Project-Based Learning for future water leaders

Student project from the Bluestem Institute (left). Image of the Southfork Watershed Alliance sign (right).

Story submitted by Melissa Miller, Associate Director for the Iowa Water Center

In fall of 2015, I met with a group of 60 high school students at the headwaters of the South Fork of the Iowa River, right off the shoulder of Hwy 69 in North Central Iowa. It was a beautiful (but cold) fall morning, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew was that a class from Ames High School (AHS) was out to define a list of water quality terms, and they were doing so through experiences, including this on-site interview with my local farmer-led grassroots watershed group.

What I found out about this group of students was worth my shivering out in the cold while corn-loaded semis blasted by the school buses at 60 mph. These students and three teachers were part of the Bluestem Institute, an integrated capstone seminar based on project-based learning and extended inquiry frameworks. As I built a relationship over the next several months with teachers Mike Todd, Joe Brekke, and Chad Zmolek, we discovered more ways for the class and the Iowa Water Center to interact, culminating in a gallery showing of the students’ final projects at the 10th annual Iowa Water Conference.

I wasn’t the only one transfixed with the students’ high level of engagement and understanding of complex water issues. Pat Sauer, with the Iowa Stormwater Education Partnership, came to me in early summer of 2016 with a vision of packaging the Bluestem Institute and making it accessible for all schools in Iowa to implement.

Serendipitously, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture had recently received a bequest from the estate of Iowan Robert Margroff designated for youth education about the environment. With the help of the AHS teachers that created the Bluestem Institute, we submitted and were subsequently awarded three years of funding to develop the framework and pilot it in two Iowa schools.

Now nearly a year into the project, dubbed “The Watershed Project,” we have discovered that we are always learning. Davenport North High School faculty Laura McCreery and City of Davenport Public Works employee Robbin Dunn are nine weeks into implementing the project in McCreery’s classroom. Over the life of the project, we will blog about the process of designing the framework and the experiences of our implementation schools.

The immediate outcome of this project will be an educational framework for teachers to implement project-based learning in Iowa high schools that address intersections of science, government, sociology, economics, and art as they relate to decision-making regarding water and land use at local levels. We hope to inspire more than that – we hope this program inspires students and communities to take greater interest in environmental sustainability issues. We hope the students in these programs consider entering STEM fields post-graduation, armed with interdisciplinary knowledge so they can inspire new solutions. We hope to develop emerging generations of citizens and civic leaders that value and implement environmentally sustainable policies and strategies. Ultimately, we dream of engaged, resilient communities that proactively and collaboratively address soil and water conservation issues.

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Melissa Miller is the associate director of the Iowa Water Center. She earned a BS in Kinesiology from Iowa State University with an emphasis in Community and Public Health. She is currently pursuing a MS degree in Community Development with an emphasis in Natural Resource Management, also from Iowa State University.
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Notes from a newly forming WMA: Developing a replicable program with the Iowa Watershed Approach

In September, Iowa Water Center staff were spread across the state to attend the fall meetings of several Watershed Management Authorities (WMAs). One of these meetings was the North Raccoon Watershed Management Coalition (NRWMC), held on September 20th in Lake City, Iowa (whose town welcome sign proudly proclaims they have “everything but a lake!”).

The nine different watersheds in the Iowa Watershed Approach started at varying stages of WMA development.  North Raccoon was one of those in the beginning stages that did not have a WMA prior to the Iowa Watershed Approach start date. The 28E agreement was filed in the spring of 2017, and this was the second quarterly meeting since that time. Because the group is so new, the topics touched on at this meeting may be helpful to other newly forming WMAs, whether they are part of the Iowa Watershed Approach project or not.

Managing a large group

One of the challenges for NRWMC is that the sheer size of the watershed leads to many potential entities (cities, counties, and Soil and Water Conservation Districts) for the 28E agreement. NRWMC did an excellent job securing participation of 36 entities, but with each entity receiving a board seat (as is common practice with WMAs), it can be difficult to find a meeting time with enough board members to secure a quorum. To address this issue, board members can participate by phone, or designate proxies.

One of the first actions the NRWMC needs to take is hiring a watershed coordinator. A watershed coordinator is a jack-of-all-trades that coordinates the WMA board as well as WMA-related activities in the watershed. NRWMC designated a subcommittee for hiring at a previous meeting, but the entire coalition will need to approve the hiring of the individual recommended by the subcommittee. With only meeting quarterly and the necessity of a high number of members required for a quorum, NRWMC chose to schedule a telephonic board meeting once the subcommittee had prepared their recommendation.

Board education

Like other WMAs, NRWMC board members are not necessarily experts in watershed management. Board chair Mark Hanson took some time at this meeting to give an overview of the history of the watershed. As a new group, it is beneficial for the board to pause and reflect on what has shaped the watershed in the past – both recent land use and weather events as well as the historical geology of the region.

This information segued nicely into a presentation by Tony Loeser, Water Resources Engineer at IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering at the University of Iowa, as he explained what NRWMC could expect from the expansive hydrologic assessment being conducted by his group. Included in the hydrologic assessment:

  • climate and historical streamflow assessments (including average rainfall, streamflow patterns, floods of record, and abnormal weather patterns)
  • data sets that describe watershed characteristics (geology and soils, land use, BMP mapping, topography, unique characteristics that contribute to the way water moves in the watershed)
  • instruments/data record (streamflow and rainfall)
  • watershed scaled hydrologic model runs that are compared with observed responses to rainfall events

Tony’s presentation did a great job of outlining the how, the why, and the “so what?” of the hydrologic assessment. Even though NRWMC won’t have those results for several months (all that data gathering and analysis takes time!), understanding what’s to come helps this new group in their understanding of the watershed management process.

One final observation: the power of complete and concise meeting minutes cannot be overstated (especially with a 36-member board). Hats off to the board secretary for judicious recording of meeting happenings (including documentation of University of Iowa Center for Evaluation and Assessment Julie Kearney’s predictive score for the Iowa-Penn State game!).

This is part three in a series on the Iowa Watershed Approach. Read our other coverage below:

Working with your Watershed Partners – Part 1

Getting to know your Watershed Pt. 2

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Melissa Miller is the associate director of the Iowa Water Center. She earned a BS in Kinesiology from Iowa State University with an emphasis in Community and Public Health. She is currently pursuing a MS degree in Community Development with an emphasis in Natural Resource Management, also from Iowa State University.

Get to know your soil

Photos of the 2017-2018 Agronomy in the Field cohort for Central Iowa at the ISU Field Extension Education Lab. Photos by Hanna Bates.

An education in soil sampling

Last week I attended Agronomy in the Field, led by Angie Reick-Hinz, an ISU field agronomist.  The workshop focused on soil sampling out in a field. The cohort learned a lot of valuable insight into not only the science of soil sampling, but also practical knowledge from out-in-the-field experiences.

Taking soil samples in a field is critical in making decisions about fertilizer, manure, and limestone application rates. Both over and under application can reduce profits, so the best decision a farmer can make is based on a representative sample that accurately shows differences across his/her fields.

What do you need?

  • Sample bags
  • Field map
  • Soil probe
  • Bucket

When do you sample?

After harvest or before spring/fall fertilization times. Sampling should not occur immediately after lime, fertilizer, or manure application or when soil is excessively wet.

Where do you sample?

Samples taken from a field should represent a soil area that is under the same type of field cultivation and nutrient management. According to ISU Extension, the “choice of sample areas is determined by the soils present, past management and productivity, and goals desired for field management practices.”* See ISU Extension resources for maps and examples for where in the field to take samples.

Most importantly…

Like with everything that happens out in the field, it is important to keep records on soil testing so that you can evaluate change over time and the efficiency of fertilizer programs. As we say at the Iowa Water Center, the more data, the better! The more we learn about the soils, the better we can protect and enhance them. Healthy soils stay in place in a field and promote better crop growth by keeping nutrients where they belong during rain events. Not only can we monitor soil from the ground with farmers, but with The Daily Erosion Project. These combined resources, with others, can provide the best guidance in growing the best crop and protecting natural resources.

Interested in Agronomy in the Field? Contact Angie Rieck-Hinz at amrieck@iastate.edu or 515-231-2830 to be placed on a contact list.

* Sawyer, John, Mallarino, Antonio, and Randy Killorn. 2004. Take a Good Soil Sample to Help Make Good Decisions. Iowa State University Extension PM 287. Link: https://crops.extension.iastate.edu/files/article/PM287.pdf

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Hanna Bates is the Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center. She has a MS in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University. She is also an alumna of the University of Iowa for her undergraduate degree. 

Getting to know your Watershed Pt. 2

Digging up the data on the Iowa Watershed Approach

Before putting together a comprehensive watershed plan, a watershed community has to know the current state of their watershed. Not only this, but if the project involves federal funding, they must also examine how any proposed changes could positively or negatively affect the watershed. This is in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), a federal law enacted in 1970, which requires an assessment of the potential environmental effects of a federal project.

The Iowa Watershed Approach is a federally funded project from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Work conducted with funding from this department must also align with the HUDs standards for NEPA review and compliance found in 2 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 58. This is to ensure that no substantial, unwarranted harm is caused to a community, ecological habitat, or to a historic site.

Environmental assessments will occur in two phases for the Iowa Watershed Approach: a programmatic review of potential environmental impacts, and then a site-specific assessment at specific locations before starting a conservation implementation project.

What are these assessments looking at?

Phase one assessment will examine the items listed below. Some of them cannot be resolved until a specific site has been identified, thus the Phase 2 site-specific assessment. Others are not carried forward in the Phase 2 analysis because the project – overall and at the site-specific level – is in compliance.

  • Air Quality
  • Coastal Zone Management
  • Environmental Justice
  • Explosive and Flammable Operations
  • Noise
  • Water Quality (Sole-source aquifers)
  • Wild and Scenic Rivers
  • Airport Hazards
  • Contamination and Toxic Substances
  • Endangered Species
  • Farmland Protection
  • Floodplain Management
  • Historic Preservation
  • Wetland Protection

Why have all of these rules and regulations?

Because it is the responsible thing to do. This project is making changes to the landscape, and although all the proposed changes are identified as conservation practices, project partners still have to be responsible stewards of the land by evaluating potential environmental impacts and the cumulative effects they may have over time on our environment.

What has been done so far?

Right now, environmental assessments are being drafted for the nine watersheds identified for the Iowa Watershed Approach. They will be available for a public review/comment period, and then the assessments will be approved and adopted by the County Board of Supervisors for each watershed. The assessment will then be available as a public document.

What is next?

After an environmental assessment becomes a public document, the information will be incorporated into a watershed plan with other information contributed by public institutions in Iowa to identify areas for specific conservation projects. Once a specific site has been identified, a more-focused environmental review of the subject site will be initiated. This review is developed out of issues and concerns identified in the Phase 1 environmental assessment. Although it may seem like a long process, this is to prevent any unintended consequences or negative impact on the land, animals, or people in the future.

This is a multi-part series exploring the process of how Watershed Management Authorities and other entities are organizing and making a positive difference in Iowa through the Iowa Watershed Approach.

Start Here: Pt. 1 Working with your Watershed Partners

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Hanna Bates is the Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center. She has a MS in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University. She is also an alumna of the University of Iowa for her undergraduate degree. 

Working with your Watershed Partners Part 1

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Photo from the Iowa Watershed Approach website.

 

Developing a plan for Middle Cedar River Watershed

This spring, we talked to Jennifer Fencl, the Solid Waste & Environmental Services Director at The East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG), about how watershed management plans come together. We are now getting experience in the planning process as the Iowa Water Center is a partner organization for the Iowa Watershed Approach. This is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development award of almost $97M for Iowa for watershed improvement. This will fund watershed projects that address unmet needs from natural disasters in the past.  The project will work in nine watersheds located throughout the state. These watersheds are:

  • Upper Iowa River Watershed
  • Upper Wapsipinicon River Watershed
  • Bee Branch Creek (Dubuque) Watershed
  • Middle Cedar River Watershed
  • Clear Creek Watershed
  • English River Watershed
  • North Raccoon River Watershed
  • East Nishnabotna River Watershed
  • West Nishnabotna River Watershed

Last week, we met with partners in the Middle Cedar River Watershed in eastern Iowa to develop a watershed plan. Emmons & Olivier Resources, Inc. is making the management plan for the watershed. A watershed plan is a document that identifies water quality issues at the watershed-level, recommends solutions, and creates a framework for how to put these solutions into action. A watershed plan brings together data sets from a variety of resources that capture social and ecological aspects of the watershed. For full information on the project, see the Middle Cedar River Watershed webpage at the Iowa Watershed Approach website.

One of the first steps in the process of making the watershed management plan is organizing the planning effort among partners who are contributing diverse data sets. Data for this project is coming from Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, the Iowa Flood Center, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, among many others. Collaboration and effective communication among this group will enable the creation of a comprehensive watershed management plan that works for the local community.

Although having data about the watershed is important, it is key to have local involvement. Planning partners will also engage the public through an open house meeting to inform them about the project and the different contributions from partner organizations. In the process of the plan coming together, local stakeholders will be recruited to participate in the effort.

What is the Iowa Water Center doing for the management plan?

Currently, the Iowa Water Center is the umbrella organization for the Daily Erosion Project, a tool that estimates soil movement and water runoff from hillslopes on a daily basis. Ever-increasing topsoil loss reduces crop yield potential, reduces water holding capacity of the ground, and contributes to water quality impairments through sedimentation in waterways. Soil movement estimation is valuable information for watershed planning because it can help prioritize critical areas in need of conservation efforts, and so financial resources can be used strategically to create the highest impact.

We also love to communicate what is happening around the state through our blog, website, newsletter, and Twitter. We plan on writing about the various stages of this project and others to keep you informed on what is going on across Iowa. We are looking forward to the first open house meeting with the folks located in the Middle Cedar.

This is a multi-part series exploring the process of how Watershed Management Authorities and other entities are organizing and making a positive difference in Iowa through the Iowa Watershed Approach.

Getting to know your Watershed Pt. 2

Notes from a newly forming WMA: Developing a replicable program with the Iowa Watershed Approach Pt. 3

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Hanna Bates is the Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center. She has a MS in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University. She is also an alumna of the University of Iowa for her undergraduate degree in Anthropology.  

Identifying Indicators for Soil Health

Breaking down our knowledge of soil enzymes

Post written by Marshall McDaniel, Assistant Professor in the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University

As mentioned in a recent Washington Post article, there is a zoo beneath our feet in the soil. There are three properties of the soil, which are physical, chemical, and the biological properties. The emphasis on soil biology is, in large part, what separates soil health from the concepts of soil quality and the physical properties of soil (also known as soil tilth).  After all, only something that is living can be healthy (or unhealthy).  Many soil organisms are like us humans in that they require carbon as their main source of food in order to grow and reproduce.  Extracellular enzymes are proteins produced by microorganisms in soil to acquire carbon and nutrients from soil organic matter.

The McDaniel Lab was one of five to receive the Soil Health Literature and Information Review Grants from the Soil Health Institute. We will do a quantitative literature review on two of these enzymes – beta-glucosidase and polyphenol oxidase.  Beta-glucosidase can generally be thought of as being used for easily broken down, or labile, forms of soil carbon, and polyphenol oxidase for recalcitrant carbon.  In other words, think of labile carbon as a buffet of ‘yummy and healthy’ food that is nutritious and easy-to-digest for soil microbes, while recalcitrant carbon can be thought of as the equivalent of broccoli stems to human digestion.  We want to manage soils so that there is a large amount of the ‘yummy and healthy’ soil carbon for microbes to eat, and less of the ‘broccoli stems’.

Where the enzymes come in is that soil microbes will produce more of the beta-glucosidase enzyme if there is more ‘yummy and healthy’ forms of carbon in the soil, because it helps them to metabolize this form of carbon.  Conversely, if all you have left in the soil are ‘broccoli stems’, then as a soil microbe you are going to produce more polyphenol oxidase to metabolize this difficult to break down source of food.  Therefore, the ratio of these two enzymes holds promise as a good biological soil health indicator since it is an index of supply-and-demand for ‘yummy and healthy’ microbe food over ‘broccoli stems’.

What does this have to do with water?

Soil health and water quality go hand in hand. Improved soil health has the potential to increase water infiltration, increase water holding capacity, decrease surface runoff, decrease soil erosion, increase nutrient retention in the soil for plants, and more. By improving understanding of our soil biology, we can both better serve our natural resources and crop production.

University of Iowa: A case study of flood response

 

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In honor of construction starting soon to replace one of the last University of Iowa buildings damaged by the 2008 floods, we have decided to highlight a history of flood infrastructure investments at the university .

Just one-year shy of a decade since the 2008 floods, the final plans have been approved for a new facility for the University of Iowa Museum of Art. Like Hancher Auditorium, the music school, the library, and the Iowa Memorial Union, among about seventeen other buildings (Connerly et al 2017), the art museum was a significant loss to the university that scattered its 14,000-estimated piece collection to new locations on and off campus.

According to Connerly et al 2017, damages and recovery were estimated to be $743 million and is the highest costing disaster recovery in Iowa. As a public institution located in a floodplain area, it has had a history of flood preparation and response since its inception in 1847. As their article explains, the flooding brought up many critical questions, including: “why did the University construct important new buildings, some of them iconic, within the floodplain?” and how can the university cope with future natural and human-made flooding?

To answer the first question, the university built where they did predominantly because they had few options. The risk of flood also gave the appearance of being manageable at the time and policies for flood mitigation and subsidies were more risky than they appeared to be (Connerly et al 2017). The university started on a small four block area east of the Iowa River. The university and the City of Iowa City grew concurrently causing buildings to be placed closer and closer to the river. In 1905, the university commissioned a master plan by the Olmsted Brothers that included riverfront property, but its use would only be for recreation and parks (Connerly et al 2017). Land acquisition advisement by the Olmsteds was illustrated in the following:

“The Olmsted Brothers emphasized the need to acquire land that would be of value to the University, even if it costs more. They stated, ‘‘the process of acquisition of additional land must evidently go on indefinitely, but some other motives than those of convenience and cheapness should be kept in mind and should often have more weight than those.” (55)

The construction on the floodplain started with the Iowa Memorial Union (IMU) in the 1920s and then grew to include the arts campus. Construction for a fine arts building was originally planned for a site north of the IMU, but an agreement could not be reached for a price. Instead, the campus was developed on acquired land that was a wetland formerly used as a city landfill by the river (Connerly et al 2017).

The wetlands were filled and the buildings were constructed to be above recorded flood level data available at the time and levees were constructed on the river. Later, these efforts included the university’s support of building the Coralville Reservoir by the Army Corps of Engineers, in which the president of the university at that time stated, “the Reservoir will make possible a program for the permanent development of the river front through the University campus” ( Connerly et al 2017, p.58). The campus was growing in two halves on the east and west side of the river. Development in-between would unite the two pieces, especially when considering there were little other places to build.

This culminates in the issue of what Connerly et al (2017) describes as the “safe development paradox.” This term is used to describe the federal support for levees, dams, disaster aid programs, and other assistance that spurred development in the floodplains. By providing a safety net with federal assisted water-related control, recovery, and insurance, federal policy enabled development that came at a cost with the 1993 and 2008 floods.

How can the university cope with natural and human-made flooding for the future?

To answer this question, the university has responded to the 2008 floods by re-purposing or completely rebuilding new facilities that are more resilient to withstanding future flooding using scientific modelling as a tool. The recovery efforts include a multitude of partnerships that choreograph their work around where FEMA compliance and insurance policies reach within each building. The university voluntarily chose to conduct a campus-wide flood mitigation strategy that is in progress. This strategy includes elevated sidewalks, supports for temporary flood walls, building pumping systems, and removable external walls. The university has also rebuilt two buildings away from their original locations. As seen above, these strategies have been tested with the rise in water levels in 2013.

In review, the tumultuous history of flooding infrastructure contains valuable lessons. Resilience, which is at the core of what public infrastructure is trying to achieve, is the ability to spring back from disasters. The university that came out on the other side of the 2008 floods is one that utilizes water research and technology using scientific methods and demonstrates that there is room for improvement in state and federal policies and procedures. As a result, when future flooding occurs, we will all be better able to respond.

Connerly, Charles, Laurian, Lucie, Throgmorton, James. 2017. Planning for Floods at the University of Iowa. Journal of Planning History 16(1): 50-73.

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Hanna Bates is the Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center. She has a MS in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University. She is also an alumna of the University of Iowa for her undergraduate degree.