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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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.

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.

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.  

2018 Iowa Water Conference – Call for Abstracts!

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Success in water-related work, whether it is out in the farm field, a backyard, or in city infrastructure, cannot be achieved alone. It is done by a community and for a community. With that in mind, the Iowa Water Conference Planning Committee is happy to announce the theme for the 2018 Iowa Water Conference: “Our Watershed, Our Community.” This theme was inspired by the large, complex network of water-related professionals in Iowa that support local watershed work.

We invite water professionals, researchers, and graduate students to submit presentation abstracts centered around the theme of community in water. Through these presentations, applications should share success stories, challenges, and research that supports a foundation of community at the watershed-level.

The call for presentations, including instructions for submission, can be found here. Questions can be directed to Hanna Bates at hbates@iastate.edu. We look forward to learning about your watershed experience!

Project AWARE 2017

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 Photo of Cedar River Coalition partners. Photo from @IWAReduceFloods, the Twitter account for the Iowa Watershed Approach.

Getting Down and Dirty for Cleaner Iowa Rivers

Last week we participated in cleaning up an Iowa river alongside the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and other water partners across the state for Project AWARE. This event is a week-long outdoor expedition to clean up a selected Iowa river. The purpose of this event is to increase awareness of and engagement with Iowa’s public waters. It gives Iowans the opportunity to make a difference in water no matter who they are and what they do in the state. Participants have the opportunity to do the cleanup for one day or stay and camp the whole week.

This year, the event was held on the Cedar River in Mitchell and Floyd Counties from July 10-14. Hundreds of water partners and community members across the state joined for this year’s cleanup. We attended the fourth day of the event. Our starting point was about 19 miles up river from Charles City, Iowa. Once we arrived in Charles City, we had the opportunity to go inner tubing down the Charles City Whitewater course to the campsite to receive a t-shirt and join in on evening fun at the site.

While we only attended one day of the trip, we found many canoe-loads of trash that does not belong in a river, such as barrels, tires, and even a couch!

See photos below for the highlights!

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Caring for Creation & Sister Water

Submitted by Emilia Sautter, Ecospirituality Coordinator at Prairiewoods Franciscan Spirituality Center. Post originally appeared in the Prairiewoods’ Newsletter

Caring for Sister Water was one of many creation care efforts that came with the founding of Prairiewoods 20 years ago. These efforts included two infiltration ponds that hold much of the water that runs off our parking lots and roadways, as well as numerous trees and plants with extensive root systems that hold and cleanse water. After the Cedar Rapids floods of 2008, we doubled our efforts to address storm water concerns— we installed permeable pavers, hosted rain barrel classes and identified four storm water culverts that drain on our land. Varying degrees of erosion meant that all four of these culvert areas needed attention.

The first project—the North Culvert—was addressed in the fall of 2013. We built a series of rock check dams to help slow storm water, reducing the erosion that was degrading the area.

The East Culvert, the largest culvert on our property, recently was completed, thanks to generous grants from the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation and Rockwell Collins. This culvert has a drainage area of about 73 acres, meaning that water from more than 70 acres drains onto our land through this storm water culvert. The water then flows into Dry Creek and eventually into the Indian Creek and Cedar River Watersheds. (The Cedar River Watershed includes Hiawatha, Cedar Rapids and a number of other communities. It is what flooded in 2008.) Over the years, rain events and impervious surfaces (such as roads, driveways and turf grass) have forced large amounts of fast moving water through this culvert, degrading the culvert and resulting in severe stream bank erosion.

Why do we care? Erosion means soil loss, soil loss leads to sedimentation in the water, and sedimentation (the number one cause of water pollution in Iowa) leads to reduced water quality (1). Soil is the foundation of our entire food system, and without it we humans could not live. The health of Sister Water is a direct reflection of our own health, as our bodies are about 60% water.

During the East Culvert Project, we reshaped the eroded banks to allow water to spread out. We also re-seeded the banks with vegetation that better holds the soil. We removed some trees to allow more light in to help the vegetation thrive.

One way to help Sister Water is to move away from systems that force water into our waterways, since this leads to flooding and water pollution. Sister Water wants to move more slowly, at her own pace, nourishing flora and fauna as she infiltrates back into Earth. At Prairiewoods, we want to help her as best we can.

Thanks to the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation and Rockwell Collins, we are offering free educational classes as part of our East Culvert Project. Join us for EarthFriendly Lawn Care on Sept. 29 (see p. 9 for details) or for upcoming Rain Barrel Classes (see our website for details). Visit  www.IowaStormWater.org to learn what you can do with your own lawn.  And if you are a Cedar Rapids resident, visit  www.Cedar-Rapids.org to learn how you can get reimbursed for up to 50% of storm water retention projects on your property

(1) Statistic is regarding the source of surface water pollution by volume in Iowa. Source: https://www.polkcountyiowa.gov/conservation/education/nature-in-iowa/water-quality/.