A Stratford native is one of an elite group of finalists nominated for a state conservation award this summer.
Susan Heathcote's job is to advocate for water quality in Iowa, but she doesn't quit when the workday is over. She devotes countless volunteer hours to her cause. Heathcote's colleagues honored her dedication to making Iowa a better place to live by nominating her for a prestigious statewide conservation award.
The Hagie Heritage Award is given annually by the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit conservation group, to a person who has demonstrated extraordinary service and commitment to improving the quality of Iowa's natural environment while encouraging others to do the same. The recipient will be awarded $1,000 and a hand-carved acorn sculpture.
Heathcote lives in Des Moines and is the Water Program Director at the Iowa Environmental Council (IEC). Her family includes her husband, Richard, and sons Adam and Edward.
She was nominated by Linda Appelgate of Iowa Heartland Resource Coordination and Development and Marian Riggs Gelb, IEC executive director. They praised Heathcote's many volunteer efforts to improve water quality through advocacy and citizen education.
"As a result of her dedication," Riggs Gelb wrote in her nomination letter, "Iowa has stronger water quality regulations, many protective programs have been put into place, citizen advocacy groups have been formed, and Iowans have been educated and empowered to protect our rivers, streams and lakes."
Heathcote grew up in Stratford, along the Boone River. Her passion for protecting Iowa's water comes from her days canoeing on the river as a teenager. After earning a graduate degree in geology and geophysics from the University of Iowa, Heathcote worked as a petroleum geophysicist around the United States and in Norway. She then returned to Iowa and studied groundwater contamination as an environmental consultant for an engineering company.
In 1996, Heathcote joined the Iowa Environmental Council as Research Director. She took a pay cut when she left the corporate world, but the change brought her closer to her passion: protecting the environment.
Heathcote eventually narrowed her focus and became IEC's Water Program Director. Her job is to explore programs and policies and develop action plans to improve water quality. But what she can accomplish on the job isn't enough for Heathcote; she also dedicates many volunteer hours to protecting Iowa's water.
One of Heathcote's proudest achievements is helping create the IOWATER Volunteer Monitoring Program, which trains citizens to monitor the quality of their local bodies of water. It advances Heathcote's mission to empower ordinary people concerned about water quality.
Heathcote studied similar volunteer monitoring programs in other states and convinced the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to provide state funds. Since IOWATER started, more than 3,000 volunteers have been trained to monitor water quality. The data they provide helps scientists and policy-makers decide how best to protect Iowa's water.
Heathcote personally monitors several water bodies as a volunteer in the program she helped create. She believes investing in education and volunteers is the best way to protect Iowa's aquatic heritage.
"That's a gift that keeps on giving," she said. "There's nothing that replaces the informed constituency for water quality that has come from that program. Iowans can get out and learn about water quality issues by collecting data themselves and becoming water quality experts. Once we know what the problems are, we're much more likely to take action."
Heathcote worked to expand support and state funding for water quality assessment with the Water Quality Action Plan. As a result, funding for water monitoring increased from $30,000 a year to $3 million a year. She also led efforts to bring Iowa into compliance with the Clean Water Act, spending nights and weekends speaking to citizen groups about the importance of the standards.
In 2006, thanks in part to Heathcote, the miles of streams designated for wildlife protection doubled, and the miles protected for recreational use increased tenfold. Heathcote also help found Iowa Rivers Revival, a nonprofit that works to make rivers safer and more enjoyable for recreation.
As a governor-appointed volunteer on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, Heathcote serves as a respected expert on water quality protection. Her professional and volunteer endeavors have earned her a reputation as a tireless advocate for Iowa citizens.
"Susan is probably the most selfless, dedicated professional I know," Appelgate wrote. "Part of the beauty of Susan's volunteerism is that she not only studies the issues and understands them as only a dedicated scientist can, she knows the value of education of youth as well as adults, and she builds partnerships and allies far beyond the 'expected' ones."
Heathcote said there is still plenty to be done, and ensuring the quality of Iowa's water will take "a concerted effort from Iowans. It will require everyone to become educated and empowered," she said.
To Heathcote, protecting water is our responsibility as stewards of the land.
"I believe that we all inherently understand that water is one of our essentials for life," she said. "I think we need to take another look at how blessed we are to have abundant water resources and make it a priority. It's a gift that we need to take good care of and pass on to future generations. That's a stewardship ethic that has always been part of the Iowa way of life-to leave things in better shape than you found them."