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Innovative Watershed Management

Posted on April 17th, 2013
IIHR Director Larry Weber (center, back) leads the Iowa Watersheds Project. He is pictured here near a rural farm pond west of Iowa City with team members: (front, l to r) Nick Thomas, Matt Wunsch, Will Klingner, and Chad Drake; (back, l to r) Sara Steussy, Weber, and Marian Muste.

IIHR Director Larry Weber (center, back) leads the Iowa Watersheds Project. He is pictured here near a rural farm pond west of Iowa City with team members: (front, l to r) Nick Thomas, Matt Wunsch, Will Klingner, and Chad Drake; (back, l to r) Sara Steussy, Weber, and Marian Muste.

How can innovative management practices make a difference within watersheds?

In 2009, Iowans were grappling with difficult questions in the wake of devastating floods that had washed through Eastern Iowa a year earlier. One positive result was the formation of the Water Resources Coordinating Council (WRCC), a group of experts and leaders that developed a list of 22 flood-related recommendations for the Iowa Legislature.

In 2010, the Iowa Legislature passed three of those recommendations, but without funding. One of these proposals came back to life and actually received funded, without any additional legislative action.

That $8.8M miracle resulted in the Iowa Watersheds Project.

A Million Dollar Phone Call

It all started with a telephone call.

In August 2010, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made money available to states that were federally-declared disaster areas in 2008. Iowa received more funds than any other state, largely because of the innovative responses it had shown in flood recovery — including the creation of the Iowa Flood Center at IIHR.

When Susan Judkins of the Rebuild Iowa Office called to give Weber the news, he responded, “Well, if the state is interested in any more innovations, I’d be happy to help.” Judkins chuckled, and the call ended.

Two days later, Weber got a second phone call. “What did you mean by ‘more innovations?’” asked Major General Ron Dardis of the Iowa National Guard. Weber answered with the first thing that came to mind — the unfunded legislation, and specifically watershed-level research.

Dardis asked Weber to begin developing a cost estimate and project description, but before he could comply, Dardis called again to say that $8.8M had been allocated for the watershed research project.

Today the Iowa Watersheds Project is well underway. Weber is leading a team that includes IIHR Research Engineer Marian Muste and IFC Research Support Coordinator Sara Steussy, as well as four graduate students. Weber is proud that the Iowa Flood Center was able to acquire the funding without going back to the legislature, hat in hand. “They did their work — now we did ours. I think it was just absolutely outstanding.”

Where Does the Rain Go?

As planning for the Iowa Watershed Projects was getting underway, Weber says he wanted to make sure the project included funding to build projects in the watersheds that could make a measureable difference.

Weber says the project has three components, all essential: the hydrologic assessment, building the projects, and proving that they work. Without any one of those elements, the value of the project drops off sharply. “At the end of the day, we wouldn’t be any smarter,” Weber says.

Earlier this year, the team assembled a watershed selection committee that represented many viewpoints and stakeholders from across the state. The committee analyzed proposals from nine watersheds and selected four to participate in the project, each representing a different geographical and topographical area of the state, as well as a different land use pattern.

The project is broken into two phases, the first of which is the hydrologic assessment.

What, exactly, is a hydrologic assessment? Steussy defines it as modeling to help us understand the movement of water in the watershed. “When rain falls, where does it end up?” she says. The hydrologic assessment will use computational modeling to identify areas in the watershed where the constructed projects will have the most impact on reducing downstream flood damage.

Graduate students Nick Thomas, Matt Wunsch, Chad Drake, and Will Klinger use physically-based computational models to represent the terrain, land use, geography, etc., in each of the four watersheds. They’re also collecting data and further developing the model.

It’s rewarding work, says Drake, a first-year graduate student. He is researching the Upper Cedar River Watershed. “I’ve enjoyed studying the impact water can have on people,” Drake says. “I also like the close proximity of the project to its practical applications.”

In the meantime, Weber and the rest of the team are holding regular meetings with constituents in the watersheds. It’s impossible to overestimate the impact of this human aspect, Weber says. “Landowner participation and watershed engagement are the most important element.”

A 50-Year Vision

After 18 months of modeling and meetings, watershed representatives will choose a few very small areas of the watershed in which to build the improvements — with advice from the IFC researchers. That’s Phase II, expected to begin in 2014.

The improvements could include farm ponds, wetlands, floodplain easements, and more. The projects will be kept small, so researchers can clearly assess and analyze their impact. But even areas that don’t directly benefit from the construction of a project will have an advantage moving forward, Weber says. They will be left with valuable documents and data developed through the hydrologic assessment, allowing them to better compete for funds in the future.

The payoff for researchers and Iowans will come at the end of the project when they can begin to understand what works best in each watershed, and which strategies can be scaled up for implementation throughout the state.

Weber hopes that the results of the Iowa Watersheds Project can help provide a long-term plan for improving the state’s flood resiliency. “I like to think about vision,” he explains. “In this case, a 50-year vision for watershed enhancement.”

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