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A communications guy and a kayak

Article cover photo
Even drainage ditches are beautiful in Iowa. Captured near Renwick, Iowa, this stream will eventually make its way to the Boone and Des Moines Rivers. (Photos: Easton Kuboushek/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Easton Kuboushek, ISA communications specialist

As a northeast Iowa native, sitting in a kayak and operating a paddle is as familiar to me as a tractor to a farmer. But the scenery and purpose of this particular kayaking trip in early May was entirely new.

In place of scenic bluffs on the Upper Iowa River were steep grass-covered walls in a Humboldt County drainage ditch. Culverts and tile line outlets were placed where I normally see trees and waterfalls. And occupying my hand was a small GPS device instead of a waterproof koozie filled with an ice-cold beverage.

It was sunny, 65 degrees and serene in a way any Iowan would appreciate.

While I took quite a bit of flak for calling a day of kayaking “working,” this trip had a distinct mission. Karl Gesch, a colleague on the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) Environmental Programs and Services (EPS) team, and I were conducting a stream assessment — one of many steps in developing a watershed plan (think a strategic way to implement practices that improve water quality). With water quality being an important issue in Iowa, I was eager to get out of the office and learn how the ISA EPS team takes a practical approach to measurable improvement.

The watershed planning process involves:

  • Collecting farmer and stakeholder input
  • Assessing current conditions
  • Developing water quality and other goals
  • Outlining strategies to reach the goals
  • Estimating resources needed to implement the plan

Stream assessment, as one could guess, falls under the “assess current conditions” step. The process is relatively simple: As Karl and I traversed the slow-flowing stream, I mapped points on the GPS device and shared the corresponding point number with Karl who would record notes in a small notebook.

“Was that 350 or 351?” Karl asked.

“351,” I confirmed. “Which makes this next culvert on the left 352.”

“Got it. Thanks.”

The master at work. Karl captures notes for each point of interest. The geospatial data makes for a robust and accurate watershed plan.

Karl marked what was located at each GPS point tile, culvert or bank erosion. Then he captured observations, like whether the tile was flowing, its size and condition.

A snapshot of Karl's field notes.

Streambank erosion was also on our radar, which I would later learn helps in sediment modeling. Farmers have adopted the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy goal to reduce phosphorous loss by 29 percent, so it's important to distinguish how much sediment comes from farm fields and how much comes from the streambank.

After a week of heavy rain, tile lines were put to good use.

Before the end of the day, we collected data points over 4.8 miles in just under three hours. This was the sixth of seven expeditions in Prairie Creek, which flows into the Boone River and eventually empties into the Des Moines River.

As we pulled the kayaks from the stream that afternoon and hopped in the ISA pickup, I picked Karl’s brain to learn more about why stream assessments are important.

“These assessments are useful for several reasons,” Karl shared.

He continued to explain stream assessments provide valuable information used for field checking conservation models; identifying problem areas and practices; calculating streambank erosion for sediment modeling; and building rapport with farmers and other stakeholders.

Stream assessments show the ISA has put in the work to understand what’s going on at the local level. When the conversation about implementing practices begins, farmers and stakeholders appreciate the thorough detail and data a stream assessment provides.

 “The real value in a stream assessment is the amount of spatial information we can incorporate into a watershed plan, making it more accurate and robust,” Karl shared.

After a two-hour drive back to Ankeny, the kayaks were unstrapped and placed in storage. Karl and I, a little thirsty and muddy, settled back in our desks to catch up on email in the few remaining minutes of the day.

In the following days, Karl will head out for one final expedition to complete the assessment then process the data. From there the EPS team will create maps and models, organize resources and connect with farmers and other watershed partners about how to bring the Prairie Creek Watershed Plan to life.

The start of a productive stream assessment and a step toward a robust Boone Watershed Plan.

For permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos contact Aaron Putze at

©2017 Iowa Soybean Association On-Farm Network®. All rights reserved. On-Farm Network® is a registered trademark of the Iowa Soybean Association, Ankeny, IA.Portions of some On-Farm Network trials are paid for in total or in part by the soybean checkoff.

Iowa Soybean Association | On-Farm Network | 1255 SW Prairie Trail Pkwy | Ankeny | IA | 50023 | US

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Iowa Soybean Review

August 2017 Contact Ann Clinton for past publications.