We All Live in a Watershed

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Joshua Harms, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2018-19.

The work that the Water Rocks! crew performs is truly amazing. Traveling to schools and teaching young students about ways to protect our natural resources is such a great thing.  Every single one of our modules is on a different topic of conservation. Over the next several months, I’ll be sharing some insight into the different modules that we teach to our target audience of upper elementary and middle school students, to give you a behind the scenes look into how our classroom outreach programs roll!

Our best module is our watershed presentation. We start off with introductions and a trivia/evaluation question, then we get right into it by explaining the definition of natural resources. After we have explained the definition, we ask the students to give some examples of different natural resources. When that is complete, we introduce our major word of the day which is watershed.

We usually ask the students if any of them know what a watershed is. We then show them the definition and break it down in a couple different ways. First we have them cup their hand in front of them and we explain that the crease in the palm of their hand is a river, and their hand around it represents the land making up the watershed. We then have them “make it rain” on their hand/watershed and we ask them where all the water sheds off to. Another way to explain watersheds is with the concept of a cereal bowl and how the milk always flows to the bottom.

Next we show the students that watersheds come in many different sizes. After that we show them a map of the US which contains the 4th largest watershed in the world by the name of the Mississippi River Watershed. This map helps the students see how all our waterways are connected and that everything we do on the land eventually affects our water. This concept is the main thing we are trying to get the students to understand.

At this point we allow for the students to be creative with our game called We All Live In A Watershed! We give students a piece of riverfront property and an imaginary $5 million to build whatever they would like on their piece of land. When the students have completed their drawings, we go through a tour of the watershed and see what everyone had drawn. We continue on to then show them what the river water might have looked like in Iowa approximately 200 years earlier, and that our landscape was much different, primarily covered with tallgrass prairie.

Fast forward back to today. We then discuss with students pollutants that could get carried into the water, such as trash, soil, chemicals, oil, and dog poop. We then start the second part of the game which involves the students picking the most prominent pollutant coming off of their piece of land. They then come up to the front and we give them a cup of water with our biodegradable example of the pollutant. After everyone has acquired their cup of water, we have the students one by one pour their cups into the jar representing the river, demonstrating that all of the water drains to one common point in a watershed, and to show how all the pollution has really affected our water. We then talk with the students about some of the different things they could do to help the current water situation – we’re all in this together and it’s really encouraging to hear their ideas of ways to keep the land and water around them healthy!

We close with the same trivia/evaluation question that we asked in the beginning in order to gauge students’ change in comprehension after just a short 45-minute presentation. From our Water Rocks! 2017-18 School Visits Evaluation Report, 36% of students could correctly define a watershed prior to our classroom presentation. After our Water Rocks! lesson, 95% of students could correctly define a watershed.

Joshua Harms

Water Rocks!: The Man

Today’s guest blog post is provided by Jack Schilling, part of the Iowa AmeriCorps 4-H Outreach program, serving with Water Rocks! in 2017-2018.

Another month has passed by, and with it another month of exciting adventures for me with Water Rocks! Assemblies, classroom visits, and lots of fun all along the way. But on top of these, there is one other thing that I have been working on throughout the past month: our new-old video series, Water Rocks! Man.

New-old. What do I mean by that? Water Rocks! Man originally aired on the Water Rocks! Facebook page in the spring and summer of 2016. Some were short music videos, and others were quick messages about conservation, with our superhero, Water Rocks! Man, featured in each video. Then, like all great superheroes, he retired from a life of heroism, and the series was retired with him.

Fast forward to the present day. Water Rocks! Man (Todd Stevens) has finally come back from retirement, and is ready to teach students about conservation once more. But now, Doctor Pollution (Nate Stevenson) has risen to try and spread pollution wherever he goes, and Water Rocks! Man, along with Agent Ag (Megan Koppenhafer), must stop him while educating about conservation practices.

Throughout the process of filming Water Rocks! Man, although the weather has occasionally not been kind to us (superhero and agent clothing is not warm!), everyone has enjoyed themselves and I’m excited to share the first few episodes soon. The project has certainly kept me busy, as I write, direct, film, and edit every episode. I really enjoy working on videos, especially editing, so it’s been a blast!

Keep an eye out for new Water Rocks! Man episodes throughout the next few months. I, along with the rest of the cast, hope you enjoy them!

Jack Schilling


A Paddler’s Perspective

NOTE: Today’s guest blog post was written by water resources intern Sam Phillips. He is starting his junior year at Iowa State University in Agricultural Engineering (Land and Water Resources option). Originally from the Manchester area, Phillips is an avid and active outdoorsman!

My whole life I have had a passion for being outdoors and exploring new places. One of my favorite ways of doing this is by paddling and fishing Iowa’s rivers. This past weekend I had the opportunity to float one of my favorites, a stretch of the Yellow River starting in Volney, Iowa.

MeetTheInterns-SamIt had recently rained and when we arrived at the put-in we could tell immediately. According to the USGS it was flowing at around 425 cubic feet per second, nearly three times faster than usual this time of year. This huge influx of water had torn massive amounts of sediment from its usual place and brought it into the river. The normally clear stream now looked murky brown.

In my classes at Iowa State and over the course of this internship I have learned about sediment being the number one pollutant in Iowa’s rivers and lakes. While Iowa is rightfully known for its world class soils, that resource becomes a hindrance when it gets misplaced into our waterways.  I’ve also learned about the countless conservation practices being used by farmers and other landowners. Some I knew about before, but I never really took notice until I started thinking about their functions.

YellowRiverWhile going down the Yellow I paid much closer attention to these practices. Along the banks there was riprap (essentially large rocks) to keep water from eroding away the land and buffer strips to filter out runoff. I got out at a sandbar and looked at nearby fields. There was lots of no till and conservation till to protect topsoil from rainfall. On hills in the distance there were beautiful terraces. While these couldn’t stop the river from getting dirty temporarily, they surely will help it return to its normal clarity sooner.

A single one of these practices would not be able to stop sediment from reaching the Yellow River. However, a strong combination of conservation practices from in-field to edge-of-field all the way to the riverbank can make a huge difference.

Even though the high water prevented me from catching the fish I came for, I enjoyed seeing the trip from a new perspective!

Sam Phillips

Making a splash with youth water(shed) education

1NewThingForWater(WR!)Here at Water Rocks!, our #1newthingforwater for 2016 is to help every student across the state of Iowa learn what a watershed is, how it functions, and why watersheds matter.

We utilize a wide variety of different games, lessons, and hands-on, interactive activities to help young people grasp the concept of watersheds and why they matter. Each activity has a clear educational lesson to it, while also being FUN! Let’s follow the Water Rocks! team to a few different school events to see how it’s done.

We All Live in a Watershed is our most widely utilized classroom module – here you can see it in action with 6th grade students at Adel-De Soto-Minburn!  At the beginning of the lesson, we introduce the concept of a watershed. We use lots of repetition – reading the definition out loud, repeating after me, and having each student build their own individual watershed in their hand. We all “make it rain” and they get to see up close and personal how water always moves downhill, following the slope of the land, draining to one common water body.


Students are then “gifted” their own parcel of land in a watershed, along with an imaginary $5 million to build whatever they would like on their piece of land. The sky’s the limit … some students build houses and mansions, others opt for business operations… crop and/or livestock farms, restaurants (Casey’s, Pizza Ranch, and the “golden arches” are very popular!), malls… as well as parks and recreational areas (soccer fields, baseball/softball diamonds, etc.).  Once in a while, we even have special creatures like narwhals and unicorns make an appearance!  It’s a blast to see the students’ creativity come to light as they develop their pieces of land in really unique ways!


Students love drawing on their pieces of land and seeing how the whole watershed comes together once all of the puzzle pieces are up on the watershed map. Then comes the big question – thinking about the concept of a watershed, how does our new land use affect the water in the river?!  Together, we spend a good amount of time discussing the many water quality challenges we have in Iowa, addressing different types of pollutants that can end up in our water bodies in both urban and rural landscapes.

Each student is then given a cup of water that represents the water that sheds off of their piece of land. They are tasked with identifying one or more type(s) of pollution that could be picked up and carried away with the water, as a result of what they built on their land, and a fake version of that pollutant is added to their cup of water.


We then use a gallon jug to represent the common water body (river) where all of that water eventually drains. So students one by one pour their cups of water into the river!  As you can imagine, the water gets cloudier, dirtier, and more polluted with each cup of water that is added – it’s a very visual representation of the cumulative effect of all of our actions.



The reaction from the students is priceless – there’s the definite “gross” factor, but this exercise is rooted in exactly what’s happening in the environment around us as pollutants shed to our rivers, lakes, and streams.

One of the 6th Graders at ADM had me falling over laughing with this comment:
“Eww, that’s nasty! That looks like when I puked back when I was 6 years old!”

Finally, we wrap up by talking about action items and how we are all responsible for doing better – discussing good conservation practices (both urban and agricultural) that can be implemented to help water quality. We also address water consumption (quantity) as well – there are lots of ideas that 6th graders can readily implement, like reusable water bottles, turning off the water while brushing teeth, shorter showers, etc.

We All Live in a Watershed is not the only mechanism we have in place for teaching about watersheds, nonpoint source pollution, and water quality…

The Watershed Game (aka Enviroscape) is a super hands-on, visual representation of the watershed concept. After discussing where different pollutants can come from on the landscape, students at Meeker Elementary Science Night in Ames each grab a water bottle as they become a cloud and help to make it rain! As the rain falls, the “mock” pollutants are carried away with the rain drops, making their way to the streams and eventually the common lake. Again, it’s a fun and highly visual activity to help learners young and old better grasp what a watershed is and how it works! This activity is a big hit at county fairs, farmers markets, and other family events!


We’ve also developed an urban-focused module called What’s In Your (STORM)water?. This module utilizes a game show theme throughout, with groups of students competing against their classmates – think “The Price Is Right” meets water quality!  In the photos below, 3rd grade students at South Union Elementary (Des Moines) learned many new vocabulary words including stormwater, runoff, and infiltration, while also competing in game show games like “Ducks in a Row” and “Duck, Duck, Pollute,” featuring the famous Stormwater Sombrero!


While these events highlighted above all happen to be in central Iowa, we have participated in community/youth outreach events across all 99 counties and always map out our requests each year to ensure we’re “sharing the love” across all corners of the state! Check out our 2016 Schedule of Events page for a snapshot of where we are traveling in February and March.

Would you like to invite the Water Rocks!/Iowa Learning Farms team to your area to visit a school, youth outdoor classroom, summer camp, public library, county fair, or farmers market?  Read more about our Classroom Visits and Conservation Station trailers on our website – thanks to our partners, we are able to continue to offer these educational opportunities free of charge! Requests for April – November 2016 are currently being accepted. When you’re ready to put in a request, hop on over to the Request a Visit page on our website.

Ann Staudt

In case you missed it…

Today’s Iowa Learning Farms webinar featured Kevin Meyer, PhD candidate in economics at Iowa State University. Meyer provided an economists approach to managing pollution by taking a closer look at the costs and benefits of pollution.

Building a foundation of understanding the impacts of externalities and how they can impact public goods like air or water can help address the first question Meyer poses – why do problems with pollution occur?

We often consider the costs associated with pollution such as damages to recreational water bodies or health concerns.  However, there are also benefits associated with the pollution though the goods and services produced in the process.  Where these intersect on the graph below from Kevin’s presentation implies an economic optimum level of pollution that can be achieved when costs = benefits.

Economic Optimum Graph_final croped

Although simple in appearance, the diagram also illustrates the complexities of managing pollution.  How can we accurately measure or quantify the costs and benefits?  The measurements become more difficult when addressing non-point source pollution, like sediment or nutrients from agricultural land, where it can be difficult to pinpoint where the pollution is coming from.

Check out the archived webinar today as Meyer shares some real world examples of policy options that can help achieve our goals including the Conservation Reserve Program.

Liz Juchems


An International Perspective on Water Issues

Today’s guest blogger is Iowa Learning Farms/Water Rocks! student intern Kayla Hasper. Growing up on a farm in southeast Iowa (Montrose), Kayla is beginning her senior year at Iowa State University, where she is pursuing a double major in Animal Ecology and Environmental Studies.

I had the opportunity of studying abroad for two weeks in the tropical country of Belize earlier this summer. While hiking through the jungle and snorkeling in the second largest coral reef system in the world, I started to consider the water quality compared to the water quality here in Iowa.

Kayla Hasper participating in an ISU study abroad program in Belize, June 2015

Intern Kayla Hasper participating in an ISU study abroad program in Belize, June 2015

The agriculture in Belize is mainly sugarcane and fruit production, which is less disrupting to the natural environment when compared to our crop production here in Iowa. Sugarcane is a perennial, therefore stabilizing the soil for the three year growth cycle. When the three years is up and new seeds need planted, it requires less tillage than crops in Iowa. Sugarcane also absorbs the necessary nutrients from the groundwater and is tolerant to insects and disease, so it requires little to no pesticides or fertilizers.


Field of sugarcane, one of the most abundant crops grown in Belize

The fruit orchards, which grow pineapple, coconut, plantains, waxy apples, guava, mangos, etc., are left with native plants growing all around the trees so that there is no soil left vulnerable to erosion.

Mangoes trees are a common site across the country of Belize

Mangoes trees are a common site in the country of Belize

While on the inland, I started noticing the ditches full of plastics, tires, and other garbage. I asked our tour guide about the trash that I was noticing. He explained to me that Belize does not have enough money, support, or governmental power to start a recycling program. Each household disposes of their trash on their own. There are designated areas around villages that you can dump your garbage, which are similar to our landfill sites. These, however, are unregulated and end up as piles of garbage right off the highways. The intense rains in the rainy season in Belize wash all of the loose, vulnerable garbage downhill in the watershed.


Designated garbage areas in Belize

He explained, though, that a lot of people in the county of Belize do care about conservation and do what they can to reduce and reuse their consumables. I also believe that the poverty in their culture forces them to become more creative with the little that they do have and to not waste much.

Out on the coast of Belize, the beaches were covered in garbage. The locals explained that the trash on the beaches was actually ocean trash from other countries. The garbage on the beaches also comes from ships that dump their trash loads in the middle of the ocean. (Side note – Water Rocks! has a great video called Isle of Plastic that addresses the challenge of ocean trash. While this song is focused on the Pacific Ocean’s garbage patch, the same principles apply!)

Hopkins, Belize beach filled with garbage that has been washed on shore

Hopkins, Belize beach filled with garbage that has been washed on shore

The second week of my trip, we were staying out on an island that was part of the Turneffe Atoll system. In the Turneffe Atoll, the water was crystal clear and there was no trash in the water or on the beaches. This is partially because the coral reef system is protected, which helps reduce the amount of pollution affecting the area. This is also because the island that we were on was surrounded by many other islands, so the trash couldn’t float directly up to it as easily.

The locals are very concerned, though, about the future impacts of a casino being built on one of the islands in the Turneffe Atoll. The land was purchased before it became a protected area, so the casino is legally allowed to be built. This will have increased environmental disturbance and damage in the area. There will be increased water pollution from the boat traffic, disturbance of aquatic wildlife from the speed and sound of the boats, destruction of wildlife habitat on the island, increased pollution from the trash generated at the casino, etc.

We were given the opportunity to meet some awesome local, as well as international, researchers and conservation advocates while on the atoll. There are many studies being researched and proposals being made about protecting certain delicate areas of the coral reef system. These are areas where there are large populations of dolphins, manatees, fish, etc. that could be negatively affected by the introduction of this casino in the area.

Overall, I could tell that the residents of Belize really care about soil and water conservation. They unfortunately do not have the resources to use the best practices for their lands, but are doing what they can to keep their beautiful country clean.

Based on the amount of funding, research, and support that our state has, I am disappointed in our actions after returning from Belize. The data shows that the amount of nutrients we are letting run downstream and the amount of excess tilling we are doing in Iowa is harmful to our environment, yet many of our farmers/landowners are not doing anything about it. There are great conservation practices that we can be implementing on our land while growing our crops. I also think that farmers/landowners should raise a larger diversity of crops and livestock on their land.

Kayla Hasper

Water quality meets group therapy

A new video produced by Water Rocks! seeks to illuminate the interwoven relationships between different pollutants that can contribute to water quality challenges here in Iowa (and beyond). Through science, emotional appeals, personal drama, and most of all, humor!, the Mississippi River Basin Watershed Support Group video explores the subtleties and complexities related to the interactions of water, soil, and pollutants in our environment.

The setting: A group therapy session.
The group facilitator: BI (biological indicator for water quality).
The support group participants: soil, phosphorus, nitrogen, arsenic, mercury, manure, bacteria, and caffeine.

Here are a few sneak peaks:

SupportGroup-01 SupportGroup-02 SupportGroup-03 SupportGroup-04

The Mississippi River Basin Watershed Support Group video was recently honored at the Iowa Motion Picture Association Awards ceremony, receiving awards in the following categories:

Direction (Medium Form)
Editing (Long Form)
Corporate Training
Best Actress (BI/group facilitator)
Art Direction

This fabulous video is not to be missed!  The cinematography is beautifully done and the characters are quite entertaining… if you’re anything like me, you’re going to watch it several times to catch all of the quirky humor and subtleties in the relationships happening on-screen.

Ann Staudt