Successful Watershed Management in the Upper Midwest: Getting to Scale

Post written by Melissa Miller, Associate Director for the Iowa Water Center

On November 6 and 7, a group of about 35 stakeholders representing fields of higher education, government, policy, and watershed practitioners gathered in Dubuque, Iowa, for a working session entitled “Successful Watershed Management in the Upper Midwest: Getting to Scale.” Rebecca Power and the North Central Region Water Network organized this event. The meeting was funded by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Walton Family Foundation. Attendees from all over the region contributed, including Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Arkansas; other attendees came from Washington, DC, Harvard, and other nationally-based organizations.

The ultimate product of this working session will be a white paper that explores the necessary elements of watershed management as a scalable unit and the necessary elements of support that make successful watershed management possible. We started with education before conversation, first setting the stage by defining “successful watershed management” and determining what “getting to scale” really meant. A series of lightning talks followed, covering successful watershed management models and highlighting some necessary elements of those examples.

Then, the real work began. We split into small groups, facilitated by Jamie Benning (ISU Extension and Outreach Water Quality Program), Ann Lewandowski (University of Minnesota Water Resources Center), Kate Gibson (Daugherty Food for Water Institute at University of Nebraska-Lincoln), and myself. We discussed the scalable unit for watershed management – the smallest administrative unit that includes key infrastructure, relationship, architecture, and other necessary elements of our theory of change. (We mostly agreed that it’s probably a HUC-12 watershed – except we could all think of some times it isn’t.) Then we identified the “necessary elements,” categorized by human capacity (leadership and learning), social capacity, financial capacity, policy and governance, and technology. We used the same categories for determining those necessary elements that support the scalable unit. On the second day, we expanded on those necessary elements and provided evidence and examples.

There was a lot of information exchanged and ideas generated in a short period. It was exciting to participate and meet people I hadn’t previously worked with in the same space. It was inspiring to cover familiar topics with some familiar faces in a new, comprehensive way. The white paper is expected to be finalized in spring of 2018. We’ll be sure to share it when it’s ready!

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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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What we can learn when we come together

Post written by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center

The agriculture community is a vast network that includes farmers, researchers, coordinators, agronomists, and more. Whether we are in the lab or out in the field, we all have one person in common – the farmer. According to a study by Doll and Reimer in the Journal Extension, many public and private professionals interact with farmers to guide on-farm decision making, but rarely do these individuals effectively interact with each other. When these individuals do work with each other, the research indicates it could be substantial for their knowledge and understanding of nutrient management.

In this study by Doll and Reimer, researchers invited Extension educators and private sector nitrogen dealers from across the Midwest for a 1.5-day workshop to discuss the many aspects of nitrogen fertilizer, including the biophysical and the social. The workshop goal was to inform management and policy decisions and to encourage future research and educational partnerships on nutrient management (Doll and Reimer 2017). The workshop included a myriad of topics and formats that involve small group sessions using flip charts to farmer panels to large group discussions. Of those who came to the workshop, 96 percent advised farmers on nutrient management as part of their jobs (Doll and Reimer 2017). Nutrient management on the farm plays a critical role in influencing local water quality as well as contributes to water impairments in the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone.

The researchers in this study reported, “96 percent of participants said that a mix of presentations and discussions provided an effective means for learning about nitrogen management” (Doll and Reimer 2017). Ninety-percent of respondents indicated that they improved their understanding of diverse viewpoints on nitrogen management during the workshop (Doll and Reimer 2017). Not only this, but they also improved their knowledge of available tools for decision-support in efficient nitrogen management. These are key findings given that there are many diverse approaches and viewpoints when it comes to policy decisions. Best of all, 90 percent would recommend this workshop to a colleague, and a majority of participants had increased “motivation to implement knowledge in the area of sustainable nitrogen management” (Doll and Reimer 2017).

Most respondents also indicated that they have never met each other prior to the workshop. These relationships are vital since each can have an influence on a farmer’s nutrient management decision-making. Regardless of the role you play, you are valuable to the agricultural outreach system. If you are a researcher, think about the wider influences of your research. If you are in the private sector, it is key to be learning continuously and to help clients make the best decision for resilient farm operations using the best data available.

It may seem like there is an ever-increasing number of meetings, conferences, summits, and workshops that are available in Iowa for researchers, coordinators, and farmers alike. We should not take that time for granted. Rather, we should appreciate having the time to get to know our community in water and to kick around new ideas with new people. I am inspired by the research from Doll and Reimer that if you can execute an event well with a diverse range of people, you can make a huge positive impact on water resources.

Doll, Julie and Adam Reimer. 2017. Bringing Farm Advisors into the Sustainability Conversation: Results from a Nitrogen Workshop in the U.S. Midwest. Journal of Extension 55(5) https://www.joe.org/joe/2017october/iw2.php.

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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. 

Summer Update from the IWC Graduate Student Research Grant Program: Nathan Young

Post submitted by Nathan Young, a PhD student co-majoring in Geology and Environmental Science here at Iowa State University.

Over the past 30 years, computer simulations of groundwater flow have become a standard tool for investigating water quality and quantity issues across the globe. Because of a number of limitations, ranging from data availability to available computer power, these simulations (or “models”) contain a number of simplifying assumptions that prevent them from being perfect representations of the location being studied. For instance, if the subsurface was composed primarily of sand with some gravel mixed in, we may tell the model that the subsurface is only composed of sand to simplify the model and make it run faster. While these assumptions may be acceptable under most circumstances, several common assumptions made about the subsurface in Iowa may in fact impede our understanding of how water and nutrients are moving throughout the state. In Iowa’s till dominated watersheds, the subsurface is commonly treated as a fairly homogenous low-permeability material, while in reality, ultra-small-scale cracks (or fractures) present in this material provide pipe-like pathways through which water and nutrients can move very rapidly. These fractures are often omitted from models due to the massive amount of computer power required to include them in the type of watershed-scale investigations that would be conducted for the purposes of evaluating regional water quality.

In spring 2017, I was awarded funding in the Iowa Water Center Graduate Student Supplemental Research Competition for my project titled, “Simulation of Watershed-Scale Nitrate Transport in Fractured Till Using Upscaled Parameters Obtained from Till Core.” My research seeks to accomplish two goals: to develop a method to include fractures in watershed-scale models, and then to evaluate the extent to which these ultra-small-scale fractures enhance groundwater flow and nutrient transport at the watershed scale.

This past summer I have made significant progress on my project on a number of fronts. My laboratory experiments on a series of 16x16x16 cm sediment samples excavated from the Dakota Access Pipeline trenches are ongoing, but they are progressing forward. I am currently conducting flow experiments on the samples using groundwater spiked with a chemical tracer. These samples contain small-scale cracks, called fractures, which provide pathways for very rapid movement of fluid and tracer in what would otherwise be a largely impervious material. By measuring the flow rate of fluid coming out of the sample, as well as the concentration of tracer that this effluent contains, I can quantify to what degree these fractures are enhancing flow within the sample. Early results of this work show that as we move deeper in the subsurface, water moves through the samples more slowly (which is what we would expect to see) yet these flow rates are still higher than we would find if the samples did not contain fractures. Furthermore, tracer concentrations in the sample effluent indicate that the fractures are providing preferential pathways for the tracer to flow through, resulting in tracer exiting the sample much sooner than if it were unfractured. I have been fortunate to have the assistance of two undergraduates, Jay Karani ’19, and Kate Staebell ’17, in setting up these experiments and analyzing the resulting output. This work would have taken much longer without their help!

I have also been working to develop a set of new computational methods that will allow for the role that these fractures play in groundwater flow and solute transport to be included in watershed-scale computer models. Previously, accounting for groundwater flow in fractures was too computationally intensive to include in models larger than the size of a small field. Yet the early results of my work suggest that we may have found a method to circumvent this computational limitation by computing a new set of flow parameters using sophisticated, small-scale groundwater flow simulations and field data.  I presented some preliminary results of this work at the 2017 MODFLOW and More conference in Golden, Colorado, this past May, and was awarded 2nd place for graduate student presentations. A short paper on this work was also published in the conference proceedings. I am currently finalizing my results in preparation for a talk I will be giving at the Geological Society of America’s National meeting in Seattle later this month. I am also in the process of writing up the results for publication, and hope to have one of two manuscripts ready for submission by the end of the semester.

Finally, I was invited to visit Laval University in Quebec City, Canada this past August to work with Dr. René Therrien, a professor in the Department of Geology and Geological Engineering who developed the groundwater model I am using in my research. With the help of Dr. Therrien and his research group, I was able to accomplish in two weeks what would have likely taken me three months on my own. I have already been invited back to work with them again in summer 2018. We are working together to write a grant proposal to secure funding for that visit. I am confident that continued work with my collaborators at Laval University will enable me to include more detail in my study area, Walnut Creek watershed, into the overall model of the watershed I am currently building.

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.

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.