Water Rocks! Refreshes and Streamlines Online Presence

New county map feature, simplified calendar of events, and a fresh navigation experience optimized for mobile devices and tablets, highlight website updates

Water Rocks!, a unique, award-winning, statewide water education program, recently revealed its updated website at www.waterrocks.org. The site contains a wealth of resources regarding environmental programs, farm and agriculture outreach, conservation efforts across Iowa, and interactive learning activities. The update includes more intuitive navigation and the addition of an interactive county map, calendar of appearances and events, and optimization to ensure compatibility with mobile devices, tablets, and popular web browsers.

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“After six years, and considering feedback from users ranging from elementary school students to retirees, we decided it was time to take advantage of the latest in web technology to redo the website from the ground up,” said Ann Staudt, director of Water Rocks!. “The new navigation buttons on the home page make it simpler for different constituent groups to find what they want, while continuing to provide the resources, videos, games, and music Water Rocks! is known for.”

With the help of Entrepreneurial Technologies, a web development firm based in Urbandale, Iowa, Water Rocks! addressed navigation challenges that had been observed – particularly with young users – by organizing all information and resources for teachers and students under high-visibility banners at the top of the home page.

Visitors to www.waterrocks.org will still find award-winning videos, music, games, and activities geared for all ages. There is also an area of the site dedicated to the fleet of Conservation Station trailers used by Water Rocks! for outreach and education.

The new site also sports an interactive county map feature which enables visitors to click on any county in the state of Iowa to see what Water Rocks! and Conservation Station activities have taken place over the past several years.

In addition, the website provides a single calendar for all Water Rocks! and Conservation Station appearances at schools, fairs, and special events throughout the year. Teachers and administrators are encouraged to review the calendar to see where Water Rocks! will be, and to use the simple online visit request to plan for a visit to their campus.

“The Water Rocks! team is excited about this new portal which makes it easy for visitors to learn about conservation, environmental issues, water quality, and choices that make a difference for all Iowans,” concluded Staudt.

Check it out today at www.waterrocks.org/!

Hanging Up the Name Tag

All things must come to an end, and AmeriCorps service is no different. In the middle of the winter, going to classrooms on the daily, it never seems that it will end. But, that’s not a bad thing. You continue teaching students many lessons: we all live in a watershed; keep the soil covered; wetlands provide a pitstop for migratory animals; just one block could cause the tower of biodiversity to collapse; pollinators are a really big deal.

And then, you look at the calendar. August. Your last days of service are here. How did it come so fast? You don’t know. What you do know is that the familiarity of your classroom visits, assemblies, and day camps is gone. It’s time to be thrust back out into another unfamiliar experience, not unlike your first day a year ago. But, this time is different. This time, you have the lessons you have learned on your AmeriCorps journey to guide you.

These are the thoughts I had as I came to the full realization that my service was about to end. Over this last year, I have learned so much about conservation, Iowa, responsibility, and communication from my service time in Ames. These are some of the most important I learned throughout my journey.

Own the Problem – Don’t Blame
or Make Excuses

I and the rest of the Water Rocks! team had the privilege to read Speak Up, Show Up, and Stand Out: The Nine Communication Rules You Need to Succeed by Loretta Malandro, a book that teaches different guidelines to improve your communication, whether it be in the workplace or even in your day-to-day life. While all nine rules are important, this is the one that stood out to me the most. We tend to get defensive when we make a mistake, either by blaming someone else or making an excuse about the circumstances. The solution is simple in concept – just own the problem and accept when you made a mistake – but it’s hard for us to take responsibility for our actions. This chapter struck a chord with me as I, like many other people, got defensive whenever I made a mistake, and I took a lot from this chapter with me into my day-to-day life.

Sometimes, you Just Have to Say “Oh, Well.”

This lesson did not come from a book, but from my coworker Todd. In the hectic life that is travelling to schools and assemblies, sometimes things don’t work out how you planned. A wrong turn is taken en route, the contact person tells you the wrong school building, an iPad is left behind. It can be easy to stress out over these things as they come up. However, stressing out after the fact does little to fix the situation. The best thing to do is take a breath and say “Oh, well.” I always admired Todd’s ability to keep himself relaxed and away from stress, and I aspire to have that ability.

Cedar Rapids is in the East

This is something I did not know for certain before travelling all over the state with Water Rocks!. Before AmeriCorps, I lived the stereotypical midwestern life where I only knew my county and the counties around me, not knowing where anything else in the state was. In fact, it was so bad that I didn’t know what quadrant of the state most areas were! AmeriCorps gave me the opportunity to travel all over the state, and even into South Dakota for assemblies twice.

This is a map showing all the locations I travelled to throughout the year. I went all over the state, from Decorah, to Sioux City, to Council Bluffs (many times!). Travelling my home state gave me the chance to become more familiar with it than I’d ever been, and I’m glad I got the chance.

AmeriCorps may be ending, but a new journey is beginning. I am now starting my first semester at DMACC in Ankeny to begin my Video Production Diploma. It is a good fit for me and I hope to meet many new friends when I get there. Even with my completed service, I will take everything I learned with me. And blow people away when I tell them Cedar Rapids is, in fact, in the East.

Jack Schilling

Jack Schilling is now completing his year of service with the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, having served with Water Rocks! since September 2017. Our record-breaking Water Rocks! outreach efforts this past year would not have been possible without our two awesome AmeriCorps service members, Jack and Megan (who you’ll be hearing from soon) — many thanks!

Working with Nature!

I spent this summer traveling to field days around Iowa as well as driving back from our American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) annual meeting in Detroit, Michigan. One of my purposes in attending the ASABE meeting was to accept for the team the Blue Ribbon Award in the Educational Aids Competition for our revised version of the Water Rocks! Rock Your Watershed! online game (read more about it in our previous post Water Rocks! Brings Home a Blue Ribbon). Part of our revisions included adding more diversity to the land management choices that players can make and clearly showing the environmental benefits of diversifying our watersheds. Driving around the Midwest and Iowa really brought home to me how important this is and how far we need to go to still achieve the kind of diversity that will make a difference.

Prairie restoration and wetland west of West Lake Okoboji

But last week I traveled to the Iowa Great Lakes area for a field day and then stayed up there for some vacation time with my family. The field day near West Okoboji Lake focused on prairie and wetland restoration to clean the water before it enters the lake. The side benefit would be increases in wildlife including pollinators of all sorts. The next day we visited our prairie strips site that is directly east of Big Spirit that was installed a few years ago for the same purpose of protecting local water quality and increasing habitat. In both cases, local stakeholders came together to diversify the land to help protect a local asset. I could hear the pride in their voices when discussing the changes they had put into place.

I am an engineer and spend a lot of time writing and talking about new technology. However, this summer really highlighted to me that many of our fixes cannot be solved by technology alone. Instead, we need to strategically restore or implement more diverse natural systems where they can do the most good in terms of water quality, wildlife and overall land health. We are able to do these practices such as prairie strips and wetlands by combining technological advances with a solid understanding of the natural ecological system that was replaced with row crop agriculture and other development. Modern technology helps us know where to place the natural system for the greatest benefit. After that, the natural system will do all the work.

Both of the restored areas I visited near the Iowa Great Lakes are less than five years old. The local folks are doing a good job of ensuring diversity in the perennial plantings. I have seen other areas in Iowa under perennial vegetation that opted for monoculture grasses, mainly cool-season grasses. While the diverse native prairie restorations are more challenging to manage, the beauty alone makes it worth it to me. Factor in water quality, wildlife and land health benefits and it is a home run.

Prairie strip east of Big Spirit Lake

If this is something that interests you for the land you own or manage, there is assistance and information available to you. We are really fortunate in Iowa to have organizations such as the Tallgrass Prairie Center that have spent years figuring out how to support landowners in planting and managing prairie restoration on the land. For my part, I am going to continue to work to understand how to best manage these systems and what technology is needed to allow diversity to flourish. I would encourage you to go online to www.waterrocks.org and play the Rock Your Watershed! game to learn how we can work with better with the natural systems.

And also, take some time to find those natural areas around you and think about how we can use natural systems such as wetlands, prairie strips, oxbow restoration, riparian buffers, and others to help clean our water, diversify our landscapes, increase wildlife and enhance the beauty on the land. I know I felt a little “restored” after my time in these natural settings.

Matt Helmers

Water in the Public Domain

Public domain: a concept that evokes thoughts of music, photographs, paintings, and other creative works of art … and their relationships with copyright policy. From another perspective, public domain is all about shared availability, the common good …  much like our natural resources.

As nearly 40 people gathered for a conservation field day at Paustian Family Farm just outside Walcott, IA this past week, this idea of water in the public domain was an ever-present undercurrent in the conversations among area farmers, landowners, rural and urban residents alike.

In addition to in-field conservation practices like reduced tillage, cover crops, and a close eye on nutrient management, host farmer Mike Paustian is now taking conservation to the edge of the field as well. In fall 2017, the Paustians installed a saturated buffer on their land to specifically address the challenge of nitrates in tile drainage water.

Saturated buffers are a field-scale practice, treating subsurface tile drainage water from 30-80 acres of cropland. The presence of an existing streamside vegetative buffer is a great first step, and makes the installation a breeze. In order to “saturate” the existing buffer, a flow control structure and lateral tile line running parallel to the stream (700’ long, in this case) are installed.

Quite a bit of the water then moves through that new perforated tile line parallel to the stream, slowly trickling out of the tile, working its way through the soil. On this journey to the stream, the water is in direct contact with plant roots and the soil itself – where the biological process of denitrification occurs. Under saturated, anaerobic conditions, naturally occurring bacteria breathe in the nitrate, and then transform it to atmospheric N2 gas, sending cleaner water to the stream (to the tune of 40-50% nitrate reduction).

As folks got to see the saturated buffer firsthand, one of the attendees asked Paustian, “As a city person, why should somebody from Davenport, Pleasant Valley, etc. care about what’s going on out here?”

Paustian responded, “We’re all in this together, using the same water. It’s a limited resource. We’ve got to find common ground – urban and rural – being good stewards of our land and water. That’s why saturated buffers matter out here.”

Washington Co. farmer Steve Berger, an early adopter and long-term user of cover crops, emphasized the benefits of cover crops for water quality, promoting infiltration and likewise minimizing soil erosion.  Berger added, “Anything that comes off this field ends up in the public domain somewhere … long-term no-till and cover crops are working together to keep soil and nutrients in place in the field!”

As Iowa’s water quality continues to garner attention locally, statewide, and even on the national level, that concept of water in the public domain resonates strongly. Bringing urban and rural people together to see how we can work for positive improvements in water quality is a step in the right direction. This field day was an excellent example of the engaging conversations and positive dialogue we at Iowa Learning Farms hope to facilitate surrounding water quality, soil health, and our agricultural production systems across the state of Iowa.

Ann Staudt

Tea Bags Tell Story of Soil Health

Soil health is trending, there’s no doubt about that! But perhaps expensive soil tests aren’t your cup of tea.

Look no further than the Soil Decomposition Index: a simple, straightforward, citizen science approach to evaluating soil health that utilizes buried tea bags. Learn more about this novel approach to soil health from Dr. Marshall McDaniel, assistant professor of agronomy at Iowa State University, in his recent Iowa Learning Farms webinar titled Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health.

Microbes are the engines that drive the biology of our soils, especially the cycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Under the umbrella of soil health, McDaniel points out that biological indicators are the most sensitive to changing management practices, so this tea bag concept is built upon evaluating one aspect of the biology going on right beneath our feet.

The tea serves as food for the smallest soil microorganisms, including bacteria, actinomycetes, and fungi, that are able to squeeze through the tiny openings in the mesh tea bag. As the tea is consumed over time, the bags are dug up and weighed, providing an indication of the biological activity within the soil, particularly the decomposition activity of the smallest soil organisms.

In each field, McDaniel’s team is comparing two types of teas side-by-side: green tea, which simulates a high quality (low C:N) residue, and rooibos tea, which simulates a lower quality (high C:N, nitrogen-limited) residue. Based on how much of each tea is remaining, you can calculate a Soil Decomposition Index value.  Values range from 0 to 1, and the closer to 1, the healthier the soil is! Using two teas side-by-side lets you calculate a standardized Soil Decomposition Index value which accounts for temperature and soil moisture variability, as well as allowing results to be readily compared between different sites – so you can compare apples to apples.

Check out the full webinar, Burying Tea to Dig Up Soil Health, on the Iowa Learning Farms webinars page, to hear more details of this novel soil health test and preliminary results from on-farm studies evaluating the Soil Decomposition Index with cover crops.

For those active on Twitter, you can follow the McDaniel lab, @ Soil_Plant_IXNs, as they continue to evaluate this unique tea bag concept and many other aspects related to soil-plant interactions and agricultural sustainability.

Ann Staudt

Water Rocks! is Hiring!

BREAKING: Water Rocks! has new openings available in our 2018-19 Water Resources Internship Program!

Have an interest in the environment, conservation, and agriculture, particularly water and soil quality? We are seeking college graduates to join the Water Rocks! team for a 12-month paid internship, starting September 2018. The ideal candidates will be self-motivated, detail-oriented, strong communicators, enthusiastic, and have a sense of fun!

Interns’ time will be split between research and outreach, all centered around environmental issues and challenges in Iowa. Interns will have the opportunity to:

  • Work with two exciting Iowa State University education and outreach programs:
    o Water Rocks!, focused on youth outreach, and
    Iowa Learning Farms, focused on farmer outreach
    • Help children and adults better understand environmental and agricultural issues
    • Travel throughout the state of Iowa with the fleet of Conservation Station trailers
    • Develop strong oral communication skills
    • Contribute to water and soil quality research projects in ISU’s Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering
    • Gain technical skills related to environmental science, soil and water quality through both field and lab research

Applications close on August 17, with interviews to be scheduled during the last week of August. We look forward to seeing some stellar applications as we search for the next rock star member(s) of our dynamic team!

Ann Staudt

 

Art and Science create Vision for Future in Conservation Station

The Big Conservation Station trailer is trailblazing to county fairs across the state with a brand new, interactive display presenting a simple question: “What is your hope for Iowa?” Inside the Conservation Station’s learning lab are new mixed media murals showcasing the past, present and future of Iowa’s natural resources. Conservation Station visitors will have the opportunity to engage in discussion and artistic expression of their own – each fairgoer is invited to share their own #HopeForIowa.

“I am hoping to evoke an emotional response to the land, by depicting not a particular place, but ‘every place,’ so each person can relate to it,” explains artist Cecelia Comito of Artworks Studio in Carroll.

Comito collaborated with Ann Staudt, Water Rocks! science director, to create the original mixed media artwork for the Conservation Station trailer, representing an artistic vision that reflects the past, present and the future of our state. The artwork panels illustrate advances in conservation efforts over time, and the potential possibilities as farmers and other Iowans continue to implement effective land management practices to build soil health, improve water quality and increase wildlife habitat.

All the artwork was done on large canvasses at Artworks Studio. Each mixed media panel was built up with extensive layers of torn and cut paper, including such materials as stained and textured papers, pages from recipe books, story books, road maps, plat maps and even sewing patterns. Fine details were added through image transfer, paints, gelatos, watercolor pencils and pastels. Click through the slideshow below for a behind-the-scenes look at how the artwork came together. The finished pieces were imaged on a large scanner and then digitized in order to produce them large enough to place on the walls of the trailer.

“Farming practices have evolved over time, and not always in ways that have been positive for the ecosystem,” explained Staudt. “This new interactive art display will help people envision what’s possible for Iowa’s future and maybe inspire us to see what is possible.”

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In addition to the new artwork, Conservation Station team members employ perennial favorite interactive games and activities including The Watershed Game, The Poo Toss and the Rainfall Simulator to engage fairgoers of all ages.

Upcoming Big Conservation Station Trailer Appearances:
July 17                  Public Radio On Tap, Iowa City
July 18                  Polk Co. Fair
July 19                  Jones Co. Fair
July 20                  Tama Co. Fair
July 21                  Poweshiek Co. Fair
July 25                  Wayne Co. Fair
July 26                  Monroe Co. Fair
July 27                  Fayette Co. Fair
July 28                  Independence Farmers Market
Aug. 4                    Lakes Area Farmers Market, Spirit Lake
Sept. 2                  Glow Wild at Jester Park, Granger

Ann Staudt