Thinking Like a Watershed

Today’s guest post is by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources Watershed Improvement Section.

I had the privilege of visiting the legendary Aldo Leopold farm and shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin last August while attending the Soil and Water Conservation Society’s annual conference.  Although I had completed my master’s degree just down the road at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had never before visited the Leopold farm. It was in many ways a pilgrimage to a sacred place.Oct2017_1Leopold Shack near Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

While standing in awe in front of the Leopold shack, amidst the towering pines and deep-rooted prairie plants that the Leopold family had planted back in the 1930s, I was struck with the meaning behind Leopold’s concept of “Thinking Like a Mountain” in his 1944 essay bearing that name.

Leopold came up with the concept after watching a wolf die that he had shot, and seeing the “fierce green fire dying in her eyes.” Although he had previously been a staunch proponent of killing wolves with the idea of increasing the number of deer (which he and others wanted more of for hunting), he later realized that removing wolves resulted in an overpopulation of deer. Too many deer meant overgrazing and over-browsing of vegetation on the mountain, and the eventual destruction of the mountain from erosion.  Watching the wolf die was a pivotal event for Leopold—one that deeply affected his thinking about the value of predators to keep ecosystems in balance, and reinforced his understanding that removing even a single species can have serious negative consequences on the environment.

As Leopold wrote in 1944 in “Thinking Like a Mountain” (from Flader, 1974, p. 1)¹:

“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the fierce green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

“Thinking Like a Mountain”, therefore, means we need to consider the importance of ecological balance—including the value of a single species of predator—in our land use decision-making and actions. When we remove even one single species from the ecosystem, it can have dire consequences. It means we need to see things from the mountain’s perspective before acting.

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Oct2017_2World’s 2nd oldest restored prairie, Leopold Farm, Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

Likewise, for those of us working to improve the health of watersheds, we need to be thinking like a watershed.”  This means we need to consider the consequences of even a single action on the health of a watershed before acting.

Healthy watersheds are those that act like a sponge to soak in rainfall, enabling the watershed to minimize flooding and reduce runoff that carries pollutants to our lakes, rivers, and streams. Every time a single action takes place that adds more runoff in a watershed, such as adding more paved areas or converting land from soil-covering, deep-rooted perennials to tilled row crops, it reduces the watershed’s ability to act like a sponge and soak in rainfall. When this happens, a watershed “catches” less and “sheds” more. When multiple “single actions” take place in a watershed, it results in flooding and water quality problems. Our primary course of action after that point is to invest lots of time, money, and energy to fixing the flooding and water quality problems that we did not prevent in the first place.

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Many of us are already very well aware of the many practices that are available to soak in, trap, or store rainfall before it runs off our watersheds in Iowa. Many are also working to develop detailed watershed improvement plans to help fix flooding and water quality problems across the state. Just as Aldo Leopold advised us to incorporate “thinking like a mountain” into our actions to improve ecosystems, we would be wise to incorporate thinking like a watershed into each of our plans and actions to improve watersheds. I suspect Leopold would agree.

Steve Hopkins

Reference:
¹Flader, Susan L., Thinking Like a Mountain: Aldo Leopold and the Evolution of an Ecological Attitude toward Deer, Wolves, and Forests (University of Wisconsin Press, 1974).

Oct2017_3Leopold benches at the Leopold Farm, Baraboo, Wisconsin (photo by Steve Hopkins)

Newton Students, Teacher & Iowa DNR Clean Up Name of Local Creek

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens can change the world,” anthropologist Margaret Mead once said. Students and teachers at Newton High School, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources staff, proved exactly that this summer by raising awareness of the South Skunk River watershed by successfully changing the name of Sewer Creek to Cardinal Creek.

Science teacher Courtney Wolken has worked at Newton High School (NHS) for 11 years. In the summer of 2016, Wolken met with Iowa DNR Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Steve Hopkins, and Jasper County DNR’s Keri VanZante, to brainstorm projects for her Advanced Placement (AP) Biology students that would benefit the Newton community. Hopkins and VanZante proposed the idea of changing the creek’s name from “Sewer” to “Cardinal,” in honor of the NHS mascot. Wolken was immediately receptive of the idea for her students. Wolken wrote the project into her AP Biology curriculum for the year, planning to have students begin water testing and watershed assessment during the project, in addition to facilitating the name change.

The creek lies just west of the school and connects to the South Skunk River. It is one of many creeks in Iowa with the descriptor “sewer” because of their historical use as sewage dumping areas. The practice of waste dumping has since been changed, but many creeks still bear the stinky names of their previous purposes.

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Cardinal Creek,
Photo by Courtney Wolken

As part of the creek project, students began organizing trash clean up days. Wolken says:

It was rewarding to see the students take ownership of the project. The students took a day and cleaned up garbage at three site locations. They were always happy to take observations at the sites, and pictures to use for the habitat assessment.

Wolken’s class applied for official approval from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to change the creek’s name in April 2017, and the USGS responded by asking for evidence of local support for the name change. Hopkins says:

When I learned of this from Ms. Wolken, I offered to contact several local agencies to solicit support letters for the effort.  Four local community agencies: the Jasper County Conservation Board, the Jasper Soil and Water Conservation District, the Newton School Board, and the Newton City Council, all responded with enthusiastic support letters. 

Wolken’s students also began talking with community members about the creek, and petitioning both the Newton Community School Board and the Newton City Council for approval of the project. Wolken states that her classes continually received positive feedback:

During the process, I have spoken with many community members who shared their stories about the creek that runs behind the school. Many spent time [there] enjoying nature. They had no idea why it was called “Sewer Creek.”

With support from the school board, the Newton community, and the DNR, Wolken’s class presented several letters of support to the USGS. On July 19 they received notice that the name change had been officially approved.

Wolken and Hopkins are both thrilled by the success of the students, and what it means for the future of the creek and the South Skunk River watershed. Hopkins says:

Making NHS students and local residents more aware of their local creek also fits with the statewide water quality education campaign that the Iowa DNR Watershed Improvement Program is embarking upon. …[M]any Iowans are not only unaware of the water quality of their local lakes and streams, many are even unaware of the name of their local creek…These efforts greatly enhanced awareness of a local creek whose new name bears enormous pride in the Newton community. 

While waiting for official word from the USGS, both AP Biology and AP Chemistry students started actively monitoring the creek to help assess the water quality long-term. “We would like a few more months of chemical assessment before analysis of the numbers [is shared],” says Wolken. In addition to water quality improvement goals, Wolken sees additional possibilities that could follow from this experience:

I would like this project to continue being a collaboration between the two AP science courses. I have an interest in more restorative projects, such as erosion control, native plantings, and [improvements with] urban water runoff from the school. The students would like to involve community members with some of these projects.

Because signage for creeks is not something the Iowa Department of Transportation normally provides, the DNR stepped forward to fund the DOT to create and install a Cardinal Creek sign. Wolken was present at the time the sign was installed to capture that wonderful moment on camera.

DOT installs signage,
Photos by Courtney Wolken & Sara Hopkins

Water Rocks! is thrilled about this example of positive change in support of local water quality improvement, and we are grateful to Courtney Wolken and Steve Hopkins for sharing their stories with us. We congratulate the students and teachers of NHS for showing that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organized citizens absolutely can—and will—change our world!

Newton High School AP Biology students & teacher, Courtney Wolken,
Photos by Steve Hopkins

Brandy Case Haub

IDALS and Iowa Learning Farms: A Partnership on the Edge

Today’s guest post is by Jake Hansen, Chief of the Water Resources Bureau Division of Soil Conservation & Water Quality at Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS). 

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship has a long history of working together with USDA-Natural Resource Conservation Services, Farm Service Agency, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, and numerous other state and federal partners.

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Water Quality Field Day in Wright County September 2015

Many of you have been partnering at the local level for years to such great depths that you may not consider your conservation team to be a collection of partners anymore. Local extension councils, county boards of supervisors, county conservation boards, and local Farm Bureau chapters throughout Iowa are working with soil and water conservation districts to share staff, complete outreach, and identify local priorities. Additionally, local retailers, particularly in the agronomic sector, are coming to the table to assist in promoting conservation plans and practices as they are seeing increased value in conservation practices, and taking advantage of growing markets for sustainable commodities. These local partnerships will be essential in taking new practices from concept to mainstream adoption through the Iowa Water Quality Initiative.

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Bioreactor installation in Monroe County July, 2015

IDALS is looking to take the next step in putting together a water quality program that can be scaled up quickly to put water quality investments to work for farmers and all Iowans. One way we are doing this is by showcasing new practices that work in targeted locations to improve water quality at the field scale. While IDALS has assisted in construction of some of these wetlands, bioreactors, and saturated buffers, we are now looking at ways to deploy these practices intensely at a watershed scale.

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Wetland and Cover Crop Field Day in Pocahontas County August 2017

Beginning in late 2017, IDALS will partner with Iowa Learning Farms to conduct watershed-scale planning and landowner outreach in high-priority watersheds. Our goal will be to develop a model for identifying suitable sites and working with landowners to complete edge-of-field practice installation. Iowa Learning Farms will conduct field days in the selected areas to showcase water quality practices, and will give landowners an opportunity on the spot to sign up for conservation planning assistance. It is our hope that together we will be able to create an efficient process for edge-of-field project development that can be replicated statewide as a key component of a long-term water quality improvement program.

The daunting task of improving water quality, soil health and environmental stewardship in Iowa is one that cannot be completed successfully by a single person or agency. Economic challenges and competing priorities will continue to change the way we are able to deliver programs at IDALS, which means that perhaps more than ever, we will have to find creative ways to partner at all levels. IDALS is excited to look to the future in our long-standing partnership with Iowa Learning Farms to continue to advance water quality efforts in our state!

Jake Hansen

Higher Adoption of Cover Crops in Watershed Projects Areas

Today’s guest post is by Steve Hopkins, CPM, Nonpoint Source Coordinator, Iowa Department of Natural Resources 

The increase in cover crop acres across Iowa is encouraging news for soil health and water quality. According to a news release sent out on May 31, 2017 by Iowa NRCS and IDALS, the number of acres of cover crops increased to 353,000 in 2016 for landowners receiving financial assistance, plus another 247,000 acres in cover crops planted outside of cost-share programming, for an estimated total of 600,000 acres in cover crops statewide.

Of Iowa’s 23 million acres of land in corn and soybeans, approximately 1.2% of row crop acres are in cover crops through financial assistance programs, and an estimated 2.1% of row crop acres are in cover crops when including all cover crop acres. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy calls for a goal of cover crops on 12.5 million of Iowa’s row crop acres, close to 50% of the state’s row crop acres. Since we have a long way to go to reach that goal, it makes sense to look closely at where cover crops are being adopted most quickly and ask why.

Where are the Highest Percentages of Cover Crop Acres in Iowa?

Where in Iowa are the highest percentages of row crop acres in cover crops? Below is a list I compiled showing the top ten counties by percentage of row crop acres planted under cost-shared cover crops (this excludes cover crop acres planted without cost-share, which is not reported), based on the county data from NRCS and IDALS:

1.   Washington (7.5% of row crop acres in cover crops)
2.   Cedar (4.6%)
3.   Monroe (2.9%)
4.   Buena Vista (2.6%)
5.   Audubon (2.26%)
6.   Wapello (2.23%)
7.   Polk (2.20%)
8.   Black Hawk (2.17%)
9.   Marion (2.1%)
10. Jefferson (2.06%)

Why Cover Crops There?

Washington County leads the state in both the percent of row crop land in cover crops and total acres in cover crops. This is very likely due to the presence of a successful Water Quality Initiative (WQI) project in the county, plus the presence of several prominent producers and producer-led groups who have championed cover crops for a number of years. Social science research shows that farmers are most influenced by other farmers, and this seems to be exemplified by Washington County’s lead among all Iowa counties in cover crop adoption.

Most of the other top ten cover crop counties are located within or near watershed projects, such as a WQI project, which focus solely on practices to reduce nutrients, a DNR Section 319 project, which focus on restoring impaired waters (many of which focus on reducing phosphorus), or a watershed project funded by some other source. This is not surprising, given that water quality practices do not sell themselves. The presence of a watershed project means that local producers have access not only to additional cost-share for cover crops, they also have increased access to technical information on how to manage cover crops, plus an outreach program on why cover crops are important for soil health and water quality in Iowa.

The map below–a statewide map of watershed project areas, plus the top ten cover crop counties highlighted in yellow–shows the correlation between watershed projects and cover crop areas:

July 2017 Hopkins Blog

“Boots on the Ground”

Watershed project coordinators serve as needed “boots on the ground” who deliver key information directly to producers about water quality practices, like cover crops. Given the declining numbers of federal and state agency staff who deliver conservation information to producers, the presence of a highly skilled watershed project coordinator can help fill the gap and boost local adoption of practices like cover crops.

Along with experienced cover crop producers who are sharing information with other producers, watershed project coordinators are key to continuing the expansion of cover crop acres in Iowa.  To continue the progress made so far, the map shows we need to fund not only the cost-share for cover crops themselves, we also need to keep funding the “boots on the ground” who sell the practice.

Steve Hopkins

Lessons Learned from Farmer Interviews of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project

Today’s guest post was provided by Steve Hopkins, Nonpoint Source Coordinator with the Iowa DNR’s Watershed Improvement Section.

The University of Northern Iowa’s Center for Social and Behavioral Research recently completed a study of farmers and stakeholders involved with the Lyons Creek Watershed Project about the farmers’ participation in the project and their attitudes toward adopting conservation practices.  The study was a post-project evaluation done at the end of the Lyons Creek Watershed Project, administered through the Hamilton County SWCD in north central Iowa.

The primary goal of the watershed project was to reduce nitrate levels in Lyons Creek, which has the highest nitrate levels of all of the tributaries of the Boone River.  The Boone River is a tributary of the Des Moines River, which is a source of drinking water for the city of Des Moines.

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Despite the fact that the primary goal of the project was to reduce nitrate levels, and that the project coincided with the release of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, the project fell short of its goals due to a lack farmer participation and adoption of nitrate-reducing practices.  The purpose of the study was to find out why.

The study, based on in-depth interviews with farmers and project stakeholders, found both positive and negative factors related to farmer participation in the watershed project:

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lyonscreek-negativefactors

The study included recommendations for future watershed projects, including providing funding for a full-time project coordinator, involving farmers early on in project planning, and making project goals clearer.

UNI will be presenting the results of the study at the 2017 Iowa Water Conference in March.

This study, funded by Iowa DNR with EPA Section 319 funds, is available on the DNR Watershed Improvement webpage under “Watershed News” at  http://www.iowadnr.gov/Environmental-Protection/Water-Quality/Watershed-Improvement.

Steve Hopkins

 

Water Rocks! Assemblies are Rockin’!

What do singing, dancing, dog poop, water quality, full audience participation, and a big blue Snuggie all have in common? You’ll get all of these things and more with the brand new Water Rocks! Assemblies!

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This fall Water Rocks! rolled out a creative and exciting endeavor called Water Rocks! Assemblies, using music to teach the science of water quality for kindergartners through 8th grade across the state. The mission of Water Rocks! Assemblies is to educate, challenge, and inspire young people towards a greater appreciation of our water resources. Water Rocks! continues to reach students through its popular interactive classroom visits, but the Water Rocks! Assemblies are unique in that multiple classes, even multiple grades, with hundreds of students, can be reached at one time! Since Water Rocks! took their new show on the road in September, thousands of students across Iowa, along with their teachers, have rocked out with Water Rocks! Assemblies.

During the Assemblies, students learn about watersheds, natural resources, conservation, and land use. The teaching is done through music, dance, theater, games, and interactive lessons. This innovative approach of infusing science and music makes learning fun, and helps students commit valuable information to memory.


A teacher at Beaver Creek Elementary in Johnston said, “The team made the water facts exciting, fun, and informative. I believe my students will remember quite a few of the presented concepts. This was a great experience for my students!”

The Assemblies encourage students to participate by singing, dancing, performing in a play, and answering questions. Catchy Water Rocks! songs like “We all Live in a Watershed,” “What’s in Your Water?,” “Scoop That Poop” and “The Watershed Rap” bring students and teachers to their feet to sing and dance. Teachers are happy to see their students have such a great time while learning.

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A teacher from Turkey Valley Elementary school in Jackson Junction told us, “Bringing music into the presentation had students saying they couldn’t get the tune out of their heads – a good thing!”

Students in 4th-8th grades are entertained by an activity called “Watershed Broadway.” Peer helpers from the school perform in a play that illustrates how various pollutants move from our land to waterways in the Mississippi River Watershed, eventually making their way to the Gulf of Mexico. A Water Rocks! team member donning a big blue Snuggie plays the part of a raindrop who has just fallen out of the sky, and has to travel to the river. Along the way the raindrop meets some friends who join her on the journey to the river. These friends are pollutants such as garbage, sediment, fertilizer, pesticide, oil, and dog poop. Their journey to the river culminates with a cannonball into the river, in which the audience gets to see how pollution affects our waterways.

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Students in kindergarten – 3rd grades learn about harmful water pollutants by playing a gameshow-style game called “Clean River, Dirty River.” In the game, students are selected from the audience to come to the front. They are each given a picture of an item that can be found in a clean river or a dirty river. One at a time, they are asked to place their item on either the “Clean River” poster or the “Dirty River” poster. It serves as a great visual for younger students to see how pollution impacts our rivers!

Peer helpers are an integral part of the assemblies. Peer helpers are students identified as leaders by the faculty and staff at the school. The helpers sing, dance, and perform alongside Water Rocks! staff. They also encourage the audience to participate in the songs and activities. If possible, high school students are used as peer helpers, which is always a big hit with younger students.

A high school peer helper from Turkey Valley said, “I had an amazing time working with you guys! I learned things about water and watersheds that I didn’t even know. A little girl that told me it was the greatest day ever, and she was so happy that she got to dance with high schoolers. It was the cutest thing ever. Thank you guys for coming and letting us participate in the assembly. We all had a great time, and so did all the students that we talked to! Thanks so much!”

The Assemblies were created keeping Next Generation Science Standards in mind, so that teachers can coordinate classroom lessons with the information presented in the assembly. After each Assembly, teachers are given a packet of follow-up resources that contain workbooks, enhanced learning activities, DVDs, CDs with award-winning Water Rocks! music, and more.

Would you like to bring a Water Rocks! Assembly to your local school? Sponsorship opportunities are available — this is a particularly unique opportunity for Soil and Water Conservation Districts, local businesses, and individuals to show your support for conservation and natural resources education! Water quality matters to us all! Contact Jacqueline Comito at 515-296-0081 or jcomito@iastate.edu to discuss sponsorship to reserve a School Assembly in your local district. Spots are filing quickly for spring, so act today!

Jenn Riggs

ILF Launches Conservation Learning Labs Project

cll_logoIowa Learning Farms has launched a project—The Conservation Learning Labs—that will study how implementation of conservation practices can reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss at the watershed scale in Iowa. The project is funded by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and the United States Department of Agriculture – Natural Resources Conservation Services (USDA-NRCS) of Iowa.

The project is specifically focused on small watersheds — between 500 and 1,300 total acres in size—and the widespread adoption of cover crops on a large percentage of the watershed’s agricultural land. The two pilot watersheds were chosen because of their size and because the watersheds already have a Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetland on-site that will provide baseline water quality monitoring data on nitrogen and phosphorus loads over several years. We will be able to see how nutrient loads might be affected in real time based on the implementation of cover crops on the land.

Our main focus: Can high levels of cover crop implementation be obtained on a small watershed scale, and water quality improvements documented accordingly?

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Goldilocks and the Three Scales of Nutrient Load Research

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) lays out in-field and edge-of-field conservation practices that, if implemented, can improve Iowa’s water quality and reduce N and P export. Much of the research highlighted in the NRS is from small, plot-scale research projects. While these controlled studies are essential to our understanding of nutrient loads, results at the plot scale can differ from actual nutrient loads that we see at a larger scale (HUC-12 and larger watersheds). In-stream processes such as bed and bank erosion can add variability and complicate the overall picture in larger watersheds of how we assess agricultural source loads.

It’s the Goldilocks principle: plot scale research is too small, and HUC-12 watersheds are too large. The sweet spot is somewhere in between. This is why the Conservation Learning Labs project will target the scale at which nutrient loads are actually delivered: small watersheds containing less than 2,000 acres.

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High Levels of Implementation Required

The NRS gives us a road map that we can use to reduce nutrient loads; however, high levels of adoption of conservation practices are required. Iowa has made great progress in recent years as we see farmers across the state adopting minimum or no-tillage practices and seeding more cover crops. If ones looks closely, more wetlands, buffers and bioreactors have also begun to dot the landscape. But we have a long way to go.

Despite our continued improvement, we will still need more than ten million total cover crop and no-till acres throughout Iowa to reach the goals of the NRS. Edge-of-field practices like wetlands and bioreactors will also be required at a much higher rate than we currently see.

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Just like the NRS, the Conservation Learning Labs project will rely on high adoption of cover crops in the agricultural acres of the pilot watersheds. Iowa Learning Farms has reached out to landowners and farm operators in each of these pilot watersheds to talk to them about the project and to ask for their participation. Cost share dollars are available if they agree to seed a cover crop in fall of 2017.

So far, both pilot watersheds have at least 50% of the agricultural acres in the watershed tentatively committed to seed a cover crop in fall of 2017. We will continue to work with farmers in the months ahead to maximize cover crop adoption in each pilot watershed. Stay tuned for updates!

Julie Whitson