We’re excited to be part of the first annual Iowa City Climate Festival! The Iowa Flood Center, IIHR–Hydroscience & Engineering, and Iowa Watershed Approach are participating in the #IowaCityTakesAction to share our own stories on climate action topics.  Below are four videos we will be sharing on social media on Friday, September 25 for the themed day around “Adaptation”

Why climate action matters?

IIHR Director Gabriele Villarini defended his PhD at the University of Iowa in 2008 during the catastrophic floods-in his advisor’s basement! This firsthand disaster experience further validated his interests and helped shape his research focus on extreme weather and climate change. Listen in to learn on why climate action matters! View Dr. Villarini’s video here.

Witold Krajewski, co-founder and director of the Iowa Flood Center, has made it his mission to serve Iowans with science-based flood information, tools, and services. IFC researchers created the nationally recognized Iowa Flood Information System, an online tool used to communicate real-time flood alerts and forecasts, flood maps, and overall flood risks. View Dr. Krajewski’s video here.

Larry Weber is co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center and served as director of IIHR for 13 years. He now leads the $97M Iowa Watershed Approach project, which aims to reduce flooding in nine select watersheds across the state by working with local communities and volunteer landowners to strategically place flood mitigation practices that work progressively with agriculture to restore the landscape’s natural resiliency to heavy rainfall events. View Dr. Weber’s video here.

IIHR graduate fellow Jessica Ayers is conducting research on how midwestern base flow has changed throughout the region during the last century and the factors that have influenced these changes. In this video, she explains why climate action is important to her. View Jessica’s video here.

John Rathbun displays watershed award

ANKENY, IOWA – John Rathbun, watershed coordinator for the Clear Creek Watershed, is honored with a Circle of Excellence award from the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance (IAWA) as part of the third annual Iowa Watershed Awards program.

Rathbun is honored with five other watershed coordinators who are also receiving IAWA Iowa Watershed Awards for their multitude of contributions and steadfast dedication to improving water quality across the state.

“With Earth Day on April 22nd, it’s a great time to recognize watershed coordinators — the unsung local heroes who work hard every day to implement conservation practices to improve water quality,” says Sean McMahon, IAWA Executive Director. “John is helping farmers and landowners meet local community goals while also simultaneously advancing the objectives of the statewide Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.”

Improving Water Quality with Flood Control

John Rathbun displays watershed awardBefore joining the staff of the Johnson County Soil and Water Conservation District and becoming a watershed coordinator, Rathbun spent 18 years as an urban landscape designer.

“That’s when I was first introduced to green infrastructure in terms of rain gardens, bioswales, and permeable patios and paving,” he says. “That really spurred my interest in water quality and quantity as well.”

Today, his work in the Clear Creek Watershed focuses on rural areas. About 35,000 of the watershed’s 66,000 acres are in row crops. Clear Creek starts in the farming areas north of the Williamsburg outlet mall and empties into the Iowa River in Coralville.

The main goal of the project, funded with a Department of Housing and Urban Development grant, is flood control in Coralville and other communities. “It helps the rural folks too if we save some intersection at a road crossing from washing out,” Rathbun says.

Preliminary plans are done for about half of more than 70 planned flood mitigation practices that include ponds, wetlands, oxbows, water and sediment control basins, and terraces. About $3 million will be spent on project construction over the next year and a half. The goal is to complete the project in 2021.

“The most rewarding part has been working with the landowners and walking over their land with them and hearing how they look forward to passing it on to future generations,” Rathbun says. Some have told him that they’ve dreamed since childhood of having a pond on their land.

“Most of the flood control projects have water quality aspects as well,” he says. Ponds and wetlands denitrify water and sediment settles out in them.

“They think ponds are close to having the same denitrifying effects as wetlands,” he adds.

At two locations in the watershed, the University of Iowa measures nitrate concentration and several other indicators of quality as well as discharge rates.

Rathbun’s many partners in the Clear Creek Watershed include The Natural Resources Conservation Service, Johnson County, the East Central Iowa Council of Governments, the Iowa Flood Center, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS), Iowa Economic Development Authority, and Iowa Department of Homeland Security.

“Local leaders I work with include those with Johnson County Conservation who sit on our technical committee,” he says. “Our Water Management Association board is very involved. The Mayor of Coralville, John Lundell, and Iowa County Supervisor John Gahring, have given me great support and helped trouble shoot when they can.”

The project is part of the Iowa Watershed Approach, www.iowawatershedapproach.org.  

To help maintain momentum for this work, Rathbun will receive funding through the Iowa Watershed Award to apply to the Clear Creek Water Quality Project as well as funding for his own professional development.

IAWA developed the Iowa Watershed Awards program with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, Conservation Districts of Iowa, IDALS, and Iowa DNR.

The Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance (IAWA) is increasing the pace and scale of farmer-led efforts to improve water quality in Iowa. Founded in 2014 by Iowa Corn, the Iowa Soybean Association, and the Iowa Pork Producers Association, IAWA is building public-private partnerships focused on implementing water quality solutions. Learn more at www.iowaagwateralliance.com.

Click here to listen to the Iowa Public Radio River to River Flood Resilient Vinton Interview

Tune in to the 12:52 mark to learn more about Flood Resilient Vinton with an interview with Paul Schmit, PhD Candidate at the University of Iowa English Department

Mark Kennett and wife in New Zealand

By: Margot Dick, IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering Communications Assistant

Over time, both New Zealand and Iowa have moved from their native ecology to a more intensively managed, agriculture-based ecosystem. In New Zealand, the water ran clear as recently as 20 years ago, whereas in Iowa, environmental challenges date back more than a generation. Mark Kennett was born in New Zealand but moved to the United States with his wife after completing school.

Mark Kennett and wife in New Zealand

Mark Kennett and wife in New Zealand

They both come from farming families — Kennett’s in New Zealand and his wife’s in Iowa. Together, they now run her family farm in Poweshiek County a few miles outside of Grinnell. After living most of his life as a farmer in these two locations, Kennett has a unique perspective on the changes he has witnessed.

Kennett does his part to make sure he is heard in the community, serving on at least six separate boards representing his county and personal interests. Kennett says it’s the neighborly thing to do because in a small, rural community, finding people to take on leadership positions can be difficult.

“People are busy, and it takes a lot of involvement to satisfy all the county government roles that need to be executed,” Kennett says.

Kennett has been an active member of the English River Watershed Management Authority board since its creation in 2013. On this board, he represents the Poweshiek County Soil and Water Conservation District. He saw the value in creating a group dedicated to connecting communities along the same body of water. Generally, the fate of water is unknown once it passes over county lines simply because counties do not discuss their shared waterway.

Kennett saw the position as a way to open up lines of discussion between the people who rely so heavily on a shared water source. He stresses the importance of keeping everyone’s interests in mind, especially when they make an effort to voice an opinion. He especially enjoys interacting with the young adults because when young people get involved in politics, they can help shape their own futures.

Aerial view of flood farm fields

An aerial view of flooded potholes as Kennett pilots a helicopter for his agribusiness Kennett Ag Services.

Kennett found that life in a relatively small watershed makes everyone more aware of the consequences of water-quality and water-quantity issues. While Poweshiek County sat dry at the top of the hill, excess water flowed away down into Kalona and Riverside, affecting the communities in a direct and visible way. Open lines of communication between the communities allows the towns to discuss the issues and work toward a common goal of reducing flood impacts.

“We’re very fortunate in the English that it’s relatively small. We see the top of it and the lower reaches of the watershed, and the performance of one helps or hinders the other,” Kennett says.

Water quality is quickly becoming an important issue in today’s political mainstream, with agriculture typically taking the brunt of the criticism. As a farmer, Kennett has a first-hand perspective on the issue. New technology designed and tested in New Zealand to measure nitrates in the soil will soon be available with the hope that it can reduce nutrient loss from the fields. Kennett is hopeful that technology such as this can help farmers while also improving water quality.

Moving forward, Kennett hopes Iowans will treat water sources with more respect. He believes a focus on the benefits of water will create a culture that protects natural resources rather than simply using them as a waste elimination tool. New Zealand puts time and energy into water recreation, something Iowa lacks. Policy, technology, and young adults are vital to change the culture around water in Iowa moving forward.


Check out this podcast developed by North Carolina League of Cities featuring Larry Weber and North Carolina Mayors Don Hardy and Bill Saffo on lessons learned from their trip to Iowa on flood resiliency.

Podcast: Sick and Tired of Flooding

By: Hilary Pierce, ISU Extension Outreach Specialist, hepierce@iastate.edu 

The fall 2019 Iowa Watershed Academy was held on October 22nd and 23rd at the ISU Field Extension Education Lab near Boone.

Attendees at Watershed AcademyGreat discussions were had during the academy and many questions were asked and answered. Experienced watershed coordinators and conservation professionals were able to share their personal experiences to guide those who were new to their projects. The academy also provided a setting where participants from all over the state could network and forge new connections with those who can provide expertise or support for their projects, as well as learn about what other projects are accomplishing.

The academy began with Jamie Benning, the Water Quality Program Manager at Iowa State University Extension, and Clare Lindahl, CEO of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, who facilitated a discussion and planning session on building and maintaining strong partnerships. The afternoon session focused on practice monitoring: Kent Heikens, National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment, showcased the techniques and instruments for monitoring saturated buffers, Natasha Hoover, ISU Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering, discussed how to monitor bioreactors and Tony Seeman, Iowa Soybean Association, outlined field edge, tile drain and watershed monitoring processes used by ISA. The afternoon session also included information about new federal funding opportunities related to source water protection from Jon Hubbert, Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service. The day wrapped up with Clare Lindahl sharing how failures can be stepping stones to success.

Attendees at Watershed AcademyDay two kicked off with a presentation from Jessie Brown, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, on how to use social media for effective outreach and partner connections. The following field session focused on the intersection between water quality and wildlife benefits of conservation practices. At the research farm’s bioreactor and restored oxbow attendees heard from Kay Stefanik, Assistant Director of the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, and Adam Janke, ISU Extension Wildlife Specialist. Later, Jamie Benning and Chris Hiher, Pheasants Forever, talked about field borders, cover crops, and in-field management practices. Wrapping up the field tour, attendees visited a saturated buffer, which had been seeded with pollinator habitat, and heard from Tom Isenhart, Iowa State University, and Allie Rath, Pheasants Forever. After the field tour and lunch, attendees were guided through a planning session for the Regional Clean Water, Wildlife Habitat and Healthy Soil Workshop series to be held in 2020 where watershed coordinators will partner with NRCS, Pheasants Forever, and agricultural and conservation organizations to reach new farmers and landowners with conservation opportunities.

Learn more about the Iowa State University Extension Conservation Learning Group and the Iowa Watershed Academy.

Nish raingarden install