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.
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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.

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.  

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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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!)