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,  

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

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.


Nish raingarden install
Youth visiting a raingarden

By: Margot Dick, IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering Communications Assistant

When Angie Auel asked the fifth graders of Fairbank Elementary School about water retention issues in their community, they told her about their basketball court. Whenever rain or snow falls on the court, they said, the space floods, leaving them without a place to play. Auel, with the help of the kids, created a plan to build a rain garden next to the basketball court to capture the runoff and keep the court dry.

Angela Auel, Upper Wapsi project coordinator

Angela Auel, Upper Wapsipinicon River project coordinator

Auel is the project manager for the Upper Wapsipinicon River Watershed (also called the Upper Wapsi), which encompasses a large stretch of northeastern Iowa. The Upper Wapsi is one of the nine Iowa watersheds that are part of the Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA), a project focused on flood management and resilience.

As an IWA watershed coordinator for the Upper Wapsi Watershed, Auel works closely with the community. Lately, she has focused on educating fifth graders on stormwater management, including students in Readlyn, Iowa. The City of Readlyn is in the process of building a wetland south of town to help contain stormwater runoff and improve water quality as it flows toward the Wapsi River. A teacher at Readlyn elementary received a grant of nearly $5,000 for wetland plants, which the students will plant once school is back in session.

Education is far from the only job Auel does, though she stresses the importance of keeping people involved with the health of the watershed.

“Once the [grant] money is gone, we still want people to be considering what is going on in our watershed, how we can help slow down the water, and not just push it downstream as fast as we can,” she says.

Citizens of Winthrop, another community within the Upper Waspi Watershed, recently received a grant to help install permeable pavers into their streets, a project that Auel will be helping them with. Currently, water runs off rooftops and onto gravel below. The runoff erodes the gravel into the river and on downstream. Runoff can erode river banks, carry dangerous toxins and litter into the rivers, and contaminate drinking water. Permeable pavers offer a solution to runoff by directing the water back into the soil before it can reach the river. The pavers are porous, allowing water to run through the street and into crushed gravel below, which filters the water as it flows into the ground. Water that infiltrates the ground rather than flowing directly into the river is filtered by the soil, removing chemicals that may have been picked up along the way, especially from rooftops.

From a group of fifth graders to the residents of an entire watershed, Angie Auel is constantly teaching people about the health and safety of the water around them.

For more information please contact Angie Auel at

Phillip Kerr, geologist with the Iowa Geological Survey

Urbana, Iowa — Scientists from the University of Iowa are conducting new mapping of the ground beneath our feet in the Middle Cedar Watershed. Yesterday, watershed stakeholders met in a rural area southwest of Urbana to catch a glimpse of the action and learn about the importance of geologic mapping for landowners, farmers, private industry, land use planners, and urban and rural community members. Phillip Kerr, a geologist with the Iowa Geological Survey (IGS) said, “This mapping is critical to our efforts to solve earth science problems — the information we collect will be used to address a variety of problems related to development, growing population needs, and the vulnerability of groundwater, as well as flood management.”

IGS geologists at the University of Iowa participate in the STATEMAP program, funded by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The program provides funding to states to conduct detailed geologic mapping with an emphasis on solving environmental issues. This type of mapping helps Iowans understand what’s beneath the Earth’s surface, and how local geology affects their day-to-day lives.

IGS Researchers Ryan Clark and Matthew Streeter operate the drill rig.

IGS Researchers Ryan Clark and Matthew Streeter operate the drill rig.

IGS researchers Ryan Clark and Matthew Streeter operate a drill rig that can bore a hole up to 50 feet deep to collect continuous soil cores. These allow us to study soil formations and changes, and how they relate to surface geology.

Besides providing vital information for landowners, agriculture and natural resource businesses, and researchers, this subsurface mapping also supports planning and construction activities for the $97M Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA), a statewide program focused on reducing flood risk in nine watersheds across Iowa, including the Middle Cedar Watershed.  In 2013, the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy identified the Middle Cedar as a priority watershed.  In 2016, local residents formed the Middle Cedar Watershed Management Authority (WMA) to bring partners together to address watershed concerns.  Areas of the Middle Cedar, especially near Vinton, are vulnerable to and at higher risk of flooding and groundwater variability. This mapping will aid in planning and land use decision-making for this area for flood management. In addition, it will help the IWA to identify priority areas for conservation best management practices, such as ponds and wetlands, with flood storage capabilities.

Funding is available for landowners in select areas of the watershed to construct a variety of conservation practices designed to reduce flooding and improve water quality. Participation in the IWA is entirely voluntary for landowners, who get a 90% cost share if they choose to build a conservation practice such as a farm pond on their property.

More information:

Iowa Watershed Approach (
Iowa Geological Survey (

Through the Iowa Watershed Approach statewide program, qualifying landowners can receive up to 90 percent cost-share assistance to implement small-scale flood mitigation practices.

Across the state, the Iowa Watershed Approach (IWA) is working with landowners and other stakeholders to implement watershed projects to reduce flooding and improve water quality. The program focuses on nine watersheds (Dubuque/Bee Branch, Upper Iowa, Upper Wapsi, Middle Cedar, English River, Clear Creek, East Nishnabotna, West Nishnabotna, and North Raccoon).

Participating IWA watersheds

Participating IWA watersheds

Local stakeholders and volunteer landowners within the qualifying areas will be considered for 90 percent cost-share assistance to implement in-field and edge-of-field conservation practices that offer flood reduction and water-quality improvement benefits. Eligible conservation practices include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Wetlands
  • Farm ponds
  • Stormwater detention basins
  • Terraces
  • Sediment detention basins
  • Floodplain restoration
  • Channel bank stabilization
  • Buffer strips
  • Saturated buffers
  • Perennial cover
  • Oxbow restoration
  • Bioreactors
  • Prairie STRIPS

The 90 percent cost share is a recent increase from the original 75 percent. The landowner will cover the remaining 10 percent or through local match. Conservation practices will meet all NRCS specifications and guidelines. For more information, contact Kate Giannini at or 319-335-5233

The IWA is a five-year project to minimize flood risk in Iowa that began in 2016. This approach builds upon other Iowa programs designed to reduce flooding and improve water quality, such as the Iowa Flood Mitigation Program and the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The Iowa Watershed Approach is a $97M statewide program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The success of the IWA depends on collaborative partnerships among many statewide organizations and local stakeholders who together will carry out the work necessary to achieve the program goals. Partners include, but are not limited to: Iowa Economic Development Authority; Homeland Security and Emergency Management; University of Iowa; Iowa State University; University of Northern Iowa; Iowa Department of Natural Resources; Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship; cities of Coralville, Dubuque, and Storm Lake; and many Iowa counties.

For more information, visit the IWA website at