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 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

Chatting about river ecology, restoration, and policy

Labor Day weekend is just around the corner… planning to spend any time out on one of Iowa’s rivers?  The latest episode of the Conservation Chat podcast features an interview with Molly Hanson, Executive Director of the nonprofit river advocacy group Iowa Rivers Revival.

Listening to this podcast, you will quickly hear how Hanson’s energy and enthusiasm runneth over – she is extremely passionate about the environment, ecology, and education … oh, and turtles, too!

ConservationChat-Hanson(angle)Iowa Rivers Revival is a statewide advocacy group, working to restore Iowa’s river ecosystems to a healthier state of functioning. That may be through streambank stabilization work, in-stream work, and/or dam modification/mitigation. River restoration also involves working with citizens across the state – talking with farmers and landowners about in-field conservation practices, and working with urban residents to build awareness of issues like stormwater.

“Rivers are conveyor belts of water and soil – that’s what they are, and they’re constantly moving both of those things.”

Hanson comes to IRR from the naturalist/county conservation world, and it’s clear that education also continues to be a passion of hers.

“The education, especially of kids, is such a key piece. They’ve gotta get out there and see it for themselves and have their ‘aha’ moment … then they’re way more likely to care and to take care of it. Science teachers, mentors, family, grandparents: we’ve got to get kids outside!”

So I mentioned turtles earlier …  One of Hanson’s other projects has involved working with IRR and other conservation groups to push for new legislation to protect four different species of aquatic turtles (snappers, spiny softshell, smooth softshell, and painted turtles).  Many of these turtles are being commercially harvested and sent overseas, with no protected seasons or catch limits in our state. Hanson helped to champion a bill that will put regulations in place to help protect these species – every species has an important role to play in terms of biodiversity and overall ecosystem health!

Tune in to Episode 23 of the Conservation Chat to hear more of this engaging conversation with Molly Hanson! Download or play this podcast and others at

Ann Staudt

Wetlands: By the Numbers

Iowa (and much of the Corn Belt) was once characterized by extensive wetlands dotting the vast prairie. As the land was settled, wetlands were drained for agriculture, as well as development of railroads and early community settlements. While wetlands can be found across the state, the majority of Iowa’s wetlands were located in the north central part of the state (Des Moines Lobe).

Created by the last glacier to cover the state 10,000-15,000 years ago, this area was left flattened with thousands of indents when the ice receded. Deep indents became lakes, while the more shallow recesses became prairie pothole wetlands. In some places within the Des Moines Lobe, it is estimated that as many as 200 potholes could be found within a one square mile section of prairie!


Where have all the wetlands gone?
It is estimated that over 90% of the original wetlands in Iowa have been lost. In the Des Moines Lobe specifically, that number climbs — approximately 99% of wetlands had been lost on the Des Moines Lobe as of the 1970s (Wetland Restoration in Iowa: Challenges and Opportunities/Iowa Policy Project).


After bottoming out in the 1970s, the tide has slowly and steadily changed. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing through today, more and more citizens across the state are seeing the true value that wetlands provide out on the landscape and have acted towards increasing wetlands acres. Numerous restoration programs have strived to support this momentum, working collaboratively to bring back these vibrant ecosystems on our landscape.

Through programs such as CREP (Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program) and CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), wetland areas are being maintained and restored as we speak. These state and federal programs work with farmers and landowners who would like to voluntarily transition land use from agricultural production to wetlands production.


Iowa is currently ranked 4th in the country in CRP wetland restoration, behind only Minnesota and the Dakotas (December 2015 USDA-Farm Service Agency Monthly Summary).  Wetlands restoration is making forward progress — good news!  There’s also still quite a ways to go.

Depending upon their placement on the landscape, restored wetlands can offer benefits for water quality (more information coming in next week’s wetlands feature!), wildlife habitat, flood storage, and more. Every additional wetland out there helps!  As Rebecca Christoffel, Wildlife Specialist with the Snake Conservation Society, emphasizes in the video Incredible Wetlands,

“Iowa has already somewhere between ninety and ninety-nine percent of its wetlands. In my view whether it’s a recreated wetland, if it’s a restored wetland, or if it’s a constructed wetland, that’s still a positive move.”

Catch up on our previous features celebrating American Wetlands Month:

Ann Staudt

A Wetlands Walk with Charlie

This morning, the sun woke me early and so I jumped out of bed, got dressed and called out to my dog.

“It’s National Wetlands Month, Charlie! Let’s go to the lake!”

Charlie did his slow morning stretch, slanted his head to one side and looked at me.

“The lake!,” I repeated, and then grabbed my car keys and jingled them at him. While he doesn’t really know the word lake, he understands that car keys in the morning mean a trip to the lake. His tail began a wagging and he waited impatiently for me to grab his leash and get into the car.


Ada Hayden Lake is the reserve water supply for the City of Ames. It is a smallish lake that has several adjacent wetlands and prairies. This year, I made a pledge to myself to try to walk out there once a week all year regardless of the weather. It is always beautiful there, whether it is covered with ice and snow or a beautiful spring day like today.

I took my camera with me because I knew I wanted to blog about wetlands. I also knew that photographs and sounds would tell the story better than I can with words.

The walk was amazing and the sights and sounds were balms to my soul. April had been one of those months where I always felt about three paces behind where I needed to be. This morning it was good to take a leisurely walk with Charlie to just enjoy the moment. Charlie loves it when I am not in a hurry because I allow him to stop, smell, touch and sometimes pursue.



As we were walking around the lake, I was thinking about how amazing wetlands are and how important they are for so many reasons. The three most important functions of prairie wetlands are waterfowl habitat, nutrient removal and flood control. In Iowa, wetlands are particularly important for the Des Moines Lobe area where pre-settlement there were 3.5 million acres of wetlands. By the 1970s, we were down to 30,000 acres. Today, there are anywhere from 94,000 to 143,000 acres of wetlands in the Des Moines Lobe.

So, we are making progress, slowly, but still progress. A few of the impacts of the loss of wetlands in this part of Iowa has been the loss of wildlife, especially waterfowl, and the decline in lake and river water quality due to nonpoint source pollution (see Wetland Restoration in Iowa: Challenges and Opportunities for more details).


Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy suggests that we would need 7,600 nutrient reduction wetlands in the Des Moines Lobe if we want to see water quality improvements. Currently, there are less than 100 of these wetlands in the region. How are we going to get there? It will take a change of mind, heart and reallocation of resources like we haven’t seen for a really long time in Iowa. Where do we start?

Pope Francis, in his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, suggests that the first step to this kind of change is contemplation. You don’t need to be Catholic or even religious to practice contemplation. In the simplest terms, contemplation means to listen. In listening, you come to see. In seeing you come to know. In knowing, you come to care.

Care suggests passion, love and commitment.



How do we implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy? Maybe the process would be quickened if more people entered into dialogue with nature. It is a huge change that is being asked of the people in our state. Can we stop and listen, pay attention and be aware? Can we care?

Nothing will change if we don’t.

I am not saying that I have all the answers. Or that I am doing everything I can to be a part of the solution. I am saying that I felt hopeful after this morning’s walk. I also felt confident that if we can bring wetlands back, they would do their part to care for the Earth and all the creatures who call wetlands home.

It’s National Wetlands Month. Do you know where a wetland is?

Wetlands (and lake, rivers, etc), should come with a warning label:
Caution! Sitting here could change your life.

Jacqueline Comito