The Poetry of Water

Have you heard the news? The hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the biggest it has ever been this summer. More than half of Iowa’s waterways remain impaired. Iowa’s legislators can’t seem to agree on means for funding practices that would help.  It hasn’t been a great year for water quality so far.

It isn’t that we don’t understand the problems or the solutions. There is plenty of information out there. Lots of smart people are speaking about the science of water quality, studying the impacts of agriculture, discussing economics issues, and monitoring water. This information is important and necessary.

It’s more that we still lack the will to create lasting changes to allow for cleaner water, more habitat and healthier soil. Perhaps we need to move beyond the technical and economic talk and express the poetry of water.  Throughout our history it has often been a well-turned phrase, public speech or essay that has motivated action in others.

Back in 2008, when Jerry DeWitt was first appointed as director of the Iowa Learning Farms, he and I went on a tour of the ILF partners who were hit hardest by heavy rains and flooding. When he got back to his office, he wrote an essay that began, “Yesterday I cried for the land. Today I must speak for the land.” You can read the full text on p.3 of the archived Leopold Letter newsletter: http://publications.iowa.gov/18617/1/LeopoldLetter2008Summer.pdf

What followed was a poetic expression of Jerry’s emotions in seeing fields eroded down to bedrock—not your typical academic writing. For several weeks after that essay was published, it was brought up in meetings, including the Soil and Water Conservation Districts annual meetings, and during random conversations. It became a call to action.

Who is writing poetry for water?

Jerry showed that aptly expressed words get things done. Words make us uniquely human but poetry is what speaks to our higher angels. Writers like Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold put language to good use on behalf of lasting, life-altering environmental change.

Who among us isn’t familiar with Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) that moved us with its craft and motivated us as a nation to change our use of pesticides? Or think of all the folks who became conservationists or wildlife specialists inspired by Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (1949) with his essays on the land stirring a conservation ethic. I was only seven years old when my older brother read me Dr. Seuss’s new book, The Lorax (1971), and nurtured in me a life-long desire to speak for the trees. The poetry of these authors and so many others have inspired generations to think and live in the world differently.

We don’t need any more ordinary prose. We are bloated with words today. Everyone seems to be “expressing” themselves on social media and other online outlets. Could a Carson or Seuss or Leopold get through all of the word pollution today?

Our lakes, rivers, streams and underground aquifers need more poetry in the tradition of Carson, Seuss and Leopold—writing that expresses feelings and ideas that allow you to see beyond what is right in front of you to get at a deeper truth or beauty.

Only the best among us are brave enough to write poetry for poetry is too important to be left to professionals.

Two Black Hawk County watershed projects, in partnership with the University of Northern Iowa’s Environmental Literature class during the spring of 2017, brought us poetic stories of people in their watersheds. The work is called “Beauty Outside Our Doors” and is available as a free PDF download.  The essays are personal and purposeful and speak to a greater truth about the state of our environment in Iowa.

It would be great if every watershed improvement project in Iowa could take Black Hawk County’s lead and do a similar project with the residents in their watersheds.  It would be inspiring to see similar books written across the state.

BUT, you don’t need to live where there is an active watershed project in order to speak for water. Each one of us is called to find the poet inside of us and let people know the truth about our waterways. We are water and water is life. Clean water is essential to our existence. We ignore this at our eventual peril. After you write your piece, share it with whoever will listen. It is time for life-altering change. The water (and all of life) is counting on us.

Jacqueline Comito

Iowa’s Future Begins with Healthy Soils

Today’s guest post is by Marty Adkins, Assistant State Conservationist for Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a member of the Iowa Learning Farms Steering Committee.

The quality of Iowa’s soils make this a unique place. How we manage Iowa’s agricultural soils affects just about everything else here. From increasing wildlife to improved water quality to sustainable economic development, our future begins with healthy soils.

Janke-PheasantWildlife – Over 97% of Iowa’s land is privately owned, and a vast majority is a part of farms. Most Iowa wildlife spends some or all of their lives on farms.

The same practices that are good for Iowa soils – no-till farming, cover crops, buffer strips, diverse native plant seeded areas, waterways, diverse crop rotations, well-managed pastures – are good for wildlife. The practices provide cover, food and travel corridors. They protect water sources on which wildlife depends. Practices that protect and build soils are good for wildlife too.

Water Quality – Water bodies reflect the condition of their watersheds. Eroding fields deliver sediment and nutrients to streams and lakes. Soils protected from erosion keep that soil and associated nutrients in fields where they belong.

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Fields protected by cover crops or other vegetation growing throughout the growing season retain nutrients in the root zone that would otherwise find their way into streams or ground water. Practices that protect and build soils are good for water quality

Economic Development – Over one-third of the largest 100 food manufacturers have Iowa operations. These companies are located in Iowa because the commodities they depend on are produced here.

HC-SoilStatistics from 2014 showed that agriculture and related industries contributed $31.6 billion to the Iowa economy and was responsible for 122,764 jobs. They also showed that 37 of Iowa’s counties derived at least one half of their economic output from agriculture and related industries.

The foundation of all of this economic activity, now and into the future, is Iowa’s productive soil.

No matter what issue you care about, you need to be interested in protecting and building Iowa’s soils.

Marty Adkins

Internship offers new perspectives, new direction

Today’s guest post in our Water Resources Internship blog series was provided by Andrew Hillman. Hillman grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa, and went to school at Pleasant Valley. He will be entering his junior year at ISU in the fall, majoring in Biosystems Engineering. Read on for his unique perspectives in the internship coming from an urban background!  

It has been a fun, wild ride in a way for me this summer. Coming from a completely urban background in the Quad Cities and starting this internship, I had little to no idea about any of these issues, or really anything about agriculture at all to be honest. But, from the pre-job training to all the experiences I have had this summer, from field work to outreach events, I have learned quite a bit. I never thought before this summer that I would ever be excited to go out and see things like bioreactors and restored oxbows, but here I am!

I have always been somewhat informed about environmental issues, but the thing that I have enjoyed the most about this summer is that I now have more nuanced and informed opinions about issues. And I can actually draw on my own experiences now, which is very neat. I knew that erosion and nutrient loss and runoff were environmental issues on the forefront in Iowa, but now is the first time that I can say that I feel personally connected to these issues, which is always something I felt that as an Iowan I should be doing, but never knew enough about.

Going to Iowa State University for Biosystems Engineering, I quickly was exposed to how little I knew about agriculture in Iowa, and so this summer has helped me fill a gap in my knowledge that was fairly noticeable compared to some of my peers. Now that I have experience going out to a field, seeing cover crops and collecting water samples, some of the things we talked about in my ABE classes are suddenly much clearer to me now that I have the context.

Something specific that I did in my ABE 218 course was build a table-scale system for reducing nitrate levels in water. Now that I have seen an actual bioreactor site, and presented the model bioreactor that Extension has, I have a greater appreciation for that project and the things that I learned while doing it. I even had the opportunity to work with Chase, one of the other interns, to come up with a preliminary design of our own for a model bioreactor to possibly be placed in one of our conservation trailers in the future. Edge-of-field practices like bioreactors are really fascinating to me.

Back on July 12, I had the opportunity to go to my home county for a Scott County soil health and cover crops field day. This was a great event for me, because growing up in Bettendorf, I really did not associate Scott Co. with much farming compared to the other places I had been in Iowa. It was interesting to see all the things that farmers in my area were doing to further soil and water quality goals.

The host location, Cinnamon Ridge Farms in Donahue, Iowa was amazing. It was eye-opening to hear the owner talk about all the strategies he was using, including his methods for integrating cover crops into his operation. Because their operation does tours year-round, including tours to farmers from all around the world, he had a unique perspective on many of the government cost share programs that are available to farmers, noting that there are not very many countries in which the government will pay you to adopt a farming practice. I think that this is very important, and one that people should keep in mind as Iowa communities look to adopt more parts of the Nutrient Reduction Strategy in the future.

I am currently in the Biorenewables option right now in Biological Systems Engineering, but after my experiences this summer with the Iowa Learning Farms, I am seriously considering switching my option so I can continue to learn more about the issues that I have been exposed to this summer! As an engineering student, this is where I can see so many opportunities to get involved after graduation.

Andrew Hillman

Who Owns Any Creek?

“Who owns Cross Creek?”

That is a line from one of my favorite films, Cross Creek. Released in 1983, the film is based on a memoir of the same title by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author of the classic children’s book The Yearling. The film is about her life as owner of an orange grove in Florida and all the local residents of “the creek.”

“Who owns Cross Creek?”

This line popped into my head when I was talking to Ann about our winter workshops. It was clear from the brainstorming activity that many of the farmers and landowners were more knowledgeable and caring about questions concerning soil health than water quality.

When I pointed that out to Ann, she said, “Soil health happens on the land they own and they directly benefit from it. It’s personal. Water is a part of the common good and is less tangible.”

The common good is often a hard sell economically. No one owns the water. So no one is really responsible. Or everyone is responsible?

Let’s face it: when it comes to water quality, we have been slipping in through the back door, so to speak. As Marty Adkins points out in his previous blog post (Reducing Nutrient Losses While Building Iowa’s Soils and Economy), generally the practices that improve soil health also improve water quality.

That’s true. Cover crops are a good example. They are good for soil health, especially where land is highly erodible or degraded. On the water quality side, they play a major role in reducing both phosphorus and nitrogen loss. It is difficult to show a direct return on investment with cover crops in terms of soil health, and it could cost billions of dollars annually to implement the 12 million acres of cover crops needed every year to improve water quality (The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa). That kind of investment is going to require a seismic change in attitudes toward water quality if it is going to happen.

In his 2012 book, Navigating Environmental Attitudes, social psychologist Thomas Heberlein argues that the way to change attitudes is by changing social norms. Norms are different than attitudes because they are tied directly to behavior, whereas attitudes are based on values and beliefs. In order for norms to change behavior, they must be focused on and activated by how society shapes what we do—i.e., what shapes the status quo. Norms influencing environmental behaviors do change, but it takes years (decades) for norms to emerge, change and strengthen. For norms to function, individuals must feel responsible for their acts.

I am not saying that farmers are deliberating doing wrong—they are following the norms within our current agricultural system. While many farmers could add more conservation practices to their operations, it is the system itself that needs changing. Policies over the last several decades have intensified row crop agriculture and led us to our current water quality and soil erosion challenges. The long-term vision for Iowa must include policies that more readily allow for a diversity of cropping systems and land use (Expand Beyond a Two Crop System, Clean Up Our Water).

Poor water quality is the unintended consequence of agricultural norms that aren’t sustainable. To change this is going to require a seismic change in attitudes.

As we try to implement Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, we need to do a better job of helping farmers see where we are, how we got here, and where we need to go. As we heard from one of the speakers at ISU Extension and Outreach’s Agriculture and Natural Resources spring inservice training earlier this year, “Farmers don’t need any help to stay the same.”

In 1983, I couldn’t have imagined how the answer to a question posed at the end of a loved film would become one of the central questions of my career. It has. Who owns Cross Creek? Or any creek?

Here’s how Rawlings responds to her haunting question:

“Who owns Cross Creek?

The red-birds, I think, more than I, for they will have their nests even in the face of delinquent mortgages…It seems to me that the earth may be borrowed, but not bought. It may be used, but not owned. It gives itself in response to love and tending, offers its seasonal flowering and fruiting. But we are tenants and not possessors, lovers, and not masters. Cross Creek belongs to the wind and the rain, to the sun and the season, to the cosmic secrecy of seed, and beyond all to time…”

Jacqueline Comito

 

Outdoor Adventure + Exploration with Water Rocks! Camps

Today’s guest blog post comes from summer intern Elizabeth Schwab. Originally from Levittown, PA (just outside Philadelphia), Elizabeth is a senior at ISU, double majoring in Environmental Science and Agronomy. She is also a radio DJ at 88.5 FM KURE on the side!

Monday, June 26, we held our first of a series of three Water Rocks! Summer Day Camps, this one in the beautiful Winterset City Park in Madison County. I saw my first of the famed Madison County covered bridges (the Cutler-Donahoe Covered Bridge) on the drive to the shelter where we set up camp, but unfortunately the bridge didn’t appear to be designed to handle the fifteen-passenger van we were traveling in. I’ll have to return to Madison County to tour the covered bridges some other time.

After organizing our supplies and activities, we were ready to begin our day; shortly thereafter, the campers began to arrive. The 23 campers, ages nine to fourteen, were organized into two packs, each led by two Water Rocks! team members. My fellow intern Andrew and I spent our day with the blue pack, who soon named themselves the “Blue Ferrets,” while Jenn and Josh led the red pack.

We kicked off the morning with some music and dancing led by Todd. I’m not much of a dancer, as anyone who saw me “on stage” on Monday morning can confirm. However, I was excited that some of the more exuberant campers soon joined our staff up front to show off their moves (and prove that they have much more talent than I do). This was a great high-energy start to the day! After we were all welcomed to camp, we split up into our packs for some icebreakers and time to get to know each other, and then we were able to dive into the lessons!

One of my favorite aspects of the educational modules that the Water Rocks! team presents is that they make education a lot of fun, both for the presenters and the audience. For the first part of the morning, Jenn and I led each pack through sessions on wetlands, which involved playing such games as Habitat Hopscotch and Wetland Bingo.

Throughout the day, campers also learned about watersheds, contemplated biodiversity (while playing Biodiversity Jenga and Musical Oxbows), and participated in a “game show” with our Dig Into Soil module! In times like these, I sometimes wish to be an observer rather than a presenter at our outreach events. I have learned, however, that leading students or campers through these activities is just as fun, even if it means that I can’t win prizes in Wetland Bingo or develop my own piece of lakeside property during the Watershed module.

What better way is there to reflect on why we should conserve and appreciate our water resources than by playing a few water games? After lunch and a quick trip to the playground, the packs competed against each other to play a few games, with bucket relays and water balloons proving to be the stars of the show. It just wouldn’t be summer camp without water sports, and these activities were certainly a memorable part of the camp experience!

It was a busy day in Winterset, and by the end of the camp day everyone was ready to take things a little more slowly. We ended our day by making “edible soil” to complement the afternoon’s lesson about soil, and then spent some time reflecting and writing in the nature journals that we created during arts and crafts time earlier in the day. This was a great way to wrap up our day—I’m excited about nearly any opportunity that involves either chocolate pudding or crafts, and being able to tie both of these to other topics that I’m passionate about was an added bonus.

As the campers departed at the end of the day, many of them expressed interest in returning for future events or camps. I am proud to have been a part of making this day memorable for so many young people, and I am thrilled to have the opportunity to return to our next two Water Rocks! camps in Des Moines on July 6 and 7. Every time I go to an event or camp I discover something new about communicating scientific information in a way that is engaging to the audience as well as to me as an educator. And I get to have fun doing it! There really is no better way to learn.

Elizabeth Schwab

NOTE: Limited spots are still available for 9-14 year olds in our upcoming Water Rocks! Summer Day Camps at Greenwood Park in Des Moines – choose from Thursday, July 6 or Friday, July 7!  Do you have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or neighbor that might be interested?  Camps are FREE of charge; we just require registration in advance. Registrations are being accepted through NOON tomorrow – Friday, June 30.

Iowa Climate Outlook for Spring: Wetter in the North; Drier in Southeast

Today’s guest post is by Dr. Dennis Todey, USDA Midwest Climate Hub Director, with timely climate information as we prepare for crop year 2017.

Planting season is quickly approaching, with field prep work and crop insurance dates for corn only days away.  Initial season concerns include the early spring progression from late winter warmth and its impact on alfalfa and soil N levels. The warm and wet conditions allow soil nitrogen to convert to nitrate, which can be easily lost. A late spring nitrate test would help determine if additional nitrogen is needed to meet crop demands.

As crop year 2017 begins, key factors to consider include:

Current Soil Conditions

Background precipitation issues for Iowa differ for northern versus southern Iowa.  Heavier rain fell across northern Iowa last fall producing wetter harvest conditions.  Some soil wetness issues are likely to carry over into the spring.  In contrast chunks of southern Iowa were much drier – not only in the fall but through the summer.  National soil moisture models currently support this difference in soil conditions indicating overall wetter north and drier in the far southeast.

Precipitation Outlook

While several current storms have produced more rain in southern Iowa, the focus on precipitation should again switch to northern Iowa.  The current 30 day April outlook and spring (April-June) outlook from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center has better chances for above average precipitation in northern Iowa.  Combining this rainfall potential with the carry-over wetness from the fall creates the highest risk for wetter planting conditions across the north.Precip Outlook 2017

Growing Season Outlook

Looking ahead to the rest of the growing season utilizes a few tools including the status of El Niño conditions and computer-based outlooks.  The current El Niño situation is neutral, but hinting toward El Niño conditions by late summer.  The switch to El Niño would reduce the risk of a poor growing season, but seems unlikely to start in time to affect the growing season.  The progress will be monitored through the season.

Drought Risk

Computer outlooks lean toward less chance of dry conditions across most of the state.  Thus, the overall drought risk seems fairly small at this point.  It should be noted that longer range precipitation outlooks are more difficult to assess.

Temperature Outlook

Temperature outlooks Iowa and the whole Midwest are likely warmer than average.  This is based mostly on recent trends of warmth in the summer, which has been driven by warmer overnight temperatures.  The risk of excessively high day temperatures seems lower at this point. 2017 Temp Outlook

Severe Weather Risk

Overall storminess would likely be increased along with more precipitation.  But the chances of severe weather currently are similar to climatology at this point.

Engineers are Integral!

We are in the heart of National Engineers Week, so let’s give a shout out to all of the engineers out there who are combining science, technology, and problem solving to address real world challenges across the globe!

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Engineers Week is an annual celebration, striving to get the word out about what engineers do, helping to increase understanding and build excitement around science and engineering. Founded by the National Society of Professional Engineers in 1951, Engineers Week is traditionally held around the time of George Washington’s birthday. In addition to serving as our first president, Washington is widely recognized as our nation’s first engineer thanks to his extensive surveying work.

Here in the conservation world, our work today is certainly much different from GW’s, but no less important in terms of working on some grand challenges here in the state of Iowa!  Engineers are integral to so many pieces of the puzzle, from developing agricultural machinery and grain handling/storage,  to working with big data and precision conservation (check out Amy Kaleita’s work for more), studying the interactions of land and water (read about the work being done by Michelle Soupir’s team and Matt Helmers’s team), designing and optimizing practices like wetlands and bioreactors for maximum effectiveness, plus designing water treatment and wastewater treatment facilities that treat millions of gallons of water each day.

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However, technical solutions alone will certainly not solve the water quality challenges that we face here in the state of Iowa – the social sciences, music, and the arts are equally important pieces of the puzzle when it comes to making emotional appeals and helping people better understand and connect with the land and water resources around them.

I’m proud to be an engineer working in water quality and conservation here with Iowa Learning Farms, as well as inspiring the next generation to get super excited about science and engineering through our classroom visits with Water Rocks!. Happy E-Week to all!

Ann Staudt

P.S. Today is an especially unique day within National Engineers Week – it’s Introduce a Girl to Engineering Day. DiscoverE is celebrating #GirlDay2017 with a live Twitter Chat “Role Models Unite to Inspire Girls” coming up very soon — TODAY at noon ET (11:00am central)!