The Fabulous World of Wetlands

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.

As a continuation from last month’s blog, I will be explaining another one of our great modules with Water Rocks!. Our presentation over wetlands has many interesting and important facts along with a few games as well. The module is meant to feel like the students are on a game show and we are their game show hosts. This presentation, like all the others, has been fine-tuned by our team to make it run super smoothly in the classroom with elementary and middle school students.

Our Fabulous World of Wetlands module starts with an audio “field trip,” where we have all the students close their eyes as we play some sounds from out in nature. We then ask them what different sounds they heard. After they have given us some of the different creatures they heard, we ask them where they think the sounds were recorded, hoping that they eventually answer wetlands. We then ask them to answer a trivia/evaluation question to establish their baseline understanding of the subject.

We then continue into our first game, a guessing game in which the students have to try and guess what the three main characteristics of wetlands are (hydric soils, presence of water, and water-loving plants). After the students eventually get all three things, sometimes with the help of some hints, we move on to show them three objects that represent the three main jobs of wetlands. The first object is a coffee filter and we explain that wetlands filter the water and leave it cleaner after it passes through the wetlands. The second object is a sponge and we explain that hydric soils store water like a sponge would if it was dropped in a bucket of water. The third and final object is a small house, which we use to explain that wetlands are a habitat to many different creatures. After we get done explaining the three jobs we have the students repeat them to lock the knowledge into their brains.

We then transition to talking about some certain creatures that rely on wetlands, particularly migratory birds and butterflies. We ask the students to think about if we were all to get on a bus and take a long journey down to Texas, what would be some reasons that we would stop on our journey? They usually answer with things such as food, water, bathroom, sleep, etc. We then explain that for those same reasons that we would stop, birds and butterflies need those same things and they stop at wetlands to take care of all of it along their journeys. This leads us into the next game which is Habitat Hopscotch. This game involves different states that are on the birds’ and butterflies’ migratory paths, as pictured above. But there is a twist—there are some situations that remove wetlands in certain states, which means we remove that state from the game. We then go through all the situations one-by-one, and by the end of the game, there are only three of the original ten squares remaining. That means there are not many wetlands left for the birds and butterflies to stop at!

After the completion of Habitat Hopscotch, we show two maps of Iowa, one of what Iowa looked like 200 years ago and the other one of present day Iowa. What we are showing the students is that our state used to be almost all prairie and wetlands but now the state is mostly covered by corn and beans. We then let them know that 90% of our original wetlands have been converted into other things. We also tell them that 99.9% of our state’s prairie land has also been converted. But it’s not all bad news—there has been good work with farmers to restore both prairie and wetlands on part of their land, which is great for all the creatures that call wetlands home.

This leads us into our game of Wetlands Bingo, which allows the students to see many more of the creatures that live in wetlands. After each wetland bingo, we ask that student a trivia question that gives them a chance to win a prize. When we have had multiple winners, we then finish with the same trivia/evaluation question that we did near the beginning of our presentation. We also leave each classroom teacher with a set of Wetland Bingo cards, so they and their students can continue learning about the Fabulous World of Wetlands and all the amazing creatures that call wetlands their home!

Joshua Harms

Every practice has its place

As we consider water quality and land use across our state, every practice has its place. Which conservation practices and land use changes make the most sense where in terms of keeping soil in place? In terms of reducing nutrient export? In terms of building wildlife habitat?

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy’s goals of 45% nitrogen and phosphorus load reductions will only be achieved through a broad suite of practices – including in-field management (reduced tillage, cover crops, and fine-tuned nutrient management) AND edge-of-field conservation practices.  It’s an AND, not an OR!

Farmers and landowners from Dallas and Polk Counties got to see and learn about edge-of-field conservation practices firsthand at last evening’s Iowa Learning Farms field day hosted by Dallas Center farmer Tim Minton. Located in the Walnut Creek Watershed, this area faces unique challenges being at the interface of productive agricultural lands and urban expansion. Walnut Creek Watershed is losing 430 acres of farmland each year to urban development, while clean, healthy waters are needed for an ever-growing population base.



At the end of the day, it’s all about being good stewards out here. How well can we keep that soil in place?  How can we keep the water resources clean?  I’m really taking the long view here – What’s it going to do next year? 5 years down the road? 10 years? 20 years? When it’s in my kids’ hands?  It’s definitely a long-term approach. Tim Minton, Farmer

If you want to protect your investment, you’re got to put money back into it. Working with partners (NRCS and state) is a great way to do that. They want it to be win-win – ease of use and ease of execution. They can help you think outside the box, plus use their resources and expertise to help you do these things you want to do! Practices like these [saturated buffer and wetland] are in our best interest, AND in the best interest of society. Tim Minton, Farmer

I’ve been on this neighboring land for over 70 years. Back in the 1940s-50s, we would go down to the creek and it was always muddy. There were no minnows. You couldn’t see anything – didn’t matter if there had just been a heavy rain or no rain at all. When this [wetland] got put in, right away, it looked just like tap water. – Neighbor Jim

It’s all about finding the right practice for the right place. At just a 40% nitrate removal efficiency, this 5.7 ac wetland is equivalent to taking 567 acres of cropland out of production. PLUS the grasses and emergent vegetation provide wildlife habitat – it’s a definite magnet for waterfowl. It’s really beneficial for the ecology of the whole system!
– Brandon Dittman, IDALS

Every practice has its place, and we’ll continue showcasing these practices at field days and workshops across the state. Contact Iowa Learning Farms if you’re interested in talking about edge-of-field conservation practices on your land!

Nathan Stevenson and Ann Staudt

Edge of Field Practices Steal the Show

Participants at the August 9th field day in Spirit Lake were treated to burgers, information and one spectacular view.

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Over 50 people attended the Wetland, Saturated Buffer and Bioreactor Field Day hosted by Prairie Lakes Conference and Dickinson County Soil and Water Conservation District. They came to learn how edge of field practices like wetlands, saturated buffers and bioreactors are key to reducing nitrate loss from agricultural land in Iowa. However, they stuck around long after to take pictures and to discuss about how beautiful the project had turned out.

Chris LaRue of the Iowa DNR, and Heather Jobst of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation explained, “This is a perfect example of what happens when many partners come together with a shared vision, and stay unified.”

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Golfers can be seen in the distance playing a round at the Okoboji View Golf Course.

One key stakeholder who participated in the wetland restoration project was the Okoboji View Golf Course, which sits right behind the project.  Staff from the golf course led a discussion about their experience and the economic upside to the project.

“We have actually seen an increase in our business as a direct result of the project. It is very beautiful to be out here,” explained a staff member.

The Spirit Lake restoration project really is the perfect example of public and private stakeholders coming together with a shared goal. It is also a great example of a project bringing urban and rural issues together.

It’s a win-win for everyone involved, especially the lake.

~Nathan Stevenson

 

 

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy: Creating A More Resilient Iowa

Have you ever fallen in love with a new car at the dealership and wanted to take it home until you look at the sticker price? Well, as I travel around Iowa, it seems like folks are pretty enthusiastic about the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (NRS) until they hear the “sticker price,” i.e. the scale of practice implementation and cost.

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One example scenario to reach the nitrate-N reduction targets of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy includes 60% of corn-soybean and continuous corn acres having cover crops (~12.5 million acres), 27% of all agricultural land being treated with a wetland, and 60% of the tile-drained acres being treated with a bioreactor.

For wetlands, it was assumed that each wetland (10 acres of wetland surface area with 35 acres of buffer) treats 1,000 acres of agricultural land, which would result in approximately 7,600 wetlands for this scenario. For bioreactors, it was assumed that each bioreactor treats 50 acres of subsurface-drained land, which would total approximately 120,000 bioreactors in Iowa alone.

See what I mean – quite a sticker price!

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But, while the scale of implementation and costs associated with reaching the NRS goals seem daunting, it is important to recognize the additional benefits that could come from pursuing nutrient reduction such as the economic benefits of cleaner water as well as the employment and labor opportunities to implement the various strategies.

Throughout the Midwest, discussions have begun on resources needed to implement the various state nutrient reduction strategies. While this is encouraging and exciting, most of the discussion has focused on the resources needed to implement the practices. There is very little discussion of the labor needed to successfully scale up the practices.

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I believe that for large-scale implementation of the NRS to be successful, we need to make the necessary investment in people. We need trained individuals that can work with farmers and landowners on implementing these practices. We need them both in the private and public sectors. Developing and delivering programs and classes that can train individuals to promote and assist in NRS practice implementation is crucial if we are going to make significant progress on reaching our nutrient reduction goal. There will be a significant increase in job opportunities for individuals who are trained and willing do this work.

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I firmly believe that if we accelerate the rate of practice implementation, we will see numerous small business opportunities throughout rural Iowa to site, design, and maintain these various practices and provide technical assistance to farmers and landowners.

 

It is a win-win for our state. Yes, it is a big investment, but it could stimulate our economy and make for a more resilient Iowa in every way.

Matt Helmers

Matt Helmers is an Iowa Learning Farms team member and Professor of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering at Iowa State University. To hear more about implementing Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, listen to Matt’s Conservation Chat with ILF Program Director Jacqueline Comito.

Working Together to Educate Youth in Dubuque

A few weeks back, the 4th and 5th students at St. Anthony and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Schools in Dubuque were treated to high energy, highly interactive presentations from Water Rocks! … but these presentations were particularly special in that they featured a couple of local rock stars in the conservation world!

The Back Story:
As our Water Rocks! visit to St. Anthony & OLG was approaching, I realized it was going to be a pretty tight week for our small staff, and I’d likely be handling the event solo. However, situations like this also present the opportunity to partner with other conservation stakeholders across the state, and even better when it’s someone that’s already been trained on Water Rocks! materials.

Bev Wagner, with the Dubuque Metropolitan Area Solid Waste Agency, has participated in multiple Water Rocks! workshops in the past, including the Water Rocks! Summit, so she has been trained on a variety of the unique hands-on games and activities that we utilize in the classroom. Knowing I was headed to Dubuque, I knew exactly who to call upon!

I connected with Bev right away to see if she might be available to help out and co-present with me, and within a matter of minutes, she responded, “I am available the whole day and would love to help out.” With a smiley face. :)

A few days in advance of my trip to Dubuque, Bev contacted me and asked if her student helper, Ruth, an education student at Loras College, could also come and help out. YES, absolutely!

Fast Forward to Game Day:
Bev, Ruth and I met 30 minutes ahead of time, getting everything loaded into the classroom, set up for the interactive presentation, and we quickly talked through the content. Our topic of the day was The Wonderful World of Wetlands (read more about it in our earlier blog post Wetlands Outreach: Tools of the Trade). The first class of the day, I took the lead in presenting; Bev and Ruth observed while also actively assisting with handing out materials to the students, awarding prizes, etc.

With one class under our belts, Bev and Ruth were both feeling more comfortable with the content, so from that point forward, we tag-teamed the entire 50-minute presentation. We started off with an audio listening tour of wetlands, describing the creatures that live there and what the environment might look like. Ruth showed the class an image of wetlands as we connected that with the listening field trip the students had just gone on. Bev guided the students in talking through all of the different names that wetlands go by, calling on students to share one of the names and then saying it out loud together as a class.

We then jumped in with the characteristics that make wetlands unique (hydric soils, presence of water, and vegetation). That was followed by the 3 jobs that wetlands perform – there were 3 of us, so each one took a job (and its corresponding prop) and explained it to the class!  I started off with a filter (water purification), Ruth followed with a sponge (water storage), and Bev concluded with the house (representing habitat).

Bev and Ruth led the classes in discussing the amazing diversity of plants, animals, microorganisms, and other life found in wetlands – as much biodiversity in Iowa’s wetlands as is found in the Amazon rainforest!  We talked about how wetlands are especially important to migratory creatures – birds and butterflies.

Students then got the opportunity to summon their inner birds for an intense game of Habitat Hopscotch!  Bev was the keeper of the (infamous) “situation jar” which housed different situations that impacted wetlands, while Ruth and I acted as the “bird police,” ensuring that students were landing in the correct squares and sending them to bird prison when they stepped out. Being a Catholic school, one of the 4th grade students asked if instead of bird prison, could we call it “bird heaven”? Priceless!

After 5-6 rousing rounds of Habitat Hopscotch, it was pretty clear that the loss of wetlands has a serious impact on migratory birds. Iowa has lost ~90% of its original wetlands, so that means protecting the remaining 10% of wetlands is critically important!

One 5th grade student responded, “I think we all need to #(HASHTAG) Save The Wetlands!

It was then time to move on to our other big game, Wetlands BINGO!  Again, Bev and Ruth were awesome helpers. Bev was our official BINGO caller, while Ruth and I called out the names of corresponding creatures found in wetlands. Each one of us chipped in with fun facts about the different creatures, as well as sharing which ones were our favorites. When a student got a BINGO, we worked together to come up with a simple trivia question to test their knowledge before awarding a prize from our treasure chest. The 50 minutes with each class passes by so quickly with all the games and hands-on activities involved!

By the end of the day, we had presented to five different classes of students, and I’m pleased to say that not only did the students have a whole lot of fun, they also learned a whole lot about wetland ecosystems and their importance on our landscape. Further, this school visit was a great success in terms of the collaborative teaching effort – a win-win all around!  Bev and Ruth were awesome to work with, and it was fantastic to have local conservation personnel involved helping out with Water Rocks! as well as connecting with the local teachers and students. We look forward to more opportunities like this in the future. All in all, it was a great success —  one of those days when you go home really feeling like you made a difference. And that’s a great feeling.

Ann Staudt

From the Director: The Best-Kept Secret in Iowa

You know what I learned from the 207 people who attended one of our five  Iowa Learning Farms regional workshops this winter? Wetlands are one of the best-kept secrets in Iowa in terms of their benefits! Not one single person mentioned them in response to the question “What are the practices that are most effective for improving water quality in your area?”

Matt Helmers said to me after we were leaving the third of five meetings, “Golly, we still have a lot of education and outreach to do about wetlands.”

I would agree. Wetlands play a key role of reducing nitrogen in Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. Strategically designed and sited wetlands can reduce nitrate loads to downstream water bodies by 40-70%. Currently we have around 80 of the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) wetlands in the state. The NRS calls for 7,600 of them if we hope meet its goal. To read more about the importance of wetlands, check out Ann’s blog Wetlands and Water Quality.

That calls for a HUGE amount of human and financial capital. It also opens amazing economic and job creating opportunity for us. As Matt told me, “I would love to be training our ISU students to be out there designing and building CREP wetlands throughout the state.”

Beyond the water quality benefits and the job opportunities from siting 7,000 wetlands in our state, wetlands and the lands surrounding them will help bring needed pollinators and other biodiversity to our state.

Finally, as Matt argues in his blog earlier this week about returning to pasturelands, wetlands add beauty to our landscape. If you don’t believe me, screen our award-winning documentary Incredible Wetlands.

Keep your eye on our blog to hear more of what we learned from participants during the regional workshops. We hope to create a more positive learning experience through a Rapid Needs Assessment and Response (RNR) technique. To read more about our unique approach, check out Brandy’s blog RNR is a Favorite for Conservation Workshops.

Jacqueline Comito

Project Spotlight: Developing a Training Workshop on Wetlands Screening

In the midst of the Iowa State Fair last week, three of our team members – Jackie Comito, Liz Juchems, and Ann Staudt — traveled out to Bozeman, Montana for a collaborative project with USDA-FSA (Farm Service Agency). In collaboration with extension colleagues at five other universities across the country,* our Iowa Learning Farms team members have been tasked with training USDA-FSA field staff nationwide on wetlands!

What is the point of this project?
When a farmer/landowner approaches USDA-FSA to request a farm loan, whether that be to put in an access road or a grain bin, the area of land to be developed must first be evaluated for potential wetland impacts.

How exactly do we know if an area of land could potentially be a wetland?
Wetlands are characterized by having unique soils, unique hydrology, and unique vegetation living there.

So, in a nutshell, our national project team was tasked with developing a multi-faceted training program to help USDA-FSA staff get more comfortable with identifying potential wetlands and also understanding the many environmental benefits of these vibrant ecosystems.

The first part of the training was an online training course (delivered through AgLearn) that was developed collaboratively by the six university partners across the country, although our colleagues at the University of Wisconsin deserve a big shoutout for their outstanding efforts here.

After the FSA staff members have completed the online training, it’s time for the in-person training, which is what we piloted out in Bozeman last week!  We presented the pilot training session to USDA-FSA field staff from Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, as well as several FSA leaders from Washington, DC and across the country.

Our Iowa Learning Farms team started out the morning with a recap of what wetlands are, why they are important, and FSA’s role in protecting them. However, this was not just a dry, boring lecture (e.g. death by PowerPoint) … we kicked things off by turning it into a quiz game show, bringing the signature energy and enthusiasm that the Iowa Learning Farms and Water Rocks! teams are known for!  Yes, for those who are wondering, I even packed markerboards, erasers, and dry erase markers in my luggage just so the participants could all experience the TRUE game show feel.

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20160816_145340450_iOSWe were particularly pleased (and entertained) by how receptive the FSA staffers were to this interactive game show format … they were super competitive, which got everyone engaged right from the start!

20160816_144324322_iOSAfter reviewing the wetlands basics, our colleagues from the other universities moved into more details about the FSA-858 wetland screening form and the full process involved. Students then reviewed two online tools, Wetlands Mapper and Web Soil Survey, to evaluate the possible presence of inventoried wetlands and hydric soils, respectively. The classroom portion continued with a discussion of hydrology indicators and vegetative (plant) indicators – then everyone grabbed snacks and we prepared to hit the road!

20160816_161428325_iOSThe second half of the course was spent out in the field, giving participants the opportunity to practice identifying both hydrology indicators (things like debris lines, sedimentation, and squishy soils where your footprints fill in with water) and well as vegetative indicators. We were given a field guide of common wetlands plants, and the plant experts on the collaborative team taught us all the basics of plant identification!

West-LudgiwiaAlternifoliaThe first site we visited was clearly a wetland based on both the hydrology and plant indicators – this gave us all the opportunity to practice our plant ID skills and identify a good number of plant species under ideal conditions.

The second site we visited was unclear whether or not it could potentially be a wetland – it was an irrigated pasture area where the landowner was considering putting in an access road. This was a good practice run for all involved, as this is exactly the situation many of the FSA staffers will be in, not knowing a definite yes or no in terms of whether it could be a wetland. This gave us all a chance walk through all of the steps of the FSA-858 process to really determine whether or not the potential was there for this to be a wetland.

The participants divided into groups of 2-3, and together we looked for hydrology indicators and then practiced our plant ID skills. Coming into this with no background knowledge of the vegetative indicators, Liz and I teamed up, and we were very proud to find both a sedge and a rush, both positive plant indicators of a potential wetland!

By this point, it was late afternoon, and time to wrap up the day’s training. The group returned to the Montana State University campus in Bozeman, upon which the classroom and field training sessions were evaluated thoroughly by the FSA participants and leaders.

Overall, the wetlands training session that we collectively developed was very well-received! We will continue to work with the other university partners over the coming months to refine the training. Then come spring, all of us will begin delivering these trainings to FSA staff across the country!  Our Iowa State University team will be leading the training sessions across the Midwest – Iowa and surrounding states.

Ann Staudt

Thank you to Brian Adams and Kevin Erb, University of Wisconsin-Extension, for the photographs included with this blog post!

*University partners on this project include: University of Wisconsin, Penn State University, University of Georgia, University of Arizona, Montana State University, and Iowa State University.