Water Chat

Water is an extremely valuable input in agriculture, whether delivered through rain, snow or irrigation. This fact was made very apparent during the kickoff presentation at the recent Iowa Water Conference.  In his presentation Water Issues in the Developing World, Dick Schultz (Iowa State University) detailed the different sources of water in our world.  While it seems that there is “water, water, everywhere”, only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water, the balance resides in the oceans.

Of that fresh water, 69% is in glaciers, 30% is groundwater, 0.3% lakes, 0.06% soil moisture, 0.04% in the atmosphere, 0.06% in rivers and 0.003% in the biosphere.  He went on to point out that 50% of the fresh water is in 6 areas: Canada, Russia, Tibet, Columbia, Brazil and Indonesia. freshwatersources

Water has been a hot topic in the US news with stories of the California drought, an extremely snowy winter in the east and nutrient reduction strategies in the Midwest.  A quick look at the Drought Monitor shows that drought conditions extend from California to Illinois.

With so much talk about water, the AgChat Foundation hosted a Twitter chat focused on water on March 11.  I and other participants used the hashtag #agchat to discuss water issues for an hour and a half.  Much of the discussion centered on how farmers across the country are implementing water conservation practices, but there were questions about nutrient and chemical loss reduction, the costs of water and challenges and concerns of water availability and quality.  The AgChat water chat questions and a link to the full Twitter conversation can be found here.

AgChats are held weekly and are an enjoyable way to see the diversity in agriculture. I encourage you to join in the discussion on #agchat.


Prepping for the Iowa Water Conference

One week from today the Iowa Water Conference will kick off at the Scheman Building in Ames.  I’ve been going to this conference for a lot of years, dating back to when it was called the Ag and the Environment Conference.  It’s always interesting to take a look at the agenda to see what the planning committee has put together.  Since the Storm Water, Floodplain, Ag and the Environment and Research tracks were combined into one conference, there’s always plenty of choices to make for the workshop sessions.

As I review the agenda, three sessions that look interesting include one on EcoSystem Services by Kris Johnson, Two divergent theories on the causes of increased river flows in the Midwestern United States by Keith Schilling and Satish Gupta, and Bacterial transport in waterways and streams by Michelle Soupir.  Of course there are many other sessions that will draw great interest from participants.

One gap I see in the agenda is a place for water project practitioners to tell their story of how they are getting things done on the ground across Iowa and how decision makers are being engaged on a daily basis to create improvement in Iowa’s water quality.  With the Nutrient Reduction Strategy such a priority, I’m surprised there are not farmers or commodity groups on the agenda to bridge the divide we sometimes see in promoted practices and practice adoption across the state.  I understand that the Water Conference has long been focused on the people working in the water realm, but it’s time to broaden the audience of this conference.

Regardless of what I might think is missing, the Water Conference is always packed with information and I’ll be ready to take notes, connect with colleagues and hopefully come home with some new ideas.  And I’m excited to check out the photography contest. This year I submitted a couple of water related pictures, so we’ll get to see how they compare..  See you on March 3!

2013-05-03 08.15.37

On the Road

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend the 4th Wisconsin River Water Quality Improvement Symposium at UW-Stevens Point.  I didn’t realize how much land the Wisconsin River drains – 20% of the state.  We heard about some great ongoing efforts in the watershed and it appears that significant improvements have been made, especially when looking at the before and after pictures provided by some of the speakers, but just like here in Iowa, there is more work to be done. One of the nifty things presented on Friday was a flyover of the watershed.

The reason I made the four trip to the symposium was to present Iowa’s farmer-led approach to water quality improvement. It is always fun to bring the story to a new group and get some feedback from the audience.  The questions never get easier.  A couple of previous visits to Wisconsin resulted in a demonstration project supported by the Wisconsin DNR, and led by UW Extension and the county soil and water districts in west-central Wisconsin. Four developing farmer-led watershed councils are learning how to organize and are now searching for their first significant funding streams.  Project coordinator, Julia Olmstead, presented their work at the Green Lands Blue Waters Conference last fall in Minneapolis.  Her presentation can be found here: http://greenlandsbluewaters.net/2013-presentations .

Next month Jeff Pape, Hewitt Creek watershed chairman, and I are making a trip to the Red Cedar Conference at UW-Stoudt to talk more about the farmer-led approach.  I’m looking forward to more great discussion about the importance of engaging farmers in watershed improvement projects. 

Teams needed for water quality improvement

This past year I had the opportunity to participate in the North Central region National Extension Leadership Development (NELD) program hosted by the University of Minnesota Extension.  Thirty-eight Extension professionals from eleven states joined me on the journey that began in Chicago during January.   Additional stops on the trip were Costa Rica, Washington DC and the Twin Cities.  The mission of NELD is to build Extension leaders at all levels by providing them the vision, courage and tools to lead in a changing world; so each session was jammed full of learning about the competencies needed to be an effective leader, regardless of where we were at in our own Extension organization. NELD-2013

One of the simple take-aways I had during this experience was that an effective team can be developed fairly quickly if the participants are eager to be involved, fully engaged and respect the opinions of others.  Many of the methods used by NELD staff forced small groups to work collaboratively, on very short timelines, to develop, implement and evaluate a plan of some sort.  Under these circumstances, the effectiveness of the team depended just as much on the followers as on the leader, and leadership was often fluid depending on the situation.

DSC_0013So how does this relate to water quality improvement?

In Iowa, a core group of leaders in government and science developed the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, NRS, based on expectations from higher authorities in the EPA.  Through the NRS, a broad vision regarding water quality was developed for Iowans.  The state legislature then set aside funding for demonstration and implementation of practices at the watershed scale. Now is the time for planning, implementation and ongoing evaluation.

The historical structure of soil and water conservation efforts will not be sufficient to achieve the goal of 41% and 29% reductions of Nitrogen and Phosphorus needed from the agricultural nonpoint source community.  Legitimate teams led by local watershed leaders will need to develop effective, inclusive relationships through collaboration, innovation and flexibility to get watershed-wide results.  Ideally, local leadership will be as fluid around specific management strategies as the streams the watershed residents are trying to improve.

A great example of inclusive leadership in the world of soil and water conservation is Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI).  The NRS has thrust PFI and Sarah into the spotlight through the identification of cover crops as a management practice that has great nutrient reduction ability.  PFI has a long history of championing cover crops and acceptance for the practice is now entering mainstream production agriculture in Iowa.  Sarah supports and guides PFI farmers through the trial and error of trying this new-again practice; however, she readily puts experienced farmers at the front of a group, whether at a sit-down meeting or a field day, and lets them lead by telling their story and educating the next “generation” of cover crop adopters. PFI farmers have developed a collective wealth of knowledge about cover crops by continually collaborating with others, innovating on their own and evaluating success with others.

A team approach to learning and doing, where leadership is built and evolves, is a model we must use to improve Iowa’s water, one watershed at a time. 2013-10-03 12.02.09

September 11th webinar to provide information on applying for watershed projects

The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship just announced that  a webinar will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 11 from 1 to 2:30 p.m. to provide an overview of the Request of Applications for watershed demonstration projects focused on water quality and answer questions for any interested applicants.  Anyone interested in participating in the webinar can connect at https://connect.extension.iastate.edu/idals

The webinar will be hosted by Shawn Richmond, Env. Specialist Sr. with the IDALS.   Watershed groups interested in applying for watershed demonstration projects focused on water quality should plan to participate.

These projects will serve as demonstration areas for implementing the water quality practices outlined in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.  Groups applying for assistance should focus on demonstrating conservation practices paired with strong outreach/education efforts to disseminate information to promote increased awareness and adoption of available practices and technologies for achieving reductions in nutrient loads to surface waters.  Successful projects will serve as local and regional hubs for demonstrating practices and providing practice information to farmers, peer networks, and local communities.

 Projects must be within the nine large priority watersheds that have been identified by the Iowa Water Resources Coordinating Council (WRCC).  The nine priority watersheds are the Floyd, West Nishnabotna, East Nishnabotna, North Raccoon, Boone, South Skunk, Skunk, Middle Cedar, and Turkey.


Soil and Water Conservation Districts, watershed groups and other non-governmental organizations are eligible to submit applications.  Projects will be allowed up to three years for initial project duration with the possibility of future extensions depending on future funding availability and project performance.  Groups should seek advice from the regional coordinator in their area.

Project applications, which includes a map of priority watersheds, can be found on the Department’s website at www.IowaAgriculture.gov under “Hot Topics” or can be requested by contacting the Department’s Division of Soil Conservation at 515-281-5851.

 Applications must be submitted by 5 p.m. on Monday, September 30, 2013.

Iowa WIRB makes funds available for water quality projects

ImageIowa’s Watershed Improvement Review Board (WIRB) recently announced that approximately $3 million is available to support qualifying water quality improvement projects.  I have been a part of 5 projects that received WIRB funding to implement innovative approaches focused on improving Iowa’s water.  In each case, the projects funded were led by farmers and the participating farmers collaborated to develop successful incentive programs that led to water quality improvement.  

This year, at least half the funds must support projects (practices) focused on implementing the Iowa Water Quality Initiative (a.k.a the Nutrient Reduction Strategy).  A listing of the practices that have potential to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus loss can be found on this site at the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy tab.

This is a great opportunity for local watershed improvement committees, soil and water conservation districts, public water supply utilities, county conservation boards, cities and counties to request up to $300,000 over three years to improve Iowa’s water.

The full request for applications can be found on the Iowa Watershed Improvement Review Board website.