Measuring Progress of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy: The 2017 Annual Progress Report

Written by Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences at Iowa State University

This week, the 2017 Annual Progress Report for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy was published. The report is the fourth annual progress evaluation of the NRS, and represents the continued improvement in communicating Iowa’s steps towards its goal of reducing annual nitrogen and phosphorus loss by 45%. For the first time, a summary infographic has been developed to pare down the in-depth report to its highlights.

Organizations across Iowa—public agencies, private entities, NGOs, and universities—form vital partnerships and have taken strides in the work toward meeting NRS goals.

  • Funding for NRS efforts totaled $420 million in 2017, an increase of $32 million from the previous year.
  • Annual outreach events reported by partner organizations effectively doubled in the last year, reaching 54,500 attendees in 2017.
  • Wastewater treatment plants and industrial facilities continue to make commitments to improve their nutrient removal processes. Of the 151 facilities required by the NRS, 105 have received new permits; of those, 51 have submitted feasibility studies on potential technology improvements.

These increased efforts represent early inputs into the Strategy, allowing work to ramp up and begin influencing tangible change in the state.

Increased funding and outreach, along with the continued dedication of other inputs by partner organizations, are having an impact on the Iowa landscape.

  • Cover crop acres have increased drastically, from just 15,000 estimated acres in 2011 to more than 600,000 acres in 2016.
  • During that 2011-2016 time period, 36 nitrogen removal wetlands were constructed, treating 42,000 acres.
  • Also since 2011, a net increase of 155,000 row crop acres have been retired under the Conservation Reserve Program, with total CRP land retirement nearing 1.7 million acres.

At this point, the extent of conservation practices in Iowa pales in comparison to what is likely needed to meet NRS goals. However, these steps forward represent very early change resulting from statewide NRS efforts.

The water quality impacts of these efforts will continue to be assessed. At least 88% of Iowa’s land drains to a location with a nitrate sensor, allowing researchers to evaluate Iowa’s annual nitrogen loss and detect potential changes in the nitrogen load reaching the Mississippi River. Ongoing research aims to provide similar estimates of annual phosphorus loads beginning in 2018. In addition, using models developed for the NRS Science Assessment, the Annual Progress Report provides an annual estimate of the nutrient reductions affected by the conservation practices installed across the state.

The Annual Progress Report, and other NRS documents, can be found at www.nutrientstrategy.iastate.edu.

Nowatzke_photo thumbnailLaurie Nowatzke is the Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, in Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. She has a MA in International Relations & Environmental Policy from Boston University, and a BS from Wright State University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at Iowa State University.
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Soil and water quality improvements in your backyard

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

 Urban zones are ever expanding in Iowa with new houses, apartment complexes, and businesses emerging every year. Construction in urban zones often causes negative impacts on the soil, including compaction, which can thwart root zone growth in green spaces and may lead to erosion and water quality impairments. A new study by Logsdon et al. in the Journal of Water Resource and Protection shows that compost has the ability to improve soil and water quality in post construction sites in urban areas.

Researchers examined lawn grass plots and prairie plots that had simulated construction activities, such as driving over the plots with a tractor. This activity mimics the increase of soil compaction that occurs at construction sites due to the heavy machinery used. The plots received a treatment with three types of compost application methods: compost with aeration, rototill and compost, and surface compost. These plots were compared against bluegrass, which is a traditional lawn grass, without compost. Plots then underwent a rainfall scenario with the use of a rainfall simulator. Researchers measured numerous variables in the soil including soil water, bulk density (the degree of compaction), and morphology (the observable elements of the soil).

The study found that the use of compost lessened the bulk density in the soil (Logsdon et al 2017). High bulk density is an indicator that the soil has low absorbency for water and limits plant growth. By lowering bulk density, there is an increased ability to support healthy plant life and increase the water retained in the soil. In this study, compost additions not only provided the benefit for soil health, but it also darkened the soil more than the addition of topsoil. The study also found that when compost was combined with prairie grasses, it increased infiltration and minimized runoff and sediment loss when compared to bluegrass lawn.

If you’re a developer or even a homeowner, it may be worthwhile to consider composting and planting prairie rather than traditional lawn grass. It will not only keep your soil in place, but it will make a positive impact on the surrounding environment and lessen the stress on the public water infrastructure.

Logsdon, S.D., Sauer, P.A. and Shipitalo, M.J. (2017) Compost Improves Urban Soil and Water Quality. Journal of Water Resource and Protection, 9, 345-357. 7. https://doi.org/10.4236/jwarp.2017.94023.

 

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Hanna Bates is the Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center. She has an MS in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture from Iowa State University. She is currently pursuing an MBA with a leadership certificate from the University of Iowa.

The 2018 104(g) National Competitive Grants Program is now open

The 104(g) National Competitive Grants program is one of three grant programs administered annually by the Iowa Water Center in coordination with the National Institutes for Water Resources (NIWR).

Due Date: Preproposals are due February 15, 2018
Submit to: State Water Institute or Center (that is us – email to hbates@iastate.edu)
Award maximum and duration: 1-3 years, $250,000 maximum. 1:1 match. NO INDIRECT COSTS.
Scope: Proposals must focus on “water problems and issues of a regional or interstate nature.” Collaboration between organizations and agencies (particularly USGS) are highly encouraged; USGS partnerships receive extra weight in evaluation.

Request for Applications URL

2018 Priorities:

  • Evaluation of innovative approaches to water treatment, infrastructure design, retrofitting, maintenance, management and replacement.
  • Exploration and advancement of our understanding of changes in the quantity and quality of water resources in response to a changing climate, population shifts, and land use changes; including associated economic, environmental, social, and/or infrastructure costs.
  • Development of methods for better estimation of water supply, both surface and groundwater, including estimation of the physical and/or economic supply of water.
  • Development and evaluation of processes and governance mechanisms for integrated surface/ground water management.
  • Evaluation and assessment of the effects of water conservation practices, as well as adoption, penetration and permanence.

Other important information:

Send your preproposal (using Attachment A of the RFA) to the Iowa Water Center by February 15 at 4 p.m., and we send it on to the review committee. If the receipt on the email is past this time, we cannot forward your preproposal.

The previous application system (NIWR.net) will NOT be used in either the preproposal or full proposal submission process.

The preproposal does NOT require a full or detailed budget, only estimate totals (Iowa State University PIs, the preproposal does not require a Goldsheet).

Indirect costs (IDC) are not allowed in the federal portion of the budget, but you can (and should) claim the IDCs you would have gotten if they were allowed as matching funds (see Section VIII.E. of the RFA; let us know if you have questions).

We would be delighted to discuss potential projects as you write your preproposal.

Bringing citizens together to make a change

Post submitted by Rick Cruse, Director of the Iowa Water Center

The Citizens Water Academy meets for four four-hour educational and participatory sessions.  This seems a somewhat unique approach to addressing Iowa Water Quality issues.  Bringing together diverse community members in an educational environment, particularly when addressing a somewhat controversial and divisive topic, seems to stretch the comfort zone and knowledge space of those attending.  One unique outcome of this approach, when complimented with an audience participatory format, takes the thought process outside ones normal beliefs or thought patterns.  The process is important because we are constantly trying to find new and innovative ways of addressing water quality problems.

We are using approaches that could potentially be adopted and lead to improved water quality when implemented by a variety of interested stakeholders.  In contrast, many of our traditional approaches to develop new ideas and innovated approaches involve diverse meetings populated by recognized water quality experts; different meetings organized by different conveners with a desire to develop new solutions that typically include the same water experts and produce the same ideas.  These traditional approaches have not led to ideas that have achieved progress towards improved water quality. For us to make a switch in regard to water management, somebody in the system has to do something different. According to Chip Heath and Dan Heath in the book Switch, it is important to find successes already occurring. It is also critical to motivate people to grow in their mindset and shape a positive and inclusive path forward to successfully make a change.

The culmination of the Citizens Water Academy requires the participants to put on an assigned hat, that of a farmer, agency, water utility, or water recreation participant.  With the perspective of the assigned ‘hat,’ each group develops policy targeting water quality.  Will this ‘out-of-the-box’ approach yield water quality related policy ideas that will move us forward? We will find out at the conclusion of the Academy sessions.

There is a popular quote that states, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result.” Doing more of what we have already done is likely to get us more of what we already have.  Process is important; taking the process ‘outside the box’ may be our next and best option to improve water quality before the regulatory toolbox is unlocked.

24596986998_c1f3eee89d_oRick is a professor in the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University where he has administration, research, teaching, and extension responsibilities focusing on soil and water management; he is also Director of the Iowa Water Center. He earned his BS from Iowa State University and  MS and PhD from the University of Minnesota.

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.

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.