Five Stages of Watershed Awareness

Five Stages of Watershed Awareness

October is Watershed Awareness Month, by proclamation of Story County Conservation Board and city councils in Ames, Nevada, and Gilbert. Okay, so what exactly do we want people to be aware of? I would suggest the following progression…

Stage 1 of watershed awareness

Stage 1: What’s a watershed?  Who cares?

A watershed is the land area that drains to a common outlet. Imagine a river valley between two mountain ridges. Now replace that mental image with gentle hills–we’re in Iowa. But more important than knowing the definition is understanding why it’s important: because water flows downhill, actions on land can have consequences for downstream water bodies.

Perhaps the best illustration of this principle is an incident from 2020. Following a power outage, some Hy-Vee employees in Ankeny poured 800 gallons of spoiled milk down a storm sewer, turning the nearby creek white, killing 2,000 fish, and costing their employer almost $25,000 in fines and restitution. The silver lining of this boneheaded decision was that it made the news and reminded many Iowans that yes, storm sewers drain to rivers (usually without any treatment) and so we should think twice about what we pour or let wash in. The same principle applies to ditches, gullies, and drainage tiles.

Want a more positive framing? Watch this one-minute video we created with the City of Ames about the South Skunk River, and how cities and farms in the watershed can make a difference.

Stage 2 of watershed awareness.

 Stage 2: What’s my watershed(s)?

It’s one thing to know that my actions could (in principle) help or harm some downstream water body. It’s another thing to know that what goes down my neighborhood storm drain ends up in Ioway Creek at Brookside Park, a place where I’ve taken my kids to play. In 2018, we partnered with Story County Conservation to put up watershed and creek signs, in hopes that more people make those kinds of connections.

Creeks flow to rivers and rivers flow to the sea (except in endorheic basins) so we live in multiple, nested watersheds.  A convenient way to represent this is with the US Geologic Survey’s Watershed Boundary Dataset, which has mapped American watersheds at six levels and assigned them each a unique hydrologic unit code (HUC).  You can look up your “watershed address” with our interactive map.  For example, that grocery store in Ankeny is in the lower Fourmile Creek watershed, within the watershed of Red Rock Lake, within the watershed of the Des Moines River, and within the upper part of the giant Mississippi River basin.

Watershed awareness, stage 3

Stage 3: Who are the other people in my watershed?

One reason to learn which watershed you live in is to connect with other people who are concerned with flooding, water quality, fisheries, and recreation.

Twenty-eight watersheds in Iowa have a Watershed Management Authority with representatives from local governments in the watershed (cities, counties, and soil and water conservation districts) who might collaborate on water quality or flood control projects.  Fourmile Creek WMA is one of the more active WMAs; its member jurisdictions pooled money to hire a watershed coordinator who can work with farmers and landowners.  In some watersheds, farmers and landowners have access to additional cost-share programs or receive higher priority when they apply.

In some watersheds, a volunteer group, land trust, or other non-profit organization organizes projects to protect the water or raise public awareness.  For example, the lake at Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames has a friends group, while the Raccoon River has a volunteer Watershed Association in addition to three WMAs.


Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any central clearing house where one can find out what groups and projects are active in your watershed. I’m also not aware of any plans by state leaders to provide WMAs with stable funding or to delegate to them any powers that would help them accomplish their tasks. Watershed projects tend to be grant-funded (and thus short-lived) and watershed coordinator jobs often have high turnover.

Stage 4 of watershed awareness

Stage 4: What are the issues in my watershed?

Some watersheds have management plans (like this one for Fourmile Creek) that identify creek- or lake-specific problems and solutions. However, in many cases, the data needed to evaluate a problem and track progress toward solutions is missing until volunteers, universities or local government step up to do monitoring.

Knowing which issues go with which watershed can help us prioritize and find solutions.

  • Not every stream has the right conditions to support a trout fishery (like Bloody Run in Clayton County).
  • Not every stream has a history of destructive floods (like Fourmile Creek in Polk County).
  • Not every lake or reservoir has suffered from toxic algae blooms (like Brushy Creek Lake in Webster County).
  • Not every river is deep enough and has access for canoeing (like the South Skunk River in Story County).
  • Not every river affects the supply and safety of drinking water for thousands of people (like the Raccoon and Cedar rivers).
Stage 5 of watershed awareness

Stage 5: How big are the problems and solutions in my watershed?

The most difficult thing to understand about a watershed is the scale.  It helps to have some familiar reference points.  Here are some of mine.  (I’ve used an app that makes it easy to delineate a watershed for any point of interest.  The area is rounded to the nearest 100 acres.)

  • 1,000 acres: Creek at Tedeco Environmental Learning Corridor, Ames.
  • 5,900 acres: Peas Creek at the Ledges State Park.

At the HUC12 scale, most creeks are too wide to jump across, but shallow enough to wade.  Watersheds are small enough to fit in one county.

  • 14,100 acres: Walnut Creek at Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge
  • 24,000 acres: Bloody Run at Marquette.
  • 56,800 acres: Fourmile Creek at Sargent Park in Des Moines.

At the HUC10 scale, it might be called a creek, but it often has enough water to float a canoe, and watersheds usually cross a few county and city lines.

  • 132,700 acres: Ioway Creek at Brookside Park in Ames.
  • 173,500 acres: Maquoketa River at Manchester.
  • 209,300 acres: South Skunk River at River Valley Park in Ames.
  • 356,100 acres: Rathbun Lake

At the HUC8 scale and beyond, the rivers are big and the watershed meetings can involve many jurisdictions and long drives.

  • 586,400 acres: Floyd River at Sioux City
  • 1,285,200 acres: North Raccoon River at Squirrel Hollow Park in Jefferson
  • 2,306,200 acres: Racoon River at Waterworks Park, Des Moines
  • 3,733,300 acres: Des Moines River at Saylorville Reservoir
  • 97,191,700 acres: Mississippi River at Dubuque

For each of these watersheds, you’d need to plant about a third of the cropland to cover crops to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the stream by 10%.  Most watershed plans will include more ambitious long-term goals and more complicated scenarios to achieve them, but this is a handy benchmark for thinking about the scale of change needed.  Reaching the 1/3 mark for cover crops in a watershed would be good progress toward our 45% nutrient reduction goals and could produce a big enough improvement in water quality in the stream that we could conceivably measure it, though maybe not with test strips (i.e. from 10 to 9 mg/L of nitrate, from 0.40 to 0.36 mg/L of total phosphorus).

I don’t mean to discourage anyone, but I’m not aware of any watershed project in Iowa that has achieved success on this scale.

The Mystery of the Orange Creek

The Mystery of the Orange Creek

orange colored water in a creek

“Is this pollution?”  I received this photo, taken at 1PM on March 24, from Ames High School student Oskar Niesen.  I met Oskar and other students in Mr. Todd’s environmental science classes for the first time in February, when we talked in the classroom about issues and solutions in Iowa waterways.  The class was interested in testing water quality, so I met them again at the creek on March 22 and showed them how.

Let’s call the site of the incident “Ames High Creek.”  It joins Ioway Creek near the disk golf course and originates with a 60 inch storm sewer pipe near the Richard Pohl Memorial Preserve (Ames High Prairie).  The pipe drains several neighborhoods in north Ames (including mine) that were built before modern development ordinances requiring detention ponds.  I’ve taken video of the torrent of water that comes out of the storm sewer after a heavy rain, and have seen the bank erosion it causes.  I’ve also tested the water after rains and found high levels of bacteria, sediment and phosphorus levels in this creek during heavy rains.  If people don’t pick up their trash, pet waste, or yard waste, there’s nothing to stop it from washing into to the creek.  So I was prepared to answer “yes, the orange-brown color must be pollution.”

Later that evening, I visited the site and chatted with Jake Moore and Liz Calhoun with the City’s stormwater program.  If someone had let muddy water wash off a construction site, or someone was pouring chemicals down the storm sewer, this would violate city ordinances and they would be the people to check up on it.  But the timing wasn’t consistent with construction site runoff.  There hadn’t been more than trace rain since Tuesday March 22nd.

orange stain at water's edge

 Oskar had talked with a geology professor at Iowa State (Dr. Elizabeth Swanner) and suggested another possibility: iron oxide (rust), perhaps formed by naturally occurring bacteria.  As Oskar explained “there are generally 3 types of iron oxide formations. One is a stain that we see now, the second is called flocculent iron which is a cloud that I saw then, the third is an iridescent film on the top.  Bacteria tend to form all three.” At 5:00 on March 24, when I followed up on Oskar’s tip, the water had cleared up and there was no iridescent film, but there was stain on the rocks and at the water’s edge all the way up to the storm sewer outlet.

water flushed from hydrant

Hydrant flushing is done every year with the express purpose of flushing out iron oxide and other mineral deposits that can clog water mains.  Liz Calhoun confirmed that crews flushed hydrants in neighborhoods connected to this storm sewer on March 24.  A little rust in water can stain laundry but is harmless to people and fish.  A release of drinking water can kill fish if it causes a sudden temperature change (this happened last summer when a water main broke) but in this case, we think there’s nothing to worry about.  Mystery solved!  The only thing more gratifying than working with curious young people and helpful colleagues is a happy ending for water quality!

The Natural World as Classroom

by John Mazzello, Project Coordinator

Conference attendees exploring an outdoor classroom area with many logs, branches, blocks, and other natural materials

“Messy Materials” area at the Arbor Day Farm outdoor classroom

If you’ve been following Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Facebook page or newsletter, you might remember that we are working on a unique project with the opportunity to affect how Iowa’s students of all ages experience and learn about the environment and the natural world around us. Through our “Outdoor Learning Environments in Iowa” project, funded by grants from Iowa’s Living Roadway Trust Fund and the Resource Enhancement and Protection Conservation Education Program (REAP CEP), we are exploring the state of outdoor classrooms in Iowa and building resources and guidance to assist future creators and funders in developing successful and sustainable outdoor learning sites.

This summer, with the assistance of Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Mike Brandrup, we have completed site visits to outdoor classrooms previously supported by the Living Roadway Trust Fund and surveyed outdoor educators and school staff on the successes and challenges of using outdoor spaces to deepen learning across all subject areas. While there are major challenges, such as maintaining and sustaining outdoor learning environments long-term and building community support and volunteer networks, there are also important opportunities: many places in Iowa, including schools, have healthy outdoor spaces in which students can learn about the natural world or reap the benefits of experiencing nature no matter their area of study; educators of all stripes, from teachers and principals, to early childhood educators, to community center staff, are committed to deepening student learning outdoors; and there is a vibrant and growing network of experts here in Iowa and across the country ready to share their experiences with us.

Nature Explore outdoor classroom entry made of tree trunks and limbs

Entryway to outdoor classroom at the Arbor Day Farm

Recently, Prairie Rivers of Iowa’s Outdoor Learning Environments Project Coordinator, John Mazzello, and Local Foods Systems Coordinator, Ruth Powell, had the opportunity to attend the Nature Explore/Outdoor Classroom Project Leadership Institute, a conference dedicated to creating and strengthening outdoor learning environments, at the Lied Lodge at Arbor Day Farm in Nebraska City, Nebraska. At this conference, we explored research-based approaches to creating outdoor classrooms, and keeping them strong over the course of many years. This work, supported by the Arbor Day Foundation and the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, is just the starting point for exciting future research plans that aim to clearly document the value of outdoor classrooms for students of all ages. Beyond research, we were also inspired by practitioners of outdoor classroom design and implementation, and had a chance to see and explore model outdoor classroom sites. Most importantly, we had the chance to make personal connections with some of the country’s leading experts in outdoor learning environment design and implementation, connections that will serve us well as we prepare our guidance for Iowans later this year.

A path through tall grass and wildflower plantings

A “pathway through plantings” is a method for engaging students by enabling them to travel through plantings rather than completely around them

Your help is needed to ensure that all the voices of outdoor classrooms in Iowa are heard! If you have an outdoor classroom at your site, or if you wish to create one, we’d like to hear from you. Please call us or email me at and I would be happy to talk with you and get your feedback on what support is needed and what opportunities exist. This is an exciting project and one we are looking forward to sharing as work continues.

Learn more about this project at

Learning through Healthy Soil and Water

Water testing 019

This year, Prairie Rivers of Iowa is working on a project to assist Iowa’s outdoor classrooms in becoming more effective by researching existing outdoor classrooms in the state, seeking best practices from around the country, and putting together resources and materials for educators who want to create an outdoor classroom in their area.1  You probably also know about our work with area schools through our Kids on the Byway and School and Community Gardens programs.

In honor of National Soil and Water Conservation Week, it’s worth taking a look at the important role that healthy soil and water can play in educating the next generation of Iowa leaders.  Research has shown many benefits result when students are able to experience the natural environment in person as part of their education.  These experiences can help contribute to child development and skill-building, increase fitness and motor skills, and even build creativity and reduce stress.  Outdoor experiences also help increase student success in a whole variety of academic content areas: in science, language arts, math, and other classes, plus on standardized tests.

One really important strain of research indicates that students are very capable of seeing a whole variety of learning environments as related and complementary.  Students can relate what they learn outside, interacting with the natural world, back to what they learn in the traditional classroom, and vice versa.2

This is strong reinforcement for the type of work Prairie Rivers of Iowa does, making connections in the natural world with traditional in-class education.  Rather than being an “extra” to be used only when more important instruction has been provided, outdoor education can be deeply connected to so many other content areas throughout the school day.  The view of outdoor education as only a bonus field trip misses the point that such experiences can be critical for making in-class learning more concrete or for making complex ideas real to students.

Healthy soil and water, whether in outdoor classrooms adjacent to school buildings, in designated natural areas like parks and preserves, or simply in children’s hometowns, are critical for providing opportunities for students to experience nature in all its many “classrooms.”


1This project is supported by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources REAP Conservation Education Program and Iowa’s Living Roadway Trust Fund.

2See Zandvliet, David B.  (2012). Development and validation of the Place-Based Learning and Constructivist Environment Survey (PLACES). Learning Environments Research, 15, 125-140.