Advancing Watershed Health Through Watershed Champions

Progress report for ENC18-169

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2018: $74,993.00
Projected End Date: 04/03/2021
Grant Recipient: National Wildlife Federation
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
Adam Reimer
National Wildlife Federation
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Project Information


Modeled on the National Wildlife Federation’s successful Cover Crops Champion program, our new Watershed Champions initiative seeks to improve source water quality for rural Iowa water utilities by 1.) engaging local producers and 2.) increasing conservation practice adoption in the watershed.
Water contamination from nitrates is often linked to the over application of fertilizers and animal manures on private lands, and mitigation can be prohibitively expensive for water utilities (our target audience). Source Water Protection (SWP) plans are an affordable alternative, but utilities often lack the knowledge, capacity, and partnerships to be successful. To address this challenge, National Wildlife Federation (NWF), in partnership with the Conservation Districts of Iowa (CDI) and Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), will convene water utilities and Source Water Protection teams in northwestern Iowa to implement Source Water Protection plans.
Through the proposed professional development opportunity, water utility operators will receive in- depth training on coordinating SWP outreach and educating stakeholders, as well as ongoing support from project partners in watershed planning, community engagement, and farmer communication. They will become “Watershed Champions.” Additional tools, such as a communications manual, infographics, and a final report will help ensure Champion success and facilitate transferability to other communities. Following the training, each Champion will launch a two-year pilot project under the guidance of NWF and CDI staff.
With the ultimate goal of improved watershed health, this professional development intervention will give Champions new communication and collaboration development skills, which they will apply in SWP implementation and new farmer partnerships.

Project Objectives:


The purpose of this project is to improve source water quality for rural water utilities in Iowa by engaging local producers and increasing conservation practice adoption in the watershed. Outcomes include:

Short-term Outcome:

Champions demonstrate new communication knowledge and improved partnership development skills as evidenced by participant survey. Key success indicators include: number of individuals who received training; number of participants who gain or increase knowledge, awareness, and skills about sustainable agriculture topics, practices, strategies, approaches; number of participants who intend to use knowledge in existing or new programming.

Intermediate Outcome:

Champions apply new knowledge through SWP implementation and develop new partnerships with farmers as evidenced by participant survey. Key success indicators include: percentage increase in the number of partnerships pre- and post-training; number of participants who incorporate information from project into new education programs; number of farmers reached through project programs.

Long-term outcome:

Watershed conditions are improved as evidenced by farmer implementation of conservation practices listed in the SWP plans. Key success indicator includes: number of producers who adopt sustainable systems, approaches, and practices; number of acres, animals, or other production units affected by adoption.


Advancing Watershed Health through Watershed Champions

Progress Report

October 2018—December 2019

We have made significant progress toward completing the goals and objectives of this project. We have successfully formed working relationships with three communities in western Iowa to serve as Watershed Champions. These Champions have begun working on outreach efforts aimed at engaging farmers in source water protection efforts through conservation practice adoption. We have continued to support these outreach efforts with the assistance of the Conservation Districts of Iowa (CDI), a statewide conservation organization. This ongoing support has involved periodic check-in’s with Champions and in-person trainings.


We held an in-person training with representatives from our Watershed Champions in January 2019. This training workshop focused on building skills to conduct outreach to farmers on conservation practices (agenda for this workshop is attached). In this workshop, participants learned the basics of decision making and behavior change, communication strategies for reaching new audiences, outreach event planning, and presentation skills. We held a farmer panel as part of this workshop to expose the Champions to farmer perspectives on conservation. Following this workshop, we produced a blog post to share through the Practical Farmers of Iowa, which explained our training approach and the main takeaways from the workshop (attached). We have a second in-person workshop planned for March 2020 to discuss lessons learned and brainstorm resources and tools needed to support future outreach efforts. This workshop will be important for continuing to support Watershed Champion pilot outreach projects through the remainder of 2020.


We are currently working toward building a communications manual to support future outreach efforts by municipal water systems. These resources will include:, including: basic descriptions of conservation agriculture practices; outreach planning tools (such as the Logic Model planning rubric) and communication planning work sheets; and outreach event ideas and templates. As part of this communications manual, we worked with a graphic designer to produce an infographic that Watershed Champions can use in their outreach efforts (attached in Information Products). We plan to continue to develop this communications manual with input from CDI and our Watershed Champions to produce a useful product for future outreach efforts.


Education & Outreach Initiatives

Advancing Watershed Health through Watershed Champions Progress Report

Champion pilot projects that advance source water protection efforts

  • Four or more Champions will become a new messenger for sustainable agriculture and conservation practice adoption: We identified four rural municipalities in western Iowa to serve as Watershed Champions in fall 2018 and began working with them to develop outreach plans. In 2019, one of these municipalities withdrew from the project due to lack of staff capacity. We have continued to work with the remaining three Champions.
  • Each champion will launch a two-year pilot project under the guidance of NWF and CDI staff: Each Champion developed an outreach plan for working with farmers and agricultural stakeholders and we have been supporting these efforts through regular check-ins and annual workshops.
Outcomes and impacts:

2019 Blog Post

Watershed Champions for Source Water Protection in Iowa

Over the last five years, more than 60 cities in Iowa have struggled with high nitrate levels in their drinking water, and 30% of Iowa’s municipal water systems are at high-risk for nutrient pollution. High nitrate levels in drinking water are a considerable public health risk, and studies have linked elevated nitrate levels to bladder cancer, thyroid cancer, and birth defects. Despite the risk, many smaller facilities don’t have nitrate removal equipment to use when levels rise. To mitigate the damage, drinking water authorities can sue counties that manage upstream drainage districts (as Des Moines did in 2015) or construct new treatment infrastructure. Both of these options are prohibitively expensive.

Communities in northwest Iowa source their water from groundwater aquifers which are often overlooked when considering the impact of nonpoint source pollution. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (IA DNR) has modeled “capture zones” around public wells to indicate the areas where the water from the surface recharges the aquifers the water is drawn from. Within these capture zones a large percentage of the land is in agricultural production.

Since nitrate contamination is often linked to the over application of fertilizers and animal manures on private lands, facilities can significantly reduce the risk of nitrate contamination and the cost of water treatment by development and implementing a Source Water Protection (SWP) plan. Through these plans, facilities can work with local agricultural producers to address nonpoint source pollution in order to protect source water as well as the surrounding watershed.

In late January the National Wildlife Federation and the Conservation Districts of Iowa hosted a Source Water Protection Workshop for the cities of Holstein, Kingsley and Ida Grove to review strategies and methods for effective SWP plan implementation. Participants included key members of the community’s source water protection team who will be leading the implementation of their city’s source water protection plan. The training focused on strategies to communicate with farmers and the public about the source water protection work they are doing. The training presented several topics:

  • Targeting a specific audience
  • Engaging your audience and thinking about values based messages
  • How to deal with tough questions
  • Reviewing presentation skills and how to be most effective
  • Communicating creatively and
  • Do’s and don’ts of event planning

Participants were very engaged and focused throughout the event. Everyone who attended mentioned this was their first time thinking about communications specifically and were excited about applying these lessons to their own source water protection plans. The workshop was also a great opportunity for the communities to network with one another. Although all facing similar struggles, these communities don’t often get to meet, share knowledge and build relationships.

All three communities pull water from alluvial aquifers, which are generally shallow sand and gravel deposits. This particular aquifer has no confining layer, which means it is highly susceptible to surface contamination. The city of Holstein Currently Holstein’s drinking water has a nitrate level around 6mg/L. The City of Kingsley’s water has a nitrate level slightly above 6mg/L, and the city of Ida Grove’s nitrate level is a little over 4mg/L.

These three cities have developed and are implementing source water protection plans to increase the use of conservation practices that address nitrogen losses from agricultural and urban runoff.

Practice Farmers of Iowa farmers Lewis Beyers and Jonathon Kiel joined the workshop for the last hour and shared their experiences with conservation on their farms. Each farmer talked about their history with conservation and what they do their farm.  The city participants were very interested in their stories, and had lots of questions about the best way to approach farmers in their areas. Both Lewis and Jonathon were able to provide detailed specific suggestions to each community about good first steps for farmer outreach.

The workshop was a great opportunity for community members to build relationships with one another, learn from local farmers and learn about how to effectively engage farmers and the public on source water protection issues.





SARE Utility – Farmer Engagement Workshop Agenda

Jan 29-30, 2019

Western Iowa Tech Community College

200 Victory Dr

Cherokee, IA 51012




Day 1 – Tuesday January 29th




Lunch and getting to know one another

Monterey Restaurant

1301 N 2nd St

Cherokee, IA







1:45 – 2:15pm

General communications: mental models

2:15 – 2:45pm

Engaging your Audience (integrate with work above?)

2:45 – 3:15pm


3:15 – 3:30pm

 Communicating creatively:

-How to work in metaphors and stories


Answering Tough Questions: Understanding what they really need to know


Farmer Panel – Do’s and Don’ts of farmer communication

-Jonathon Kiel

-Nathan Anderson

-Lewis Beyers


Reviewing the day: lingering questions



The Lady Next Door

515 W Cherry St

Cherokee, IA








Day 2- Wednesday January 30th






Recap of Day 1


Presentation skills: Having confidence, or at least looking like it


9:30 – 10:00am

Perfecting and practicing your story

10:00 – 10:15am


10:15 – 10:45am

Do’s and Don’ts of Event Planning


10:45 – 11:30am

Dealing with Difficult People

11:30am – 12:00 pm

Next steps

-Develop an action plan

-What are you doing to accomplish this year from your SWP plan?

12:00 -12:30pm

Wrap up and group photo




Advancing Watershed Health through Watershed Champions Progress Report

Outreach and process materials that ensure project success and transferability

  • Develop inforgraphics to support pilot projects: Completed, attached in Information Products
  • Develop short paper detailing how to implement an effective SWP: We are collecting insights from our Watershed Champions through regular check-ins and our upcoming workshop. These insights will be used to inform the short paper, which we plan to write in summer 2020. 
  • Host webinar for 10-20 organizations to discuss lessons learned and invite other utilities to ask questions: We are developing a list of organizations that might be interested in an informational webinar, which we plan to host in summer/fall 2020.

Educational & Outreach Activities

6 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters
1 Workshop field days

Participation Summary

7 Ag service providers (other or unspecified)
3 Farmers/ranchers
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.