Academic journal article Adult Learning

Citizen-Led Watershed Projects: Participatory Research and Environmental Adult Learning along Iowa's Maquoketa River

Academic journal article Adult Learning

Citizen-Led Watershed Projects: Participatory Research and Environmental Adult Learning along Iowa's Maquoketa River

Article excerpt

The state of Iowa is first in the United States in corn, soybean, and hog production. It also has some of the most nutrient-rich rivers and streams in the world, which means that the waters are polluted with nitrogen and phosphorous, directly attributed to both livestock and crop production. This nonpoint source of pollution is thought to be a major contributor to the Gulf of Mexico's hypoxia region--a dead zone of approximately 7,000 square miles where plant nutrients from the Mississippi River have depleted the Gulf's dissolved oxygen, which is necessary for fish and other aquatic life (Libra, 1998). These water quality issues create much tension between efforts to enhance water quality and maintain the livelihood of farmers in Iowa. This tension is particularly keen among Iowa producers who tend to be independent family farmers with smaller operations and limited resources. For example, recently proposed government regulations on small feedlots intended to protect the environment will create financial hardships for family farmers, thereby strengthening the competitive advantage of large corporate feedlots by accelerating the consolidation of the beef and dairy industries in particular (ISU College of Agriculture, 2001).

Iowa's Maquoketa River Basin typifies rural landscapes with family farms and small rural communities; 61,048 people live within its 1,879 square miles. The Maquoketa River is one of the largest sources of excess nutrients and sediment among the 13 major rivers along the upper Mississippi. In an effort to heighten citizen awareness and participation in developing a comprehensive plan to address these environmental problems, the Maquoketa River Project was initiated in 1997 to promote citizen-led watershed councils in each of the river basin's 25 sub-watersheds. In 1999, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region VII Water Quality Cooperative Agreement Funds were allocated "to develop local leadership with long-term vision and commitment to deal proactively with nonpoint source pollution issues" (Maquoketa Quarterly Report, 1999, p. 1). Nonpoint source pollution tends to be systemic within an ecosystem; therefore, it is much more difficult to address than point source pollution. For example, within a watershed most, if not all, farmers are using fertilizers or other chemicals that contribute to the degradation of the water system. In contrast, point source pollution might be a single factory that is dumping effluent into a stream. This type of pollution is easily identified in comparison to nonpoint source pollution.

The streams and creeks that comprise these sub-watersheds cross many farms involving many landowners. These farms and their enterprises often look dramatically different from each other. One farm may raise only corn and soybeans, another may have a dairy, a third might generate most of its income from a cow-calf operation, a fourth might include a small feedlot where 700-pound calves are finished to 1,200 pounds ready for market, while a fifth may raise hogs. The purpose of the citizen councils is to bring together all residents within these sub-watersheds through a participatory research and environmental adult education process so they can build and articulate their knowledge about their local ecosystem through data collection, problem identification, priority setting, and strategic action. As a group, these residents partner with technical staff from state and federal government agencies and Iowa State University Extension to evaluate the problem, then collectively develop possible solutions to land-use problems that are sources of water pollution.

This article presents a phenomenological case study of the Maquoketa River Project. Our framework for community problem solving is different from the traditional expert-driven, technical solutions model typically offered by government agencies and universities. …

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