The Importance of Urban Conservation and Useful Stormwater Management Practices for Homeowners

Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar on Wednesday about urban conservation and stormwater management practices that homeowners can use. Paul Miller, Urban Conservationist at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), discussed these practices and how they can be effective for managing water, while also adding beauty to the homeowner’s property.

Because urban development leads to an increase in impermeable surfaces, water runoff volume and rate also increases. This causes water quality, erosion, and flood issues. By implementing stormwater management strategies and other best management practices on their properties, homeowners can mitigate these water quality and quantity issues.

Miller discussed several conservation practices that urban homeowners can use, including rain gardens, permeable pavers, bioswales and stormwater wetlands. Rain gardens can store water, reducing runoff, and increase infiltration due to the deep roots of the native plants used in them. Permeable pavers allow water to soak into the ground through gaps between the bricks, rather than having the water just runoff like traditional pavement. Bioswales are vegetated depressions that capture and store stormwater, allowing it to soak into the ground. Stormwater wetlands, which would be used by a small community, rather than an individual, are constructed wetlands that are designed to store stormwater, reducing downstream flooding and water quality issues.

A rain garden near Easter Lake in Des Moines. Photo Credit: Jason Johnson, Iowa NRCS

Learn more about these and other urban conservation and stormwater management practices by watching the full webinar here!

Please join us next week, on Wednesday June 3 at noon, when Michelle Soupir, Associate Professor at Iowa State University, will present a webinar titled “A Paired Watershed Study of the Impact of Stacked BMPs on Water Quality”.

Hilary Pierce

May 27 Webinar: The Importance of Urban Conservation and Useful Stormwater Management Practices for Homeowners

Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, May 27 at noon about urban conservation and stormwater management practices that homeowners can use.  

The addition of impervious surfaces to the landscape in urban areas increases water runoff volume and rate, which can cause water quality, erosion and flood issues. A stormwater management strategy and best management practices can be implemented by communities and homeowners to provide better site designs and water management. Paul Miller, Urban Conservationist at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), will discuss practices that homeowners can install to manage water, while also adding beauty to their yard.

“Every homeowner regardless of the size of property can do something to manage and treat the water that leaves their property to improve water quality and reduce water quantity effects on receiving waters downstream,” said Miller, who has over 37 years of experience in soil and water conservation and resource management with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and IDALS. Miller hopes that webinar participants will take away ideas about how they can help improve water quality in their watershed.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on May 27:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser:

    Or, go to 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

Hilary Pierce

Wetland Ecosystem Services: How Wetlands Can Benefit Iowans

On Wednesday, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about the importance of wetlands in Iowa. Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, described what makes a wetland a wetland, the different types of wetlands found in Iowa and the ecosystem services that wetlands provide.

Wetlands need to have saturated soils or standing water for enough of the year that hydric soils and hydrophytic vegetation establish. The hydric soil of wetlands is different than that of upland areas. Upland soils will have water and oxygen gases in the pore spaces between the soil particles, while wetlands soils will have water in its pore spaces, with either very little or no oxygen gas. The figure below shows the different in the pore spaces of upland and wetland soils (Raven P.H. et al. 2011. Biology, 9th edition). Finally, wetlands feature hydrophytic vegetation (water plants), which can grow in these saturated soil conditions.

Stefanik described four common types of wetlands that naturally occur in Iowa. Prairie potholes are found predominantly in the Des Moines Lobe and are depressions that collect water during wet periods of the year. Riverine wetlands occur near streams or rivers on floodplains or as oxbow (old meanders of a stream channel that have been cut off from the main channel over time) wetlands. Fens are typically groundwater fed and feature low vegetation. Emergent marshes have herbaceous vegetation, open water areas and algae.

Throughout the entire state of Iowa, about 89% of the original wetlands have been removed or lost as land use has changed. In the Des Moines Lobe region, which used to be known as the “1000 Lake Region”, 99% of the wetlands have been lost. This loss of wetlands matters to us all, due to the ecosystem services that wetlands provide.

To learn more about these ecosystem services that wetlands can provide, watch the full webinar here!

If you want to learn more about wetlands in Iowa, tune in to the Celebrating Iowa’s Wetlands Virtual Field Day on May 28.

Please join us on May 27 for a webinar with Paul Miller, Urban Conservationist at the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), titled “The Importance of Urban Conservation and Useful Stormwater Management Practices for Homeowners”.

Hilary Pierce

May 20 Webinar: Wetland Ecosystem Services: How Wetlands Can Benefit Iowans

May is American Wetlands Month and Iowa Learning Farms will host a webinar on Wednesday, May 20 at noon about the importance of wetlands in Iowa.

Wetlands are important for all life in Iowa, due to the many ecosystem services they provide, such as water quality improvement, flood control and wildlife habitat. Since European settlement, Iowa has lost almost 90% of its wetland habitat, making it imperative that we both protect the wetlands that are left and find ways to create and restore critical wetland habitat. Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, will highlight the importance of wetlands and will introduce the different types of natural, created and restored wetlands that can be found in Iowa.

“I hope that webinar participants will take away a greater appreciate for wetlands in Iowa, as well as a desire to better protect wetland ecosystems from future harm,” said Stefanik, whose expertise is in wetland and aquatic ecology, where she has studied vegetation succession in created and restored wetlands, as well as nutrient cycling.

To participate in the live webinar, shortly before 12:00 pm CDT on May 20:

Click this URL, or type this web address into your internet browser:

    Or, go to 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

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

Hilary Pierce

Can I add or improve a wetland on my farm?

To celebrate American Wetlands Month, I wanted to highlight how important they are here in Iowa and share how the Whole Farm Conservation Best Practices manual can helps match your goals with the right edge of field practice – like wetlands! Several types of wetlands can be used in agricultural settings, depending on your objectives.

Wetlands are crucial to meeting our Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals of reducing nitrogen and phosphorus losses. Beyond acting like a filter cleaning the water, these wetlands act like sponges absorbing and storing water aiding in both times of flooding and drought. Lastly these wetlands are incredible habitats to migratory and endangered species.

Considering improving and adding a wetland?

Some must-have pieces of information for determining if a wetland could be a suitable edge-of-field practice for the site include a soils map, profitability maps, and knowledge of relationships to district infrastructure if the site is in a drainage district. The decision tree below is a great place to start the planning process.

If the primary goal of a wetland is for water quality improvements, treatment wetlands help to remove nitrogen through conversion of nitrate-nitrogen to nitrogen gas by microbial activity and through plant uptake. Ideally, treatment wetlands should have a pool footprint greater than or equal to 1 percent of the watershed area to be treated. The topography of the site should allow for a drop in elevation from the tile outflow to the surface of the standing water in the wetland to prevent backflow of water into the tile drain system.

Additional land is needed to allow a diverse buffer of wetland vegetation to develop around the shallow water pool. If the wetland footprint is in an area that could experience high sediment flow, a sedimentation basin or other structure will need to be considered. It is also important that treatment wetlands remain fish-free to reduce sediment disturbance and prevent unwanted loss of sediment, phosphorus, and nitrogen from the system.

If the primary goal is to provide additional wetland habitat, identifying low-profitability wet zones within the field can reveal locations that could be planted in perennial wetland vegetation.

Be sure to tune in to our upcoming events featuring wetlands:

-Liz (Juchems) Ripley

Wetland Ecosystem Services: How wetlands can benefit Iowans.

Kay Stefanik | Assistant Director, Iowa Nutrient Research Center

              Iowa was once a mosaic of prairies, wetlands, rivers, and forests.  Today, Iowa looks drastically different as agriculture now dominates the landscape.  Fertile prairie and wetland soils, which are ideal for row crop agriculture, have paved the way to a booming agricultural industry and led to Iowa being one of the top corn and soybean producing states in the country. 

              While agriculture is vital to the regional economy, all things in life come with trade-offs.  The rise of agriculture came at the expense of nature. Of Iowa’s natural ecosystems, wetlands have been particularly hard hit.  Prior to European settlement, wetlands made up almost 4 million acres of Iowa’s landscape.  Today, there are only about 422,000 acres of wetlands remaining; this is an 89% loss in wetland habitat.   

              At this point, you may be wondering “why does wetland loss matter”?  When a wetland is lost, we do not just lose a physical space.  We also lose the wetland’s ecosystem services – the essential direct and indirect benefits that nature provides to humans.  Even though wetlands are much harder to find today, the wetlands that do exist are still providing a variety of ecosystem services.  These ecosystems services include:

  • Flood prevention
  • Water quality improvements through nutrient and sediment removal
  • Wildlife habitat
  • Recreational opportunities
  • Food and fiber

              I am in no way implying that sides need to be taken, that it is agriculture or nature.  What I am suggesting is that not only can agriculture and nature coexist, but that nature can be used to improve agriculture.  By protecting wetlands already on the landscape, as well as strategically creating and restoring wetland habitat, we can increase the impacts of wetland ecosystem services.  Of interest in Iowa are the ability of wetlands to help with flood prevention and to improve water quality. 

              Flooding has become a major issue throughout Iowa over the last decade.  Wetlands placed along streams and rivers have the potential to capture surface runoff before stormwater reaches the stream and can also act to hold water from a river that spills over its banks.  This holding capacity prevents some of that floodwater from being immediately transported downstream.  By holding floodwater in place, downstream fields and developed areas may be spared from extreme flooding events and severe economic loss. 

              In addition to flood prevention, wetlands also help to improve water quality.   Wetlands receiving surface runoff can reduce phosphorus concentrations through the settling out of soil particles in the water column. The settled-out phosphorus becomes trapped in the wetland sediment and thus held on the landscape.  Wetlands that receive water with high dissolved nitrogen concentrations, usually ground water or tile line water, can reduce nitrogen through microbial conversion to nitrogen gas.  This nitrogen gas is then lost to the atmosphere, which is already about 78% nitrogen.  The ability of wetlands to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus can help us meet the 45% nutrient reduction goal laid out in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

              These wetland ecosystem services – flood prevention, water quality improvement, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, food, and fiber – give wetlands both instrumental and intrinsic value.  Wetlands have great potential to benefit the lives of all Iowans, but only if wetlands are allowed to exist in Iowa’s landscape.

Kay Stefanik

@kay_stefanik (Twitter)

Trees, Forests, and Forestry: Benefits to Water Quality and On-Farm Income in Iowa

On Wednesday, Iowa Learning Farms hosted a webinar about forestry in Iowa and the importance of including trees in Iowa’s water quality conversation.

Billy Beck, Assistant Professor and Extension Forestry Specialist at Iowa State University, discussed the importance of seeing trees as a valuable resource, for farmers and landowners where they can be an asset and a source of on-farm income and provide profit, and for all Iowans because of the benefits to water quality and flood reduction that trees can provide.

Iowa has:

  • ~3 million acres of forest
  • 150,000 forest landowners
  • $10-35 million of standing timber sold annually
  • 30,000 jobs supported by forestry/forest products
  • $43 billion economic output from forestry/forest products
  • Highest quality white oak & black walnut on Earth (arguably)
  • ISU has one of the oldest forestry programs in the US
  • >30% of riparian corridors are forested

Beck explained that trees can improve water quality and can reduce water quantity reaching streams during rainfall events, which can positively impact flooding. Trees can take up nutrients, slow water through interception and infiltration, and can help stabilize streambanks, which all have positive impacts on downstream water quality and water quantity.

When discussing on-farm income from trees, Beck stated that it is important to know the true value of your timber, which can be very difficult to know! There isn’t a readily available source to find out this information and it could depend on: buyer/logger outlets, species assemblage, quality/grade of logs, site access or terrain, markets, politics, tariffs, etc.

To learn more about trees and forestry in Iowa, and its benefits to on-farm income and water quality and quantity, watch the full webinar here!

Be sure to join us next week on Wednesday, April 29th, when Laurie Nowatzke, Measurement Coordinator for the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy at Iowa State University, will discuss “Iowa’s Water Quality Challenge: Efforts and Progress in Reducing Agricultural Nitrogen and Phosphorus Loss”.

Hilary Pierce

Trees, Forests, and Forestry: Why are they absent from Iowa’s water quality conversation?

Billy Beck | Extension Forestry Specialist, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach | Assistant Professor, Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management

Did you know that nearly three million acres of forest stand tall within Iowa’s border? That around one hundred and fifty thousand Iowans own forestland and sell 10-35 million dollars of standing timber annually? In 2016, forestry and forest products produced 4.3 billion dollars in economic output and supported nearly 30,000 jobs in Iowa.

Iowa State University is home to one of the oldest forestry programs in the United States. As an Extension Forestry Specialist, I work daily to remind Iowans that trees, forests, and forestry hold great significance in Iowa’s past, present, and future. They are part of Iowa and help define who we are, just like corn, hogs, and prairie. Why is it that trees, forests, and forestry are generally absent from Iowa’s water quality conversation? From on-farm practices to our statewide vision (i.e., Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy), trees are rarely, if ever, mentioned as a part of our water quality improvement strategies.

Trees and forests are as much a part of Iowa as corn, hogs, and prairie. Yellow River State Forest, Allamakee County. Note floodplain reforestation effort at right.

We’ve done an impressive job in the Midwest to alter our landscape (e.g., landcover conversion, stream channelization) for the purpose of getting water out of fields, into streams, and out of watersheds as fast as possible. The result is what hydrologists refer to as “flashy flow”, where streams exhibit rapid rises in stage immediately following storm events. This altered (flashy) hydrology subjects our streams to increased erosive power, which contributes greatly to Iowa’s current water quality and quantity (i.e., flooding) issues.

Trees and forests help address flashiness, mitigate the effects, and work to restore a more natural hydrology which will lead to better water quality and more stable quantity. Upland forest canopies intercept a portion of rainfall and prevent it from rushing into streams. Roots increase the infiltration capacity of the soil, reducing overland flow and associated erosion. Transpiration pulls moisture from soil, further increasing its ability to absorb rainfall, reduce overland flow, and deliver water to streams slowly through shallow groundwater. Floodplain forests provide resistance against out-of-bank flows, reducing floodplain scour and lessening downstream flood damage. By slowing flood velocities, their upright stems also encourage deposition of sediment and phosphorus on floodplains (a potentially huge nutrient sink). Trees along streams armor streambanks against erosive flows, and roots increase the tensile strength of streambank soils. The shade they create regulates stream temperature, mitigating massive diurnal dissolved oxygen swings.

Many landowners praise streambank trees for keeping flood debris from entering their fields. Trees that fall in streams and other in-channel large woody material may be unsightly to many folks, however, even these provide significant benefit through increase in flow resistance, trapping and storage of sediment and phosphorus, and creation of prime habitat for aquatic biota. In-channel wood also redirects flow towards streambanks, working to reestablish the natural meander pattern of streams, thus lessening slopes and further “slowing the flow”.

Although unsightly to some, trees that fall in streams and in-channel wood mitigate water quality and quantity issues by slowing the flow, trapping sediment and nutrients, and restoring natural meander patterns. Walnut Creek, Jasper County. Photo: Dr. Morgan Davis.

So, why would such a powerful tool be overlooked so often? Why are efforts to establish, manage, and protect streamside (riparian) forests minimized in the Midwest? I believe part of the answer comes down to landowner unfamiliarity with trees. This is no knock against Midwestern landowners (they are the best people on the planet in my book), it’s just that trees are challenging, especially if you lack experience. Trees are different from grass – you can’t simply plant trees in the ground, walk away, and expect success. Trees take advanced planning and site preparation, and at least three years of dedicated maintenance (e.g., weed control) to establish. When these don’t occur, plantings fail, neighbors notice, and word gets around the county that “trees don’t work”.

Management of existing forests is no less challenging. It takes a “100-year mentality,” and willingness to part with annual returns. In addition, landowners struggle to understand the true value of their timber. This spells danger when someone knocks on their door and offers them “ten thousand bucks” for the walnuts on the back 40.  What seems like an instant windfall is often a severe undercut. Before you take that offer, reach out to the many forestry resources, technical assistance, and expertise available to Iowa landowners. Unfortunately, many are unaware these resources exist.

The first, and most critical step to a successful forestry project is to connect with a professional forester. Be they a public (e.g., Iowa DNR), or a private consulting forester, these experts are your guide to a successful forestry project. From planning and planting, to forest stand improvement (thinning) and timber harvest, a forester will guarantee you maximize the benefits (both ecological and financial) of your forest resource. For further details on maximizing your forest resources, join my April 22 Iowa Learning Farms webinar.

As a water quality enhancement tool, and asset to farm enterprises, trees are often underutilized and undervalued in Midwestern states. Rough-sawn Osage orange board, Shimek State Forest, Lee County.

On February 27, I brought together nineteen forestry and water quality experts from across Iowa to explore the question as to why trees are often disregarded as a water quality enhancement tool. The participants in this Forestry and Water Quality Summit agreed that trees and forests are a tough sell to policy makers because they are not a “practice” or an engineered structure you can simply install and expect instant results. Trees take time. There is a multi-year lag between implementation of trees and water quality enhancement. For the foresters in the room, this was to be expected. Everyone agreed that everyone needed more of that “100-year mentality” and to plant more trees.

More importantly, we all agreed that we need Iowa-specific data that quantify tree and forest water quality benefits (e.g., flood peak reduction and nutrient reduction). While such data exist nationally and globally, it is difficult to apply that information to Iowa’s unique stream corridors and watersheds that are often highly-altered and highly-unstable.

Are trees the “silver bullet” for Iowa water quality? No. Do they need to be recognized as a critical component in our water quality efforts? Absolutely. To succeed in reducing nutrient levels in our water bodies, we will need a suite of practices. Like wetlands and prairie strips, trees offer additional environmental benefits. I am so thrilled be a part of the Conservation Learning Group and to partner with the Iowa Learning Farms and forestry professionals state-wide to firmly establish trees in Iowa’s water quality conversation!       

Billy Beck

For information on forestry resources available to Iowa landowners, visit the Forestry section of the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Natural Resource Stewardship website.

@drbillyjbeck (Twitter)

@drbillyjbeck (Instagram)

USDA Ready to Help Iowa Farmers Recover from Recent Flooding

USDA BannerNews Release by United States Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Risk Management Agency, Des Moines, Iowa

Extreme weather conditions like the recent “bomb cyclone” impacted farmers and ranchers in Iowa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has disaster assistance programs available to help agricultural producers recover after natural disasters, including floods.

USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Risk Management Agency (RMA) offer programs that help producers recover losses, rehabilitating farms and ranches, and managing risk.

Recovering Losses
FSA offers many programs to help producers recover from losses, including the Livestock Indemnity Program, the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish ProgramEmergency Forest Restoration Program and the Tree Assistance Program. Producers located in counties receiving a primary or contiguous disaster designation are eligible for low-interest emergency loans to help them recover from production and physical losses.

“FSA has a variety of disaster assistance programs to support farmers and ranchers through times of adversity,” said Amanda DeJong, State Executive Director for the FSA in Iowa. “Once you are able to evaluate your losses, it is important to contact your local FSA office to report all damages and losses and learn more about how we can assist.”

Rehabilitating Farms and Ranches
NRCS provides technical and financial assistance through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and other conservation programs to help producers recover and build resilience to better weather future disasters. Any practice that is needed to address an approved resource may be eligible. This could include deceased livestock disposal, or repairing a failed practice, like flood damaged fencing, from a previous EQIP contract. In some cases, farmers may be able to add a practice to existing EQIP contracts through a modification.

“NRCS can be a very valuable partner to help landowners with their recovery effort,” said Kurt Simon, State Conservationist for the NRCS in Iowa. “Our staff will work one-on-one with landowners to make assessments of the damages and develop approaches that focus on effective recovery of the land.”

Meanwhile, the FSA Emergency Conservation Program provides funding and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to rehabilitate farmland damaged by natural disasters.

Managing Risk
Producers with coverage through federal crop insurance should contact their agent for issues regarding filing claims. Those who purchased crop insurance will be paid for covered losses.

“Producers should report crop damage within 72 hours of damage discovery and follow up in writing within 15 days,” RMA Regional Director Duane Voy said. “The Approved Insurance Providers, loss adjusters and agents are experienced and well-trained in handling these types of events.”

Compensation also is available to producers who purchased coverage through FSA’s  Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program, which protects non-insurable crops against natural disasters that result in lower yields, crop losses or prevented planting. Eligible producers must have purchased NAP coverage for 2019 crops.

Supporting Communities
In addition to helping producers, USDA also offers local governments and other entities with rebuilding infrastructure and removing debris. The NRCS Emergency Watershed Protection (EWP) program provides assistance to local government sponsors with the cost of addressing watershed impairments or hazards like debris removal and streambank stabilization. Interested entities should contact their local NRCS conservationist.

More Information
USDA offers a disaster assistance discovery tool that walks producers through five questions to help them identify personalized results of what USDA disaster assistance programs meet their needs. For more information on disaster assistance programs, contact your local USDA service center or

NRCS Contact:
Laura Crowell

FSA Contact:
Amanda Hartman

RMA Contact:
Duane Voy

How does your grass grow?

For many years, even decades, the norm has been to skim off topsoil from new construction sites, leaving landowners with yards composed largely of clay.  Current Iowa regulations,  enacted in 2012, require that builders return 4 inches of topsoil — in areas where there was at least 4 inches of topsoil in the first place —on tracts of an acre or more in certain Iowa cities, with the goals of reducing stormwater runoff and flooding.

The regulation has been under debate and has received much media attention, as summarized in the Quad-Cities Times and Cedar Rapids Gazette.

When presenting to the Advisory Board for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture back in June, Iowa Learning Farms program managers Jackie Comito and Matt Helmers were approached with a question of whether we could create two trays for our Conservation Station Rainfall Simulator, demonstating side-by-side one lawn with 4” of topsoil returned, and a second lawn with only the compacted clay layer.

Newly-created sod trays in June 2014 (C=Clay, T=Topsoil). Pictured below are the soils used to create each respective tray.

Student intern Lance Henrichs was tasked with creating the two trays in mid-June, one with a topsoil base and the second with a clay/sand base.  He then rolled pieces of sod on top of each one.  Henrichs observed, “The first time I put them in the Simulator, the top soil tray had much more infiltration than the clay-based tray.”

Fast forward two months, and the differences between the two trays are even more stark.   The quality of grass is very different between the two trays.   Ask any landowner who lives in an area where the topsoil was removed, and they’ll confirm that growing grass or a garden on clay alone is pretty tough!   The tray with topsoil also allows for water to infiltrate, while the compacted clay layer does not allow for any infiltration, forcing all rain water to run directly off the surface of the land.

Come see it for yourself at the Iowa State Fair!    Visit us in Farm Bureau Park, just off the Grand Concourse, from 9:30 – 5:00pm every day this week (9:30am – 2:00pm on Sunday).

Ann Staudt