Director Update: August 2017

What We Know

One early morning last week, my sister’s blue Honda pulled into my driveway, just as the sun was turning the branches of the neighbor’s oak tree golden. We live about 10 minutes apart, so we get together a few times a week for a run or bike ride, and to catch up on family news.

This morning she walked up the front stairs and as I opened the door to let her in she handed me an old publication – flaking, yellowed, and lightly dusted with mold and mildew.

“Look at the date,” she said. I was afraid to unfold the thing or turn the pages for fear it would crumble in my hands. In truth it was not as fragile as I had first thought. So I put it down on my desk and opened it so I could see the front page. October 14, 1893.

Gently examining the time-stiffened pages further, I saw that it was a copy of the Orange Judd Farmer, published near the conclusion of the six-month Chicago World’s Fair. The fair showcased a newly rebuilt city, 22 years after the Great Chicago Fire; exhibits from 46 nations; and the latest in architecture, art, transportation, urban planning, engineering, science and agriculture. Among the ads for Spencer’s Full Circle Hay and Straw Press, the Staver Buckeye Feed Mill and Power, and the Page Woven Wire Fence Co., an article on the second page caught my attention: Saving Manures.

The article starts:

It is not necessary for Experiment Stations to tell us that manures, kept continually exposed to rain and sun, must lose their essential elements, and that, too, very rapidly. We see very often streams of dark, black liquid issuing from fertilizer heaps, and perhaps running down some slope into pond or brook, where the crops are not liable to receive much benefit from them. Why are these leaks permitted and how remedied, are the questions. The first is hard to answer, but the second is no very difficult solution. Mix manure liberally with absorbents, and keep under cover.

It concludes with this sentence:

The matter of saving manure can not be looked into too closely. It is folly to depend on commercial fertilizers when much of our own manure goes to waste.

I was struck by the idea that this article could have been written today – nearly 125 years later. I must confess the realization gave me mixed feelings. My first reaction was one of comfort. Why? In part, because I had just attended a manure composting demonstration as part of the 2017 North American Manure Expo at Endres Berryridge Farm, LLC. Jeff Endres, one of three brothers that operate the dairy farm, is experimenting with manure composting for the heifer calf part of their operation. Jeff’s composting operation uses the same basic practices recommended in 1893 – Mix manure liberally with absorbents, and keep under cover. There was comfort in being reminded that some best practices never change.

During the tour, Endres shared three primary reasons for looking more closely at composting as an innovative manure management strategy: yield boosts (alfalfa), operational flexibility (spreading on growing crops), and keeping nutrients on the farm and out of the water (lower mobility and longer spreading windows to further minimize runoff risk).

Given all the benefits of managing manure through composting, my second reaction was a bit of frustration mixed with curiosity. How do the fundamentals become lost? When we respond to changing market conditions and new technologies, how do we keep the fundamentals intact?

Then I realized that as much as we know about managing manure, we probably know even more about fundamental best practices for communicating information. Humans have always passed important lessons down from generation to generation, through relationships and stories. Even in the age of automation, social media, and big data, we rely on relationships – person to person and smaller group communication with trusted sources – as we attempt to sort fact from fiction. And we know the value of stories for translating complex ideas and helping them stick in our individual memories and our networks. While we need science to help us analyze information, we need compelling stories to communicate that information effectively. While funding for manure management and other conservation practices is critical, we know that investing in a sufficient number of well-trained people to assist with conservation decision-making is a fundamental best practice.

A lot has changed since 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; however, we cannot lose hard-fought lessons that are still valid today. We know that composting, saving, and properly distributing manure nutrients makes sense for agriculture. And while the Orange Judd Farmer said we didn’t need the Experiment Stations to tell us that, we do need someone to keep speaking up. Perhaps the Experiment Stations, the Extension system founded nearly 20 years later, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, conservation NGOs, local conservation districts, and insightful farmer and ag industry organizations, all working together, can help us keep ideas that have anchored agriculture and rural communities for hundreds and probably thousands of years front and center.


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

Network Impact 2020 Initiatives and Capacity Building

The North Central Region Water Network is pleased to announce the North Central Region Water Network Impact 2020 Initiatives and Capacity Building Initiatives for 2018.  Thanks to the Network Leadership Team, Regional Administrative Council, and initiative leads for their work on these successful proposals. Special thanks to North Central Region Extension Directors for providing funding and multistate collaborations to address water issues in the North Central Region.

Please share this news with appropriate audiences in your states and professional networks.  Several of the teams are still seeking additional collaborators from other states and partners, so feel free to contact their leaders or me if you have suggestions.

The following Impact 2020 initiatives are funded from August 2017 through December 2019

Empower Educators to Improve Water Quality by Adoption of Soil Health Practices ($89,971) – led by Curell and Gross (Michigan State University) with supporting leadership from Iowa State University, the University of Missouri, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Wisconsin

  • Proposal Abstract: The hydrologic cycle is intimately linked to soils. Healthy soils are recognized by university researchers, farmers, and agribusiness as high performing and productive. The Soil Health Nexus and Manure and Soil Health (MaSH) efforts began the process of identifying and assembling current science-based soil health training and educational resources. The MaSH group provided mini-grants and launched a very successful web-based roundtable series around the science of manure and soil health. This proposal will continue the work that the Soil Nexus and MaSH groups began, where the focus will be on expanding our digital footprint i.e. podcasts, roundtable, webinars, presentations, etc. In addition to the traditional factsheets, white papers, and extension publications, we will assemble outstanding soil health/MaSH presentations and ideas that extension educators could replicate in their local field days and other extension programs into a toolkit. The educational information that we will assemble will be the result of surveying growers and agribusinesses on their perceived barriers to adopt good soil health practices. This proposal envisions dividing up the region by states that have similar soil and farming systems and rely on our partnering researchers in each state to supply related applied research for each system. In-service training for extension educators will continue in person and via distance technology.


Providing the Foundation for Lasting Climate Education in the North Central Region ($89,283) – led by Laura Edwards (South Dakota State University) with supporting leadership from the University of Illinois, K-State, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, North Dakota State University, Purdue University, and the Ohio State University

  • Proposal Abstract: Climate variability continues to be a defining factor in agriculture and water quality in the North Central Region. Various extreme weather events and their increasing frequency turn good waterways bad. Farm management practices and their interaction with typical climates of a region also can influence water, water quality, and water management. Meanwhile, farmers and extension professionals need education in climate science and climate change in order to alter management practices to more easily meet standards in various states’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies, more efficiently utilize inputs, and maintain economic profitability. In the North Central Region, a team of extension professionals with experience at the connection between agriculture and climate has been identified. This Regional Climate Team will be utilizing their expertise to create and manage education around ag, water, and climate in the region. A variety of methods for professional development will be provided by this project to educate, encourage and empower Extension professionals to conduct programs and serve as local experts. Sub-regional workshops, webinars, conference calls and financial support for local programming will enable a “train-the-trainer” method to disseminate research and bet management practices across the region. Outputs of our activities will include further dissemination of results from the USDA CAP and Useful to Usable initiatives including fact sheets, webinars, and YouTube videos. Other recent research-based resources and media will be utilized as appropriate to further the education for Extension professionals and ag producers. Outcomes include a more informed Extension community comfortable with providing programming at the intersection of ag, water, and climate. Longer term, the educated clientele from these programs will be better able to institute farm management practices that conserve resources and enhance productivity.
The following Capacity Building initiatives are funded from August 2017 through August 2018

Determining the GAPS in Youth Water Education in the North Central Region ($7,000) – led by Amy Timmerman (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) with supporting leadership from Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri, the Ohio State University, and the University of Wisconsin.

  • Proposal Abstract: According to the World Economic Forum, January 2015, “The water crisis is the #1 global risk based on impact to society (as a measure of devastation), and #8 global risk based on likelihood (likelihood of occurring with 10 years).” Also stated at the World Economic Forum, it is estimated that one in nine people in the world lack access to improved sources of drinking water and one in three lack improved sources of water sanitation. With this statistic, every year, significant public and private resources are invested in improving water quality, preserving water quantity, and protecting water as a natural resource in the North Central Region and Worldwide. With water quality and water related issues being a world-wide issue, education of our future leaders is critical. The goal of this project is to: 1.) determine curriculum being used for youth water education being taught in the North Central Region by land grant universities and partners in the region; 2.) identify curriculum that make youth knowledgeable, passionate and active in water related issues; 3.) identify placed-based education; 4.) find GAPS in program/curriculum either by age, stewardship or engagement. This analysis will explore and create partnerships critical to ensuring the success of youth water education throughout the region. The long-term, primary impact of this project is a solid base will be development for youth water education. Once the base is established, the ability to build up youth knowledge, passion and activity for water related issues can be accomplished.


Online Stormwater Core Course – Enhanced Course Development ($7,000) – led by Katie Pekarek (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) with supporting leadership from the University of Illinois, Iowa State University, the University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University, and Purdue University

  • Proposal Abstract: Excessive runoff, surface water generated after a rain or snow melt, may cause flooding and water quality degradation resulting in negative environmental and economic impacts. Water resources mangers and stormwater professionals need to understand how to adopt and maintain stormwater management practices to protect and improve water quality and environmental resources. Currently, there is no online curriculum for training these professionals on stormwater practice selection, identification, evaluation, installation, or maintenance. The Stormwater Practices and Maintenance Core Course is addressing this education gap through development of content for a five module, online course to aid stormwater professionals and educators in improving and optimizing stormwater operations. Course content and initial Moodle development is scheduled for completion in July 2017. The project co-directors propose to conduct a 2-day Stormwater Core Course Collaboration Workshop in the fall of 2017 with current North Central Region stormwater practitioners to create storytelling messaging, course resources, and activities. These innovative and engaging learning resources will provide content for a media developer to develop enhanced multimedia course content. The practitioners at the workshop will concurrently review and revise existing course content to inform the enhanced multi-media course content. Enhanced multi-media course content will facilitate learner engagement to help motivate new and early career stormwater practitioners and educators. This group of users will be surveyed to provide evaluation feedback to improve learner engagement and inform future iterations of the online course. Implementation of this course for stormwater professionals and educators will initially be targeted through Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) programs. There are approximately 7,450 MS4s (EPA, 2017) which convey and discharge stormwater to a water(s) of the U.S. The course will help MS4s achieve permit compliance by meeting required education goals. Upon completion of this Enhanced Course Development project, new and early career stormwater professionals and educators will be empowered to use course information to improve stormwater practices and maintenance. This in turn protects and improves water quality and related co-benefits to generate environmental impact. Student graduates of the course will transition from new or early-career professionals to experienced professionals, who will grow the network of stormwater professionals and build capacity in the NCRWN to teach and engage in stormwater management. Enhanced multi-media content developed for the online course will be offered as stand-alone resources for use by educators. The meeting of workshop participants will increase connectivity between stormwater professionals and educators to grow the existing stormwater network.


Charting New Waters with Purpose – NCRWN Land Grant and Tribal College/University Collaborations Planning Grant Proposal ($7,000) – led by Dan Downing (University of Missouri) and Charles Barden (K-State) with supporting leadership from Michigan State University, South Dakota State University, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

  • Proposal Abstract: In May of 2017, the NCRWN hosted its first summit specifically for the purpose of bringing together representatives from the 1862 state land grant institutions and the 1994 land grant institutions (the Tribal Colleges and Universities) in the North Central Region around the issue of water.  The Summit was hosted at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, with over 30 participants representing at least six different tribal institutions as well as other state universities and partner organizations.  As a result of this summit the door was opened for enhanced relationships among the participants and their respective institutions.  One of the products of the summit was a broad set of priority issues of mutual interest and benefit identified through facilitated group processes.  This application proposes to build upon the opportunities created during the summit by reaching out to selected attendees from the summit and other 1994s, asking them to serve as a core working group of 6-8 people from a mix of the institutions.  It is anticipated that the funding provided through this planning grant will be utilized for a maximum of two face-to-face planning meetings and multiple teleconferences as needed to move forward with planning and resource development. The face-to-face meeting(s) will help to develop trust and relationships among the working group members as well as facilitating the discussion regarding strategic direction, action items, and potential resource and funding cultivation.

The Issue of Clickbait and Exaggeration in Environmental Journalism

Humanity has 20 years to shape up or face mass extinction.  Sounds scary, right?  If this headline popped up on your news feed, it would be next-to-impossible to ignore your curiosity and not click.  However, once you dive into the article written by the New York Post, check a few sources, and compare them to other publications, you would discover that this headline is the epitome of the modern phenomena of clickbait.

The internet has been an instrumental tool in communicating and educating environmental issues to the ears of the masses.  However, with any internet entity comes the potential for clickbait, which – put simply – is hyperbolic (often false) content designed solely to manifest clicks.  Online environmental news is no stranger to the problematic consequences that come along with it.

Last October, Outside Magazine, the New York Post, The Independent and other media outlets released an “obituary” for the Great Barrier Reef, causing an backlash from both journalistic and environmental organizations.  These articles ignored the actual work, progress, and agreed-upon science about the reef’s health.  A CNN article written by Sophie Lewis simply titled “The Great Barrier Reef is Not Actually Dead” fired back quickly. Responding to the pseudo-death, Lewis stated, “there’s a difference between dead and dying.”  And that’s where the issue of clickbait and exaggeration lay.

Lewis’ piece criticized the carelessness and unsupported claims of the original post, citing prominent members of the scientific community who work tirelessly to help protect the reef.  Lewis stated that scientists are increasingly worried about exaggeration when it comes to sensitive topics like climate change.  As Lewis cites, “Professor John Pandolfi from the ARC Centre at the University of Queensland has expressed hope. ‘It is critically important now to bolster the resilience of the reef, and to maximize its natural capacity to recover.’”

Some might argue that making these bold, eye-catching claims are progressive and essential for environmental science to engage the public.  However, by over exaggerating and overlooking real science, true progressive action cannot be achieved.  Take a look at New York Magazine’s cover story, published just a few days ago.  “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells tells stories of imminent doomsday scenarios that will destroy us in a fiery blaze or a suffocating tidal wave.

Not unlike the backlash to the Great Barrier Reef “death” last year, the scientific community was quick to respond.  An article published by Climate Feedback employed 16 research and university scientists to dissect the New York Magazine piece, which came to the conclusion that the scientific credibility was low.  The climate professionals explained the dangers of overstating the science of our planet to the public.

There is a scientific consensus that our climate is undergoing rapid change. However, clickbaiting and over exaggerating a narrative of hopelessness is just as dangerous as ignoring the issues completely.

As scientists, educators, environment leaders, and conservation professionals, we need to hold our selves to a higher standard.

Washington Post journalists Michael E. Mann, Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles dissect the issue of “climate doomism” in their article responding to Wallace Wells’ piece.  They summarize the type of work and narratives environmental professionals need to do in their closing remarks:

“It is important to communicate both the threat and the opportunity in the climate challenge. Those paying attention are worried, and should be, but there are also reasons for hope. There is still time to avoid the worst outcomes, if we act boldly now, not out of fear, but out of confidence that the future is largely in our hands.”

Director Update: June 2017

Fish at the surface, gulping air and trying to escape the bloom. Photo courtesy of Tyler Tunney and the UW-Madison Center for Limnology.

In last month’s column, I wrote that Kansas is green this season. The same above average rainfall greening up the rolling hills of eastern Kansas is also greening up lakes and rivers across the Upper Midwest and causing alarming predictions for a large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

Check out this image from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology. Is that the Caribbean, you ask? Looks like the marine blue of the tropics, you say. Nope, it’s the Yahara River, Madison Wisconsin, on June 16th, overwhelmed with blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria.  If you read the Center’s blog post and look at the pictures (caution: several disturbing photos of dead things) you will see why overwhelmed is an appropriate word.

At the other end of the Mississippi River, scientists estimate that we will see the third largest dead zone on record in the Gulf of Mexico, disrupting shrimp markets and the livelihoods and quality of life for many of our downstream neighbors.

Scientists estimate that the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” will be the third largest in 32 years. Photo courtesy of Mark Schleifstein and the Times-Picayune.

In the Great Lakes Basin, NOAA and Heidelberg University predict that Lake Erie algae blooms will be of moderate severity in 2017, once again threatening the drinking water of approximately 11 million people.

We know that nitrogen and phosphorus from farmland and urban landscapes, relocated from land to water by heavy rain events, is leading to these dangerous, expensive, and sad events. Yes, sad – no one likes to see polluted water, dead fish, or hear parents telling children that they cannot go swimming on a hot summer day.

While it would be easy to get disheartened or default to a new, poorer status quo, constructive conversations about conditions like these can mobilize people around clear solutions like more perennial cover on our landscapes; taking unprofitable land out of agricultural production; increasing water use efficiency so less irrigation water is lost to lakes, reservoirs and streams; revitalizing our soil so that it holds more water and nutrients where they’re needed; and urban/rural partnerships for more cost effective nutrient management.  

It’s true that in some cases the systems we have in place do not support the best choices for water and the people that use it. We created those systems; together we can update them to reflect the new knowledge and new management systems of today.

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

First Confirmed Snakehead Fish Caught in Mississippi Lake

June 8, 2017
JACKSON –  A Northern Snakehead Fish was caught in Lake Whittington, an oxbow lake of the Mississippi River in Bolivar County, by bow fishermen Brad Baugh and Bubba Steadman, of Cleveland, MS on June 5, 2017. They kept the fish, photographed it, and immediately contacted the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP).
“Snakeheads have been present in the White River Basin in Arkansas since 2008 and have been steadily expanding their range towards the Mississippi River,” says MDWFP Delta fisheries biologist Nathan Aycock. “The Mississippi River provides these fish with access to connected oxbows like Lake Whittington as well as the Yazoo and Big Black Rivers.” 
Northern Snakeheads are native to China, Russia, and Korea. Established populations have been found in Arkansas, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia where their impacts to native fish populations are unknown. Northern Snakeheads are typically found in shallow, backwater areas and can breathe air, which allows them to survive for extended periods of time out of the water.
Northern Snakeheads appear similar to Mississippi’s native Bowfin, also known as grinnel. MDWFP encourages anyone who thinks they catch a snakehead to keep the fish, photograph it, and call our office at 601- 432-2200. It is illegal to transport, offer for sale, or possess live snakeheads in Mississippi. For more information regarding fishing and invasive species in Mississippi, visit or call (601) 432-2200. Follow us on Facebook at or on Twitter at

Photos more credible, cartoons more persuasive

  • With all else identical in a brochure, when a cartoon is swapped for a photograph, the cartoon is more cognitively engaging.
  • However, photographs are believed to be more credible.
  • Using cartoons may be a more effective way to communicate difficult scientific concepts in the classroom as well as to a general audience.

URBANA, Ill. – If you’re creating a message to educate, inform, or persuade, don’t underestimate the power of a well-executed cartoon. A new study at the University of Illinois suggests if you’re trying to convince the public to change their stance on a topic such as wind energy, you may be more successful if you use a cartoon rather than a photograph.

“Photographs were shown to be more credible, but cartoons were more likely to change behavior,” says U of I agricultural communications professor Lulu Rodriguez who led the study. “A cartoon grabs people’s attention long enough to deliver the message. That’s what you need in today’s message-heavy atmosphere. Why not use a tool that has proven ability to cut through the others and inform people in a way that actually works?”

In the study, participants were shown one of two versions of the same set of brochures. Each set was designed to debunk a myth about wind energy, the intent being to give readers scientific information about wind energy and assuage their fears. Each pair of brochures was identical in design, text, color, size, etc. The only difference was that the originally designed brochures featured a beautiful, professional photograph of wind turbines, while the look-alike brochures created for the study swapped out the photograph with a cartoon.

“You have to spend more time with a cartoon to figure out the meaning of the illustrations, and the situation,” Rodriguez says. “People look at cartoons longer, so they’re more cognitively engaged with the cartoon. Usually it includes humor and people work hard at figuring out the punch line. The photos used to represent wind energy on the original brochures were just beautiful scenic shots of the turbine blades or a landscape dotted with turbines so people didn’t look at them as long.”

Interestingly, the respondents said the content was better in the cartoon brochures (even though the text was identical), but the credibility was lower than the brochures using photographs.

“It may be because of the more light-hearted approach of cartoons,” Rodriquez says. “Cartoons make a topic like wind energy, which may be a bit scary to people, more accessible. But this notion of credibility is a different issue. We teach students to be conversational in writing. Don’t put on your ‘tuxedo’ language. And yet, people associate big words with credibility.”

Rodriguez says the use of comics has already been shown to be effective in explaining scientific concepts and principles in high school chemistry classrooms. (Rodriguez is also the director of the agricultural communications program in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and the College of Media.) She says she has not seen the comparison of photos versus cartoons studied in non-classroom settings.

In addition to educational settings, the power of cartoons to persuade can be of value to agencies working to educate the public about a science-laden concept—one for which they would like to change opinion, intentions, or behaviors.

“My interest is in making science more accessible to the public,” Rodriguez says. “This study offers real recommendations to communicate science better to a general audience. Understanding the science helps get people past whatever might be controversial about a scientific breakthrough or innovation. The controversies usually arise out of a lack of understanding.”

In terms of wind energy, Rodriguez says, people worry about claims that the turbines kill birds, when in fact, cars kill more birds. “We kept hearing scientists say that people do not fully understand wind energy. So we thought, how can we deflect that misunderstanding?”

Rodriguez cites communicating about GMOs as another possible case in which incorporating cartoons may inform people.

“Most people don’t know about all the regulatory layers at the local and national level involved in producing GMOs. If you try to describe that for people in text, they may not get it or they may not be motivated to read lines and lines of words. Perhaps a cartoon showing safety regulations or the similarity of genetic engineering to natural crossing of plants would be more convincing,” she says.

“I have a colleague who actually did this to explain how they got the vitamin A into golden rice using a cartoonish infographic. Not very scientific—but people get it. It’s a lot easier to explain complex scientific concepts that way.”

Rodriguez admits that text and photos may be the easier route to take.

“Truth be told, this is easy to recommend, but cartoons and effective information graphics are difficult to create. You have to hire someone with real skills to do it. Making things easier to understand is a difficult thing to do,” she says. “And, when people hire an advertising agency to create a brochure for their product or cause, they may lean toward using photos because they convey prestige or credibility. It may be difficult to convince them to use a cartoon because they think it reduces the classiness of the brochure.”

The article, “The impact of comics on knowledge, attitude and behavioural intentions related to wind energy,” is published in an issue of the Journal of Visual Literacy. The research was conducted by Lulu Rodriguez, University of Illinois; and Xiao Lin, Quixey, San Jose.

Source: Lulu Rodriguez, 217-300-1045,
News writer: Debra Levey Larson, 217-244-2880,

Water is a hot topic with New Hope

Water is a hot topic in the Town of New Hope, Wisconsin. Those of you that work and live in small communities across the Midwest would recognize the people and the stories as similar to your own. There are farmers, teachers, nurses, mechanics, restaurant owners, bakers, artists, retired folks that own property on the lakes – the mix of people and ideas that make rural communities great. Most of the residents of New Hope Township get their water from private wells. They swim in the lakes and fish for brook trout in the Tomorrow River. They have never had conflicts over water use or quality – until now.

I had the privilege of helping facilitate a recent meeting in New Hope Township. The purpose of the meeting was to bring neighbors together to discuss concerns about water use and quality, and how farming is impacting both surface and ground water.

In every meeting like this that I’ve been in, to a person, there is agreement that we want both profitable, vibrant agriculture and clean water where we live. This meeting was no exception. However, over half the room (the non-farmers) had never heard of a nutrient management plan. They knew very little about the nuts and bolts of managing a dairy farm or producing corn – not surprising since less than 2% of the U.S. population are farming or ranching families. It was easy to see how neighbors could find themselves talking past one another and sitting in County Board meetings on opposite sides of an issue, even though their goals were the same.

As you can imagine, one conversation did not solve the water issues New Hope residents are facing. However, people were in the same room talking with each other, rather than about each other. They were listening respectfully, asking good questions, and learning from their neighbors. They found some common ground, like the need for more consistent and comprehensive testing of drinking and surface water.

In a time when people with the best intentions are so often talking past one another, I was heartened to see them doing the tough job that we all have as citizens – coming together as neighbors to take care of the small patch of ground that we have responsibility for during our short time on this planet.

I know it’s happening in communities across the North Central Region, and would love to hear more of these kinds of stories. If you have one to share, please send it to us and we’ll post some of them in our Network blog.

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

Illinois Under Siege: Experts Discuss Invasive Species Threats

URBANA, Ill. – Fig buttercup may have an innocent-sounding name, but it is anything but sweet. The small yellow flowering plant creeps across forest floors, crowding out native spring ephemerals and other understory plants. Try to pull it out, and you are more likely than not to leave its fleshy tubers in the soil, where they lie in wait for the right moment to resprout. And now, fig buttercup is in Illinois.

Chris Evans, forestry extension and research specialist with University of Illinois Extension, says that fig buttercup and another aggressive understory invader, Japanese chaff flower, are looking like the next big threats to Illinois forests. They join common buckthorn, bush honeysuckle, Japanese stiltgrass, and garlic mustard as the state’s top plant pests.

Evans and Eric Larson, assistant professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at U of I, recently answered questions in a public Twitter chat and podcast about the threat of invasive species in Illinois. They stressed that being non-native is not enough to render a species invasive – it needs to cause some sort of harm to the environment or community it inhabits. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of harmful invaders in the state, in nearly every habitat type.

Larson’s research focuses on invaders of freshwater ecosystems. He ranks silver and bighead carp, zebra mussels, and Asian clams as the top freshwater invaders in Illinois. He’s keeping his eye on emerging threats, too, using modern molecular methods and predictive models to anticipate where new species could get a foothold in the Great Lakes. For example, in a recent study, Larson proved that hidden invaders such as rusty crayfish could be detected from bits of their DNA floating in lake water samples.

Many small, less-obvious organisms also threaten natural resources. “Some of our worst invaders are insects and pathogens that have completely removed foundational tree species. For example, emerald ash borer is in the process of completely removing ash trees from our ecosystems in Illinois,” Evans says.

Invasive species do not just make life harder for native plants and wildlife; they are expensive to control. Evans says the costs to control forest invaders range from $100 to $1,000 per acre, depending on the species, the degree of infestation, and the surrounding environment.

“The most cost effective thing we can do is prevent new invasions from happening, and try to contain the spread of invaders,” Larson says. “In fresh waters, that means being really conscientious about cleaning, draining, and drying your fishing gear and boats before you move between waters, and not releasing live bait in the water. These steps are going to protect our waters, our ecosystems, and save costs down the road from trying to manage these species.”

Evans adds, “Most people now understand the concept of invasive species. What they choose to put in their homes and landscaping has an impact. Everybody has a role to play.”

For more information, listen to the podcast with Larson and Evans at

Sources: Chris Evans, 618-695-3383,; Eric Larson, 217-300-3197,
Writer: Lauren Quinn, 217-300-2435,

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.