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.
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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.  

Watershed Management Authorities of Iowa

Cultivating a Community of Practice for Watershed Management

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

The word is starting to get out on one of our latest Iowa Water Center initiatives: Watershed Management Authorities of Iowa (WMAs of Iowa). This is a statewide organization to unite the ever-growing numbers of Watershed Management Authorities in the state. The goal of this group is to create a network for WMAs to connect with each other, give WMAs a voice in the state, and serve as an information resource for all watershed management stakeholders. WMAs of Iowa helps cultivate a community of practice for watershed management in Iowa.

Let’s be honest here – we did not come up with this great idea. The need for this group came from the WMA stakeholders themselves, and they are the ones who will drive it. Multiple work sessions this winter with the WMA community resulted in a strategic framework that needed one thing: implementation. IWC proposed to act as a catalyst for implementation by offering administrative capacity – organizing meetings, managing a timeline, maintaining a listserv, coordinating all the work that has already gone into creating a presence for this group.

Right now, we’re in the process of inviting WMAs to join us, and we’re looking for board members from those existing and newly forming WMAs to drive the organization forward. We hope to have a board in place by this fall with a website, newsletter, and other outreach and resource activities to follow.

Why is IWC involved?

Great question.

I’ve confessed before to being the president of the WMA fan club, and waxed poetic about the effectiveness of watershed-based planning. I’ve also been using the admittedly odd metaphor that IWC can act as caulk for water groups in the state – we seek to fill gaps and build capacity that connects groups to use resources effectively and efficiently.

By building up WMAs in the state, we’re promoting a research-backed method of natural resource management that will lead to better water resource management and implementation of creative and practical solutions to water resources related problems. That is the reason we exist, you know. (Need proof? Read the Water Resources Research Act as amended in 2006!)

Iowa Watershed Management Authorities: Notes from the Statewide WMA Meeting

Post submitted by Melissa Miller, Associate Director of the Iowa Water Center

At a recent Iowa Watershed Approach meeting, I introduced myself (half-jokingly) as the president of the Watershed Management Authority Fan Club. As evidenced by my post last fall after a trip to the Cedar River Watershed Coalition meeting, I am a strong supporter of a watershed approach to natural resource management. Naturally, Watershed Management Authorities (WMAs) are a recipient of my affection.

A brief overview for those not familiar with WMAs: Watershed Management Authorities are a state of Iowa-recognized mechanism for encouraging the collaboration of the different communities within a watershed and enacting watershed based planning, including adoption of conservation practices that mitigate flooding and improve water quality. WMAs were first introduced in Iowa in 2010 when Iowa code 466B was enacted. Major initiatives of this chapter include the formation of the Watershed Resources Coordinating Council (WRCC), Watershed Planning Action Committee (WPAC), the Water Quality Initiative (WQI), and WMAs. There are currently 17 WMAs in the state, with at least five more on deck for formation.

At a statewide WMA meeting on February 7, 2017, representatives from those WMAs gathered in Dubuque, Iowa to give updates and to talk strategy, successes, and collaboration. Mary Beth Stevenson with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) kicked off the afternoon with some fun facts about WMAs, including:

  • 17 WMAs have received funding for planning or implementation through IDNR, Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship, or the Iowa Watersheds Project or the Iowa Watershed Approach (two rounds of grant funding from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development)
  • 15 WMAs currently have funding at some level
  • 10 WMAs are funded at a level with enough money for full-time staff and implementation
  • 12 WMAs have or will have some level of paid staff, even if just part-time, funded locally and/or through grant funds

This is a promising start for WMAs as a successful vehicle for watershed management. Even more promising were the updates from the WMAs. Everyone had something to report from across the state. Indian Creek, one of the original six WMAs in 2012, is looking to hire a coordinator and completed an annual review that is turning into a strategic plan. Turkey River WMA, one of the “original HUD” projects  succeeded in influencing policy in all participating political subdivisions (and achieved a 5% flood reduction in Otter Creek with the construction of 29 well-placed structures). In the Walnut Creek WMA a soil and water conservation district staff member found a lamprey (nearly extinct) in a CREP wetland. The Maquoketa River is also in the process of forming a WMA, not because they have outside funding, but simply because they have a group of interested citizens that recognize the benefits of working together.

These are just a few updates of many. My pen could hardly keep up and I couldn’t keep from asking questions. It is extremely energizing to be in a room full of people sharing ideas, concerns and solutions, and I wanted to learn all that I could. After the updates, Polk County WMA Coordinator John Swanson presented the unique activities happening in his part of the state (we will feature that presentation in its own post in the near future). We finished by breaking out into small groups to talk about how to keep WMA momentum going, establishing a WMA coordinator/staff position, watershed plan development and assessment, and how to structure a WMA collaborative group that communicates regularly to move all WMAs forward.

Citizen engagement is critical to the success of watershed management. I will leave you today with a challenge: find the WMA nearest you, even if you don’t live in that watershed, and attend a quarterly meeting. After you attend, you may just want to join my Watershed Management Authority Fan Club.