A Comparative Analysis of Iowa Watershed Organizations: Structure, Function, and Social Infrastructure

Project Overview

Project Type: Graduate Student
Funds awarded in 2019: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 05/05/2021
Grant Recipients: Iowa State University; Iowa State University
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Graduate Student:
Faculty Advisor:
Dr. Monica Haddad
Iowa State University


Not commodity specific


  • Sustainable Communities: community planning, social capital, social networks


    A Comparative Analysis of Iowa Watershed Organizations: Structure, Function, and Social Infrastructure.


    In 2013, Iowa released the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) as a response to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, acknowledging the role that agriculturally dominant states play in water quality issues downstream. The INRS is reliant on voluntary implementation of conservation practices to mitigate field runoff. Such implementation can be difficult to achieve at the watershed scale, and the INRS in particular has received criticism for its slow pace of implementation. Social infrastructure—defined succinctly as how communities come together to solve problems—is critical to this large-scale, voluntary implementation. To better understand this critical component, I conducted a comparative analysis of five lowa watershed organizations using qualitative methods, primarily stakeholder interviews, to gain first-hand accounts of how social infrastructure presents itself in these organizations, and how this in turn both affects and is affected by the groups' structure and function. From the analysis, I was able to create two concept maps of social infrastructure, as well as highlight the challenges and successes these organizations have had, including how the watershed organizations have helped to define what it means to be a community of the watershed. 

    Three of the five participating organizations were Watershed Management Authorities (WMAs), which operate through voluntary, intergovernmental agreements that conduct local watershed planning across multiple jurisdictions. The three participating WMAs were the North Raccoon River WMA, the Boone River WMA, and the Turkey River WMA. The remaining two organizations have more direct farmer involvement and leadership, as well as a less formal structure. These two organizations were the Black Hawk Creek Water and Soil Coalition and the Rock Creek Watershed Project. The research relied on a grounded theory approach that used matrix coding queries to uncover themes across interviews, as well as in the content analysis of watershed plans and other organizational documents. Due to the qualitative nature of the study, results are not generalizable; however, each group that participated in the study is receiving an individualized report that focuses on particular highlights from that group's interviews. 

    The study also resulted in actionable recommendations for the participating organizations, and other, similar organizations in Iowa. Recommendations include that:

    • WMAs consider a new organizational structure, as the boards consist of many locally elected officials, compromising the longevity of the group. More citizen and farmer champions could also be useful in diminishing turnover, as there is presently not a formal seat on the board for farmers who are not also a part of local government, a Soil and Water District Commissioner, or appointed via a local government entity.
    • WMAs should seek better collaboration amongst themselves and other watershed groups in order to be a voice for legislation for additional funding, as it is apparent this is needed to pay for long-term coordinators who can build trusting relationships with farmers.
    • There are opportunities to better integrate watershed plans with community and economic development. Watershed plans currently seem divorced from other planning efforts, particularly as it relates to local economics. Economic development that is better tied to businesses that can assist in sustainable agriculture and conservation practices can better support the goals of the watershed plans and the work that farmers are being asked to do. 

    Due to the nature of the study, an educational approach was not included, nor were there recommendations for farmer adoption actions. From the recommendations to the participating organizations, however, it is hoped that greater farmer involvement in the watershed initiatives can be fostered and that watershed projects will be seriously considered in economic development, particularly in rural areas. 

    Project objectives:

    The project contained two sets of objectives. The first set was directed by the following question: What are the most impactful elements of social infrastructure as it applies to watershed management? This question was answered through two objectives: 1) to understand how five of Iowa’s watershed management organizations are using or contributing to the social infrastructure relevant to their watershed’s scale in order to achieve their goals for water quality and flood mitigation; and 2) creating post-study concept maps that refine the understanding of social infrastructure as it applies to both WMAs and farmer-led watershed organizations in order to provide recommendations for improving Best Management Practice (BMP) adoption. The post-study concept maps that will be presented have been largely influenced by interviewees, who described components of social infrastructure as it applies to watershed management and rural communities.

    The second set of objectives was directed by a separate question: How does the structure and function of watershed management organizations influence BMP implementation? The two main objectives are: 1) reveal finer detail regarding organizational structures, including catalysts of said structure; and 2) demonstrate key functions of the groups, specifically as to how they define objectives, facilitate stakeholder interaction, and collaborate both internally and externally to reach their goals.

    The findings from these two sets of objectives were deeply intertwined in order to provide not only a clearer picture of the social infrastructure at work in watershed management, but also in providing actionable recommendations, with the intent of increasing voluntary BMP implementation. 

    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.