Thinking in Systems rather than Symptoms when it comes to Water

Written by Melissa Miller, Associate Director of the Iowa Water Center

When I joined the Iowa Water Center in 2012, my worst kept secret was that I had very little experience in water-related research, outreach, or education. My undergraduate degree is in kinesiology from Iowa State University. This in itself is misleading because my focus was in community and public health. I never took a biomechanics or exercise physiology course. I wasn’t a scientist, and I certainly wasn’t a water scientist.

The first conference I attended as a member of the “water world,” as I fondly refer to our discipline, was the Iowa Environmental Council Conference. I wasn’t sure what to expect attending this conference for the first time… Would they see right through my community health background? Would the conversation bore (or scare) me? Would I be able to live with myself after learning about (presumably) all the terrible ways I was harming our earth?

I am happy to report that none of these things happened. I was not deterred from diving deeper into understanding environmentalism. On the contrary, the experience inspired me to learn more about how we can pursue clean, abundant, and well-managed water. This conference is where I learned about the Prairie STRIPS project from Lisa Schulte Moore, Professor in the Natural Resource Ecology and Management at Iowa State University. Learning about this project jump-started my fascination with Iowa’s native prairie, especially with how it can belong in the agricultural landscape.

After four delightful years at Iowa Water Center, and at the dawn of a new era where we have not just two, but three employees, the 2016 Annual Iowa Environmental Council Conference last week caused me to pause and reflect on my journey into water. The one-day conference included a luncheon speaker that mirrored my journey from Community Health Educator to Associate Director of the Iowa Water Center.

Dr. Richard L. Deming, Medical Director at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines, is the founder of Above + Beyond Cancer, an organization that takes cancer survivors on journeys to remind them that they can do anything.  Dr. Deming reflected on his career as an oncologist and the moment when he realized that it was more important to treat patients, not diseases. This involves understanding that the whole patient included their family, their interests, and their environment. All of these elements are part of the healing process. The natural environment, especially, has healing powers. In addressing water-related issues, we should think in systems, not symptoms. A healthy earth makes for healthy people.

There are, of course, a lot of practical applications from my public health background to the world of Iowa’s water. I expect to see the two intertwine more than ever over the next year and beyond. This summer, I attended the Raccoon River & Beyond Water Quality Consortium, which linked water and public health. The 2016 Iowa Environmental Health Association Fall Conference also has a strong water presence this year. The Iowa Public Health Association strongly encouraged water-related abstract submissions for the 2017 Iowa Governor’s Conference on Public Health.

Other speakers on the agenda at the conference included Seth Watkins, a farmer from Clarinda Iowa and owner of Pinhook Farm; David Muth, Co-Founder and Senior Vice President of AgSolver; and Mark Gannon, Owner and President of Farmland Stewardship Solutions, LC. These individuals spoke on a panel that represented a cross-section of the agriculture industry. This ranged from the private sector who offers conservation services to farmers who make decisions out in the field. These individuals gave food for thought on whole-farm system management.

I look forward to the Iowa Environmental Council Annual Conference next year. I know that it will reaffirm my understanding of the inter-connectivity of the environment as well as how I made my journey into water. Like what we need in the public discourse on water, this conference brought together new ideas and solutions from the people and places in which you wouldn’t expect.


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