Wetlands Do Work to Improve Water Quality

Please join us for the Iowa Learning Farms webinar at noon CDT, Wednesday, Oct. 20, featuring  Dr. Sara McMillan, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue University. McMillan will draw on her research on the impacts of agriculture and urbanization on nutrient flow through living systems and their physical environments, to offer insights on ways that wetland ecosystems affect water quality.

In the session, “Ecosystem Function of Wetlands in Midwestern Agricultural Landscapes,” McMillan will utilize the field and laboratory work of her group, as well as others in the Midwest that are studying the roles of wetlands in greater agricultural landscapes, to address the functions of wetlands in improving water quality. Topics will include data-driven modeling of watershed ecosystem effects on downstream environments, and insights into identifying the environmental factors to enable better management of existing wetlands, and inform decisions on construction or restoration of wetlands.

“Wetlands, floodplains and small streams are hot spots that have more positive impacts on water per land area than most other land uses,” said McMillan. “The importance of wetland functions and the vulnerability of these areas to climate and changing land uses can have a disproportional impact on downstream uses, including flood storage, water quality, biodiversity and climate regulation.

Participants in Iowa Learning Farms Conservation Webinars are encouraged to ask questions of the presenters. People from all backgrounds and areas of interest are encouraged to join.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before noon CDT Oct. 20:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

Or go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172

Or join from a dial-in phone line:

Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for. Those who participate in the live webinar are eligible. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Saving Iowa’s Water, Many Wetlands at a Time

An outstanding viewer turnout greeted this week’s webinar, Jake Hansen’s “Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Wetland Initiatives.” For decades now, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) has been working to improve Iowa’s water quality by installing more wetlands. Hansen, the Water Resources Bureau Chief at IDALS, gave an expert look behind the scenes, reviewing the initiatives in place and the challenges to come.

Hansen noting the 37 eligible counties for CREP Wetlands. Other counties can be covered by the other two funding programs he describes.

IDALS currently leads three funding programs related to wetlands. Nutrient Reduction Wetlands—often called CREP Wetlands, in reference to the Iowa Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program—may be the most familiar of these programs, with its 20+ year history and impressive numbers: there are currently 45 projects on the waiting list, 34 in design, 5 nearing bidding, 7 being bid now, 3 under construction, and 100 complete. The program is restricted to 37 counties (covering the Des Moines lobe and a few adjacent counties), but these wetlands are estimated to be removing more than 1.5 million pounds of nitrogen from Iowa’s water every year.

For its part, the Water Quality Initiative (WQI) was founded in 2013 to implement the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Easement costs for WQI-funded wetlands are higher, but the wetland can be put in any technically feasible landscape, not just the 37 counties within CREP. Finally, financial support from Senate File 512, signed in 2018, now gives $15 million per year to the Water Quality Agriculture Infrastructure Program, with a focus on edge-of-field practices.

In discussing these three programs, Hansen stressed that the overarching goal is to ensure Iowa’s water quality by reaching a 41% reduction in nitrogen pollution from nonpoint sources. With over 21 million acres of row-cropped ground in Iowa, this means between 5,670 and 9,030 more wetlands are needed in the state. The overall price tag will be about $1.1–1.8 billion, but beyond the financial cost, the main consideration is the length of time needed to complete them. As Hansen says, “Meeting this goal is going to take some time.” To accelerate and further improve the overall process, the next steps are to obtain more staff, to facilitate more local and regional planning, and to look more closely into engineering and construction needs.

You can watch the recording of Jake Hansen’s webinar here, and catch up on all our previous webinars at the Iowa Learning Farms site.

Increasing Water Quality Enhancement Wetlands and Oxbows = Improved Water Quality And More Wildlife

Iowa Learning Farms, in partnership with the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and Conservation Learning Group (CLG) will be presenting a virtual field day on the benefits of increased water quality enhancement wetlands and oxbows in the Midwest on Thursday, October 21 at 1 p.m. CT.

Join us as we explore a few different wetlands and oxbows in the state! We will examine funding programs and hear about the water quality benefits measured through the latest science-based techniques. In addition, we will look at how these water quality enhancement wetlands and oxbows can be used as part of risk management and nutrient reductions plans, as well as providing needed wildlife habitat in key locations. This highly interactive virtual field day will be a discussion between landowners, scientists, and wildlife specialists and virtual field day participants.

Featured speakers include Dr. Matt Helmers, Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, Dr. Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, Dr. Adam Janke, ISU Extension Wildlife Specialist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, farmer Heath Stolee, of Nutty Farmer Chestnuts, Radcliffe, Iowa and Casey Judge, Environmental Specialist Senior with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship.

To participate in the live virtual field day at 1:00 pm CT on October 21 to learn more, click HERE or visit www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events and click “Join Live Virtual Field Day”.

Or, join from a dial-in phone line:

    Dial: 1.312.626.6799              Meeting ID: 914 1198 4892

The field day will be recorded and archived on the ILF website so that it can be watched at any time. The archive will be available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/events.

Participants may be eligible for a Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU). Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live field day.

Liz Ripley

Planting the Seeds of Stewardship

Ann Staudt | Water Rocks! Director

Fall means one thing in my book. Forget pumpkin spice lattes, I’m talking COLLEGE FOOTBALL!  There’s such an excitement in the air, from the roar of the crowds, to the nail-biting moments as the clock ticks down, to the marching bands playing their fight songs on repeat. (Years ago, I was at an Iowa State-Oklahoma football game where the OU band played “Boomer Sooner” a total of 52 times … yes, I was counting … clearly there wasn’t a whole lot to cheer about on the ISU side of things at that point.)

As a Cyclone fan, Coach Matt Campbell has taught us all to TRUST THE PROCESS … doing the hard work (and the good work) day in and day out. It’s a long-term approach through and through. And I believe it’s an approach in which our Water Rocks! youth education program actually shares a lot in common. 

Water Rocks! is built on the premise of inspiring Iowa’s youth to learn about and care about the natural world around them … from water, to land, and wildlife … and the many ways our natural world is intricately interconnected. We’re definitely playing the long game here. Today’s students are tomorrow’s teachers, farmers, scientists, extension professionals, doctors, lawyers, and legislators … how can we inspire them to care and to act, so when they’re the decision-makers years down the road, they have a solid foundational understanding of Iowa’s vital natural resources?  Through high-energy, high-impact 45-minute presentations when Water Rocks! visits their schools, how can we effectively plant the seeds of stewardship for years to come?

In true football fashion, here’s what I see as our keys to success with Water Rocks!—how we do what we do to effectively engage with youth across the state.

Water Rocks! is—

  • Grounded in sound science
  • Embracing of unique, creative, multi-faceted approaches to teaching about natural resources: music, the arts, movement, games, and competition
  • Highly interactive
  • Driven to inspire curiosity and caring in students
  • Focused on tangible action items—concrete things students can do in their daily lives
  • FUN

Every football game has its highlights reel, and I’d like to share a few favorite stories and anecdotes that stand out to illuminate how we as a team embrace these keys to success day in and day out.

Moments of Curiosity

Earlier this fall, we visited Paton-Churdan Community Schools to talk with students about the importance of pollinators around us (from bees to butterflies and beyond), the challenges pollinators face, and what we all can do to help. Right in the middle of our outdoor presentation to the 8th grade students, a monarch butterfly fluttered overhead just as we were transitioning to the part of the presentation about monarchs—this literally couldn’t have been scripted or staged better. The 8th graders (a notoriously challenging age group to engage with) were actually the ones that spotted the monarch butterfly before we did—and then proceeded to greet the monarch and wish it well on its journey south.  Such a beautiful, genuine unscripted moment of observation and appreciation!

After learning about biodiversity and ecosystems with the Water Rocks! team, a 4th grade student at Lewis and Clark Elementary in Council Bluffs excitedly proclaimed to his classmates, “I never knew that nature was so interesting!”

Making Connections

Students’ questions provide great insight into what they’re thinking about and the connections they’re making. After learning about wetlands with Water Rocks!, the 3rd and 4th grade students at Prairie Ridge Elementary in Cedar Rapids were curious to know:

  • Why do birds migrate?
  • Are there wetlands close by here, between Solon and Ely?
  • Why do people take away wetlands?
  • How do you restore wetlands?
  • Is there a national effort to save wetlands?

After learning about pollinators, the 4th grade students at East Sac Community Schools asked us:

  • I heard that 70% of plants rely on pollinators. How are the rest of the plants pollinated?
  • What things could we do here at school to help pollinators?
  • How tall should you let the grass get to protect pollinators?
  • How do new pesticides affect milkweed?

Taking Action

When out teaching with Water Rocks!, it is delightful to hear students make connections between human actions and the natural world around them. I LOVE it when students are spurred into action!

Taking action can also manifest itself in students’ desire to learn more. This past March, we hosted a series of Water Rocks! Live Streaming presentations, focused on wetlands, with the 3rd and 4th grade classes at Colo-NESCO. Their teacher reported back: “We had a recess directly after the Water Rocks! presentation and I heard the kids excitedly discussing the different things they learned. Once back inside, I even had a student ask to do some research on the number of wetlands still around in Iowa. Great program!” (Love this!)

___

Coach Matt Campbell once said, “When you fall in love with the process, the process will love you back.”  I hope the same holds true for Water Rocks! engaging with Iowa’s youth and inspiring them to be curious and caring stewards of our state’s natural resources.

I hope we can look back years down the road and see the fruits of our labors yielding many fold over. In the meantime, we’ll keep pounding the pavement, day in and day out, visiting schools across the state and reaching students through super creative approaches to natural resources education.

Trust the process.
Love the process.
BE the process!

-Ann Staudt

IDALS Has Money in Hand for Wetland Projects

Please join us for the Iowa Learning Farms webinar at noon, Wednesday, Oct. 13, featuring  Jake Hansen, water resources bureau chief, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). Hansen will highlight wetland construction and restoration initiatives in Iowa and ways farmers and landowners can take advantage of available funding.

In the session, “Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship Wetland Initiatives,” Hansen will outline the history of wetland construction efforts and discuss new money that is available to scale up wetland construction. IDALS participated in the construction of more than 100 wetlands over the past 20 years, and is striving to install the next 100 in a fraction of that time.

“There has been exponential growth in the annual funding received by IDALS to provide technical and financial assistance for wetland projects, and the State of Iowa is fully committed to accelerating wetland development as one part of our water quality improvement initiatives,” said Hansen “To meet our goals, we will need to identify hundreds of sites over the next several years and we welcome inquiries from interested landowners and partners.”

Participants in Iowa Learning Farms Conservation Webinars are encouraged to ask questions of the presenters. People from all backgrounds and areas of interest are encouraged to join.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before noon CDT Oct. 13:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

Or go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172

Or join from a dial-in phone line:

Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for. Those who participate in the live webinar are eligible. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Liz Ripley

How do we define conservation success? (Recap of Oct. 6 webinar)

Definitions are dangerous… or rather, definitions are potent. When we ask whether we’ve “succeeded” with spreading no-till, the immediate next question is “what’s ‘success’?”

Is it 30% adoption by farmers? 50%? Or should we account for conservation tillage? Or declare a flat 100% no-till, never-till edict? But before we tie ourselves into philosophical knots, Dr. Reid Christianson gave a few rules of thumb about conservation success in his October 6th webinar, while leaving some gray-area and posing a few questions of his own.

“What if I pose this as a potential definition? 50% of the population has adopted, and the 5-year trend is positive? Would that be a workable definition? It might be a little bit for measurable, but still, maybe a little bit arbitrary.”

Reid provided a relevant example of gauging society-level adoption with New Zealand’s campaign to vaccinate 90% of its population against COVID. Most importantly, Reid highlighted that the type of messaging which worked for early adopters would need to be tweaked to convince sections of the populations resistant to the messaging. Thus, Dr. Christianson highlighted the need to be rhetorically flexible when prescribing conservation practices to a diverse range of farmers and landscapes.

The Q&A was particularly fruitful for both narrowing and complicating our criteria for conservation success. Two thought-provoking points involved the litmus for determining when a practice had become culturally engrained. Firstly, the term “unmarked identity” describes the assumption that a value is held or practice is used: in this case, no-till would be successful when it’s just assumed that farmers do it, rather than the converse. An interesting complication mentioned is that “conventional” is no longer conventional, as in the case of moldboard-plowing.

Okay, you’re going to need to watch the webinar for yourself to get to the bottom of this one. Enjoy and keep pondering the meaning of success!

Wetlands – One Practice, Many Benefits

Our most recent field day offered the opportunity to visit a brand new wetland located within the Buffalo Creek Wildlife Management Area in Delaware County. The site is a collaboration with the Upper Wapsipinicon Watershed Management Authority and the Iowa DNR who manage the wildlife area and is one of three wetlands they worked together to construct.

Established in 2000, the Buffalo Creek Wildlife Management Area is one of the newest in Iowa and has grown to nearly 1,100 acres along the creek and is a mix of restored prairie, wetlands and timber. Prior to the establishment of the area, the Buffalo Creek was know to violently flash flood leading to severe erosion and crop destruction.

During the field day Curt Kemmerer, Iowa DNR Wildlife Biologist who manages the area and pictured below, noted that in the mid-1990s the Buffalo Creek was listed on the impaired waters list for the state due to significant biological impairments. Since the land has been converted, the creek has been removed from the list and they have observed rare mussels returning to the creek indicating a much healthier system.

The new wetlands will add many additional benefits to the area and larger Wapsipinicon River watershed. Designed to intercept surface flow during rain events (and soon tile from the neighboring crop field), the wetland will provide significant water storage capacity and slowly release that water into the creek, reducing flash flooding. While that water is in the wetland it will also be cleaned of pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus through the natural denitrification process and any eroded soil dropping out of the water. Seeded to a wet prairie mix to keep the soil from eroding, the wetland will also be home to many native wetland plants and animals when it is filled with water.

The Buffalo Creek Wildlife Management Area is open to the public year round, so I encourage you to visit it and other wildlife areas near you to observe the beauty and wildlife Iowa has to show!

Liz Ripley

No-Till: Are We There Yet?

Please join us for the Iowa Learning Farms webinar at noon, Wednesday, Oct. 6, featuring  Reid Christianson, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. If you’ve ever traveled with kids, you’ve heard “are we there yet?” more than once. When applying this question to conservation practices, we all understand that results will not be instantaneous, but ultimately everyone wants to know when they’ve achieved their goal or reached a tipping point. Christianson will draw on his research and experience to discuss what no-till adoption success looks like in terms of land management and water quality, and what it may take to get there.

In the session, “Ticking the Box on Conservation Adoption,” Christianson will discuss the adoption trends of no-till and how it is impacting water quality. He will also address the questions of “how will we know when no-till is an integral part of farming culture?,” and “at what point of adoption can we claim success?.”

“Water quality is top-of-mind for many of us, and as a culture we want to get to the point where agricultural land management practices that directly affect water quality, like no-till, are simply the norm in farming,” said Christianson. “Understanding how to recognize that we have reached the point of cultural adoption is crucial to knowing when we’ve achieved this mission. In addition, it is important to note that success is not 100% adoption, as that is not a realistic or even reasonable goal; we just need to know when we have surpassed a point of adoption that will embed the practices in farmer’s everyday planning processes.”

Participants in Iowa Learning Farms Conservation Webinars are encouraged to ask questions of the presenters. People from all backgrounds and areas of interest are encouraged to join.

Webinar Access Instructions

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before noon CDT Oct. 6:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser: https://iastate.zoom.us/j/364284172

Or go to https://iastate.zoom.us/join and enter meeting ID: 364 284 172

Or join from a dial-in phone line:

Dial: +1 312 626 6799 or +1 646 876 9923

Meeting ID: 364 284 172

The webinar will also be recorded and archived on the ILF website, so that it can be watched at any time. Archived webinars are available at https://www.iowalearningfarms.org/page/webinars.

A Certified Crop Adviser board-approved continuing education unit (CEU) has been applied for. Those who participate in the live webinar are eligible. Information about how to apply to receive the credit will be provided at the end of the live webinar.

Perspectives from a hydro-beaver-ologist

The industrious beaver: friend, frenemy, or foe?!  While the relationship between humans and beavers today is often complicated, the native beaver has been a mainstay of the US mainland for centuries. Tune in to our most recent Iowa Learning Farms webinar, featuring Dean Eisenhauer, emeritus professor, biological systems engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for a fascinating discussion of beavers, the interplay of natural history and human history, and the impacts beavers can have on water flow and stream stabilization.

With expertise ranging from water resources issues like drainage and irrigation, to vegetative buffers, to soil conservation and watershed management, Eisenhauer now has a new title to add to his list of credentials. Eisenhauer is a self-proclaimed “hydro-beaver-ologist” (love it!), having spent 16+ years investigated the workings of the industrious beaver and its impacts on stream systems in the Midwest.

DYK?  Beavers are the largest rodents in North America—adults weigh 40 pounds on average!  Beavers are referred to as a keystone species, which is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its natural environment relative to its abundance. The photographs and experiences that Eisenhauer shared in this webinar certainly bring that point home!

To frame the discussion of beaver dams and their impacts on hydrology, Eisenhauer started things off with a quick primer/refresher of stable and unstable (degraded/incised) stream channels.  Streams are kept in balance by four factors: sediment load, discharge of water, sediment size, and stream slope. When any one of those factors changes, it upsets the balance of the whole system. Tremendous bank failure and huge infrastructure impacts can result when a stream is adjusting and working its way towards a new equilibrium.

So, the question of the day: Can beavers help stabilize streams and bring them back to equilibrium?  It’s a dynamic, ever-changing system …You’ll have to watch the full webinar to hear Eisenhauer’s perspectives on this question, but here are a few key considerations that stand out:

  • Beavers can aggrade channels
  • Beaver dams are ephemeral and ever-changing
  • Beaver dams are more than just a pile of sticks (incredible earthen dams inside)
  • Beavers are opportunists

To learn more about beaver dams and stream ecology, and Eisenhauer’s perspectives on the workings of this unique keystone species, check out the full archived webinar on the ILF Webinars page.

Ann Staudt

October 5 – Virtual forum on Indiana Wetlands

Across the Midwest, wetlands are important ecosystems offering water quality benefits, flood reduction through water storage and critical wildlife habitat. Here is an opportunity to learn about how Iowa’s agricultural neighbor, Indiana, is navigating current legislation changes related to wetlands.

Tuesday, October 5
3:00 – 5:30 PM
Register to attend the
virtual forum.

An interdunal wetland at Miller Woods in Indiana Dunes National Park. 
(Wikimedia Commons)

Since the forum in February, there has been the passage of SB 389, the establishment of Governor Holcomb’s Wetlands Taskforce, and the recent repeal of the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, a 2020 rule that narrowed the definition of “Waters Of The United States (WOTUS)” and left isolated wetlands and ephemeral streams at risk.

In this follow-up forum, sponsored by Purdue’s Center for the Environment and the White River Alliance, researchers from universities around the state join with representatives from IDEM and policy experts to discuss wetland hydrology and ecology, how wetland footprints are affected by changing legislation and how resulting ecosystem services are lost or gained.  The speakers will also evaluate recent legislation, discuss changing definitions of WOTUS and identify future management issues.

Review the speakers and agenda here.

A recording of the event will be available.