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. 
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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!)

View from my Windshield: Observations of soil erosion across Iowa

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

For the past couple of weeks, I have been on the road across Iowa. These trips vary in their purpose, but one thing that remains the same is the evident erosion in the fields along my travels. Regardless of where I am – whether it is in the Loess Hills visiting family or in the Des Moines Lobe for a meeting – spring rains have revealed that there are deep cuts in the bare brown soils where lush, even soils used to be.

Cruse et al. (2016) writes:

“Topsoil thinning is closely linked to loss of crop production potential. Typical statewide average erosion rates have only a minor impact on crop yields in the subsequent year. However, cumulative effects are far more significant and contribute to a loss of state revenue that becomes much more important as time progresses.”

The simple fact is that without soil there would be no life. In Iowa, we have high quality soils that, along with some good science and great farmers, enable us to be the top producers in corn, hog, and egg production. This leads to the question: What may be the ultimate cost of this productivity?

Cruse et al. (2016) conducted a study to determine the effects of erosion on commodity yields and to gauge the future impacts on the agricultural economy in Iowa. Researchers studied seven farm sites in Iowa with cropping history and available yield maps. The Daily Erosion Project was used to estimate crop yield impact on soil depth from 2007-2014. The average state loss across those years was 5.7 tons of soil per acre per year. “Assuming a 2.2 bushel per acre corn yield loss across 14 million acres in a given year and a corn price of $4.00/bu, the next year’s crop production loss would equate to approximately $4.3 million total across this land area” (Cruse et al. 2016). There are informational resources and federal programs available for soil conservation practices, but with a short-term economic market system, there is little motivation to participate.

Cruse et al. (2016) writes:

“Short-term minor yield impacts on a per acre basis create little incentive for investing in short-term soil conservation strategies available for many farmland renters. However, as the cumulative effect compounds the economic effect over time, landowners that have longer term planning horizons are much better positioned to recover their financial investments in soil conservation practices.”

To put is succinctly, a loss of soil leads to a loss of productivity, which leads to a financial loss for the state. The impacts of the above findings on decision-making out in the field may be significant given the short-term mindset of our commodity market. Making present-day investments to maintain soils may pay off in the end when compared to short-term commodity gains from year-to-year. Other research has revealed that there is hardly a piece of land in Iowa that is exempt from the problem of erosion. According to Cruse et. al. (2006), soil erosion affects everyone although it is spatially and temporally variable. With 55% of Iowa farmland leased rather than owner controlled (Duffy et al. 2013), an investment in soil saving practices will require candid conversations and real partnerships between a tenant and landowner.

Overall, the first step in making a change is being knowledgeable about your surroundings. Next time you are on the road, look out in the field and really see where you are travelling. Then, compare that to what the data shows on the Daily Erosion Project. You may be surprised about what you learn.

References

Cruse, R., D. Flanagan, J. Frankenberger, B. Gelder, D. Herzmann, D. James, W. Krajewski, Kraszewski, J. Laflen, J. Opsomer, and D. Todey. 2006. Daily estimates of rainfall, water runoff, and soil erosion in Iowa. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 61(4): 191-199.

Cruse, Richard M., Mack Shelley, C. Lee Burras, John Tyndall, and Melissa Miller. 2016. Economic impacts of soil erosion in Iowa. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Competitive Grant Report E2014-17.

Duffy, Michael, William Edwards, and Ann Johanns. 2013. Survey of Iowa Leasing Practices, 2012. Iowa State University Extension & Outreach. File C2-15.

Planning for Watershed Success in Eastern Iowa

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Attendees of the Indian Creek Watershed open house discussing the map of the watershed. Photo from the Indian Creek Watershed Facebook page.

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

This week, we chatted with Jennifer Fencl, the Solid Waste & Environmental Services Director at The East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG). Fencl works to bring eastern Iowa stakeholders together to better manage their natural resources and to create a long-term investment in their community. Below are a few highlights from our conversation that outlines some of the behind-the-scenes work in watershed planning.

Please describe your work in watershed management in Iowa.

The East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG) became involved in watershed management in 2011 when the City of Marion requested assistance in applying for Watershed Management Authority Formation grant funding from the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) for the Indian Creek watershed. The Indian Creek Watershed Management Authority (ICWMA) was formed under Iowa Code 28E and 466B in August 2012 with 6 of the 7 eligible jurisdictions agreeing to plan for improvements on a watershed level. Funds were made available in 2013 by the IEDA to complete watershed management plans to address flood risk mitigation and water quality. The ICWMA received one of the three planning grants and engaged in a multi-jurisdictional planning approach facilitated by ECICOG in partnership with several local, state, and federal agencies. The resulting Indian Creek Watershed Management Plan (ICWM Plan) identifies strategies and recommendations for stormwater management and water quality protection, including specific implementation activities and milestones. The ICWM Plan was completed and presented to the public in June 2015 and adopted by all six of the ICWMA members at policy maker meetings during July and August of 2015.

As the ICWMA Plan was wrapping up, the City of Coralville requested ECICOG’s assistance in forming a WMA for the Clear Creek watershed. In this case, Coralville was willing to sponsor the WMA formation and planning grant application services. The Clear Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC) formed as a WMA under Iowa Code 28E and 466B in October 2015 with all 9 of the eligible jurisdictions joining. ECICOG secured DNR watershed planning funds early in 2016 and the CCWC is mid-way through their planning process. Fortunately, the Clear Creek watershed was one of the eight watersheds selected for the Iowa Watershed Approach HUD grant project. The additional watershed planning funds from the HUD grant will add significantly to the resulting watershed plan.

In early 2016, the Middle Cedar Watershed Management Authority (MCWMA) was on its way to formally becoming a WMA and needed some help in completing the agreement filing, developing by-laws, and organizing the Board of Directors. ECICOG assisted the MCWMA in forming under Iowa Code 28E and 466B in June 2016 with 25 of the 65 eligible jurisdictions joining. The MCWMA is one of the eight watersheds selected for the Iowa Watershed Approach HUD grant project.

What are the challenges and rewards in doing work with watershed management?

One challenge that became clear in the Indian Creek process was the disconnect between the watershed (technical) assessment and the local stakeholders. That gap must be bridged to develop meaningful, locally-based goals and implementation strategies.  For me, the reward is watching the interaction between perceived “enemies” (urban/rural; big city/suburb; ag producer/government type) and bringing skeptical people into the process to develop an actual plan… that they ultimately agree to.

What kinds of stakeholders are involved in developing a watershed management plan?

It is critical to include the local Soil and Water Conservation District, government representatives, and the landowners (both urban & rural, flood impacted if possible) in developing goals and strategies. I believe that it is also important to identify the ‘experts’ in your watershed, both locally and from state agencies, early on and have them provide input on what assessment activities and planning services are really needed from an outside consultant. There is a role for everyone to play.

What are the basic steps in putting together a watershed management plan?

Here is my road map:

  1. Invite participation
  2. Identify resource concerns
  3. Assemble experts
  4. Complete assessment work
  5. Present the assessment to a broad list of stakeholders (need good interpreters)
  6. Develop goals, define implementation strategies, and prioritize the strategies
  7. Compile the plan and present the plan for comment
  8. Shop the plan for formal adoption by policy making board/councils.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to those wanting to develop a watershed plan for their community?

Run… kidding, sorta.  Seek help from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship basin coordinators first, and then gauge the interest of the other entities in the watershed. You need to find some champions to help smooth the way for local elected officials.

Development of a Watershed Project Extension

Post submitted by Jordan Kolarik, Wright Soil and Water Conservation District Project Coordinator

boone logoThe Boone River Watershed Nutrient Management Initiative project has been granted additional funding from Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). This is in order to extend the project for another three years to increase the use of conservation and water quality practices in Prairie and Eagle Creek Watersheds. In these projects, we will continue working towards meeting Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals. The extension process involved writing a new grant application based on the lessons learned from our first three years.

The project, led by the Wright Soil and Water Conservation District, started in 2014 with funding that was split between two sub watersheds within the Boone River Watershed. For the last three years the project employed two half time watershed coordinators, one that worked on the Eagle Creek Watershed and one who worked on the Prairie Creek Watershed. Project coordinators, among many things, are responsible for holding and attending outreach events, are responsible for project cost share applications and the conservation planning that goes with them, and grant administration for the project.

I started as a half time project coordinator in the Prairie Creek Watershed in the fall of 2015. At the end of last year, I became the full-time coordinator for both sub watersheds in this project. For the project extension application, I had creative control over adjustments to the projects focus, goals, and cost share options. I could utilize the lessons learned from the first three years of the project, my experiences and observations in the first year working with the project, and specific requests that I received from grant funders, partners and producers.

In the extension, we sought to increase collaboration and coordination with partners to implement innovative ways to reach new audiences and to improve technical assistance. We seek to transition to an increased focus on implementation of conservation practices that provide long term benefits (i.e. long term adoption of cover crops and edge-of-field practices).

As a result, I decided to change the cost share options in a way that I believe will encourage long term adoption of cover crops. This is by offering cost share at a higher rate for producers that sign up for three years compared to a one year sign up. Another request includes giving a higher cost share rate to those who are (1) first time users of cover crops, (2) going into a new crop, or (3) users of winter hardy species. We will also offer a higher rate to those who commit to doing both cover crops and strip-till/no-till.

IDALS requested a watershed plan to be completed by the end of the first year of our extension to identify the best locations not only for in-field practices, but also for edge-of-field practices. These include bioreactors, saturated buffers, filter strips, and wetlands. This will allow for a more focused approach to increase edge-of-field practices and help use resources in areas that will provide the greatest conservation benefits. The project will continue to provide cost share assistance for these practices, but will also work to leverage additional funding sources so that we may offer up to 100% cost share.

Education and outreach strategies will emphasize past successful efforts, such as hosting field days and meetings, social media presence, informational mailings, and recognition of local “Farmers Champions.” We are also adopting new ways to reach individuals not informed through these traditional approaches. To increase local partnership and locally led efforts, I came up with the idea to form two community-based groups as a way for local landowners and businesses to stay informed and get involved. The Friends of the Boone River group will help educate and keep the community updated on what is happening in the watershed. This group will also be an informational resource for those who would like to get involved through our mailing list. In addition, local businesses can become a Friend and, if interested, they will be added to a contact list for the project. The formation of The Boone River Watershed Conservation Farmer Advisory Group, led by local “Farmer Champions,” will provide insight to the project as well as education and outreach opportunities beyond the time and scope of the project.

One of the major objectives of this project is to increase the amount of long-term conservation practices on the land, and so permanent changes will be tracked through documenting the number of practices and the number of acres that they treat. It is our goal to have 50 farmers implement long term conservation practices and see a total of 6,000 acres of conservation practices. Lastly, we hope to see measureable improvement in the water quality of Eagle and Prairie Creek, which will be measured through voluntary tile water monitoring, edge of field practice water monitoring, and in-stream watershed scale monitoring. This will allow the project to assess the impacts agriculture management and water quality improvement practices are having on water quality.

The key changes to this watershed project extension have the theme of long-term adoption and increase participation. Everyone has a role to play if we are going to meet the nutrient reduction goals, regardless of where you live or where you work.

If you would like to learn more about the project, contact Jordan Kolarik at jordan.kolarik@ia.nacdnet.net.