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Partnerships for Iowa Watersheds

IIHR Research Engineer Marian Muste on the banks of the Iowa River.

IIHR Research Engineer Marian Muste on the banks of the Iowa River.

We all need and use water. This fact underlines the urgent need to understand and balance our many and varied water needs in a sustainable way.

A new project in the Iowa-Cedar Rivers Basin will do just that by promoting collaborative partnerships
among stakeholders in the basin.

In 2009, the Iowa-Cedar Rivers Basin was named a part of the UNESCO-HELP program (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s Hydrology for the Environment, Life, and Policy). Later that year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) formed an interagency initiative, the Iowa-Cedar Watershed Interagency Coordination Team (ICWICT).

The UNESCO-HELP Basin is an integral part of ICWICT, fostering a new approach for water resources management by promoting a collaborative partnership among scientists, water resource managers, and water law and policy experts. ICWICT meets to reach consensus on important water-related issues in the basin that no one organization can solve alone, and to establish long-term strategies by combining resources and expertise.

A Meeting of Minds

IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, which is home to the Iowa-Cedar UNESCO-HELP project, is just one of 20 entities involved in ICWICT, which includes academic organizations; NGOs; local authorities; federal, state, and county governments; and other stakeholders in the basin. This project fosters integrated water resources management, a new approach enabling a collaborative framework for stakeholders to work together on complicated water issues. The initial focus has been systemic
flood damage reduction.

“Everything is about partnerships,” explains IIHR Research Engineer Marian Muste, who is also the Iowa-Cedar UNESCO-HELP Basin coordinator. The main role of the UNESCO-HELP Basin is to bridge the gap between science and management. Among the activities sponsored by the UNESCO-HELP Basin are capacity building and training workshops designed to develop strong partnerships and share practical knowledge.

The key ingredients of the new initiatives are the integration of resources and expertise through stakeholder partnerships. Although it is a large and varied group, the team manages to avoid stalemate. “Working with diverse partners is incredibly challenging,” says Jennifer Filipiak of The Nature Conservancy. “However, we are all motivated by a singular vision—a sustainable Cedar-Iowa River watershed.” Jason Smith of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agrees, and adds that including many
points of view is important. “I think it keeps the approach balanced,” he says.

Public participation is also an important part of the process. “I believe the biggest opportunity for change lies in how the project seeks to engage the public in watershed management and planning,” says Mary Beth Stevenson, a representative of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources who serves as Iowa-Cedar Rivers Basin coordinator.

Intelligent Digital Watershed

One of ICWICT’s primary goals is to develop tools to help people make informed land use decisions that weigh the economic, environmental, and social aspects of their choices. One such tool is the “intelligent digital watershed,” developed to support integrated and sustainable water resources management and a better understanding of human-natural system interactions through the use of advanced computer and communication technology. The best available hydrological, sociological, and economic data are used in this cyberinfrastructure-based system for monitoring, modeling, and forecasting within a watershed. The information is made available in a user-friendly and easily accessible system. “Giving land managers the opportunity to visualize the broad impact of decisions made locally could be a powerful agent of
change,” Stevenson explains.

Muste has been one of the drivers of the “cyberinfrastructure” efforts on campus since 2004, when he created a multidisciplinary research group in response to the National Science Foundation (NSF) cyberinfrastructure initiative. Muste and his colleagues were awarded NSF grants in 2006, 2008, and 2011, supporting cyberinfrastructure projects designed to understand and manage watersheds in an innovative way.

Filipiak believes ICWICT’s work is critical. “Globally, our freshwater resources are imperiled. Humans need water in so many different ways, for so many different reasons … Water really is ‘life.’” The HELP initiative is a global network including more than 90 HELP basins in about 70 countries. The Iowa HELP watershed is one of five in the United States, and the first in the Midwest. To learn more about the Iowa-Cedar Watershed Interagency Coordination Team, visit

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Last modified on June 25th, 2015
Posted on March 6th, 2012

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