When it comes to climate change information, farmers trust scientists most

A combine sits in an Iowa field (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
A combine sits in an Iowa field (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | January 28, 2015

The best way to reach farmers and agricultural workers who are skeptical of human activity’s effect on climate change may be direct connections to climate scientists, according to one Iowa State University sociologist.

A 2012 survey conducted by ISU’s J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr. found that 66% of Midwest farmers believe climate change is occurring, yet the respondents were mixed on whether or not human activity played a role. More than half said climate change either occurs naturally or is equally affected by human and natural factors. Only about 10 percent agreed that “climate change is occurring and it is caused mostly by human activities.”

Some of that skepticism may come from a general distrust of the mainstream media; the MSM was listed as the least trusted source of environment-related information. Given farmers’ dependence on scientific advances in crop development, it’s not surprising that the most trusted source of environmental information was scientists themselves.

This has important implications for anyone discussing climate change with agricultural professionals. In an interview with ClimateWire, Arbuckle recommended using language of adaptation to unpredictable weather events over explicit mentions of greenhouse gas emissions. More than half of the respondents believe it’s necessary to be prepared for more frequent high precipitation events like heavy rainstorms, even though many remain uncertain that increased atmospheric moisture due to higher emissions is to blame.

That’s why the U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking steps to bring current research on changing weather trends and adaptive practices to farmers around the country. The USDA’s eight “climate hubs” focus on communicating strategies for reducing risk and reducing the costs related to variable weather by connecting researchers to farmers on the ground. One of these climate hubs is in Ames, Iowa.

Bakken pipeline seeks official approval

Pipes to form a pipeline in Williston, North Dakota (Lindsey G / Flickr)
Pipes to form a pipeline in Williston, North Dakota (Lindsey G / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | January 21, 2015

The Texas-based company seeking to build an oil pipeline spanning the state of Iowa has applied for approval from the Iowa Utilities Board, according to the Des Moines Register.

Dakota Access, LLC, a division of Texas company Energy Transfer Partners, is seeking permission to build an underground pipeline that would run from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields to Patoka, Ill., where it would then be connected to distribution systems across the country. The application, filed Tuesday, has set the stage for an ongoing battle between oil companies and Iowa farmers and environmental experts.

Among the concerns over the project is the potential for disastrous spills, like one that leaked 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana. Cities like Glendive, Mo., for which the Yellowstone is the primary water supply, have had to have fresh water hauled in on semi trailers since the accident.

In informational meetings held over the month of December, Iowa farmers spoke out against the pipeline, concerned that the project could not only cut yields but also interfere with drainage systems, as Iowans scramble to tackle the state’s growing agricultural runoff problem.

Not least among these concerns is the pipeline’s significance as a fossil fuel system at a time when Iowa is trying to transition to clean energy. The effects of climate change due to the burning of fossil fuels is expected to more heavily impact Iowa’s agriculture industry over the next few decades.

Oil companies working in the Brakken oil fields are trying to find solutions to the railroad congestion problems caused by the oil surge, leading to a backlog in exports like grains, which share the rails with oil.

On the Radio: Iowa ahead of new smog standards

The Des Moines skyline at dusk (Jason Mrachina / Flickr)
The Des Moines skyline at dusk (Jason Mrachina / Flickr)

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at early assessments of Iowa’s ozone emissions, which suggest that the state is one step ahead of upcoming new emission standards. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Ozone standards

Iowa is one step ahead of new national ozone emission standards.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

In November, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft proposal to drastically reduce ozone emissions from power plants and other sources by 2025. All 99 of Iowa’s counties are set to meet the new standards, according to data collected by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee earlier this year recommended ozone levels be reduced to between 65 and 70 parts per billion, down from the current practice of 75 parts per billion.

Iowa already meets the EPA standards, with monitoring stations showing average ozone levels between 61 and 69 parts per billion. The Iowa DNR supplies data to the EPA’s Air Quality Index, which provides air quality conditions in real time.

For a link to the Air Quality Index, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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


New dietary guidelines may take environmental health into account

Grazing cattle (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
Grazing cattle (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | January 14, 2015

Citing environmental concerns associated with livestock production, the federal government’s newest round of dietary guidelines may be broadening its scope to include sustainably-produced foods.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, reviews current dietary guidelines every five years, concluding in a list of dietary recommendations which affect federally subsidized school lunches, food labels and the government’s Choose My Plate program, which replaced the food pyramid in 2011.

A draft recommendation at the committee’s December meeting suggested a shift in the amount of red and processed meats Americans consumed, perhaps due to the significant role livestock plays in human-induced greenhouse gas emissions: As much as 14.5% of emissions may come from livestock, with beef making up a large portion of the total. Promoting a more plant-based diet on environmental grounds could lead to reductions in agricultural emissions as well as ensure food security for future generations. More sustainable livestock production practices could also have a significant impact on the country’s water quality.

While the panel’s draft recommendations have already received backlash from livestock groups, the committee maintains there is “compatibility and overlap” between food sustainability and human health.

On the Radio: Native habitat to be restored

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Monroe, Iowa, features over 5,000 acres of native prairie. (Rachel Gardner / Flickr)
The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Monroe, Iowa, features over 5,000 acres of native prairie. (Rachel Gardner / Flickr)
January 12, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at an upcoming prairie restoration taking place in northwest Iowa. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

A native habitat that once covered northwestern Iowa is being partially restored.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The bur oak savanna, a plant community of open-grown trees, tall prairie grasses and water fowl, once flourished in northwest Iowa. The introduction of new plant species, particularly high shade-producing trees, has choked out native plant growth and reduced the savanna’s size to one one-hundredth of a percent of its original size.

To conserve this native habitat near Trumbull Lake in Clay County, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources will be removing non-compatible trees which outcompete younger oaks and shade out the prairie understory. The DNR will also be conducting controlled burns. Studies have shown that these measures are the most effective ways of restoring grassland habitats and species to the area. These native plant species are an important factor in maximizing water quality benefits for the area.

For more information about native habitats, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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

Dam modifications may revitalize Iowa rivers

A low-head dam in the Turkey River. (Gordon/Flickr)
A low-head dam in the Turkey River. (Gordon/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | January 7, 2015

Dam removal or modification projects may bring improved fishing and recreation to some eastern Iowa rivers.

Several projects along the Cedar, Wapsipinicon, Maquoketa and Turkey Rivers aim to repeat the success of a white-water course opened on the Cedar River in Charles City in 2011 and a rock arch rapids project opened in the Turkey River in 2010. Rock arch rapids simulate natural rapids using re-engineered or modified low-head dams, many of which have deteriorated over time and were previously not passable for aquatic life, canoes and kayaks.

In addition to becoming new destinations for kayaks and canoes, these projects also remove barriers to fish migration and improve recreational safety. The projects may prevent tragedies like a tubing accident at a low-head dam that claimed one life in the summer of 2014.

The Iowa Legislature recently increased its annual budget for small-scale dam removal and water trails to $2 million, according to a recent report in The Gazette.

State could face possible lawsuit for water quality issues

Des Moines Water Works utilizes the Des Moines River (pictured) and the Raccoon Rivers as its two main water sources. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)
The Des Moines Water Works utilizes the Des Moines River (pictured) and the Raccoon River as its two main water sources. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 6, 2015

The Des Moines Water Works – Iowa’s largest water utility – is considering bringing a lawsuit against the state challenging the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Last month an unusually high surge of nitrate levels in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers forced officials with the Des Moines Water Works to activate its nitrate removal facility which costs roughly $7,000 per day to operate. These costs have been passed on to the Des Moines Water Works’ more than a quarter of a million customers. High nitrate levels that go untreated can lead to multiple health complications such as blue baby syndrome as well as various cancers and miscarriages.

Bill Stowe – CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works – has been critical of state’s voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy. In an editorial he wrote for the Des Moines Register in October 2014, Stowe stated: “Until industrial agriculture is no longer exempt from regulations needed to protect water quality, we will continue to see water quality degrade and our consumers will continue to pay.”

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy “is voluntary for farmers [and] calls for a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution leaving the state.” Critics of the strategy say that the voluntary approach has been ineffective in improving Iowa’s water quality.

The Des Moines Water Works board of directors is scheduled to meet Thursday and a decision on whether to bring legal action against the state may be discussed at that meeting.