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 CREP Wetlands

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 Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) is a joint effort of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) and USDA’s Farm Service Agency, in cooperation with local soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs). The program provides incentives to landowners to voluntarily restore shallow, semi-permanent wetlands in the heavily tile-drained regions of Iowa to improve surface water quality while providing valuable wildlife habitat and increased recreational opportunities.

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The goal of the program is to reduce nitrogen loads and the movement of other agricultural chemicals from croplands to streams and rivers by targeting wetland restorations to “sweet spots” on the landscape that provide the greatest water quality benefits. CREP wetlands are positioned to receive tile drainage by gravity flow; they remove nitrate and herbicides from the water before it enters streams and rivers. Excess nitrogen not only affects Iowa’s waters but is also one of the leading causes of hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. CREP wetlands are one strategy to help reduce nitrogen loading to those waters.

Targeted results. To ensure that wetlands are sited in the most advantageous locations, IDALS uses advanced geographic information system (GIS) analyses to find locations that are properly sized and situated to provide large nitrogen removal benefits. The CREP wetland criteria are based on over two decades of research and monitoring conducted by Iowa State University.

This research and monitoring has demonstrated that strategically sited and designed CREP wetlands remove 40 to 70 percent of nitrates and over 90 percent of herbicides from cropland drainage waters. Nitrogen reduction is achieved primarily through the denitrifying bacteria that occur naturally in wetlands. Through denitrification, the bacteria remove nitrate from the water and release it into the air as nitrogen gas (N2), an innocuous end product.

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The highly targeted nature of this program has led to 83 wetlands currently restored and another 12 under development. During their lifetimes, these wetlands are expected to remove more than 100,000 tons of nitrogen from 122,350 acres of cropland. In 2016 the number of restored wetlands reached an annual capacity of removing over 1,300,000 lbs of nitrogen. These 95 targeted restorations total more than 891 acres of wetlands and 3,100 acres of surrounding buffers planted to native prairie vegetation.

More than nitrogen removal. Even with the impressive results so far, Iowa continues to explore and develop new technologies to optimize wetland performance by incorporating additional considerations for habitat, hydraulic efficiency, and temporary flood storage benefits. CREP wetlands are already providing high-quality wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities in addition to water quality benefits. Studies conducted by USGS have shown dramatic increases in the presence of several frog species at CREP wetland sites. The high-quality buffers, in conjunction with the shallow wetland habitats, have proven to be a tremendous boon to a multitude of wildlife species commonly found in these areas. Populated by birds ranging from trumpeter swans to shorebirds, these areas have shown that targeting wetland restoration for water quality benefits does not come at the expense of mutual habitat and recreational benefits.

To see additional photographs of CREP wetlands across Iowa and to read more about the program, click here (http://www.iowacrep.org).

Jake Hansen

Inger Lamb: On a Mission to Support Biodiversity With Prairies

Inger Lamb, landowner, PhD, and owner of Prairie Landscapes of Iowa, has a passion for prairie! She puts this passion for native prairie into practice with both her business ventures, and on the agricultural land she owns and co-manages in western Iowa.

Inger inherited her family’s century farm in Monona County in 2000. She entered into a crop-share agreement with her first cousin, who lives on the land and facilitates the daily farming operations, while together they handle land management decisions. The century farm, which has been in operation since 1894, is located in a flood plain. This means that the land contains heavy soils that aren’t well-suited for methods like no-till, paradoxically mixed with sandy areas. After a couple years, Inger and her cousin made the decision to begin transitioning the acres that were least suited to agricultural production into the Conservation Resource Program (CRP). A few years later they discovered that some of her land was eligible for the Wetland Resources Program (WRP) as well. Eventually 80 acres were converted to a permanent easement through the WRP, with an additional fourteen in CRP.

Inger made sure the land taken out of production was put into high quality, diverse prairie. She took advantage of some U.S. Fish & Wildlife cost share dollars available for the permanent easement acres but paid for the remainder of the improved seed mixes out of her own pocket. While Inger admits that farmers are sometimes cautious with new practices and methods, she vehemently disagrees with the idea that farmers are disinterested in conservation. She points out that farming is a business, and every farmer must balance the economic impacts of their decisions with ecological concerns. Establishing conservation practices on the land has to make economic, as well as ecological, sense for farmers to buy in.

The local farming community was a bit reticent of the prairie conversions when they first went in. But as the prairie established, wildlife populations soared. With increased populations of marsh hawks, deer, pheasants, owls, and other wildlife, locals have been eager to enjoy those abundances through hunting. Inger and her cousin are now learning to navigate the many requests for access to their CRP and WRP land for hunting activities, as the local community increasingly appreciates the benefits of their prairie habitat!

Inger has always had a deep connection with the land, and a love for plants especially. She received her undergraduate degree in botany at San Diego State University, and went on to graduate school. Inger completed her PhD at Ohio State University with a focus on plant physiology, specifically the symbiosis of legumes. After graduation she completed a year-long Post Doctoral position before moving with her husband and young son to St. Louis. Once in St. Louis, Inger took a break from the academic world to focus on her family, and to apply her knowledge and interests in plants in a more hands-on way. She began volunteering with the Missouri Botanical Garden, where they were putting in a native landscaping for the home garden demonstration area. This was her first exposure to the idea of using local, native species for gardening, and it is in this way that she started to familiarize herself with native plants.

When her family moved to central Iowa and her son began elementary school, Inger discovered that the school was badly in need of someone to take on the management and upkeep of its outdoor classroom and butterfly garden. Already devoted to volunteer work, Inger took on the role and spent the next six years shaping the native prairie beds into vibrancy, and taking classrooms of elementary students out into the gardens to learn about prairie plants and the wildlife they support. She balanced this volunteer work with her job with Prairie Rivers Natural Resources Conservation Service and Development. Her devotion to the work at her son’s school led Inger to start dreaming of a business model that would allow her to translate her love and knowledge of native prairie into a career.

In 2007, Inger started her own business, Prairie Landscapes of Iowa. Her clients include cities, schools and universities, businesses, homeowner associations, and individual landowners who want to utilize native landscaping on their properties. Prairie Landscapes of Iowa is currently managing sixty projects, including one for a private company in Ames that was started by planting nearly 8000 native plants, now in its fourth year of growth.

What is Inger’s primary motivation for spreading the word about planting native prairie in Iowa? To answer this question, she pulled an autographed book out of the backseat of her vehicle. “Bringing Nature Home,” by Douglas Tallamy, tells the story of how installing native plants in backyards all over the country can save many of our waning wildlife populations from mass extinction. Inger wholeheartedly agrees with this approach to sustaining biodiversity through re-building native habitat, and she routinely gives copies of the book out to her clients.

Iowa Learning Farms is grateful for Inger’s mission to bring native prairie back to Iowa’s landscape in both rural and urban landscapes. From her work to convert portions of her own farmland to CRP and WRP, to sustaining a thriving business that helps others learn how to support native plants on their land, Inger is bringing back a piece of the prairie in Iowa; supporting the survival and biodiversity of our state’s migrating bird and insect species along the way!

Brandy Case Haub

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

Starting the Conservation Conversation

Land rental relationships can vary, but many face similar challenges of discussing new conservation practices with your tenant or landlord.  To help begin the conversation, Iowa Learning Farms created a new publication series with talking points and relevant research findings about a variety of conservation practices.

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“A large number of Iowa cropland acres are rented every year; nearly 50% according to recent surveys. These rented acres are greatly influenced by the tenant who farms them,” stated Mark Licht, Iowa State University assistant professor of agronomy and Iowa Learning Farms advisor, who cultivated the idea of the series.

“Landowners are integral in the decision-making process: from leasing structure and understanding farming practices, to being considerate of practice costs and profitability.  With emphasis being placed on nutrient loss reduction and practices ranging from in-field to land use changes, it’s imperative for landowners and tenants to have conversations about reaching production, profitability, and environmental goals,” said Licht. “These conversations can lead to improvements of soil health and water quality, along with meeting productivity and profitability goals.”

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Examples of leasing structures that can be used when adding cover crops included in the series.

As land is passed from one generation to another, or is sold, it can lead to uncertainty for tenants and landowners alike.

strip tillage benefits.png“We developed this series in response to questions we heard from landowners. They wanted to understand how conservation practices such as strip-tillage and cover crops would affect both their land and the tenant’s bottom line before asking them to add these practices to their management plans,” explained Jacqueline Comito, Iowa Learning Farms director.

“While the name of the series is ‘Talking to Your Tenant,’ the reverse is also true. We think tenants will find the series also helpful as they educate their landowners on implementing these important practices,” adds Comito.

The series addresses in-field practices like cover crops, no-tillage and strip-tillage, and edge-of-field practices such as denitrifying bioreactors and wetlands.

If you have ideas for future topics for this series, contact Liz Juchems at ilf@iastate.edu or call 515-294-5429.  The four-part series, along with other print and video resources, are available online. Copies will also be available at field days and workshops, or mailed to you upon request.

Liz Juchems

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.