Learning about the Water Cycle – Across the Ocean!

During the first part of January, I had the opportunity to travel abroad before returning to the Water Rocks! team. As part of a lifelong dream realized, I took a class with the University of Iowa, called the India Winterim trip, and my section was focused on Water Poverty in Rural India. The class combined my favorite place on Earth (India) with my favorite topic on Earth (water quality). As an added bonus we had the opportunity to learn about strategies for dealing with saline soils from some of the smartest scientists in the field.

Our class partnered with an NGO called the Sehgal Foundation, a group who is doing a lot of work with rural communities in the Nu district (formerly the Mewat district) near New Delhi. While our class was there we had the incredible opportunity to help Sehgal do some wider scale sampling and design work with them.

Our team included Sehgal scientists, engineers and volunteers along with University of Iowa students and professors.

Sehgal serves as the Extension and Outreach department for this district and many others. They educate people on sustainable farming practices and seek to improve water quality for drinking and irrigation purposes.

Drip irrigation in a test plot by the Sehgal radio site.

Our team during the debrief of our tasks for the class. Photo courtesy of Amina Grant.

 I was excited to go out in the field and collect data because with a background in Environmental Science, I felt like I would be the most useful outside. I also wanted to be out in the 70 degree weather!

Our class exploring our site for the first time next to the Aravali Hills.

Being out in the field, I had the opportunity to work with Sehgal water monitors to locate sites and take water salinity samples. Sites were often a bit of a scavenger hunt as wells run dry during the years we are not there or become dysfunctional for a variety of reasons. We worked with the local water monitors to line up our sites to the ones they had been using as best as possible. Then we used a tool called the Solinst to measure water temperature, conductivity and depth.

Me, using the Solinst to take readings. Photo courtesy of Amina Grant.

We went out to the field on three different occasions. My classmates and I worked to efficiently sample as many sites as we could, while making sure we were being accurate about the sites we were testing. It really tested my coordination skills to try and pay attention to what everyone was doing and end up with usable data. I definitely gained some skills in data management because along with my conductivity readings, my friend and classmate Amina Grant had to collect her own samples and that required an entirely different set of numbers to be recorded.

Amina found a Daphnia (small water creature) in one of the wells she was testing. 

We were hoping our measurements would add to the body of knowledge Sehgal and the local volunteers have been building about the water over time. We understood that our measurements were only a small piece of the puzzle, but hopefully some answers can be gained as a result of our cumulative efforts.

Sehgal test plots provide alternative methods for sustainable agriculture in the region. In the back, you can see the drinking water filtration system.

The water challenges in the Nu district are different than ours because their main problem is poor water quality and soil quality due to salinity. But the same principles of hard work, long days, and an interdependency on the water cycle bind across oceans and cultures.

Megan Koppenhafer


Apply today for Water Resources Summer Internship!

Do you know a college student with interests in the environment, conservation, and agriculture, particularly water and soil quality?  We are looking for awesome undergraduate students to join our team as part of our summer 2018 Water Resources Internship Program! Interns’ time will be split between research and outreach, all centered around agricultural + environmental issues and challenges in Iowa.

Visit the 2018 Water Resources Internship Program webpage for additional information and complete application instructions. Applications close this Wednesday, January 31 at 5:00pm.

Please share this with any college students you know that might be interested. We are looking forward to a great summer ahead!

Ann Staudt

What’s In Your Water?:  Spotlight on Pharmaceuticals

Does your medicine cabinet have half a bottle of prescription medication left over from an injury years ago? How many random expired OTC medications can you find around your house?

This Saturday, October 28, is your chance to dispose of those unused/unwanted medications properly!   National Drug Take Back Day is designed to provide a safe, convenient,“no questions asked” opportunity to dispose of medications, addressing a critical public health issue. Find a Take Back LOCATION near you.  While headlines across the state and across the nation have brought needed attention to such challenges as the opioid epidemic, pharmaceuticals also pose an emerging challenge to our water quality.

How exactly can pharmaceuticals and personal care products impact the surrounding environment?

Historically, unused medications were flushed down the toilet (that’s NOT the recommended disposal technique any longer).

However, in addition, the medicines and personal care products we use every day are having an unseen impact on our water resources. Pharmaceuticals like statins are prescribed to help us lower cholesterol levels, and headaches are banished by a few pills of ibuprofen. While the chemical compounds found in pharmaceuticals are metabolized internally, our bodies are not 100% efficient machines.

The remainder of the medications that our bodies do not use pass through our bodies and exit when we use the bathroom. Although wastewater treatment facilities do a great job of cleaning our water, these treatment processes cannot fully remove the multitude of complex chemicals within drugs, shampoos and other personal care products. These chemicals can build up in our water sources over time – consider the chemical “cocktail” of antibiotics, antidepressants, Viagra, painkillers, and more!  As trace amounts of these different chemical compounds accumulate in the environment, in our waters, the long-term impacts to fish, amphibians, and humans alike are yet to be determined.

Check out “The Shower” from our award-winning What’s In Your Water? video series to learn more!

Do your part and check that home medicine cabinet today!  Find a Take Back LOCATION near you and dispose of those medications this Saturday, October 28.

Ann Staudt


Read on for more information:

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

The Poetry of Water

Have you heard the news? The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the biggest it has ever been this summer. More than half of Iowa’s waterways remain impaired. Iowa’s legislators can’t seem to agree on means for funding practices that would help.  It hasn’t been a great year for water quality so far.

It isn’t that we don’t understand the problems or the solutions. There is plenty of information out there. Lots of smart people are speaking about the science of water quality, studying the impacts of agriculture, discussing economics issues, and monitoring water. This information is important and necessary.

It’s more that we still lack the will to create lasting changes to allow for cleaner water, more habitat and healthier soil. Perhaps we need to move beyond the technical and economic talk and express the poetry of water.  Throughout our history it has often been a well-turned phrase, public speech or essay that has motivated action in others.

Back in 2008, when Jerry DeWitt was first appointed as director of the Iowa Learning Farms, he and I went on a tour of the ILF partners who were hit hardest by heavy rains and flooding. When he got back to his office, he wrote an essay that began, “Yesterday I cried for the land. Today I must speak for the land.” You can read the full text on p.3 of the archived Leopold Letter newsletter: http://publications.iowa.gov/18617/1/LeopoldLetter2008Summer.pdf

What followed was a poetic expression of Jerry’s emotions in seeing fields eroded down to bedrock—not your typical academic writing. For several weeks after that essay was published, it was brought up in meetings, including the Soil and Water Conservation Districts annual meetings, and during random conversations. It became a call to action.

Who is writing poetry for water?

Jerry showed that aptly expressed words get things done. Words make us uniquely human but poetry is what speaks to our higher angels. Writers like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold put language to good use on behalf of lasting, life-altering environmental change.

Who among us isn’t familiar with Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) that moved us with its craft and motivated us as a nation to change our use of pesticides? Or think of all the folks who became conservationists or wildlife specialists inspired by Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (1949) with his essays on the land stirring a conservation ethic. I was only seven years old when my older brother read me Dr. Seuss’s new book, The Lorax (1971), and nurtured in me a life-long desire to speak for the trees. The poetry of these authors and so many others have inspired generations to think and live in the world differently.

We don’t need any more ordinary prose. We are bloated with words today. Everyone seems to be “expressing” themselves on social media and other online outlets. Could a Carson or Seuss or Leopold get through all of the word pollution today?

Our lakes, rivers, streams and underground aquifers need more poetry in the tradition of Carson, Seuss and Leopold—writing that expresses feelings and ideas that allow you to see beyond what is right in front of you to get at a deeper truth or beauty.

Only the best among us are brave enough to write poetry for poetry is too important to be left to professionals.

Two Black Hawk County watershed projects, in partnership with the University of Northern Iowa’s Environmental Literature class during the spring of 2017, brought us poetic stories of people in their watersheds. The work is called “Beauty Outside Our Doors” and is available as a free PDF download.  The essays are personal and purposeful and speak to a greater truth about the state of our environment in Iowa.

It would be great if every watershed improvement project in Iowa could take Black Hawk County’s lead and do a similar project with the residents in their watersheds.  It would be inspiring to see similar books written across the state.

BUT, you don’t need to live where there is an active watershed project in order to speak for water. Each one of us is called to find the poet inside of us and let people know the truth about our waterways. We are water and water is life. Clean water is essential to our existence. We ignore this at our eventual peril. After you write your piece, share it with whoever will listen. It is time for life-altering change. The water (and all of life) is counting on us.

Jacqueline Comito

Guest Blog: Fair Eats

Our final summer guest blog post comes from high school intern Josh Harms, who will be a senior at South Hamilton this fall. Take it away, Josh!

Hello, my name is Josh Harms. I am a high school intern with Iowa State’s Water Rocks! program this summer. While I have been traveling across the state of Iowa to many different county fairs, I have had the privilege of experiencing a diversity of fair food, everything from the basic corndog to the amazing tacos and black raspberry ice cream at the Wright Co. Fair. I also tried pulled pork nachos at Badger Fest, fried cheese balls at the Central Iowa Fair, a pork tenderloin at the Washington Co. Fair, and a mango smoothie followed by mini donuts at the Cherokee Co. Fair.

Throughout all the fairs I have attended, the Wright Co. Fair had the best food by far, but I guess that could just be my bias towards tacos and ice cream, especially black raspberry! After eating all these different foods, I still enjoy all the unique foods that Iowa’s fairs have to offer, but I think I maxed out my capacity for fried foods when I had chicken tenders, fried cheese balls, and a funnel cake all in the same trip!

As my internship is coming to a close, I have really enjoyed the county fairs and camps I’ve been to, and I have also learned a lot about the environment in Iowa. One thing that is really memorable is that one gram of dog poo has 23 million bacteria. Also, sediment is the #1 pollutant in Iowa. Actually, in Iowa, we lose 1 inch of topsoil every 20 years and we gain that 1 inch back in 500-1000 years. Overall, I have enjoyed working with the other interns along with traveling to all the different fairs across the state of Iowa. I would also like to thank the staff at Iowa State University for this wonderful internship opportunity!

Josh Harms

Internship offers new perspectives, new direction

Today’s guest post in our Water Resources Internship blog series was provided by Andrew Hillman. Hillman grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, and went to school at Pleasant Valley. He will be entering his junior year at ISU in the fall, majoring in Biosystems Engineering. Read on for his unique perspectives in the internship coming from an urban background!  

It has been a fun, wild ride in a way for me this summer. Coming from a completely urban background in the Quad Cities and starting this internship, I had little to no idea about any of these issues, or really anything about agriculture at all to be honest. But, from the pre-job training to all the experiences I have had this summer, from field work to outreach events, I have learned quite a bit. I never thought before this summer that I would ever be excited to go out and see things like bioreactors and restored oxbows, but here I am!

I have always been somewhat informed about environmental issues, but the thing that I have enjoyed the most about this summer is that I now have more nuanced and informed opinions about issues. And I can actually draw on my own experiences now, which is very neat. I knew that erosion and nutrient loss and runoff were environmental issues on the forefront in Iowa, but now is the first time that I can say that I feel personally connected to these issues, which is always something I felt that as an Iowan I should be doing, but never knew enough about.

Going to Iowa State University for Biosystems Engineering, I quickly was exposed to how little I knew about agriculture in Iowa, and so this summer has helped me fill a gap in my knowledge that was fairly noticeable compared to some of my peers. Now that I have experience going out to a field, seeing cover crops and collecting water samples, some of the things we talked about in my ABE classes are suddenly much clearer to me now that I have the context.

Something specific that I did in my ABE 218 course was build a table-scale system for reducing nitrate levels in water. Now that I have seen an actual bioreactor site, and presented the model bioreactor that Extension has, I have a greater appreciation for that project and the things that I learned while doing it. I even had the opportunity to work with Chase, one of the other interns, to come up with a preliminary design of our own for a model bioreactor to possibly be placed in one of our conservation trailers in the future. Edge-of-field practices like bioreactors are really fascinating to me.

Back on July 12, I had the opportunity to go to my home county for a Scott County soil health and cover crops field day. This was a great event for me, because growing up in Bettendorf, I really did not associate Scott Co. with much farming compared to the other places I had been in Iowa. It was interesting to see all the things that farmers in my area were doing to further soil and water quality goals.

The host location, Cinnamon Ridge Farms in Donahue, Iowa was amazing. It was eye-opening to hear the owner talk about all the strategies he was using, including his methods for integrating cover crops into his operation. Because their operation does tours year-round, including tours to farmers from all around the world, he had a unique perspective on many of the government cost share programs that are available to farmers, noting that there are not very many countries in which the government will pay you to adopt a farming practice. I think that this is very important, and one that people should keep in mind as Iowa communities look to adopt more parts of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in the future.

I am currently in the Biorenewables option right now in Biological Systems Engineering, but after my experiences this summer with the Iowa Learning Farms, I am seriously considering switching my option so I can continue to learn more about the issues that I have been exposed to this summer! As an engineering student, this is where I can see so many opportunities to get involved after graduation.

Andrew Hillman