Iowa Learning Farms Webinar: Water Quality Wetlands in Iowa

“Wetlands have something to offer just about anyone, whether you are an avid birder or interested in water quality and conservation, IDALS’s efforts to promote wetland growth in Iowa delivers benefits to all Iowans,” said Wulf. “Participants in this webinar should gain a better understanding of the importance of water quality wetlands to Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy and how these crucial systems impact water quality.”

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Iowa Learning Farms Webinar: A Drone’s-eye View of Wetlands and Wildlife

In the webinar, “Iowa’s Wetlands from the Sky: Educational videos on wetland wildlife and water quality with drones,” Janke and Stefanik will team up to showcase a program designed to fill the knowledge gap in wetland ecology and diversity by leading an educational video campaign to explore wetland ecology and function through the lens of water quality and wildlife habitat using drones and aerial photography throughout Iowa.

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2018 Practical Farmers of Iowa Annual Conference

Post submitted by Tianna Griffin, the Iowa Water Center’s Special Projects Assistant

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) 2018 Annual Conference was an event that brought families, farmers and professionals together to learn and meet new people.  It was my first time attending a conference and it won’t be my last.

The event was from January 18-20th and there were approximately 1,000 people who attended. This conference opens the opportunity for students, farmers, professors, and professionals in natural sciences to come together to learn new things and network. The conference theme was “Revival.” As the conference program stated, “At Practical Farmers, we believe that revival – of rural communities; of our soil, creeks and rivers; of opportunities for young people to set down roots where they grew up – is vital for agriculture, people and the land.” The topics presented, and the overall dynamics of the event exceeded my expectations. I didn’t know what to expect attending a conference; there were more people there than I expected, it was a family oriented event, and the set-up was conducive to interacting with others.

The event was filled with friendly and professional people. I saw many familiar and new faces. There was a wide variety of exhibitors to network with who specialized in animal feed, tillage practices, organic production, and many more. A silent auction was held, and sessions to attend ranging from, “Teaching Livestock to Eat Weeds,” “Pragmatic Approaches to Sustainability and Profitability,” “Leaving Your Legacy,” and many more. There were two sessions on Friday, and five sessions on Saturday that were 70 minutes long. The presenters were a diverse set of people who were farmers that grow row crops as well as horticultural crops. There were ISU professors, as well as professionals who had expertise in certain areas of agriculture. This was the most impressive aspect of the conference because it allowed for a variety of available sessions. It allowed me to step out of my comfort zone of attending more than just topics on horticulture crops (which is my academic minor) and attend sessions that I otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to attend.

Some sessions that I attended and enjoyed were “Ecology and Management of Iowa’s Common Vegetable Insect Pests” presented by Dr. Donald Lewis who is an ISU entomologist, “Learning from On-Farm Research: Horticulture,” presented by Carmen Black, Rob Faux, and Liz Kolbe. Black and Faux are growers who practice on-farm research. Lastly, “Using Tea Bags to Assess Soil: A Low-Cost Approach?” presented by Marshall McDaniel who is an assistant professor at ISU in agronomy. I learned many new things by attending the conference as well as got a refresher on things of which I already had knowledge. There were so many good topics being presented that I didn’t know what to choose.

I enjoyed going to the PFI Annual Conference. It was a successful event because they represent people with different backgrounds of expertise; professionals and families attended the event. Because there’s a variety of different speakers it allows for the opportunity to learn new things and meet new people. Events like the PFI Annual Conference makes the possibility of their conference theme “Revival” come true by bringing farmers and town people together. According to PFI’s conference website, by “Revival,” PFI envisions repopulating rural areas with farmers, regenerating Iowa soils by diversifying crop rotations, rejuvenating creeks and rivers, and opening opportunities for the next generation of farmers.

IMG_0176Tianna Griffin is Iowa Water Center’s Special Projects Assistant. She is pursuing an undergraduate degree in agronomy with emphasis in agroecology and minoring in horticulture with an emphasis in fruit and vegetable production.

Forming Successful Partnerships: Connecting Water Quality and Communities for the Benefit of All

Workshop attendees gather around a bioreactor at an edge of field event in the Miller Creek Watershed.

Post submitted by Josh Balk, Dry Run Creek Watershed Improvement Project Coordinator, and Shane Wulf, Miller Creek Water Quality Improvement Project Coordinator. 

In an ever-changing environmental landscape with increasing demands, tighter budgets, and a sense of uncertainty, partnerships are essential to provide resiliency for any water quality effort.  Whether a watershed project, a community organization, or just an enthusiastic individual, creating collaborative initiatives can provide support to help weather any storm.  Although requiring an initial investment on the front end to get set up, the long-term benefits of having partners to rely on and bring resources to the table should be justifiable.  Identifying partners is indeed the first task, which can be daunting in itself.  Every community is different and being able to recognize the local resources available is a skill.  Once identified, nurturing these relationships to continue being successful is even more important.  Ensuring that there is some form of mutually beneficial exchange will help all parties feel active, engaged, and remain involved.  Whether it’s looking for matching funds, education and outreach, volunteers, or expanding support, partnerships can add a lot of value in to initiatives.  Getting creative with partnered projects can help to hit untapped audiences and help an initiative stand out in the crowd.

University of Northern Iowa students volunteering to install a residential rain garden in the Dry Run Creek Watershed.

The Black Hawk Soil and Water Conservation District has two watershed projects coming at water quality improvement efforts from different angles.  This has included recognizing the local concerns and utilizing the resources available to each of their benefit.  The Miller Creek Water Quality Improvement Project has formed many successful partnerships working with regional, state, and federal agencies as well as commodity groups. Two prime examples include the Middle Cedar Partnership and Midwest Agriculture Water Quality Partnership RCPP projects.  These projects include several partners spanning from the City of Cedar Rapids, the Sand County Foundation, the Iowa Department of Agriculture, and many others.  Together, these projects provide federal funding for conservation efforts in addition to Miller Creek WQI practice dollars.  In 2017, the Miller Creek Project experienced high cost-share demand resulting in a $27,000 practice deficit.  In response to this demand, Black Hawk SWCD and Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance (IAWA) formed the Miller Creek Challenge.  Providing a $13,500 grant, IAWA challenged the Black Hawk SWCD to raise the remaining funds.  With anticipation of a repeat experience, the Black Hawk SWCD increased their goal to raising $100,000 and are currently fundraising with private citizens, businesses and many organizations.  These efforts have helped Miller Creek to bring in many additional funds to help improve water quality.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Dry Run Creek watershed is about 44% urban with a large residential population of Cedar Falls having a direct impact on the stream.  The Dry Run Creek Watershed Improvement Project has focused a large effort towards partnerships involving the local educational systems to find enthusiastic volunteers passionate about water quality.  This has involved students in kindergartners all the way up to seniors in college.  Efforts have included rain garden installations, conservation book publishing, stream assessments, water monitoring efforts, outreach events, and educational materials just to name a few.  These have all helped Dry Run Creek to succeed in its goals while also drumming up community awareness and support, two essential features for any watershed project.

Given the theme for this year’s Water Conference, ‘Our Watershed, Our Community’, the goal of this presentation will provide valuable insight in to the connection between the two.   We are very excited for this opportunity to share our successes so that others may expand upon their networks for the benefit of water quality in Iowa.

Josh Balk has been the Dry Run Creek Watershed Improvement Project Coordinator for three years. He received his B.A. in Earth Science from the University of Northern Iowa.

Shane Wulf has been the Miller Creek Water Quality Improvement Project Coordinator for 4 years. He received his B.S. in Geography with a Geology Emphasis from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Get to know retaiN


Post submitted by Jamie Benning, Water Quality Program Manager for Iowa State University Extension & Outreach

The retaiN project was inspired by experiences of Tim Smith, an Eagle Grove, Iowa farmer.  Smith participated in tile monitoring and found levels of nitrates in his tile to be higher than he preferred even though he had been implementing conservation practices for many years.  The tile monitoring data moved him to action, leading him to increase his on-farm testing and implement conservation practices that reduce nitrate loss.  Conservation Districts of Iowa and the Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Water program led the effort to develop an easy to use nitrate testing kit to encourage other farmers to gather their own nitrate data to support decision making related to nitrogen management and reduction of nitrate loss.

Through support and partnership from the State Soil Conservation Committee, Iowa Learning Farms, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Division of Soil Conservation and Water Quality, the retaiN nitrate testing kits were developed.  The kits include a bottle of 25 Hach nitrate and nitrite testing strips and a booklet with nitrate monitoring instructions, nitrogen practice information and data log section all in a shippable box.  The Hach test strips are simple and easy to use and provide the farmer with a concentration reading in 60 seconds.

During the pilot phase of the project, 500 kits were distributed to established watershed projects, agriculture organizations and ISUEO field agronomists and engineers.  Watershed coordinators and ISUEO specialists distributed the kits to individual farmers and provided follow-up calls and encouragement to sample throughout the 2015 growing season.  Farmers were encouraged to sample tile outlets on their farms bi-weekly, or more frequently as time allowed.  After the pilot phase, a survey of farmers and landowners and watershed coordinators and ISUEO specialists was conducted. The evaluation feedback from has been overwhelmingly positive.  One farmer wrote, “The kit is quick, very simple to use and gives you immediate results. It helps me determine if I am losing any nitrogen”.

After the pilot phase, modifications to the kit materials were made based on survey feedback and kit distribution by watershed coordinators and extension field specialists and county specialists continued.  Additionally, a partnership with Iowa Corn Growers Association (ICGA) was developed.  The Iowa Corn Growers distributed kits to farmers during their Crop Fairs, Soil Health Partnership events, and watershed education and outreach events across the state.   To date, over 1500 retaiN kits have been distributed.  Conducting on-farm tile monitoring through the retaiN project has been a catalyst for farmers and landowners to gather baseline nitrate data for their farm, implement nitrate reduction practices, prioritize changes to their nitrogen management practices and explore additional monitoring.  Several extension specialists and watershed coordinators from the North Central Region and beyond have consulted with the retaiN team to adapt the retaiN kit for their states.

For more information about the retaiN project, visit: 

Jamie Benning will discuss the retaiN project at the 2018 Iowa Water Conference. The full agenda will be available soon!

Jamie Benning is the Water Quality Program Manager with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She develops and delivers water quality and soil conservation programs and collaborates with researchers and extension specialists to create science-based education and training opportunities.  Benning works with external partners and stakeholders to support water quality improvement efforts throughout the state.

Winter Update from the IWC Graduate Student Research Grant Program: Emily Martin

Post submitted by Emily Martin, MS Environmental Science student at Iowa State University and recipient of the Graduate Student Supplemental Research Competition

Since the last update, we switched the focus of our study to the ability of biochar to remove nitrate in comparison to a woodchip-only bioreactor. As a reminder, the original goal of the project was to evaluate the ability of woodchip bioreactors to remove phosphorous by adding biochar as a phosphate (P) amendment. In the previous update, we found in a P sorption study that none of the biochars performed well at removing P from solution.

To compare nitrate removal, we ran what is called a batch reactor test. The batch test used five liter buckets filled with 30 grams of biochar, 350 grams of Ash woodchips, and three liters of deionized water. As a control to see the real impact of adding biochar, some buckets only contained woodchips. Both the test and control buckets had three types of denitrifying microbes added: Bradyrhizobium japonicum, Pseudomonas stutzeri, and DN-8A.

One issue that can arise not only in batch tests, but also in field woodchip bioreactors is an initial flushing of nutrients from the woodchips, and as we found out in the P sorption tests, also from biochar. To prevent this affecting our batch reactor tests, we allowed the mixture to soak for 24 hours. After the initial soak, the buckets were drained of the deionized water and two liters of nutrient solution was added. The nutrient solution was made to 30 mg/L NO3 and 10 mg/L PO42- using KNO3 and KH2PO4 – PO4 with deionized water, respectively. Samples were taken at 0, 4, 8, 12, and 24 hours to test for NO3N.

Results showed that 12 of the 18 biochars removed more nitrate than the woodchip control. The biochar with the most removal was the 600°C Corn Stover, which almost doubled the amount of nitrate removed by the control. Of the 12 biochars that removed more nitrate than the control, 50 percent were 800°C, 25 percent were 600°C, and 25 percent were 400°C. All six of the 800°C biochars performed better than the control. The nitrate results overall were more promising than what was found in the P sorption test. There is potential to increase the ability of field bioreactors to remove nitrate by adding biochar; however, more tests will be needed to see how the biochar handles scaling up and field conditions. This was a short-term test in a laboratory setting. It is possible that on a larger scale, longer timescale, and at varying influent nitrate concentrations, biochar could perform worse than seen in the lab.


A secondary part of the batch test was following up to the P sorption test. Because the biochar leached phosphorus in the P sorption test, the 24 hour soak in deionized water should have helped remove the initial leaching. We are still testing all of the biochars, but initial results from a set of three biochars and the woodchip control showed that all still leached phosphorus into the solution. This could be problematic for the use of biochar in field conditions and should be managed if tests are taken to full-scale.

The next step for the project is to finish testing for phosphorus removal from the batch tests. After that, a paper will be written and submitted for publishing. As conferences are coming up this spring, I will be creating a poster to present at the Iowa Water Conference (March 21-22) and the Environmental Science Graduate Student Symposium (April 4).


Planning for Watershed Success in Eastern Iowa

Attendees of the Indian Creek Watershed open house discussing the map of the watershed. Photo from the Indian Creek Watershed Facebook page.

Post edited by Hanna Bates, Program Assistant at the Iowa Water Center

This week, we chatted with Jennifer Fencl, the Solid Waste & Environmental Services Director at The East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG). Fencl works to bring eastern Iowa stakeholders together to better manage their natural resources and to create a long-term investment in their community. Below are a few highlights from our conversation that outlines some of the behind-the-scenes work in watershed planning.

Please describe your work in watershed management in Iowa.

The East Central Iowa Council of Governments (ECICOG) became involved in watershed management in 2011 when the City of Marion requested assistance in applying for Watershed Management Authority Formation grant funding from the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) for the Indian Creek watershed. The Indian Creek Watershed Management Authority (ICWMA) was formed under Iowa Code 28E and 466B in August 2012 with 6 of the 7 eligible jurisdictions agreeing to plan for improvements on a watershed level. Funds were made available in 2013 by the IEDA to complete watershed management plans to address flood risk mitigation and water quality. The ICWMA received one of the three planning grants and engaged in a multi-jurisdictional planning approach facilitated by ECICOG in partnership with several local, state, and federal agencies. The resulting Indian Creek Watershed Management Plan (ICWM Plan) identifies strategies and recommendations for stormwater management and water quality protection, including specific implementation activities and milestones. The ICWM Plan was completed and presented to the public in June 2015 and adopted by all six of the ICWMA members at policy maker meetings during July and August of 2015.

As the ICWMA Plan was wrapping up, the City of Coralville requested ECICOG’s assistance in forming a WMA for the Clear Creek watershed. In this case, Coralville was willing to sponsor the WMA formation and planning grant application services. The Clear Creek Watershed Coalition (CCWC) formed as a WMA under Iowa Code 28E and 466B in October 2015 with all 9 of the eligible jurisdictions joining. ECICOG secured DNR watershed planning funds early in 2016 and the CCWC is mid-way through their planning process. Fortunately, the Clear Creek watershed was one of the eight watersheds selected for the Iowa Watershed Approach HUD grant project. The additional watershed planning funds from the HUD grant will add significantly to the resulting watershed plan.

In early 2016, the Middle Cedar Watershed Management Authority (MCWMA) was on its way to formally becoming a WMA and needed some help in completing the agreement filing, developing by-laws, and organizing the Board of Directors. ECICOG assisted the MCWMA in forming under Iowa Code 28E and 466B in June 2016 with 25 of the 65 eligible jurisdictions joining. The MCWMA is one of the eight watersheds selected for the Iowa Watershed Approach HUD grant project.

What are the challenges and rewards in doing work with watershed management?

One challenge that became clear in the Indian Creek process was the disconnect between the watershed (technical) assessment and the local stakeholders. That gap must be bridged to develop meaningful, locally-based goals and implementation strategies.  For me, the reward is watching the interaction between perceived “enemies” (urban/rural; big city/suburb; ag producer/government type) and bringing skeptical people into the process to develop an actual plan… that they ultimately agree to.

What kinds of stakeholders are involved in developing a watershed management plan?

It is critical to include the local Soil and Water Conservation District, government representatives, and the landowners (both urban & rural, flood impacted if possible) in developing goals and strategies. I believe that it is also important to identify the ‘experts’ in your watershed, both locally and from state agencies, early on and have them provide input on what assessment activities and planning services are really needed from an outside consultant. There is a role for everyone to play.

What are the basic steps in putting together a watershed management plan?

Here is my road map:

  1. Invite participation
  2. Identify resource concerns
  3. Assemble experts
  4. Complete assessment work
  5. Present the assessment to a broad list of stakeholders (need good interpreters)
  6. Develop goals, define implementation strategies, and prioritize the strategies
  7. Compile the plan and present the plan for comment
  8. Shop the plan for formal adoption by policy making board/councils.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to those wanting to develop a watershed plan for their community?

Run… kidding, sorta.  Seek help from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship basin coordinators first, and then gauge the interest of the other entities in the watershed. You need to find some champions to help smooth the way for local elected officials.