Aerial view of a comma-shaped oxbow next to the main channel of a river.
Boone River Oxbow Aerial image of restored oxbow wetland in Boone River Wetland. © Nick Walters/TNC

Stories in Iowa

What Is an Oxbow?

Learn how TNC is restoring oxbow wetlands to help wildlife and people in Iowa.

An oxbow wetland is a meander of a stream, river or creek, that has become separated from the flow of water. Oxbow wetlands store excess water that might otherwise lead to flooding, filter water to improve water quality and provide habitat to a variety of wildlife. Over time, some oxbows fill in with sediment due to erosion of soil in surrounding areas.


Oxbow Restoration Training

Our Zoom training walks you through the steps to restore an oxbow.

Watch the training

The Nature Conservancy in Iowa works with partners to restore oxbow wetlands in three priority watersheds: Cedar River Watershed, Boone River Watershed and Des Moines River Watershed.

To restore these important wetlands, The Nature Conservancy in Iowa works to identify locations where oxbows once existed and then partners with landowners to plan the restoration process. The area is cleared of obstructions, and the u-shaped oxbow is excavated. Once the newly excavated wetland is reconnected to a nearby river, the oxbow fills, and small fish can move in, often spawning and hatching in the oxbow. Learn more below about the benefits of restored oxbows.

Beautiful green oxbow wetland after construction.
Construction on oxbow wetland about to begin.
The Making of an Oxbow Restored oxbows help provide habitat to wildlife such as the endangered Topeka Shiner. © Karen Wilke

Oxbows Improve Water Quality

The ability of an oxbow wetland to process and filter out excess nutrients depends on how long the oxbow can store water before it flows into the nearby stream. Nitrates are a common nutrient necessary for agricultural production but are detrimental to water quality when introduced at high levels. Restored oxbows remove nitrate from flood waters.

Studies have shown that, on average, tile-fed oxbows filter 62 percent of excess nutrients from water that flows into them. Oxbows that intercept agricultural tile drainage can filter nearly 100 percent of nitrates from the water if given enough time. Tile drainage is a type of drainage system that removes excess water in soil from below its surface. In many Iowa streams, a significant percentage of water flow is from tile drainage. Urban oxbows also capture and treat a variety of urban contaminants when linked to stormwater discharge.

Oxbows Increase Flood Storage

Oxbows store up to one million gallons of water per acre and can slow stormwater before it enters rivers and streams. When stream flows increase during and after precipitation events, oxbows can intercept some of the flood water and slowly release it back into the stream, helping to reduce the peak flows. As precipitation events become more extreme due to climate change, this role for oxbow wetlands will become more important. When coupled with stormwater wetlands or basins, oxbows can significantly reduce flooding.

Calm water in an oxbow with grassy banks and a tree in the mid-distance.
The restored Boone River oxbow helps to filter nutrients from agricultural runoff and has improved habitat for a variety of wildlife.

Oxbows Provide Wildlife Habitat

Restored oxbow wetlands provide important habitat for young fish to mature before entering the stream as adults. They also offer vital refuge to smaller fish seeking protection from larger, predatory fish. Fish surveys completed in restored oxbows have found 57 fish species, including green sunfish, fathead minnow and the federally endangered Topeka shiner. Oxbow wetlands are also used by 81 species of migratory birds and waterfowl as feeding grounds and nesting sites. Ducks and geese often begin using newly restored oxbows as soon as water is restored.

First of its kind
First of its kind Th Webster City restoration project is unique in the Boone River watershed, as the previous 50+ restorations are located on rural land. © City of Webster City
First of its kind Th Webster City restoration project is unique in the Boone River watershed, as the previous 50+ restorations are located on rural land. © City of Webster City

Oxbows Benefit People

Restored oxbows provide many benefits to communities and people, too. The fertile black soil excavated from oxbows can be spread in adjacent farm fields to improve soil quality and potentially boost yields. Restored oxbows also fit nicely into pasture settings by providing a water source separate from the stream for livestock to drink and cool off. Oxbows also offer areas for people to connect with nature through photography, fishing, and hunting. 

Field Day Archive: Pasturing Oxbows (58:10) Learn about how pasturing oxbows can optimize benefits to a farm, water and wildlife.