ThinkWater Fellows Announced for 2017-18


USDA-Funded Fellowship Enables Regional/State Water Experts to Incorporate Systems Thinking in Education, Outreach, and Extension.

Ithaca, N.Y.  March 27, 2017

ThinkWater is excited to announce the selection of ten leaders in water education, outreach, and extension to be ThinkWater Fellows for 2017-18. The ThinkWater fellowship builds a cohort of scholars and professionals engaged with water-related issues and teaches them systems thinking for application to their ongoing professional work. While the first cohort of ThinkWater fellows were advanced scholars and faculty conducting water-related research, fellows from the second cohort work in positions that allow them to integrate systems thinking into program design, education, and outreach involving a broad range of audiences, such as farmers, community members, volunteers, and youth.

The fellowship committee received many outstanding applications from candidates across the country doing important work in the water arena. The following ten were ultimately selected:

  • Professor J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. (Environmental Sociologist, Iowa State University)
  • Jim Collins, Jr. (North Dakota Department of Health Division of Water Quality)
  • Professor Helen E. Dahlke (Project Lead, Agricultural Groundwater Recharge and Banking, University of California, Davis)
  • Kristin Floress (Research Social Scientist, US Forest Service)
  • Deborah Suzanne Groebner (MinnAqua, Fish & Wildlife Division, MN Department of Natural Resources)
  • Jo A. Latimore (Aquatic Ecologist and Outreach Specialist, Michigan State University, Department of Fisheries & Wildlife)
  • Blake Osborn (Regional Water Specialist, Colorado Water Institute; Colorado State University Extension)
  • Erika Pierson (Program Manager, Earth Force)
  • Kara Salazar (Sustainable Communities Extension Specialist, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant; Department of Forestry and Natural Resources, Purdue University Extension)
  • Grant Weinkam (Research Analyst, University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center)

Dr. Laura Cabrera expressed excitement at the caliber of applications this year and the diversity, professional experience, and professional reach of the 10 fellows selected.  “Water is such a critical issue, so we’re delighted to have representation from critical geographic regions, individuals who work with youth, adults, volunteers, businesses and not-for-profit organizations, those involved in direct and indirect service, with a number of them having received large grants to run complex projects related to a whole range of water issues.”

Fellows will learn a proven method for teaching the universal rules underlying systems thinking approaches and methods that is suitable for all ages and populations from Drs. Derek and Laura Cabrera, faculty at Cornell University and founders of Cabrera Research Lab. While learning and applying systems thinking, the fellows will be participating in a research study to determine the utility of the relatively brief but intensive systems thinking training for education, extension, and outreach activities around complex water-related issues.

Fellows will develop and implement a comprehensive plan to integrate systems thinking into their water education, extension and outreach work in the geographic area they serve. The 2016-17 fellowship involves professionals from around the country, so much of the training, consultation, and interaction will occur online, with the exception of the annual, live-streaming systems thinking conference at Cornell University in early December. Fellows will make brief TED-style presentation on their strategies for implementing systems thinking in their ongoing water-related projects and discuss early insights about implementation in their geographic regions.

Dr. Derek Cabrera expressed enthusiasm at the opportunity to work with a new cohort of ThinkWater fellows. “Our involvement with last year’s cohort was incredibly rewarding. Not only did we advance the work of researchers with truly diverse interests and methods for approaching complex water problems, we provided a venue for these scholars–and other experts applying systems thinking–to present at a live-streaming event that attracted 700 participants from 31 states and 39 different countries.

About ThinkWater

ThinkWater is a national campaign supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and led by the University of Wisconsin-Extension and Cabrera Research Lab to help people of all backgrounds and ages think and care deeply about water. It does so by applying systems thinking to existing water education and research efforts and by actively engaging people in a new way around water issues. Our mission-vision is to Engage, Educate and Empower 7 billion systems thinkers to solve wicked water problems.

Media Inquiries:

Laura Cabrera, PhD
Director and Co-Principal Investigator

New lecture series named for renowned aquatic biologist

Date: March 29, 2017

Source: Eric Larson, 217-300-3197,
News writer: Debra Levey Larson, 217-244-2880,

URBANA, Ill. – What makes a stream or river healthy? In the years following the growth of the environmental movement in the United States and passage of the Clean Water Act, researchers and managers struggled with this question of just how to measure the condition of our waters.

One prominent answer came from the University of Illinois, where alumnus and faculty member James R. Karr proposed the idea of an “index of biotic integrity” (or IBI) in 1981. Karr’s central solution to the question of measuring river health was to use the organisms that live in freshwaters to tell us about their condition – a concept that has subsequently been widely adopted in the United States to evaluate and enforce Clean Water Act compliance, as well as similar management goals internationally.

Karr’s first IBI used fish communities of the Midwest to determine the condition of rivers on a gradient from the highly impaired or even fishless, like parts of the Chicago River at the time, to more healthy rivers with intact native fish communities, such as the Embarras River south of Champaign-Urbana. Yet over time, the IBI method has evolved to include a suite of additional freshwater organisms, from algae to insects, that can help us understand if rivers and streams are receiving too many nutrients, too much sediment, or are experiencing modifications to their flow or temperature regimes beyond the range that their organisms can tolerate. The IBI concept even jumped to marine and terrestrial ecosystems, where managers and scientists have sought to use vegetation or bird communities to tell us about the condition of land and water. Karr’s publications proposing and developing the IBI remain among the most influential papers ever published in the fields of fisheries and freshwater biology, continuing to be cited by researchers and influence policy and management every year.

In recognition of his contributions to aquatic biology and environmental management, a new James R. Karr Lecture in Aquatic Biology will kick off on Friday, April 14 with an inaugural address from its namesake. Co-sponsored by the University of Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and the Illinois Natural History Survey within the Prairie Research Institute, this lecture series will seek to bring a prominent scientist to campus every year to interact with faculty, staff, and students, and give a public lecture in the spirit of Karr’s efforts to conduct integrative science in the service of environmental issues and aquatic biology.

The lecture will begin at 3 p.m. on Friday, April 14 in the Monsanto Room of the College of ACES library at 1101 South Goodwin Avenue, Urbana.

“Clean water is not enough to ensure healthy rivers” is the title of Karr’s April 14 lecture.

About his talk, Karr says “For most of the twentieth century, water managers remained largely unaware of the collapse of aquatic ecosystems. They saw water narrowly, as a fluid to be consumed or used as a raw material in agriculture or industry. The 1972 Clean Water Act call to ‘restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters’ did not halt the declines. Efforts to protect water resources emphasized control of chemical contaminants; preserving aquatic life was not the intent.”

According to Karr, development of the index of biotic integrity provided a more integrative approach to measuring the biological status of streams. In addition, framing the ways people alter aquatic communities in terms of water quality, flow regime, physical habitat structure, energy source, and biotic interactions opened the door to a better understanding of the causes of water resource declines.

“IBI and what I call the five-factor model explicitly recognize the many connections between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and show that protecting chemical water quality alone is not enough to conserve or rehabilitate life in streams. Direct biological monitoring and assessment furnish a mechanism to directly assess the condition of water bodies, diagnose the causes of degradation, define actions to attain conservation and restoration goals, and evaluate the effectiveness of management decisions. These tools are now used by water managers throughout the world in diverse aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. But society is still short on agency and political leadership needed to protect and restore living systems.”

Karr’s cosmopolitan career included far more than just developing the IBI concept. Following his Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Illinois, he worked as a professor at Purdue University, Virginia Tech, the University of Washington, and his alma mater from 1975 to 1984. He also served as deputy director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama during the 1980s. His broad interests outside of freshwater biology include ornithology, tropical forest ecology, and environmental policy. He published highly influential papers on the community ecology of birds and their forests in both the tropics and Illinois, and trained a generation of successful scientists. He is a fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and received major career achievement awards from the American Fisheries Society and Society for Freshwater Science.

Kurt Faush, a professor in fisheries at Colorado State University who worked with Karr at the University of Illinois as a post-doctoral researcher, says “Jim Karr is a unique scientist, whose interests range from testing theories in community ecology to applying ecological principles to solve watershed management problems. He was a supportive and inspiring mentor to those of us privileged to work with him. He encouraged us to think big, and by his own example showed us how a scientist could work beyond the boundaries of science and outside their comfort zone to make a real difference.”

One of Karr’s former U of I doctoral students, Paul Angermeier, who is currently the assistant leader of the United States Geological Survey Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit at Virginia Tech says, “Jim has for several decades been a tireless advocate for applying sound science to environmental issues. His approach to these issues is consistently integrative, innovative, and synthetic. Remarkably, he is equally capable of seeing the biological world through the eyes of birds, fishes, insects, and corals. His thinking and analysis goes well beyond ecology to explore how knowledge from disciplines such as anthropology, economics, law, medicine, and political science figure into solving today’s wickedly complex environmental problems. Jim was doing ‘sustainability science’ decades before it was labeled as such.”

The James R. Karr Lecture in Aquatic Biology is free and open to the public.

Waste Water?

Manure.  One stage in a rich, life-giving cycle from sun, soil, and water, to  plant, to animal, to kitchen table, and back to the soil again. Sometimes we call manure animal waste. This term signifies a break in the natural  cycle, a break in our thinking about it, or both. Thinking of manure as waste rather than a critical contributor to soil replenishment is costly for food production, soil productivity, and the quality of our water.*

We have a similar break in the way we think about and use water. Whether it’s the chemicals we use to clean our homes; the stormwater running off our streets full of oil, grease, and salt from winter road-clearing; or the overabundance of nitrogen and phosporus coming from our sewage treatment plants and farm fields, we move it down stream. Out of sight, out of mind.

March 22 is World Water Day. This year’s theme is “Water and Wastewater”. Let’s think about the term wastewater for a minute. If you’re reading this, you’re already well-versed in the water cycle. You know the water you drink was at some point the animal waste of a Tyrannosaurus or Velociraptor. If you live in a community that draws its water from a river – the Ohio, the Mississippi, and others – you are probably aware that someone else’s wastewater is your drinking water.

Wastewater. I know there are talented, insightful professionals that use this term all the time.  I respectfully suggest that we ought to stop.  This message is the essence of the World Water Day theme. Perhaps if we stopped calling our water waste, we would start treating it as if none of it was expendable, as if we knew that we, or someone we love would be drinking that water sooner or later.

Here are just a few examples of organizations that recognize and communicate that no water is wastewater. Feel free to share more with us here.
*For more information about the value of manure for soil health (and impacts on water), see an excellent round table series covering manure and soil healh issues including manure and soil health testing, manure and soil health biology, manure and soil health erosion and losses, and manure and cover crops. This series is sponsored by the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center and the North Central Region Water Network.
If you would like to contribute ideas for the future of the North Central Region Water Network, feel free to send me a note at

Rebecca Power, Network Director

Water as an Economic Good

By: Rebecca Power

In today’s world, communication in the public sphere is not for the faint of heart. Communicating about how we value and manage water is no different. One of the practices that critical thinkers and effective communicators use is to first offer some common definitions.

Economists have defined four potential categories for all “goods” in our economic system:

  1. Private goods can be owned and consumed by one person without affecting others. A bottle of water (or soda, or beer) purchased at a grocery or convenience store falls into this category.
  2. Club goods are those goods which a person can pay a set “entry” fee and then have unlimited access to the good. Unlimited use of a club good by one person does not compromise the use of the good by another. Think Netflix or cable television. When it comes to water, we sometimes treat our urban water utilities like a club system; however, unlimited use of water by enough people will eventually compromise its availability for others.
  3. Public goods are those that can be broadly accessed without diminishing the availability for another user – like watching a beautiful lakeside sunset. In the eastern part of our region, where water is most plentiful, we often describe water as a public good. However, what we mean by public good is often related to a property right owned by the public or a constitutional human right water rather than public good in the economic sense.
  4. Common-pool resources, such as groundwater, rivers, and wild fish stocks, can be broadly accessed. However, there is the capacity to limit use through societal rules (social norms or regulation). Society may choose to impose limits to use because common-pool resources can be depleted. For example, farmers that irrigate crops may want certainty that the water will be affordably available for their children to continue to farm. Or lakeshore property owners may want to protect water quality so that their property holds its value.

So why do these categories matter? Assigning a water management decision to the right economic category will influence whether that water is managed sustainably or unsustainably. As competition for finite water resources continues to increase, economists can help us develop rules that work for the benefit of all water users. Note that rules can be in the form of government regulation and incentives, best practices set by professional organizations, or social norms developed and kept current by local communities. Regardless of how they are set and enforced, well-developed rules ensure that water is available and safe for all water users.


Can We Create A Clean Water Economy?

A new report from the Risky Business Project, founded by economic powerhouses Henry Paulson, Michael Bloomberg, and Tom Steyer takes a clear-eyed look at the at the economic risks of climate change and, more importantly, the economic opportunities of shifting to a clean energy economy. They conclude that there are both short- and long-term economic opportunities for investors that also reduce the risk of negative climate change impacts.

Their research-driven bottom line: a clean energy economy is both desirable and possible.

In some ways, we are facing the same risks and opportunities when it comes to providing clean and plentiful water supplies. We can continue to look solely at the costs of best practices for managing water, in agriculture or in urban water infrastructure. Or we can look at those costs as risk management investments that also reduce the drag on our economy resulting from wasted water, polluted drinking water (e.g. Toledo, Flint), and unsightly lakes and streams that reduce property values and tourism revenue.

In urbanized areas, USEPA estimates that we lose an estimated $2.6 billion annually in treated water that leaks out of damaged water mains. In both urban and rural areas, avoidable water contaminants like nutrients, lead, and toxins produced by blue-green algae are either adding costs to treatment, or damaging human and animal health.

Proactive clean water investments can and do fund local:

  • Family-sustaining jobs for engineers
  • Agronomists
  • Chemists
  • Public health professionals
  • Entrepreneurs of all stripes

Innovations that prevent problems arguably provide more value than jobs created to clean up damage caused by short-sighted thinking and poor planning.

One of the hallmarks of American leadership in the world is our can-do attitude.

We can maintain a strong economic position in the world and provide the cleanest, most sustainable water supplies. In fact, I would argue that these two goals are mutually dependent.

So, as we leave 2016 behind and think ahead to a new year and an approaching new decade, I ask you to reflect. Can we create a clean water economy? I say YES.

Are you up for the challenge?



Rebecca Power, Network Director

Ten Ways to Reduce Nitrogen Loads from Drained Cropland in the Midwest

Across the Mississippi River Basin, 45% reductions in nitrogen and phosphorus loads are necessary to meet national goals established to reduce the size of the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic zone. There are a number of practices now being promoted as a part of state nutrient strategies, all of which have different N-reduction effectiveness, spatial suitability, additional benefits and impacts, and cost. No one practice will be suitable for every acre, but every acre needs at least one new practice. A newly funded North Central Region Water Network Seed Grant project, led by the University of Illinois, is underway to develop a comprehensive package of information about these drainage water quality-improvement practices. This effort is leading off with the release of a booklet entitled “Ten Ways to Reduce Nitrogen Loads from Drained Cropland in the Midwest,” and will include presentations for educators, online modules for additional audiences, and a Ten Ways summary factsheet. Click the link above to download an electronic copy of the booklet.

The Ten Ways strategies include in-field cropping and management strategies (i.e., practices that reduce nitrate in the root zone), in-field strategies that modify the drainage system (i.e., practices that reduce delivery of nitrate to the field’s edge), and edge-of-field strategies (i.e., practices that remove nitrate at the edge of the field or downstream).

Please click here to complete a Google Form requesting access to the PowerPoint presentation modules that accompany the Ten Ways booklet. We’ll also provide a survey for your program to help us track understanding of the the Ten Ways and to evaluate the impact of this project.

Please credit the Ten Ways information, images, and associated presentation materials as:

Christianson, L.E., J. Frankenberger, C. Hay, M.J. Helmers, and G. Sands, 2016. Ten Ways to Reduce Nitrogen Loads from Drained Cropland in the Midwest. Pub. C1400, University of Illinois Extension.


Water Rocks! Education Summit, an Overwhelming Success!

Water RocksIn November, Water Rocks! hosted the Multi-State Youth Water Education Summit for non-traditional educators. This two-day Summit, hosted at Reiman Gardens in Ames, Iowa, brought together more than twenty educators from Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and South Dakota. Winner of a 2016 Iowa Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award in Environmental Education and based at Iowa State University, Water Rocks! is Iowa’s unique statewide youth water education program.

Participants at the early November Summit represented a wide range of professions, from county extension and state DNR offices, to 4-H and county conservation programs and botanical gardens. Thanks to generous funding from the North Central Region Water Network, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (US EPA, Section 319 of the Clean Water Act), educators were able to take advantage of the opportunity to come to Iowa State University for water quality education and Water Rocks! training, and received not only reimbursement for their travel expenses, but also took home $800 worth of educational materials to use in their home programs!

Educators attending the Summit heard from Iowa State University faculty on the newest research related to water quality, soil health, nutrient transport from agricultural land, erosion and climate change. These expert presentations were followed up with interactive demonstrations from ISUEO’s Water Rocks! team, allowing Summit participants to channel their inner 5th graders, and engage with the educational presentations just as students would. Water Rocks! youth education modules covered a wide range of environmental topics, including biodiversity, watersheds, wetland ecosystems, and soil health. Attendees participated in regional roundtables to share their tools of the trade with the larger group, and also discussed the challenges they face in their home states in reaching target audiences.

The Water Rocks! Multi-State Youth Water Education Summit for non-traditional educators was an overwhelming success. It opened up dialogue among professionals in neighboring Midwestern states who face similar environmental issues and outreach challenges, and who hope to utilize Water Rocks! educational materials and music videos to address some of those challenges, and bring in a fresh, artistic perspective to their existing programming.

Spiny Water Fleas, a Cautionary Tale

By: Rebecca Power
My home watershed is Lake Wingra, Yahara Watershed, Dane County, Wisconsin. Sometime right around 2009, the spiny water flea was found in Lake Mendota, a part of the chain of rivers and lakes in the Yahara Watershed. While I am sad about the fact that there is now one more complicating factor in our efforts to maintain our local rivers and lakes for everyone to use and enjoy, I love the spiny water flea invasion story because it elegantly illustrates the importance of systems approach in water resource management and why we should err on the side of conservation.
So what’s the story, you ask?
The spiny water flea is native to the Ponto-Caspian region of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. It hitchhiked to the United States in the ballast water of a transatlantic shipping vessel, invading the Laurentian Great Lakes. It then hopscotched from the Great Lakes to inland lakes in the Midwest and Northeast U.S., including Wisconsin’s Lake Mendota.
For decades, conservationists have been working to reduce the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Mendota and the associated algae blooms. Phosphorus sources are both urban and rural, with the majority of phosphorus coming from agricultural lands. Recent efforts by a diversity of partners have developed a robust plan for meeting water quality standards and an estimate for how much it will cost.
While human efforts to clean up the Yahara Watershed get most of the attention, we have a tiny partner in our efforts – the algae-munching Daphnia.  Daphnia eat enough algae to add 2 feet of water clarity (measured by the depth of secchi disk visibility) in Lake Mendota.
However, to hungry spiny water fleas, Daphnia are “like a nice, slow-moving piece of steak,” according to researcher Jake Walsh. Spiny water fleas have decimated Daphnia populations and led to subsequent increases in days where the water in Lake Mendota is green and murky.  Walsh and others estimate that a 71% reduction in phosphorus would be required to return the lake to pre-invasion conditions, costing between $80 and $163 million. This is on top of – and substantially more than – the estimated $44 million to meet to water quality standards.
And this is just one lake, in one Midwestern U.S. state.
For me, this story is a reminder of how important a systems approach is to maintaining our soil and water resources.  If I want to reduce algae blooms in my home watershed and across the North Central Region, I need to consider ballast water management as well as nutrient management planning. Projects like the STRIPS project led by Iowa State University, or projects that deepen our understanding of the microbiome and its impacts on soil and nutrient cycling remind us to think more broadly about how to be effective stewards of water resources.

Improve Your Soil Health Management Systems: Free Webinar

Iowa state university

 Soil Health Webinar: Aug. 24 from 9 a.m. – 10 a.m. CT presented by ISU and NRCS

Free webinar is open to anyone interested in improving their soil health management system

AMES, Iowa –  Field agronomists, farmers and others interested in soil health are encourage to join the soil health webinar on iowastateuAug. 24 from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. The webinar will be presented by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS), and qualifies for one soil and water continuing education credit for Certified Crop Advisers.

“The objective of this webinar is to provide information that will help advance understanding of soil health concept and management practices that will improve soil health,” said Mahdi Al-Kaisi, professor of agronomy and extension soil management specialist at Iowa State University. “We also hope it provides an opportunity for professional training for those whom are seeking credits in soil and water management.”

This webinar will be an hour long presentation that covers three topics:

  • Presentation on soil health basic concept and soil functions, and soil physical and biological indicators by Al-Kaisi.
  • Application of management practices for improving soil biology as an essential component of soil health by Rick Bednarek, state soil scientist with USDA-NRCS.
  • Planning and resource management to enhance and protect soil heath, by Doug Peterson, Iowa and Missouri Regional Soil Health Specialist with the National Soil Health Division of the NRCS.

At the end of the three presentations, 10-15 minutes will be set aside to answer questions. Use the following link to access the webinar: The webinar will be conducted using Adobe Connect, so Adobe software is required to access the presentation.

“This webinar is applicable to anyone interested in soil health issues,” said Al-Kaisi. “The goal is to continue the discussion about soil health, and provide information about resources for farmers and agronomists that are available at ISU Extension and Outreach and the NRCS.”

If you are unable to view the recording on Aug. 24., a link to the webinar will be posted on the Iowa State University soil management web page ( within one week of the presentation date.

If you would like more information or have questions, please contact Mahdi Al-Kaisi at 515-294-8304 or

Related Links:

Iowa State University Soil Management

Soil Health Conference

Related Publications:

Iowa Soil Health Field Guide

Iowa Soil Health Management Manual

Iowa Soil Health Assessment Card


Mahdi Al-Kaisi, Professor and Extension Soil Management Specialist

Iowa State University

Jerry Hatfield Awarded Hugh Hammond Bennett Award

This content came from the Soil and Water Conservation Society 2016 Conference Brochure

The Hugh Hammond Bennett Award recognizes extraordinary national and international accomplishments in the conservation of soil, water, and related natural resources.

Jerry Hatfield is a plant physiologist and the laboratory director at the USDA Agricultural Research Service National Lab for Agriculture and the Environment. Hatfield’s career has been devoted to soil and water conservation issues, and he travels and speaks tirelessly to raise awareness of the links between climate, agricultural management, production, and soil and water quality. While he did not create a new institution, he has managed a large research laboratory for a quarter of a century and has provided signi cant leadership to the Agricultural Research Service, academic societies, organizations focused on conservation, as well as to multi-institutional and multinational research efforts.

He has been responsible for providing the technical manage- ment for multiagency, multilocation, and multidisciplinary programs such as the Management Systems Evaluation Areas (MSEA) and Agricultural Systems for Environmental Quality (AWEQ) across the Midwest. Hatfield has also led efforts in livestock and cropping systems research, as well as the impacts of climate change on agriculture. His character and demeanor are outstanding. He is honest, persistent, and has great integrity. Like Hugh Hammond Bennett, he has tirelessly spent his career raising awareness in conservation and supporting and defending soil and water conservation issues. To this end, Jerry Hatfield is well deserving of this year’s Hugh Hammond Bennett Award. View more here.