PEWI: Sandbox for Creativity, Tool for Real Change

Have you ever wondered how changes in land use could affect nutrient reduction, habitat for pollinators or soil health? In this month’s webinar, Dr. Lisa Schulte Moore showed us how to use a new tool, People in Ecosystems Watershed Integration (PEWI).

Today, we face water quality issues related to soil erosion, nutrient loss, and water runoff in Iowa and beyond. Many of these problems stem from how our landscape has changed over the last two centuries. One way that we can begin to address these problems is to strategically target land use changes at the watershed scale.

runoff combined 2

Left: real-world challenges like erosion and water runoff; Right: PEWI shows how land use changes pay off

Schulte Moore and her team created PEWI because they wanted a tool that could show people how changes in land use could affect the surrounding area without having to make risky or costly decisions. PEWI gives users a chance to test-drive changes in land use in a 6,000 acre watershed. Each cell in the simulation represents ten acres. Users can choose from 15 different land uses and can simulate crop rotations over a three year period.

Topography, soil drainage, and flood frequency can all be altered to the user’s preference. The tool also considers the impacts of weather and provides a random distribution of weather patterns based on 30 year averages of precipitation in Iowa.

combined features

PEWI does not require any specific software licenses or computer skills. To use PEWI, all users need is the internet. Users can compare different landscape designs and learn about how different mixes of landscapes or even weather patterns might affect conditions in the real world. PEWI can provide estimates for nutrient runoff and erosion. The tool can also score landscapes and compare how different designs meet different goals.


You can view an archived version of the webinar here. Other archived webinars from Iowa Learning Farms are available on our website.

For more information about PEWI, visit the PEWI website.  You can try PEWI for yourself here. Lesson plan ideas, user guides, and tutorials are all available at the PEWI website.

Julie Whitson

Project Spotlight: Developing a Training Workshop on Wetlands Screening

In the midst of the Iowa State Fair last week, three of our team members – Jackie Comito, Liz Juchems, and Ann Staudt — traveled out to Bozeman, Montana for a collaborative project with USDA-FSA (Farm Service Agency). In collaboration with extension colleagues at five other universities across the country,* our Iowa Learning Farms team members have been tasked with training USDA-FSA field staff nationwide on wetlands!

Site 1 Wetlands with Bridger Mountains in BackgroundWhat is the point of this project?
When a farmer/landowner approaches USDA-FSA to request a farm loan, whether that be to put in an access road or a grain bin, the area of land to be developed must first be evaluated for potential wetland impacts.

How exactly do we know if an area of land could potentially be a wetland?
Wetlands are characterized by having unique soils, unique hydrology, and unique vegetation living there.

So, in a nutshell, our national project team was tasked with developing a multi-faceted training program to help USDA-FSA staff get more comfortable with identifying potential wetlands and also understanding the many environmental benefits of these vibrant ecosystems.

The first part of the training was an online training course (delivered through AgLearn) that was developed collaboratively by the six university partners across the country, although our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin deserve a big shoutout for their outstanding efforts here.

After the FSA staff members have completed the online training, it’s time for the in-person training, which is what we piloted out in Bozeman last week!  We presented the pilot training session to USDA-FSA field staff from Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as several FSA leaders from Washington, DC and across the country.

Our Iowa Learning Farms team started out the morning with a recap of what wetlands are, why they are important, and FSA’s role in protecting them. However, this was not just a dry, boring lecture (e.g. death by PowerPoint) … we kicked things off by turning it into a quiz game show, bringing the signature energy and enthusiasm that the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! teams are known for!  Yes, for those who are wondering, I even packed markerboards, erasers, and dry erase markers in my luggage just so the participants could all experience the TRUE game show feel.


20160816_145340450_iOSWe were particularly pleased (and entertained) by how receptive the FSA staffers were to this interactive game show format … they were super competitive, which got everyone engaged right from the start!

20160816_144324322_iOSAfter reviewing the wetlands basics, our colleagues from the other universities moved into more details about the FSA-858 wetland screening form and the full process involved. Students then reviewed two online tools, Wetlands Mapper and Web Soil Survey, to evaluate the possible presence of inventoried wetlands and hydric soils, respectively. The classroom portion continued with a discussion of hydrology indicators and vegetative (plant) indicators – then everyone grabbed snacks and we prepared to hit the road!

20160816_161428325_iOSThe second half of the course was spent out in the field, giving participants the opportunity to practice identifying both hydrology indicators (things like debris lines, sedimentation, and squishy soils where your footprints fill in with water) and well as vegetative indicators. We were given a field guide of common wetlands plants, and the plant experts on the collaborative team taught us all the basics of plant identification!

West-LudgiwiaAlternifoliaThe first site we visited was clearly a wetland based on both the hydrology and plant indicators – this gave us all the opportunity to practice our plant ID skills and identify a good number of plant species under ideal conditions.

Lighter Moment with Peter LivinstonThe second site we visited was unclear whether or not it could potentially be a wetland – it was an irrigated pasture area where the landowner was considering putting in an access road. This was a good practice run for all involved, as this is exactly the situation many of the FSA staffers will be in, not knowing a definite yes or no in terms of whether it could be a wetland. This gave us all a chance walk through all of the steps of the FSA-858 process to really determine whether or not the potential was there for this to be a wetland.

The participants divided into groups of 2-3, and together we looked for hydrology indicators and then practiced our plant ID skills. Coming into this with no background knowledge of the vegetative indicators, Liz and I teamed up, and we were very proud to find both a sedge and a rush, both positive plant indicators of a potential wetland!

By this point, it was late afternoon, and time to wrap up the day’s training. The group returned to the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, upon which the classroom and field training sessions were evaluated thoroughly by the FSA participants and leaders.

Overall, the wetlands training session that we collectively developed was very well-received! We will continue to work with the other university partners over the coming months to refine the training. Then come spring, all of us will begin delivering these trainings to FSA staff across the country!  Our Iowa State University team will be leading the training sessions across the Midwest – Iowa and surrounding states.

Ann Staudt

Thank you to Brian Adams and Kevin Erb, University of Wisconsin-Extension, for the photographs included with this blog post!

*University partners on this project include: University of Wisconsin, Penn State University, University of Georgia, University of Arizona, Montana State University, and Iowa State University.

Conservation Station a Hit at the Iowa State Fair


Butter cow carver, Sarah Pratt stopped by the Conservation Station to play the poo shuffle.

Another year at the Iowa State Fair has come to a close. A whopping 1,031,278 people attended the fair, apparently a down year. That wasn’t the case for the Water Rocks!/Iowa Learning Farms team. We spoke to 9,802 people — that’s a 38% increase from the previous year.

That means 9,802 people learned about what a watershed is, and why it matters to have clean water with our watershed game. They saw how important it is to keep the soil covered with our rainfall machine, and why we should pick up after our pets with our famous poo shuffle. These interactions were less, “Hello, are you having fun at the fair?”, and more “What can you do for clean water?”

This amazing outreach effort would not have been possible without the help from our dedicated partners, interns, and numerous volunteers. A big thank you from the entire Water Rocks!/Iowa Learning Farms team!


Jim Gillespie (top left), Mark Rasmussen (top right), John Lawrence (bottom left), and Mark Hanna (bottom right), all did an outstanding job working the rainfall machine.


The signage outside the poo shuffle was a real eye opener for participants.


The Conservation Station offered a water quality lesson for all ages and all backgrounds.

Corn Dogs, Cotton Candy, & Conservation

It’s mid-August, it’s steamin’ hot and humid outside, and that means, of course, it’s time for the start of the great Iowa State Fair!   The Fair is now officially underway (as of 7:00am this morning, for you early birds that want to beat the crowds), and runs August 11-21, 2016.


Photo courtesy of Iowa State Fair

Along with the obligatory stops like the Butter Cow, scouting for freebies in the Varied Industries Building, and the fair food, you should make the Conservation Station a part of your fair adventure this year! The Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! team will be out at the fair every day sharing the water quality and conservation message – we’ve got something for everyone at the Conservation Station!

dscn0108Stop by the Rain Machine to check out how different land management practices can affect water quality and soil health. Yes, we make it rain! We’ll also be talking all about the Nutrient Reduction Strategy and the multitude of different conservation practices that can help reach our state’s goals.

CkHqHLaUUAA_EoS - CopyOr play the hands-on, interactive Watershed Game! See firsthand what a watershed is and how things like soil, nutrients, oil, and pet waste move in the environment.

You can also step inside the (air-conditioned!) LEARNING LAB and check out the “What’s In Your Water?” display. Each of these games/lessons is focused on water quality, and includes both agricultural and urban components.

Finally, it’s back and better than ever – don’t miss the incredible Poo Shuffle! Pet waste is a big deal, and we’re out to share some of the fun facts (and the realities) of what pet waste really means for water quality.

The Conservation Station can be found in Farm Bureau Park, south of the Grand Concourse and directly east of the Varied Industries Building. Look for the big blue trailer along with festive Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! flags!

We’ll be open every day of the Iowa State Fair, from August 11 through August 21. Hours of operation for the Conservation Station vary by day:

Thursday, August 11 – 9:30am – 6:30pm
Friday, August 12 – 9:30am – 6:30pm
Saturday, August 13 – 9:00am – 8:00pm
Sunday, August 14 – 10:00am – 5:00pm
Monday, August 15 – 9:30am – 5:00pm
Tuesday, August 16 – 9:00am- 5:00pm
Wednesday, August 17 – 9:30am – 5:00pm
Thursday, August 18 – 9:30am – 5:00pm
Friday, August 19 – 9:30am – 5:00pm
Saturday, August 20– 9:30am – 5:00pm
Sunday, August 21 – 10:00am – 2:00pm

We’ll also have a number of conservation partners helping us out during the fair. Who knows, you may get the opportunity to see how your Poo Shuffle skills stack up against folks like Jim Gillespie (Iowa Dept. of Agriculture and Land Stewardship – Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality) or John Lawrence (Iowa State University Extension and Outreach – Agriculture and Natural Resources).

SEE YOU THERE at the Fair!

Ann Staudt


Reflections on Water Rocks! over the years

This is our our final intern guest blog post for the summer! Noah Stevens is entering his senior year at Ames High School, where he is actively involved in track, cross country, and the performing arts. He has helped out with numerous Water Rocks! video productions over the years, and this summer participated in our high school internship program.

I’ve been involved with the Water Rocks! program since its origin back in 2012, and I must say, it has been fun to watch it progress in its success. From watching myself in the first Water Rocks! music video on the Water Rocks! website to being present at the Capitol building when the program was awarded with the Iowa Environmental Excellence Award for the State of Iowa, I have felt very privileged to be a part of this organization. To be honest, though, I had no idea that Water Rocks! has had such a big impact in the world of education until my internship this year. When I think about it, I realize that all the recognition and awards the program has received are definitely well deserved.

MeetTheInterns-NoahI remember the day in my freshmen year of high school when Mrs. T [DeAnna Tibben, Earth and Space Science teacher at Ames High] told my science class that we were going to spend the entire class period exploring the Water Rocks! website. I was completely surprised! To me, the website was just a bunch of pictures and videos of me with my friends and family doing things to help the environment, but not to the rest of the class. To them, the website was a river of new information about water quality, conservation, and fun. Yeah sure, I recall my peers joking around with me because they saw me in the videos and pictures, but I also recall them talking to each other and asking questions about water. That was a really cool thing to see the program that I was involved with be taught in my classroom and be widely accepted by high school students and teachers alike.


Noah’s film debut in the Conservation Dogs music video (2012)!

Apart from my internship, my experience with Water Rocks! has been primarily through the music videos and songs produced by the program. With that said, my internship with Water Rocks! has shed a new light on how much educational material the organization actually has! Alongside dozens of informational videos and songs, Water Rocks! has loads of classroom modules, presentations, and games that inform about all things water. What is taught does a great job at not confusing the learner while at the same time informing effectively. The best part is that these materials do not just teach the information presented, they engage the learner and encourage them to participate in the learning; and it is fun!


A few more recent music videos that Noah’s been a big part of: This Is Our Time (top) and Soil Health Style (bottom).

Besides all of the material Water Rocks! is able to teach people, something I really noticed about the program is how much, and far, the Water Rocks! team travels across the state to present the information. From county fairs to farmer’s markets, the team sent people all across the state throughout the whole summer presenting the Water Rocks! material. I was genuinely surprised at how many people were interested in what we had to say.


In addition to video production, Noah got a taste of outreach this summer traveling to events across the state with the Conservation Station!  Here he is with college interns Kate Sanocki and Hannah Corey.

All in all, Water Rocks! is a great program full of information, engagement, and fun! It has been an interesting ride to see the full story behind what all goes on in this great organization in addition to the music.

-Noah Stevens


When the Governor comes for lunch

What do you serve when the Governor and Lieutenant Governor are coming for lunch?
An all-Iowa meal of course!


Photo Credit: Jean Simmet

Iowa Learning Farms farmer partners (and my parents), Rick and Jane Juchems, were honored with a visit from Governor Terry Branstad and Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds on Wednesday, August 3rd. The visit was a stop on the Governor’s soil and water conservation tour of the state.


Photo Credit: Jean Simmet

The visit was an opportunity for our family and fellow Butler County Soil and Water Commissioners to highlight the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy practices they have implemented including cover crops, filter strips, buffers, prairie areas, no-tillage and much more!  Over the delicious cheese hors devours, the group discussed the steps taken thus far while also discussing what it will take to reach our water quality and soil health goals.


Photo Credit: Jean Simmet

The conversation continued over the meal and the visit concluded with a tour of a newly finished shallow water pond to address erosion concerns, a prairie area and nearby soybean field where cereal rye had been seeded last fall.



Photo Credit: Jean Simmet

For those of you still wondering what was served  – the menu included smoked pork loin, and from the family garden: sweet corn (the Governor’s favorite!), roasted garden vegetables of carrots, beets and zucchini, and homemade coleslaw. For dessert, brownies with ice cream and fresh raspberries were enjoyed.


If you would like to learn more about what the Juchems family is doing to help improve Iowa’s soil and water quality, you can check out our recent episode on the Conservation Chat.

Liz Juchems

Water Rocks! Team honored by Governor!

The Water Rocks! team traveled to the State Capitol in Des Moines earlier this week for a special recognition ceremony with Governor Terry Branstad. We were honored to receive Special Recognition Award in the Environmental Education category as part of the 2016 Governor’s Iowa Environmental Excellence Awards!

eealogoThis year, 22 total awards were given out to organizations, businesses and communities across the state working to protect and enhance our natural resources. It was interesting and inspiring to hear about the many great projects that are happening statewide – from the Fighting Burrito’s use of electric cars and bicycles for food delivery, to Spirit Lake’s Pure Fishing establishing acres of pollinator habitat, to high school students in Central Community Schools’ Global Science class establishing a school/community food compost program!

At the awards ceremony, we were recognized for our outstanding efforts to educate youth and adults across the state of Iowa on water quality and environmental issues, whether that be through school visits, county fairs and community outreach events, Water Rocks! Summit teacher training workshops, and our collection of outstanding (and sometimes outrageous) music videos. While handing out the awards, the DNR’s Deputy Director Bruce Trautman even asked when he could sing in a music video!160803-WR!WebsiteGovernorAward

IMG_4490Joining us at the awards ceremony were several of our partners that believed in Water Rocks! early on and have been really instrumental in making this program a reality – Allen Bonini, Steve Hopkins, and Jeff Berckes from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Mark Rasmussen from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and Melissa Miller representing the Iowa Water Center.  Thanks to these folks and all of you out there who have helped to support Water Rocks! in one way or another over the years.

As 2016 continues, we are on track to have another record-breaking year in terms of outreach!  There is a huge need for water quality education in our state, and the Water Rocks! team will continue to do our part to help meet that need as best we can.

Ann Staudt