AMES, Iowa – Working directly with farmers and community leaders, watershed coordinators are the “boots on the ground” of water quality improvement in Iowa.
Coordinators meet people where conservation decisions happen – farm fields, dinner tables and community events – and work hand-in-hand with these decision-makers to achieve conservation goals and implement water quality improvement projects that benefit all Iowans.
It’s a tall task, one that requires knowledge of technical topics like natural resource management and agronomy, soft skills like communication and outreach, and most importantly, the ability to form relationships with farmers and landowners.
Research from Iowa State University shows that the greatest indicator of farmer adoption of conservation practices is consistent interaction with a conservation professional, like watershed coordinators.
Recognizing the value of watershed coordinators and the need to equip them with the latest research and resources, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach launched a program in 2016 that trains and empowers them to be their best.
The Iowa Watershed Academy, now in its seventh year, is a semi-annual professional development event for watershed coordinators and those with similar roles like conservation agronomists. The Watershed Academy is designed for public sector and nonprofit staff whose primary focus is offering conservation technical assistance to farmers and landowners. Thirty to 40 individuals come together twice each year to network and connect with other coordinators, while learning new information about how to implement conservation in their local watersheds.
Other partners include the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Iowa Soybean Association, Iowa Natural Resources Conservation Service, Soil and Water Conservation Society, and Conservation Districts of Iowa.
"As a new coordinator, you often feel like you’re trying to solve the world’s problems on your own, and I think every coordinator struggles with that issue,” said Colton Meyer, watershed coordinator and now environmental specialist in northwest Iowa. “The watershed academy helps coordinators realize that it’s impossible to do all of this stuff on your own and you really need to utilize the people around you and your project coordinators to accomplish your goals.”
Meyer graduated from Iowa State in 2010, with a degree in environmental science. He was hired as a watershed coordinator in 2016 and became an environmental specialist with the Iowa Department of Agriculture in 2020.
Meyer has worked in the Floyd River Watershed in Northwest Iowa from the start of his career, and has attended the Iowa Watershed Academy each year, beginning in 2017.
In 2021, he was named Watershed Coordinator of the Year, an honor presented by the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance during the academy. His years of experience have benefited other watershed coordinators, especially those who are new to the position and are looking for veteran advice. He has participated on the watershed coordinator success panel at the academy and is readily willing to share his experience.
“Oftentimes the coordinators are not in close proximity to other coordinators to ask for help and exchange ideas, so hearing from experienced coordinators about what worked or did not work is invaluable,” said Meyer. “The academy really provides an opportunity to learn from other coordinators and conservation partners while hearing different perspectives on the same issues.”
The academy is organized by Catherine DeLong, water quality program manager for ISU Extension and Outreach. She says the goal is to put coordinators in touch with each other, while giving them two days of education they can use throughout the year.
“Watershed coordinators often feel isolated in their roles, and we want to help them create a professional network,” said DeLong. “At the academy, they get to hear from their peers and learn from each other.”
Because conservation adoption on agricultural land is largely voluntary, watershed coordinator success depends on building local relationships. Coordinators promote conservation practices that protect the soil, slow water down and filter out pollutants -- practices like cover crops, reduced-tillage, saturated buffers and wetlands that benefit the farm and everyone downstream.
The relationship with local landowners is key, according to DeLong.
"Supporting watershed coordinators and conservation professionals is the cornerstone of conservation adoption in Iowa,” she said. “Our coordinators build lasting relationships with farmers and landowners. It’s all about putting people in local communities so that farmers have a trusted, knowledgeable, local person who they can turn to when they have questions.”
Jamie Benning, assistant director for Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension at Iowa State, said the idea for the academy was borne out of the recognition of the unique work coordinators do, and the challenges many of them face.
Benning previously held the same position as DeLong, and worked with state agencies and associations to create the academy that exists today.
"Watershed coordinators play a key role in water quality and natural resources improvement, and at the time, there was no comprehensive training to meet their needs,” said Benning. “These coordinators are asked to understand and apply a wide range of topics and skills including water resources, agriculture, communication, project management, grant writing and much more. We needed a program to help fill in the gaps and provide professional development for these professionals.”
Sean McMahon, executive director of the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance, said the academy is a “critical partner” in helping Iowans improve water quality, and work toward the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.
“The Iowa Watershed Academy provides a wonderful training opportunity for watershed coordinators and it helps make them more effective at their jobs,” McMahon said. “It trains coordinators on the watershed approach, informs them on ways to raise money for their programs, teaches them how to effectively communicate with farmers and landowners – all while putting them in touch with their peers.”
McMahon said the Iowa Agriculture Water Alliance continues to recognize water quality award winners at the academy, because it’s important to recognize the work they do and the impact being made in local watersheds.
“We take a moment each year to recognize their work, and as part of their award, they receive professional development and project funding,” he said. “The awards help validate the work that our watershed professionals are doing, while positioning them for even more success.”
Laying the foundation
Megan Giorgenti attended her first Iowa Watershed Academy in 2021. She is a watershed coordinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources based in Northeast Iowa. She said new watershed coordinators often have a “deer in the headlights look,” because they have a lot of ideas, but not always a clear direction.
Once at the academy, Giorgenti found herself networking from the start, learning from her peers and making lasting connections.
“There was one empty seat toward the front, and I ended up sitting next to someone who has been really influential in helping me learn about soil, which has guided the approach to the watershed project I am working on,” she said. “At each meeting, you get to know another peer better or develop a new connection.”
Her favorite part continues to be the watershed coordinator success panel.
“Sometimes you can get so immersed in your own watershed community that it's nice to take a step out and realize so many others are out there working across the state just as you are, to help improve our natural resources for Iowans,” she said. “I have learned that radical support for watershed coordinators goes a long way and I continue to feel supported in the work that I am doing.”
As the academy continues to grow and evolve, organizers are continually looking for ways to keep the programming timely and useful. According to Benning, it can be challenging to select topics that meet the needs of both new coordinators and those with more experience.
“With growth in funding for watershed projects, there are always new coordinators joining an academy offering for the first time,” Benning said. “Looking to the future, we are exploring more stand-alone workshops on specific skills and those that are tailored to early career, as well as more experienced coordinators.”
DeLong said she is pleased with how the academy has adapted over time, such as creating a Watershed Coordinator Advisory Council that allows attendees to weigh in on academy topics, and is excited to see what the future holds.
“We have come a long way in helping Iowans understand the importance of watershed coordinators and the best ways to support them,” she said. “Coordinators who feel supported – who can network and learn from each other at trainings like the Watershed Academy – are more likely to stay in their position, more likely to build long-lasting relationships with farmers, and more likely to add conservation practices to the landscape that protect our water. That’s a win-win.”
1. Conversation at Iowa Watershed Academy. 2. Outdoor presentation at Iowa Watershed Academy. 3. Catherine DeLong presenting during the May 2023 Iowa Watershed Academy at Iowa State University. 4. Participants of the Iowa Watershed Academy walking across an open field.