings paid off.

Still, it wasn’t enough to generate our own electricity and reduce our carbon emissions.  The answer wasn’t just blowing in the wind. It was also under our feet.

Act III: Food

So, we moved into the Ecopolis district. It required some adjustments. Energy efficiency means density and walkable neighborhoods. We sold our car. It was like selling our dog. I saw our SUV disappear into the wide lanes near the mall in Coralville, getting smaller and smaller in the distance. We learned to bike in cold weather—and like it. We had to give up our 2,500 square-foot home and grass lawn.

Windows opened. And we had neighbors, lots of neighbors. One neighbor, Javier de Guatemala, was always badgering me to do more in the community garden.

Oye, como amanecio, have started your gringo kale garden yet? The Swedes across the street are already into their third harvest. And his wife was always shouting for food—oye Javier, traigame mas huevos. That would make Javier turn to me: You’re not buying huevos, are you? It’s really stupid to buy huevos when you can send your kid to collect them in the chicken coop. His kid taught my kid how to use goats instead of the lawn mower.

My other neighbor, Leroy, kept talking about hoop dreams—those hoop houses that allow for year-round gardening. In hot and sunny Detroit, an urban agriculture ordinance led to a widespread revival of urban farming throughout the year. In London, thanks to breakthroughs in hydroponics and LED light advances, organic vegetables were grown in underground bomb shelters and delivered to restaurants within hours.

The University of Iowa
Preparations for flooding and flooding on Saturday, June 14, 2008.

And our kids kept running off and getting dirty with this guy, they called him the Cedar Rapids Man. He always had dirty hands. My kids would come home and start a mantra: The soil will save us, the soil will save us. The Cedar Rapids man said we must feed the soil with our compost.

We created an edible trail from Coralville to the hospital to the campus to the east side, where anyone could get an entire meal by picking. I preferred the berries. We talked about being a healthy community, not a medical community. We planned to build a farm-acy from medicinal herbs. We recognized the time spent outside and in the soil as part of our daily workout and stress relief—no less important than the gym or yoga.

You see this patch of our community garden, my neighbor Leroy told me one day: 10′ by 10′ can provide you with the nutrients for your family through much of the year. You just have to learn the stories of the food, he said—like our grandparents who came north on the great migration of African Americans from Alabama. We brought food knowledge and food stories. The collard greens, the varieties of beans, the chickens in our backyard, the role of canning and preserving, the spices from Africa. Your hillbilly banjo is African, man.

In 2016, we set local food benchmarks: we imported 90 percent of our food back then, but within five years, we imported only 50 percent, then only 25 percent, and now we produce 75 percent of our food. But we also knew urban farming, even with the breakthroughs, would not feed everyone in our cities.

In a regenerative city like Adelaide, in those days, a diverse semi-urban farmbelt surrounds the city as a food network to meet local demands. With a “zero waste” strategy, 180,000 tons of compost are converted annually from urban organic waste, with 50,000 acres of nearby land dedicated to vegetable and fruit crops. Again, the city has a circular function, a circular metabolism. The food comes daily into the center markets, is consumed, and waste is reused as compost. Solar buses deliver the goods.

Here’s the punch line: regenerative organic farming, including diversified crops and rotation, vegetable mulching, and organic compost, doesn’t just produce food. As the Rodale Institute recently showed in a study, regenerative organic farming is crucial in soil carbon sequestration. Farmers can play a huge role—perhaps more than anyone—in regenerating our soil and reducing CO2 emissions. We’ve lost 80 percent of the carbon stock in our soils.

Which brings us to our crap. It was a great day when Iowa City signed the Zero Waste Ordinance. No more landfills. We committed to reducing our waste by 80 percent. Oakland, California, among other American cities, had long committed to a zero waste agreement. Oakland’s waste management principles emphasized a closed-loop production and consumption system. Redesigned upstream strategies reduced the volume and toxicity of products and materials and promoted low-impact lifestyles.

Local mandates for food, energy, and efficiency, waste reforestation, even goats—the eco-district unfolded like a recipe.

My other neighbor, Malik, had a row of vegetables in his hoop house that looked like a quilt from Somalia, with carrots, peas, beans, bell peppers, potatoes, cabbage, and cloves—what he called the Iowa City Sambusa.

Act IV: Restoration

Perhaps before we could say what kind of regenerative city we wanted, we had to ask: What kind of city do we want? What kind of university? What is our relationship with our hinterlands and nature? Did we recognize Iowa City as a melting pot, or as a smorgasbord where all of our cultures are recognized?

How could we put the roots of culture back into our neighborhoods? Culture. From the Latin root, colere. Cultivare. Cultivate. Food. Nature. Diversity. Restoration. Regeneration.

By restoring our relationship with nature—not simply in a series of more parks and ball fields, but a deeper commitment to healing and restoring our surroundings—we also found our sense of place, our sense of community. Adelaide planted three million trees—that’s stunning—not only as a carbon sink, but as a roadmap on how we orient our lives. So, we took the challenge: we planted 400,000 trees.

Less than five minutes from Iowa City, Versaland farmer Grant Schultz and his crew planted 30,000 trees in a couple of years and restored a once eroded corn and bean farm.  It’s now a living farm, evolving, regenerative, and productive with fruit, vegetables, and livestock – a carbon sink.

Grant never talked about sustainability—nothing is sustainable, of course. He asked how we moved beyond doing less bad and actually do something that enhances rather than harms our environment. To begin the healing process. That climate action was not just pulling the plug, but it was first and foremost about putting carbon back into the soil.

The soil will save us, my kids kept repeating in their mantra.

To marvel at planting acres of milkweed to bring back the monarch butterflies, the symbols of climate change today. To marvel at planting 400,000 trees in the county, as a collaboration between the city, campus, and various communities.

At that same long table, always with food, we asked ourselves: how do we heal and restore our waterways and neighborhoods, the new strata of segregation? How do we protect ourselves from unacceptable levels of nitrates and industrial run-off in our water? How do we make sure those who can least afford the changes in electricity rates, the cost of food, and the vector-borne illness from climate change, are in the forefront of our plans?

The eco-district along the river—as a collaboration between the campus, hospital, and city—began the process of answering the question of who we are today in Iowa City in different ways.

No true eco-district could emerge without inclusionary zoning: low-income units mixed with higher income and older communities with new communities. Immigrants.  Urban immigrants. Students. And most importantly, senior citizens, the ranks who bring so much experience and wisdom and chutzpah. The Iowa City 100 Grannies planted a solar tree in every neighborhood.

In 2016, in the year of the great crisis, a new opportunity opened up again in an area called Mosquito Flats, which had been flooded and destroyed in 2008. The city owned scores of properties. So, people simply asked: Why not follow the river, and plant native trees for soil and green absorption, and why not get some food in the process?

Mosquito Flats became the Paw Paw Patch. At its planting celebration, the mayor of Iowa City stood on the riverfront, chanting, Asimina triloba, Asimina triloba. I said, Jim, are you OK? And he said, since Iowa City was the first UNESCO City of Literature, he thought using Latin, instead of “paw paw” tree, gave it a literary touch.

Just like Robert Ralston—we had to re-envision ourselves.

The Vauban eco-district in Freiburg ultimately concluded they needed to reduce the use of cars—to the point of creating a walkable environment that didn’t need them. Within three years of living in Vauban, 80 percent of the residents gave up their cars.

Reviving the historic tram, the walkable eco-district in Riverfront Crossings did the same.

In its mission to make regenerative city studies a part of the required freshman curriculum, all on-campus university students were required to learn by living, like students at Berea College in eastern Kentucky, in 100 percent renewable-energy dormitories, powered by solar, wind, geothermal, and recycled materials. Special credit was given to those who tended to the garden and compost.

In the tradition of university president and nationally recognized ecologist Thomas MacBride, the university president, mayor, city manager, and city councilors turned over their homes as showcases of permaculture, with edible lots, energy efficiency renovations, and renewable energy. The town and campus leaders got their hands dirty in a community garden.

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Miriam Alarcón Avila
Jeff Biggers and the Awful Purdies Band—Katie Roche on accordion, Sarah Driscoll on guitar, Nicole Upchurch on banjo, and Katie Senn on cello—perform The Ecopolis show in the Old Capitol Chamber in Iowa City.

We didn’t just envision the future; we cultivated it, ate it, and took comfort in it.

I tell my grandkids that the regenerative city didn’t happen overnight. It took ages just to talk it out, across the long table. Other cities, like Adelaide, even hired a “thinker in residence.” But every day, new breakthroughs reminded us that we needed to think anew and recognize watershed events as turning points. To not defer the pressing realities and mounting costs of climate change but embrace them as opportunities.

How many floods did it take? How many billions did we lose? How many lives?

Economics lose meaning when we calculate the price of our own demise, of the declining hopes of our own futures and that of the next generations.

The best way for my grandkids to learn this, like my generation of crisis, was to talk to our new neighbors from Sudan, who understood resiliency and adaptation, or those from Mexico who left drought conditions, and even those from Decorah, who had created an amazing river town in northern Iowa. To bring the mayor of Dubuque here and ask why he went to the Paris climate summit in 2015—and how he brought its mandates home.

And then I asked my kids the same question we asked ourselves during the great crisis: How can you be a catalyst for this regenerative city? What is my role—and the role of artists, innovators, engineers, and entrepreneurs? What is growing in my garden? And can I walk there? Where does your electricity come from?

It could begin with a simple act, like that of a concerned school parent like Geoff Lauer, who worked to get Iowa City schools to halt the use of toxic pesticides on school grounds and start using goats.

There are so many examples, but I keep seeing this image in Iowa City: the endless line of volunteers filling six million sand bags in 2008 in an effort to hold back a great flood on the river—a record beyond New Orleans. A record of resilience. But resilience, in this situation, was a state of loss, surrender, and ultimately, ruin. After the great crisis in 2016, we asked those same people who were heroes in filling six million sand bags in a vain attempt to hold back a flood, to do the same for climate action now, in a real and possible way. To create the regenerative city.

So, back to our family reunion on Ralston Creek. The grandkids laugh. What’s that?

An American eel. And that? The madtom. There’s a redear sunfish and a northern hog sucker. What’s that? The paddle fish. The lovely sharks of Iowa River.