Iowa farm groups concerned about new EPA water rules

The Raccoon River near Walnut Woods State Park in Des Moines. (Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr)
The Raccoon River near Walnut Woods State Park in Des Moines. (Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | May 29, 2015

Iowa farm groups have expressed concerns over new clean water rules unveiled Wednesday by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency.

Leaders of several Iowa farm groups have expressed concerns over the new rules – outlined in a nearly 300-page document – citing that would “infringe on their land rights and saddle them with higher costs.” Iowa Farm Bureau president Craig Hill said the new rules fail to address concerns farmers expressed when the first draft of the new Clean Water Act regulations was released last.

“The permitting process is very cumbersome, awkward and expensive,” Hill said in an interview with Radio Iowa. “And, according to what we read in this new rule, farmers will be required to get permits for things they’ve never been required to get permits for before.”

At the national level, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, American Farm Bureau Federation, Dairy Farmers of America, and roughly 225 other organizations have teamed up to oppose the new rule. Some congressional republicans as well as farm state democrats have also voiced concerns about the new rule, including Iowa senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst.

Despite the criticism, the rule has been applauded by groups such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Sierra Club, Environment America,  and the Natural Resources Defense Council which called the rule “‘a significant fix’ for tens of millions of acres of wetlands and thousands of streams that contribute to the drinking water for 117 million Americans.”

The new rule is part of the 1972 Clean Water Act which gave the federal government authority to limit pollution in major major water bodies, such as the Mississippi River, as well as streams and rivers that drain into the larger water. The most revision to the rule applies to about 60 percent of the nation’s rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands.

Study: Iowa ranks 3rd in nation for honeybee die-off rates


Nick Fetty | May 28, 2015

Iowa ranks third in the nation for the rate of honeybee dying off according to a report by researchers from 10 different institutions.

The report found 61.4 percent of honeybees in Iowa died between 2014 and 2015. Oklahoma led the nation with a 63.4 percent die-off rate while Illinois was in second at 62.4 percent. The research was a collaboration of the Bee Informed Partnership, the Apiary Inspectors of America, and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The study received valid responses from 6,128 beekeepers who managed 398,247 colonies in October 2014. This accounts for just 14.5 percent of the country’s estimated 2.74 million managed honey bee colonies. Approximately two-thirds (67.2 percent) of respondents reported winter colony loss rates greater than the average rate of 18.7 percent.

“What we’re seeing with this bee problem is just a loud signal that there’s some bad things happening with our agro-ecosystems,” study co-author Keith Delaplane (University of Georgia) said in an interview with The Guardian. “We just happen to notice it with the honeybee because they are so easy to count.”

The results from this report are preliminary and the researchers expect these rates to fluctuate. A more detailed report is being prepared for publication in a peer-reviewed journal at a later date. Funding for the research was provided by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Earlier this year researchers at Iowa State University were awarded a three-year, $103,626 grant “to better understand how agricultural landscape diversity and approaches to pest management impact the health of native bees and other pollinators.”

On the Radio: Bird flu leading to cleanup concerns

(Kusabi / Flickr)
(Kusabi / Flickr)
May 18, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at environmental concerns brought on by the massive bird flu cleanup across the state. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Bird flu cleanup

The recent bird flu outbreak is raising environmental questions about disposing of millions of dead birds.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Avian influenza has hit Iowa harder than any other state, with almost 25 million chickens and turkeys affected so far. The disease is known to claim a bird’s life within hours of showing symptoms, and is extremely pathogenic. The only way to stop the spread of the disease is to euthanize entire flocks, using a foam application that asphyxiates the birds.

This mass euthanization is leading to a disposal crisis in affected counties. While composting the dead birds is the quickest option, the process may pose risk for local health and water quality. The USDA has deployed hundreds of bio-bags capable of killing the virus until the birds can be moved to sanitary landfills, but concerns from nearby farmers have prevented movement of the birds so far. The only remaining option may be incineration.

For continued updates on the Iowa bird flu outbreak, visit

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

Study: Cattle hormones more environmentally damaging than previously thought

Iowa ranks 7th in the nation
The USDA reports there were approximately 3,800,000 head of cattle in Iowa in 2014. (Brad Smith/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | May 14, 2015

Hormones used to beef up cattle could be causing more environmental damage than once thought, according to a recent study in the journal Nature Communications.

The study – which was co-authored by University of Iowa environmental engineering professor David Cwiertny – found hormones associated with cattle production “persist in the environment at higher concentrations and for longer durations than previously thought.” The hormones eventually end up in streams and rivers which has affected the reproductive health and behavioral patterns of fish and other aquatic life.

“We’re releasing this into the environment at levels that are potentially problematic for the ecosystem,” said Adam Ward, lead author of the study. “If you’re an amphibian, a fish, a minnow, you spend your whole life being bathed in this sort of low dose of testosterone.”

The researchers examined trenbolone acetate (or TBA) which speeds up muscle growth in cattle and has been used in the industry for about 20 years. When the TBA is metabolized it breaks down into a compound known as 17-alpha-trenbolone which then runs off into waterways.

The study is a follow up to research Cwiertny published in 2013 which suggested that when 17-alpha-trenbolone was exposed to sunlight it broke down and resulted in lower concentrations in waterways however the most recent research now suggests that the compound doesn’t break down as much as previously thought.

According data from the USDA National Agricultural Statistical Service, Iowa ranks 7th in the nation for cattle production.

On the Radio: Environmental impacts of egg production

Free-range broiler breeder chickens outside on grass (Compassion in World Farming / Flickr).
Free-range broiler breeder chickens outside on grass (Compassion in World Farming / Flickr).
May 12, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at an Iowa State University study on the environmental impact of different practices used in egg production. The study is especially salient now, as farmers and operators across the Midwest scramble to contain the avian influenza epidemic. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Researchers at Iowa State University are studying the environmental impact of different practices used in egg production.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The study looked at two alternatives to the conventional egg production model which involves placing six laying hens in a single cage. One alternative – the “enriched colony system” – places roughly 60 birds in a large enclosure and provides them with access to perches, nest boxes and scratch pads. The second alternative model – known as an “aviary” – allows hundreds of birds to roam freely in a large space for much of the day.

The study found that these methods contribute to poorer air quality and increased ammonia levels in the area. Additionally, the larger roaming areas mean that the birds require more feed and therefore leads to an increase in carbon emissions associated with feed production. Despite the environmental concerns, these methods are seen as better for the welfare of the animals.

The findings were published in March’s issue of the journal Poultry Science. The researchers will now shift their focus to other topics such as economics, hen physiology and welfare.

For more information on this study, visit Iowa-Environmental-Focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

Vilsack announces new plan for farmers to address climate change

Tom Vilsack has served as the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture since 2009. Prior to that he served two terms as the governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | April 24, 2015

During an event at Michigan State University on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack unveiled a plan in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture will team up with agricultural producers to address threats associated with climate change.

The new plan builds upon the the Climate Hubs – created by the USDA last year – and aims to “utilize voluntary, incentive-based conservation, forestry, and energy programs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration and expand renewable energy production in the agricultural and forestry sectors.” USDA officials hope this effort will reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by over 120 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent (MMTCO2e) per year by 2025. This new plan is expected to help the U.S. reach its 2025 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent below 2005 levels, as announced by President Obama last year.

“American farmers and ranchers are leaders when it comes to reducing carbon emissions and improving efficiency in their operations. That’s why U.S. agricultural emissions are lower than the global average,” Vilsack said in a press release. “We can build on this success in a way that combats climate change and strengthens the American agriculture economy. Through incentive-based initiatives, we can partner with producers to significantly reduce carbon emissions while improving yields, increasing farm operation’s energy efficiency, and helping farmers and ranchers earn revenue from clean energy production.”

The ag industry accounts for approximately 9 percent of carbon emissions nationwide. This figure is below the global average but Vilsack says there’s still room for improvement.

Thursday’s event was part of a busy week for the former Iowa governor who was in Beltsville, Maryland on Wednesday to flip the switch and “symbolically activate USDA’s first solar array project in the National Capital Region” in commemoration of Earth Day.



Earth Day marks rally for end of 400-mile pipeline walk

Former state Rep. Ed Fallon near the end of his 400-mile pipeline walk across Iowa.
KC McGinnis | April 22, 2015

Former state Rep. Ed Fallon will conclude his 400-mile hike across Iowa with an Earth Day rally in Des Moines today.

For 39 days, Fallon walked along the path of the proposed Bakken oil pipeline, talking with landowners and activists about their concerns over the environment and property management. Fallon supports an eminent domain bill in the Iowa Legislature that would prevent Energy Transfer Partners from condemning Iowa farmland without consent. He will host an Earth Day Rally to Stop the Pipeline today at the State Capital’s west lawn (People’s Park).

Fallon documented his conversations with Iowans along the pipeline route through a daily blog. He recalled conversations with farmers whose land was repeatedly trespassed by surveyors, residents whose homes would be within a few hundred feet of the pipeline, and town hall meetings where people discussed the issue at length.

In his meetings with Iowans along the pipeline route, Fallon had to counter the sense of inevitability created by pipeline representatives, who frequently met with landowners to inform them that the pipeline construction was unavoidable, and that they should sell their land to the company instead of waiting for it to buy at a lower price through eminent domain. Fallon assured these residents that the company proposing the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, still lacks authority to use eminent domain, and that legislation currently in the House and Senate would prevent them from using it as a ground for construction. While some Iowans have already settled with the oil companies, many are still holding out despite aggressive persuasion.

The rally will take place at 5 p.m., with talks by Fallon, two legislators and two family farmers. There will also be an open mic available for people to share their thoughts.