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

Conservation Chat 35: Clare Lindahl Chats About New Role

Conservation Chat Episode 35 features Clare Lindahl, now CEO of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. As you listen to this podcast episode, one thing will become immediately clear to you: Clare Lindahl is passionate about soil and water conservation.

Clare reflected back onto Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of soil conservation and the founder of the Soil and Water Conservation Society: “He was responsible for founding the National Resources Conservation Service, he founded the society, he started the districts movement . . . an entire lifetime and career dedicated to soil conservation.” Clare noted. “I have a vest with his face on it.”

Hugh Hammond Bennett used to speak at events called plowing matches in Iowa. Even though the events focused on who could plow the best field, Bennett began giving speeches at these events and turning them into conservation field days.

“In Iowa, we took one of those plowing matches . . . and we made it into a conservation field day back in the 1950’s,” Clare commented. “It was really the first event of its kind. It reminds me of one of those home and garden television shows where you make over a house or you make over a yard. They made over a farm and showed how all of these conservation practices can go in. Those plowing matches that drew all those people in, they used that as an opportunity to show them about conservation at the time.”

Clare described the passion that Hugh Hammond Bennett exuded when he talked about conservation. Clare holds that same passion, yet it expands beyond soil conservation into water conservation and watershed-wide partnerships.

“The partnership building at Conservation Districts of Iowa was my favorite thing. I just loved bringing people together around the table to come up with actions and solutions and get things really done. I look forward to being able to do that on a national scale.”

natl_conf_covercrops_soilhealth_log_09D291130F2D8Keep an eye out for Clare as she forges a new path as the first woman to serve in the role of CEO of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. Also consider attending the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health on December 7 and 8 in Indianapolis.

Learn how cover crops are being used from producers, conservation leaders and scientists. The conference is great for those selling, using, or researching cover crops.

Clare3Listen to Episode 35 of the Conservation Chat with the new CEO of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, Clare Lindahl! Listen to this episode on the go from your smart phone or tablet. You can also stream the Conservation Chat podcast right from your computer.

Julie Whitson

Planning for Conservation, Planning for Success

Several members of our team traveled to Madison, WI, last week for the kickoff of an exciting new collaborative CONSERVATION PLANNING project with the USDA-NRCS and University of Wisconsin Extension (Environmental Resources Center and Conservation Professional Training Program).

CONSERVATION PLANNING is focused on NRCS field staff and technical service providers working directly with producers to develop targeted, individual land management plans that address natural resource concerns, leading to the greatest return on investment for both the producer and the environment.  From the Conservation Planning Partnership Publication, the planning process is specifically focused on economic benefits of conservation, landscape-scale planning, soil health improvement, knowledge sharing across the conservation partnership, and confidently communicating with customers in a way that leads to an improved understanding about the natural resources on their land.

NRCS is currently expanding its training and certification programs for the conservation planning process nationwide, to better help conservation planners develop and maintain the skills needed to be successful, and that’s where we come into play!

The project team is developing a series of 12 online courses, delivered via AgLearn, which encompass the complete Conservation Planning curriculum  — this portion is being led by the University of Wisconsin, with great expertise in instructional design and creating an engaging online learning atmosphere. Apprentice conservation planners will complete the online courses first, then participate in one or multiple in-person training workshops.

Iowa Learning Farms team members are leading the development of a series of instructional guides that will help direct the in-person training workshops, focused on hands-on, interactive, and in-field activities that will build upon the knowledge gained in the online training modules. These instructional guides are geared towards taking a systems thinking approach, and will be grouped into four different major land uses: croplands, grazing lands, riparian areas, and headquarters (farmsteads).

We will also be creating one more instructional guide that is focused on effective delivery of conservation planning courses – tools and techniques for keeping things engaging and interactive in the classroom (avoiding DeathByPowerPoint!). Our team brings years of extension and outreach experience to the table, so we’ll do our best to build on that experience in making the Conservation Planning trainings as effective and engaging as possible.

We’re excited for the project to get underway, and as we strive to revitalize the Conservation Planning training courses, we ultimately hope that these efforts will lead to increased implementation of conservation practices across our landscape!

Ann Staudt

Liz Juchems Recognized with P&S Outstanding New Professional Award

Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! Events Coordinator Elizabeth Juchems was honored at an awards ceremony this week as a recipient of the Professional & Scientific Outstanding New Professional Award. This award recognizes those P&S employees who have demonstrated innovative, creative or original ways in accomplishing job responsibilities, who have established a pattern of reliability and responsibility in performing job duties and who have made an effort toward continual personal and professional development.


Here are a few excepts from Liz’s award nomination:

“Elizabeth Juchems excels in her role as Extension Program Specialist with the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! outreach programs! Liz handles the coordination of ALL event details for 30+ farmer field days and 200+ community/youth outreach events each year, reaching 20,000+ people annually —50% increase since Liz’s first year! As one co-worker said, “Liz is a multi-tasking, scheduling, and organizational wizard.” Liz personally participates in 60+ outreach events each year, and has grown into one of our team’s key educators on conservation, soil, water, and natural resources issues with both farmers and youth audiences. Further, Liz serves as field coordinator for four cover crop research projects amounting to an additional $600,000 in grant funding for our programs.”

“Liz’s pattern of reliability and responsibility in performing job duties comes down to one key thing: Liz is highly organized. Her capacity for keeping everything in its place and attending to all the fine details enhances her productivity as well as keeps the ILF/WR! team on target.”

21992912_10155898573951155_5543714469147694128_oCongratulations, Liz! We appreciate you as a member of our team and are excited for both your past and future accomplishments that help our programs succeed.

Julie Whitson

Sign up today for new Master Conservationist program!

Interested in deepening your knowledge of Iowa’s wildlife and plant communities, broadening your understanding of biodiversity, and connecting the dots between agriculture, natural resources, and conservation issues in our great state? Look no further than the newly revitalized Iowa Master Conservationist program, launching this next week!

Mount Pleasant will be hosting this pilot Master Conservationist program, running from October 5 – November 12, 2017. The newly refreshed Master Conservationist training program is being coordinated by Adam Janke, Iowa State University Extension Wildlife Specialist, in partnership with Henry Co. Extension and other local conservation personnel.

The revitalized Master Conservationist program features a hybrid flipped classroom format, including both weekly online lessons and face-to-face interactive meetings.  Themes will cover a broad range of conservation topics pertinent here in the state of Iowa, ranging from conservation history, biodiversity, forests, prairies, and aquatic ecosystems, to bringing it all together in the watershed and effectively communicating conservation.

Each of the online modules will be led by ISU faculty and staff who are not just experts in their fields, but also highly engaging presenters.  Participants will then meet in person weekly for the face-to-face training component, which will include interactive, hands-on activities and demonstrations led by local conservation enthusiasts, building and expanding upon that week’s online training. With numerous parallels to the Master Gardener program, the Master Conservationist program weaves together both learning and service in the local community.

Don’t delay – get signed up today to be a part of this exciting new pilot Master Conservationist program!   Spaces are limited, in order to foster an intimate learning environment, and today is literally the deadline to get registered. The cost is $100 and includes course materials plus a meal and/or snack for each of the seven weeks of training. Contact the ISU Extension and Outreach Henry County Office today at 319-385-8126.

Ann Staudt

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

Webinars Are Back, New Outreach Tool Debuted

Our Iowa Learning Farms webinars are back! This week, Matt Helmers, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering and Iowa Learning Farms team member, kicked off our webinar series for 2017. Dr. Helmers spoke on nitrate reduction, and specifically, nitrate reduction practices that can help treat tile-drained water.

In order to achieve the goals of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS), we know that a wide array of practice implementation will be necessary. And, Dr. Helmers stressed, “It’s not just a few people making a change, it’s all farmers in the state of Iowa.” To drive that point home, we can refer to Dr. Laura Christianson’s catchy slogan: One practice might not be right for every acre, but every acre needs at least one practice.

“It’s not just a few people making a change, it’s all farmers in the state of Iowa.”

One scenario in the Iowa NRS calls for almost all agricultural acres to more effectively manage nitrogen, 12-13 million acres to be in cover crops, 7 million acres to be treated by wetlands and 7 million acres to be treated by bioreactors. This scenario requires an incredible amount of implementation of practices from many Iowan. It also requires in-field changes as well as treatment of tile-drained water at the edge of the field. Dr. Helmers zeroes in on those edge-of-field practices and just how effective they can be for nitrate reduction in the treatment of tile-drained water.


Dr. Helmers has spoken at hundreds of events since the initial release of the Iowa NRS in 2012. Based on his experience, he sees one thing clearly: “We need to create a sense of urgency because the level of implementation must be increased!”

“We need to create a sense of urgency because the level of implementation must be increased!”

Many are familiar with the need for financial and technical resources to get more edge-of-field practices on the ground, but we also need people who can help design these practices. Education could play a key role in this need – workshops for contractors, new curriculum for students, and field days as these practices are being installed are necessary. After the practices are installed, many edge-of-field practices lose their magic, as the magic is going on right below our feet, out of sight.


The Iowa Learning Farms team and our project partners*, have created one unique way to start addressing the edge-of-field outreach need: The Conservation Station On the Edge! Dr. Helmers said it best: “When you can’t go out to see the practices being installed, Iowa Learning Farms has created a way to bring the practice, and the field day, to the people!”

The Conservation Station On the Edge will be available to travel to events beginning in Fall of 2017. Contact to inquire about availability for your event. Another popular outreach tool, the Rainfall Simulator, is still running.

Watch the webinar from our webinar archives!

Julie Whitson

*We thank our project partners, including the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Department of Natural Resources (Section 319 of Clean Water Act), USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and Agri Drain Corporation.