About the Spirit of the Water Essay Contest

The Spirit of the Water Essay Contest was established and is funded through a generous gift from Betty and Dennis Keeney, formerly of Ames, Iowa and now living in Madison, Wisconsin. Dennis was the first director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and former director of the Iowa Water Center (IWC).

In 2016, the Iowa Water Center hosted the first Spirit of the Water Essay Contest for high school students across the state of Iowa. This essay contest has since been hosted by IWC on an annual basis. The Spirit of the Water Essay Contest’s purpose is to inspire Iowa youth to explore, reflect, and communicate the importance of water in our lives and communities.

Essay Acceptance

Essays are accepted throughout the fall and winter. Winners of the Spirit of the Water Essay Contest are announced at the Iowa Water Conference in the spring. Essay submissions are evaluated by a panel consisting of agency representatives, industry experts, and water researchers. The top three essays are published in an e-anthology, and the high school students who wrote these essays receive a monetary prize and a scholarship to attend a summer course at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory: Regents Resource Center.

Spirit of the Water Essay Contest 2021-2022 Prompt

As the old adage goes, a picture is worth a thousand words -even the complexity of an active ecosystem can be captured within a single snapshot. Scientific discovery and an emotional connection to the landscape often comes to be by seeing the splendor of nature and the devastation of negative impacts, such as soil erosion or flooding.Through this essay contest, we seek to challenge Iowa high school students to take a deep understanding of a snapshot of nature and explore how a single moment in time can inform our understanding of water resources.

How to Apply to the Spirit of the Water Essay Contest 2021-2022

To apply for the 2021-2022 Spirit of the Water Essay Contest, you must complete the following:


Take a photo or use a previously taken photo you have of a landscape or area of water where you find natural habitat on your street, in your neighborhood, or in your town.


Select the Creative Writing Track or the Research Track for your essay:

  1. Creative Writing Track: A written work that displays imagination or invention. Written works can be in the form of storytelling with the use of literary themes, character development, and expresses thoughts and emotions related to one of the photos. Creative writing can be fiction or non-fiction.
  2. Research Track: An essay written with clarity and organization that synthesizes what is learned from written material and scientific discovery as related to one of the photos. Research essays require a minimum of three resources.


Write an essay about the image, including conservation practices at work, geographic location, habitats, wildlife, human-ecology interaction, etc. Please emphasize water resource management and habitat activity observed in the image. Include the image at the end of the essay submission.


Submit your essay and student information form to hbates@iastate.edu by February 24, 2022 5PM Central Time. 

Submission Requirements

Essay length: 500-1000 words (approximately 4 pages, double-spaced). Please use in-text citations when using a reference. The reference list does notcount towards the required essay length. The reference list must use MLA formatting.Submission Deadline: February 24, 2022 5PM Central Time.


Your essay along with the Student Information form. See below for more information.


1st Place:

$500 cash prize. One full college-course scholarship or 4 credit hours total at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory ($1700 value).

2nd Place:

$300 cash prize. 2 credit-hour course scholarship at the Iowa Lakeside Laboratory ($900 value).

3rd Place:

$300 cash prize.

We recognize the positive impact of diversity and welcome applications from all students meeting eligibility guidelines. Persons with documented disabilities are encouraged to contact IWC staff to make timely requests for reasonable accommodations.