“Trees Are Simply Amazing.”

Visit the homepage for the Arbor Day Foundation and the first thing that will pop out from the page is the above quote. The Iowa Learning Farms Team agrees: Trees ARE Simply Amazing.

The Spanish village of Mondoñedo holds the honor of being the first documented community in the world to celebrate an arbor plantation festival in 1594. Fast forward to April 10, 1872, when the state of Nebraska celebrated the very first Arbor Day held in the United States with the planting of one million trees. During the decades that followed, more states passed legislation that allowed for the annual observation of Arbor Day. Iowa enacted its own legislation in support of observing National Arbor Day in 1887. Now, all fifty states celebrate National Arbor Day on the last Friday of April, joining more than 40 countries across the globe that celebrate their own national arbor days and annual tree-planting celebrations.

History reveals that people across the globe have recognized the beauty and value of trees in their communities and environments for centuries. This year in the United States National Arbor Day falls on Friday, April 27, 2018. In honor of the 146th anniversary of National Arbor Day—and the 131st anniversary of Iowa’s observation of Arbor Day—several Iowa Learning Farms staff members would like to share a few personal stories with you about how trees have a special place in their own lives.

Nate Stevenson

nate tree story

Liz Juchems

One of my favorite stories is the Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Published as a children’s book, the poem also holds a valuable lesson about how

Liz Tree story

we view natural resources for all ages. In the beginning the boy enjoys the renewable gifts

of leaves, apples and shade in the

company of the tree. As time passes, the boy asks to take more from the tree and it freely provides. However, the boy is not truly happy and neither was the tree. It isn’t until we slow down and truly appreciate the natural resources around us – soil, water, trees, and other humans – that can we hope to be happy.

Twenty-eight years ago I was gifted an evergreen tree. When my family built our house in 1997, the tree needed to move to make room for the driveway. We were worried it wouldn’t survive the move, but the tree is thriving on my parent’s farm – and may even have some lights from holiday’s past. The book, and my tree, remind me to take time to enjoy nature and the gifts it provides. I hope you take time to read the book and enjoy nature for yourself!

Ann Staudt

My mom is into trees. Like really into trees.* When I was in elementary school, she planted a big long row of arborvitaes along the north side of our farmstead. My sister and I were assigned the summer task of standing out there with a hose and watering the trees – ten minutes per tree. I get that trees are a pretty big deal, but at that age, ten minutes per tree WAS LIKE ALL ETERNITY!


The Staudt Sisters = double trouble.  Ann (L) and Jill (R) are seen here clearly neglecting their tree-watering duties in favor of cats.

Each tree probably only ended up getting two minutes, tops, because my mom couldn’t believe how quickly we finished the task and were back to more fun things like making our own paper dolls and watching Full House.

*My mom is not just into evergreens. She loves fruit trees, too – tune in to Episode 13 of the Adventures of the Conservation Pack videos when J-Dog visits the farm and learns all about her amazing apple operation!


Brandy Case Haub

Brandy tree storyI have extremely fond memories of the year I spent with my youngest son when he was in preschool and his older brothers were in full day elementary school. I would pick him up from preschool and we would spend the afternoons together; sometimes going to parks, running errands, or visiting the library. One of our favorite things to do together in the warmer months was to take a picnic to a local park. My favorite season for this was spring. This photo shows him on the picnic blanket underneath a beautiful blooming crabapple tree at Waterworks Park in Des Moines. On those days, under those trees, my heart was filled with happiness.

Julie Winter

My tree story begins with an old tree, but it is rooted in new beginnings. A year ago, I moved into my first house as a first-time homebuyer. The trees in my backyard are old, established, and they tower over the surrounding area, adding shade, privacy, and to my excitement, habitat for birds!   Julie tree story

Birds hold a special fondness for one tree in particular in the backyard. On almost any morning, I can watch chickadees and finches of all kinds balance on the tree’s swaying branches before swooping to the feeder. With the advent of spring, robins, goldfinches, cardinals, and blue jays have added themselves to the scene of backyard swooping, singing, perching, and general elation over a sheltered place with an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Feeling inspired by trees? Let the feeling last by checking out our TREEology music video series on the Water Rocks! website.

Help us celebrate this Arbor Day, and every day, in honor of trees!

Brandy Case Haub

ILF Staff Tours New Ames Water Treatment Plant

Six million gallons. That’s how much water the new Ames water treatment plant churns out every single day to meet the water needs of the city’s population. As the Ames community continues to grow, treatment plant staff expect to continue building up to the plants’ maximum capacity; an astonishing 15 million gallons of water treated per day.

Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! staff had the opportunity to take a guided tour of the new plant last week, and learned some awe-inspiring facts about where our water comes from, and how it’s cleaned for everyday use. Read on to learn about the new plant and its water treatment process. We hope you will be inspired to plan a visit to your local water treatment plant to learn about where your own water comes from!


ames plant

New water treatment plant for the City of Ames  (image provided by City of Ames, www.cityofames.org)

A 2008 study determined that the old Ames water treatment plant, in operation since 1924, would not be able to meet the needs of the fast-growing Ames community. The Ames City Council approved a plan for developing a new treatment plant in 2009, and the $69 million project was awarded to a Minnesota construction company in 2014. According to a City of Ames brochure, it took 2 years, 8 months, 12 days, 12 hours, and 12 minutes until construction on the plant was completed in August 2017. The LEED-certified drinking water treatment plant has been using its 20,180 feet of pipeline to serve more than 18,000 Ames homes and businesses, Iowa State University, the Xenia Rural Water District, and the National Centers for Animal Health, ever since.

Fun Facts about the Ames Water Treatment Plant

  • All of Ames’ water comes the Ames aquifer, accessed through nearly 22 wells in 3 geographic areas. The plant uses wells that access both confined (groundwater that is surrounded by impermeable layers of soil/rock that keep surface water from entering) and unconfined (groundwater that mixes with water seeping in from the surface) aquifers.
  • Everything in the new treatment plant is run by central computers. In the event of an electrical power outage, the plant has a generator that could run the entire plant for 30 days.
  • The Ames water treatment plant is staffed 24/7, with 5 full-time operators, 4 student operators, 10-15 maintenance personnel, and 6-9 part-time and full-time office staff.
  • The 6 million gallons of water cleaned every day at the plant are turned around in just 3-4 hours, from aquifer to home or business.

Senior Operator, Mike Buns, led the Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! tour of the new water treatment plant. According to Buns,

“The old mantra was ‘The solution to pollution is dilution: flush it on down.’ Thankfully we don’t do that anymore.”

Buns has been with the City of Ames and their water treatment facilities for two decades. Trained in marine biology, Buns takes the safety and quality of the Ames water supply very seriously. He walked ILF staff through the seven steps of cleaning water at the plant before it’s sent to one of the three water towers serving the city of Ames.

presentation 1

Senior Operator Mike Buns demonstrates the 7 steps of water treatment for ILF staff

  1. Aeration—three large aeration units outside the plant aerate the incoming water in order to oxidize iron and remove both carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide. aerators 1
  2. Softening—lime (calcium hydroxide) and additional polymers are added to the water to raise the pH and soften the water, and to encourage solid particles to bind together.    Lime added to water
  3. Disinfection—chlorine is added to help kill harmful bacteria.
  4. Sedimentation—solid particles that have settled from added lime are drained out. This “lime sludge” is taken to local farm fields and recycled as a soil conditioner. close up lime pit
  5. Stabilization—carbon dioxide gas is diffused through the water to recarbonate it and stop the softening reaction, and then polyphosphate is added to stabilize the water and assure a pH level of near 9.5.
  6. Filtration—the water then travels to one of 8 filters, where it moves through levels of coal and sand to remove fine particles that haven’t yet been filtered out by earlier treatment steps. filter pit
  7. Fluoridation—before water is pumped out to homes and business, fluoride is added for dental protection as per recommendations of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency.
    pipes 2

Buns shared with ILF staff that the average single-family home in Ames uses 160 gallons of water every day. With fresh water making up only 1% of the earth’s total water supply, dedicating attention and care to how we keep it clean for human use is imperative. The new City of Ames water treatment plant is doing just that, and it shows in every step of their treatment process. ILF is grateful to have had an opportunity to see the ins and outs of the new plant, and we encourage YOU to check out your local water treatment plant to see where YOUR water comes from!

Brandy Case Haub

Rock Your Watershed! Game Brings an Element of Fun to Nutrient Reduction Strategy Goals

Think you’re smarter than the average 5th grader? Test your knowledge of how land management choices affect the environment and agricultural profits with the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! game, 2.0 version! New and improved, this interactive, online game now offers even more land management choices to players as they design their own agricultural waterfront property.

The Rock Your Watershed! game takes complex issues of nutrient transport, soil erosion, and habitat changes and translates them into an online game where players can see how every choice in land management has both economic and environmental impacts. In essence, it’s like the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in a game!

In the new version, players have the option of adding livestock, urban development, and witnessing how land management choices affect biodiversity.  Using scientific data that correlates how land management choices impact soil erosion, nutrient transport, and wildlife habitat, as well as the impact of precipitation variability, players seek to obtain a high score by achieving an optimal balance between profit, nutrient use, sediment loss, and biodiversity.

new rock your watershed game screen shot

Will you plant row crops right up to the river shoreline? Do you want livestock on part of your land? Will you include a wetland to help filter nutrients? What about including cover crops? Perhaps you will want to include housing or recreational lands. Each choice you make will have an environmental impact as well as a financial cost. You may find yourself wanting to play over and over again in an attempt to beat your previous score. No problem! Revise your previous choices by going back and simply changing one piece of land at a time until you see desired results!

Fun for youth and adults alike, this game can be used to learn about how various land management choices, combined with Mother Nature’s unpredictability, affect both the environment and one’s pocketbook.

Brandy Case Haub

Newton Students, Teacher & Iowa DNR Clean Up Name of Local Creek

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens can change the world,” anthropologist Margaret Mead once said. Students and teachers at Newton High School, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff, proved exactly that this summer by raising awareness of the South Skunk River watershed by successfully changing the name of Sewer Creek to Cardinal Creek.

Science teacher Courtney Wolken has worked at Newton High School (NHS) for 11 years. In the summer of 2016, Wolken met with Iowa DNR Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Steve Hopkins, and Jasper County DNR’s Keri VanZante, to brainstorm projects for her Advanced Placement (AP) Biology students that would benefit the Newton community. Hopkins and VanZante proposed the idea of changing the creek’s name from “Sewer” to “Cardinal,” in honor of the NHS mascot. Wolken was immediately receptive of the idea for her students. Wolken wrote the project into her AP Biology curriculum for the year, planning to have students begin water testing and watershed assessment during the project, in addition to facilitating the name change.

The creek lies just west of the school and connects to the South Skunk River. It is one of many creeks in Iowa with the descriptor “sewer” because of their historical use as sewage dumping areas. The practice of waste dumping has since been changed, but many creeks still bear the stinky names of their previous purposes.

Cardinal Creek photo2

Cardinal Creek,
Photo by Courtney Wolken

As part of the creek project, students began organizing trash clean up days. Wolken says:

It was rewarding to see the students take ownership of the project. The students took a day and cleaned up garbage at three site locations. They were always happy to take observations at the sites, and pictures to use for the habitat assessment.

Wolken’s class applied for official approval from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to change the creek’s name in April 2017, and the USGS responded by asking for evidence of local support for the name change. Hopkins says:

When I learned of this from Ms. Wolken, I offered to contact several local agencies to solicit support letters for the effort.  Four local community agencies: the Jasper County Conservation Board, the Jasper Soil and Water Conservation District, the Newton School Board, and the Newton City Council, all responded with enthusiastic support letters. 

Wolken’s students also began talking with community members about the creek, and petitioning both the Newton Community School Board and the Newton City Council for approval of the project. Wolken states that her classes continually received positive feedback:

During the process, I have spoken with many community members who shared their stories about the creek that runs behind the school. Many spent time [there] enjoying nature. They had no idea why it was called “Sewer Creek.”

With support from the school board, the Newton community, and the DNR, Wolken’s class presented several letters of support to the USGS. On July 19 they received notice that the name change had been officially approved.

Wolken and Hopkins are both thrilled by the success of the students, and what it means for the future of the creek and the South Skunk River watershed. Hopkins says:

Making NHS students and local residents more aware of their local creek also fits with the statewide water quality education campaign that the Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement Program is embarking upon. …[M]any Iowans are not only unaware of the water quality of their local lakes and streams, many are even unaware of the name of their local creek…These efforts greatly enhanced awareness of a local creek whose new name bears enormous pride in the Newton community. 

While waiting for official word from the USGS, both AP Biology and AP Chemistry students started actively monitoring the creek to help assess the water quality long-term. “We would like a few more months of chemical assessment before analysis of the numbers [is shared],” says Wolken. In addition to water quality improvement goals, Wolken sees additional possibilities that could follow from this experience:

I would like this project to continue being a collaboration between the two AP science courses. I have an interest in more restorative projects, such as erosion control, native plantings, and [improvements with] urban water runoff from the school. The students would like to involve community members with some of these projects.

Because signage for creeks is not something the Iowa Department of Transportation normally provides, the DNR stepped forward to fund the DOT to create and install a Cardinal Creek sign. Wolken was present at the time the sign was installed to capture that wonderful moment on camera.

DOT installs signage,
Photos by Courtney Wolken & Sara Hopkins

Water Rocks! is thrilled about this example of positive change in support of local water quality improvement, and we are grateful to Courtney Wolken and Steve Hopkins for sharing their stories with us. We congratulate the students and teachers of NHS for showing that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens absolutely can—and will—change our world!

Newton High School AP Biology students & teacher, Courtney Wolken,
Photos by Steve Hopkins

Brandy Case Haub

Help Us Assess the Need for an Iowa AmeriCorps Water Program!

ISU Extension and Outreach Iowa Learning Farms’ Director Jacqueline Comito and ISU Extension and Outreach Water Quality Program Manager, Jamie Benning, have been awarded a planning grant to explore developing an Iowa AmeriCorps Water program.  Service members serving for a statewide ISU Extension and Outreach AmeriCorps Water program could assist with water quality education and outreach with youth, farmers, and communities, help with water quality monitoring and data collection, support local watershed projects by assisting with implementation and adoption of conservation practices, and could help water quality groups and organizations with communications and social media.

As we explore the potential for an Iowa AmeriCorps water program, we are reaching out to organizations and groups that work with water quality or conservation to ask that they fill out a short online survey. The survey consists of 7 questions, and will take no more than 2-3 minutes to complete. This survey will be used to determine the need and structure of potential projects the trained AmeriCorps members would work on if a full program is developed.

Do you work with an Iowa organization that seeks to meet the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, deals with water quality improvement, or works in the area of conservation? We’d love to hear from you! Please also pass along the survey link to any other relevant organizations. Click here for the short survey.

Please complete the survey by Monday, October 2nd

Questions can be directed to Brandy Case Haub

Students Give WR! an A+!

Water Rocks! began in 2012 to fill a need in Iowa’s soil and water conservation outreach efforts: there was a particular need to reach out to youth, the next generation of Iowans. WR! has accomplished extensive outreach to Iowa’s youth in six years, collectively reaching over 85,000 people across all 99 counties in the state! And over the years, the youth have told us just how much they enjoy WR! presentations.

Jefferson Thank you cards

Water Rocks! youth outreach falls into three categories: classroom educational visits, community events, and school music assemblies. The WR! team travels all over the state, adapting the content and delivery of each presentation by grade level of our audiences. From learning about watersheds and wetlands, to biodiversity and soil, Water Rocks! learning modules keep youth engagement and energy levels high by providing an interactive environment, and of course, games to support learning! Our goals are simple: we want youth to learn something, and to have FUN. And the feedback we get from students tells us that we are accomplishing this mission. But you don’t have to take our word for it; see what Iowa youth are saying about us!

“Thank you for teaching us about watersheds, conserving, saving water, and much more! I like the trick where you cup your hand and it’s like a watershed.” –- Dubuque 6th grader

“Thank you so much for getting time out of your day to come to our school and teach us. I learned a lot, I MEAN A LOT, about soil. The thing I did not know was there could be 7 billion things in one shovel.” –Council Bluffs 5th grader

“I hope people appreciate what you guys do. Also how you try to keep our four biggest watersheds clean!” –Davenport 6th grader

“We had so much fun learning about wetlands in Iowa, and we loved the activities, too!”—Madrid 4-H camp middle school youth

“I really liked the water experiment, like our little piece of land and mixing water with what will get in the water. I will recycle and save the planet.” –Dubuque 6th grader

“I thought it was interesting when you showed us the pollution because the things you put inside the river water jar are just too cool, like the water turned green. And there is not only one size of a watershed; it can be big, small, medium or all kinds of sizes!” –Muscatine 3rd grader

“I learned that soil pollutes the water and really isn’t good to put in the water.” –Davenport 6th grader

“Thank you so much for teaching about pollution, bacteria, and the watershed! My favorite part was when we made the map of the river.” –Decorah 3rd grader

Since its inception, music has been foundational to how Water Rocks! educates Iowa’s youth about water resources. In addition to its original songs and award-winning music videos, Water Rocks! began taking its musical productions on the road in 2016 with their WR! School Assemblies.

Combining infectious melodies and lyrical rhyme with beat boxing and rap, WR! Assemblies utilize audience participation to keep students engaged and learning from start to finish. From “Scoop the Poop” to the “Watershed Rap,” WR! School Assemblies are making a splash with elementary and middle school students. Overheard in the moments after a WR! School Assembly are the following questions:

“Can you sing that song again?”

“You are really good at beat-boxing.”

“Are you a real rapper?”

“This is awesome. Can we go on tour with you?”

It’s clear that WR! Assemblies are on their way to having a serious youth fan base! We are thrilled at the overwhelmingly positive student response, and look forward to many more Assemblies to come.

Brandy Case Haub

ButterBike Project Brings Monarch Education & Real Time Adventure to U.S. Classrooms

Monarch butterflies have received a lot of attention in the past several years. Their incredible multigenerational, transcontinental migration route has been a source of awe and wonder for ages. In recent years, scientists have revealed a nearly 80% decline in monarch populations due to burgeoning environmental threats facing the species. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will decide by 2019 whether or not to place the monarch under the Protection of the Endangered Species Act.

This heightened awareness of the general citizenry to the plight of monarchs’ continued survival has led to increased public action on behalf of helping create beneficial habitat for monarchs, including municipal milkweed restoration projects, school and community butterfly gardens, monarch tagging events, and more.

ButterBike Logo

ButterBike is the newest project of Beyond A Book, an organization seeking to inspire U.S. students to get excited in science by connecting them in real time to scientific, environmental adventures. ButterBike seeks to raise awareness of the journey and plight of monarchs, as well as help educate youth about monarch migration through this “adventure-linked” educational programming. ButterBike follows Beyond a Book founder, Sara Dykman, as she bicycles the same 10,000 mile, round-trip route monarchs do during migration. Sara’s journey began in Central Mexico in March 2017, and continues all the way up to Canada, and back to Mexico, with an estimated finish in December 2017.

ButterBike Route

Along the way, Sara and her team make stops in schools and local communities, offering education about the project and about monarchs. Their current geographic location along the route can be tracked by students on the ButterBike website.

To support those schools for whom a live ButterBike team visit is not possible, the project offers multiple resources for teachers on their website including ideas for field trips, class projects and presentations, and even invitations for classrooms not along the route to participate in Skype video calls with ButterBike team members.

Filled with education about monarchs and how to support them, as well as blog entries from Sara, the ButterBike website is worth a visit for those interested in learning about monarchs, and tracking the fascinating story of both butterflies and humans as they complete this 10,000 migration journey in 2017!

ButterBike route2

Brandy Case Haub