Conservation, Recreation, & Rhubarb Meet on the River

You were first introduced to our summer student interns in a blog post earlier this week (Meet our 2017 Water Resources Interns) – now it’s time to hear from them in first person!  Each student in our Water Resources Internship program will be blogging at some point over the course of the summer, so you can get a sneak peek into the many different projects they are involved with, from school visits, camps, and community outreach, to all kinds of field work related to soil health and water quality.

Our first student guest blog post comes from Kaleb Baber, who has just completed his first year of studies at Iowa State University, majoring in Agronomy. Kaleb grew up on a family farm near Weston, MO (north of Kansas City), where he grew sweet corn, raised beef cattle, and was actively involved in FFA. We’ll let Kaleb take it from here!

This past Saturday, June 3, I had the pleasure of traveling with the Conservation Station to Rhubarb on the River, an event held in Manchester, Iowa. This was the first community outreach event I have been to for Water Rocks!/Iowa Learning Farms. It was a fun-filled day of tasty rhubarb creations and great live music – all just a stone’s throw away from the beautiful Maquoketa River.

We left Ames around 6:30 in the morning, Conservation Station in tow (and coffee in hand). We arrived in Manchester around 9:00 and set up the Rainfall Simulator, Enviroscape, and Poo Toss game just in time for the event to start.

Families soon began to visit the Conservation Station. We spoke to over 180 people, ranging in age from babies to seniors. Children got a kick out of tossing (fake) dog poo and making it rain at the Enviroscape (what we call the Watershed Game), while their parents learned about land management practices, soil health and water quality at the Rainfall Simulator.

One conversation I had with a couple from Marion stood out in particular. They were interested in permeable pavers since it is a practice they could potentially implement on their patio. I told them about all of the benefits, such as improving infiltration, potentially reducing the impacts of flash floods and improving water quality. After that, they began asking about the agricultural practices represented by the other trays. The husband showed particular interest in cover crops. I explained the benefits of having the soil surface protected by the plant matter. The wife was curious about the role of nutrients and how they are lost from agricultural landscapes. I told her how the two main nutrients of concern, phosphorus and nitrogen, move through the environment and how cover crops are important since they have shown to reduce losses of both nutrients. The interest the couple had in the steps farmers are taking to improve Iowa’s soil and water quality was very exciting to me. It was great to be teaching the community about Iowa’s water resources, and it was an added bonus that we were right next to the river that flows through the heart of Manchester.

The city has recently built a series of rapids on the Maquoketa River. People were kayaking, floating, and swimming down the river. Children shrieked as their tubes tumbled over the whitewater. One girl who had played Poo Toss game earlier in the day even brought over a baby soft-shelled turtle she had found along the bank. Everyone along the river looked like they were having a blast, especially when it began to heat up in the afternoon!

Another highlight of the day was the delicious food the Manchester Chamber of Commerce was selling. I took a quick break to go grab a rhubarb bratwurst and a slice of rhubarb pie. Both were fantastic! Along Main Street, vendors were selling other rhubarb treats, such as ice cream and wine, as well as quilts and other handmade crafts.

Overall, Rhubarb on the River was an outstanding community event. The City of Manchester did an excellent job organizing it, and their hard work was rewarded by a beautiful day and a great turnout from the area residents. The interest that the public showed in making meaningful strides to cleaner water for the state of Iowa encouraged me, and I am excited to travel to more events like this throughout the rest of my time here as an intern.

Kaleb Baber

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 www.conservationchat.org.

Ann Staudt

Exploring conservation + ecology at Yellowstone

During our trip to Montana last week to deliver the Wetlands Screening Tool Training with USDA-FSA, we also had the opportunity to take a day trip to Yellowstone National Park. America’s first national park, Yellowstone is truly a gem – a real national treasure!

We started the morning by watching the sun rise over the Absaroka Mountains on the ~2 hour journey from Bozeman, MT.

We followed the winding path of the Yellowstone River as we approached the park entrance, stopping to get our binoculars and scopes out for a close-up view of a large bald eagle along the banks. Did you know?  The Yellowstone River is the longest free-flowing river in the country, at 691 miles long.

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Once inside the park, there are a multitude of vastly different ecosystems present, from grasslands to wetlands to the subalpine forest.

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DSCN9712cWe requested that our guided tour be focused on wildlife, so our guide Will took us on a drive through Yellowstone’s northern loop, stopping at several “hotspots” to try and scope out wildlife.

DSCN9767cThe bison were abundant (there are approximately 5,000 in Yellowstone) and Will told us that “bison jams” like those shown below are a frequent occurrence on the roads winding through the park…

DSCN9700cDSCN9731cNumerous pronghorns also made themselves known…

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In terms of other wildlife, here’s how we did…

Jackie had her eyes to the sky and was definitely our A-Team in terms of spotting cool birds.  The best finds of the day were the golden eagle and Swainson’s hawk – some spectacular raptors!

SwainsonsHawkLiz deserves a gold star for spotting large creatures. As Will, our guide, instructed us, keep your eyes out for the dark blobs and watch their movement. Many of the dark blobs are bison, but occasionally you spot something else…  Liz successfully found both a wolf and a black bear!

DSCN9710cI (Ann) really geeked out over the unique microorganisms in the park – thermophilic bacteria like Sulfolobus acidocaldarius that create other-worldy scenes like the Roaring Mountain shown below.

RoaringMountainOur guide, Will, did a great job explaining to us the balance of different creatures in Yellowstone’s ecosystem, and the population dynamics of how creatures both large and small are reliant upon one another. It’s all so interconnected! And then factor in the plant life, the microorganisms, migration patterns, corridors of habitat, invasive species, wildfires, as well as the interactions with people (both local landowners/ranchers adjacent to the park, let alone the tourists)… and you have a highly complex, interconnected system.

I know that each of us will be integrating many of the things we learned at Yellowstone when we go into classrooms this fall teaching young people about biodiversity and ecosystem balance!

While we did not visit Old Faithful, we did make a stop at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone…

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Jackie, Liz, and Ann enjoy the spectacular views at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — quick break for a selfie with our excellent guide Will!

Despite the millions of visitors the come to Yellowstone each year from across the globe, I was surprised to experience the quiet sense of wonder there – it really didn’t seem busy or congested at all, as people took in the amazing grandeur all around them. Our tour guide Will also knew where he was going and helped navigate the park, minimizing congestion and maximizing our time there to  experience as much as we could in a day trip.

Also, an interesting sign of the times to share – of course there were signs and information about how to stay safe around wildlife, but the National Park Service and tour guides have also begun educating visitors on how to appropriately and safely take selfies around wildlife. Don’t disrespect the bison!

IMG_20160814_130638399One day was certainly not enough to experience all that Yellowstone has to offer, but it gave us a taste and left us hungry for more!

Finally, a quick shoutout to the National Park Service celebrating its 100 year birthday this week. Happy Birthday NPS – here’s to another 100 years!

Ann Staudt

River Stomping with ILF

As Dr. Tom Isenhart, Iowa State University Professor of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, tells his students,

“You can’t understand the health of our rivers by driving by in a car. You have to get down to the bank. Better still, get in the river…”

So we partnered with Tom this week to do just that with a group of our farmer leaders on a section of the Skunk River north of Ames.

The dozen farmer leaders from across the state were joined by members of our Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee and our summer college interns. Tom divided the group into four teams, upon which they donned boots and waders and got to work looking for the biological indicators of river health.

SouthSkunkRiverThe group was told to explore under branches along the bank, stir up the bottom, and capture the insects that might call that location home…

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… pick up rocks and search the moss for insects…

Annie

Participants like southwest Iowa farmer Seth Watkins were not afraid of getting wet and going to deeper sections of the river where the little creatures would make their home.

SethIowa doesn’t get any prettier than the Skunk River was that day as intern Kate Sanocki and farmer leaders Craig Fleishman and Tim Smith would tell you. The water was clear and the bottom was rocky. Rumor has it that there are good smallmouth bass to be found here!

CraigTimKateParticipants were told to put their finds in insect collection receptacles (i.e. ice cube trays).

TrayJakeJim Gillespie, Director of IDALS-Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality, was heard to comment that he hadn’t done something like this since he was in college — that was a long time ago!

MattJimAfter about 45 minutes, it was with big smiles that the group left the river with their finds. Their job was not yet done.

SteveHTom put them to work identifying the insects using tools from IOWATER.

InsectIDThe group was happy to learn that they found macroinvertebrates such as caddisfly and stonefly that are pollution intolerant. Their presence suggested that this section of the South Skunk River is fairly healthy.

RickNathanThe crawdads they found belong in the “somewhat pollution tolerant” category. Tom pointed out that they make good smallmouth bass bait.

CrawdadsThis damselfly was as curious about us as we were about her. Damselflies belong to the somewhat pollution tolerant group and are good to find at our rivers, lakes, and wetlands.

DamselflyTom told the group that the health of a stream or river fluctuates by season and rainfall. During times of drought and floods, life on the river can be stressed. The Iowa DNR has put a lot of resources into making the Skunk River a healthier body of water.

While the group would have been content to stay at this beautiful stretch of the South Skunk River for the day, we headed on to our next stop at one of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands where Dr. Matt Helmers discussed the use of these wetlands as part of our new Conservation Learning Labs project (stay tuned to the blog for further information).

WetlandWe ended at the site of the very first saturated buffer in Iowa (possibly the world) along Bear Creek. Here the group asked Tom many detailed questions about how the buffers worked.

SaturatedBufferAll in all, the group had fun and asked great questions at every stop of the field day. The participants went away with a better understanding of river ecosystems and its relationship to our land management choices. Everyone returned to Ames grateful for the quality time spent near (and in) an Iowa river!

Jacqueline Comito