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Why Iowa? Q&A with Stephanie Fleckenstein

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Stephanie Fleckenstein

ISG

Stephanie Fleckenstein is a native Iowan who proudly touted her home state when opportunities took her to South America and Colorado. Now back in Iowa, she is excited to both impact the state’s water resources and raise her young family where they can enjoy the outdoor activities, entertainment, and the pace the state offers. 

In her late teens, Fleckenstein witnessed historic storms and was drawn to the potential impact that design could have to protect places and people. She studied Civil/Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, and then served in the U.S. Peace Corps as a water and sanitation engineer in the desert of southern Peru. Next, she began practicing water resources engineering in the Rocky Mountains where she worked on large-scale water planning projects and learned the limits of source water and the difficulty of competing interests. 

Fleckenstein met her husband, Austin Baeth, while living in Denver. On their first date, they learned how many chapters of their lives had been lived in the same place—high school in Des Moines, on campus in Iowa City, and in Capitol Hill in Denver. As they looked forward to their next chapter, they decided that Iowa would provide them the best combination of opportunities. 

1. What type of projects do you work on as a water resources engineer? How do you work to balance needs of cities, agriculture, natural resources, etc.? 

The first challenge of working in water resources is establishing a holistic viewpoint of a watershed—looking upstream, downstream, and identifying the key stakeholders to invite into the conversation. My work includes hydrologic and hydraulic modeling, floodplain projects, watershed planning, financial and economical analysis, and public facilitation. I balance stakeholders’ needs through rounds of alternative analysis and listening with empathy. I find the nexus of the environmental health and designed human habitat to be a fascinating place to work. I am an advocate for our community members and the environment in which we inhabit. By understanding both sides, we can discover the best solution to our problems. 

Specifically, as a planner, I evaluate what-if scenarios to support our decision making. Through modeling, we can see impacts of intense storms, extended droughts, large developments, and large restorations, which cannot be isolated by recreation, habitat, municipality, or irrigation. We can evaluate a situation that may take 50 years to achieve or recreate the historic storm from two years ago. I enjoy using model results and the quantified benefits to create maps and images that tell a story. Since these impacts and events are not specific to one area or sector, watershed management decisions must touch each of these factors. I find it fortunate that my work is an integral part of our future. 

2. What is one project that has made a significant impact in downtown Des Moines? 

ISG has been heavily involved in the development of the Market District’s stormwater infrastructure and leading the Market District Green Infrastructure Plan. Our water resources and civil team are retrofitting nearly 12 blocks of streets and utilities, including nearly a 100-year-old, 72-inch storm sewer. In addition, over 80 bioretention cells are being installed within the right-of-way, improving water quality for both private and public owned land. While the primary intent of the green infrastructure is water quality, reduction in pipe sizes and using existing infrastructure was also a design focus, so we built an application to use 3D scanning technology to scan manholes for accurate measurements in tight spaces. 

3. What are some of the most exciting innovations being used (or being developed) to protect Iowa’s waterways? 

By sharing relatable information and building awareness, we are gathering community buy in to make innovations like batch and build land conservation efforts possible in more areas. As a trusted environmental partner, ISG gathers farmers, landowners, cooperatives, and local organizations to implement water quality programs at a greater scale. Our water resources engineers work to increase collaboration and opportunities between landowners and designers. 

4. What advice would you give someone considering a move, or return to Iowa? 

Living in a different place has greatly helped me to challenge my assumptions, improve my communication, and appreciate things I previously assumed were universal. The greatest gift Iowa has provided is the opportunity to choose where and how to use my time. 

We found a neighborhood and community where we can push a stroller down the street to enjoy a larger-than-life sculpture garden, countless festivals, and great dining. We’ve found childcare and schools that we have felt were invested in supporting our children. We have found businesses, and created our own, that align with our mission to create and serve. We have the great fortune to fly from Des Moines to visit mountains, beaches, and interesting cities but our time at home is still filled with plenty of local tourism. 

5. Please share 3 recommendations of things to do or places to go in Iowa. 

Iowa has great bicycle infrastructure with good eats and great drinks accessible by trail. The Des Moines Biergarten is great place to hop of the trail and rest. The annual RAGBRAI ride, which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, is a huge part of Iowa’s bike culture. 

There are lots of hidden treasures of restaurants and food scenes, such as Aposto and Harbinger in Des Moines, and Dough Co. in Ankeny. 

Get on the water to enjoy a slow afternoon paddling to a sandbar picnic and take in the best views of our waterways. Another ISG project, the Iowa Confluence Water Trails, provides great opportunity for Iowans and travelers to experience Iowa’s waterways. ISG developed a master plan aimed at better utilizing the area’s significant water resources, including 150 miles of rivers and streams. The outcome of the project was an implementable path forward for each jurisdiction along the nine rivers and creeks, with recommendations that included water access, improved habitat, stream restoration, green infrastructure, connections to existing parks and trails, and public art. Today, ISG continues to provide ongoing support for project implementation, including design and engineering services. 

Published April 2023. 

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