“Why should I care what happens downstream?” Why topsoil preservation matters


An example of healthy soil in Iowa (Natural Resources Conservation Service / Flickr)
An example of healthy soil in Iowa (Natural Resources Conservation Service / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | March 18, 2015

Starting tonight, Iowans will have their say on the proposed relaxing of topsoil preservation rules for newly constructed sites.

In hearings over the last year, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has considered comments from home developers and homebuilders who wish to amend a current rule regarding topsoil conservation. While the current rule requires companies to maintain or replace at least 4 inches of topsoil on new construction sites, the industry is asking to be able to choose for themselves how much soil – if any – is to be replaced on such lots. Homeowners and conservationists have come out in defense of the current rule, which preserves soil health and prevents the headaches of flooding and runoff from land lacking in topsoil, while saving homeowners the added expense of adding the soil themselves.

At one of the initial hearings on the rule, however, a contractor is reported to have asked, “Why should I care what happens downstream?” For some, the benefits of topsoil preservation seem far off, and not worth the added $3,500-$6,000 in replacement costs per lot the industry estimates. However, all Iowans would feel the effects of relaxed soil conservation rules. Here are a few reasons topsoil matters:

  • Healthy topsoil is Iowa’s first and best defense against excessive flooding. When topsoil is removed from a lot, the land can’t hold nearly as much moisture. As a result, water from storms and snow melts simply runs off, causing increased flash flood concerns. During warm seasons, standing water on stripped land can also attract mosquitos and disease-carrying organisms.
  • In addition to moisture, land with healthy topsoil holds fertilizer better than land without it. This means that when storms come, landowners are at less risk for nutrient runoff, preventing them from incurring the added cost of applying additional fertilizers. This is also good for our rivers and streams, which are already inundated with excessive nitrates and phosphorus from nutrient runoff.
  • Healthy topsoil is an absolute necessity for growing grass, trees and gardens. Without it, homeowners will often have to haul in their own topsoil, adding unexpected costs to their home purchase which could have been folded into their mortgage in the first place (and probably at a much lower rate).
  • Topsoil protects Iowa’s water quality and reduces costs for water utilities. The Des Moines Water Works, which is suing three Iowa counties over nutrient runoff disputes, spent over half a million dollars in nutrient replacement this winter.

The Iowa DNR will hear comments regarding the proposed rule change at public hearings starting Wednesday, March 18, at the Cedar Rapids City Services Center. The DNR will also conduct hearings on March 25 in Davenport and March 27 in Des Moines. Iowans can give written comments by mail to Joe Griffin, Iowa Department of Natural Resources, 502 E. Ninth St., Des Moines, IA 50319-0034. They can also send comments by email to joe.griffin@dnr.iowa.gov .

 

CGRER documentary shows need for statewide flood sensor network


A still from a documentary on the development of a flood sensor network in Iowa produced by the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research.
A still from a documentary on the development of a flood sensor network in Iowa produced by the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research.
KC McGinnis | March 4, 2015

A new documentary produced by the University of Iowa Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research shows how one technology developed by Iowa scientists could help Iowans prepare for floods better than ever before.

The video (below) includes interviews with Iowa landowners, scientists and watershed authorities who are taking advantage of experimental flood sensors being installed in locations around northeast Iowa. The new technology, which has been under development since the 1990s, is groundbreaking in both its arrangement and scope, and has influenced similar networks across the country.

The sensors, which can be installed on farms or other land, record rainfall on the ground, rather than from radar, resulting in more accurate readings. Each sensor is actually a set of two sensors, which can help explain discrepancies in data better than single sensors. Data from these sensors is sent to the Iowa Flood Information System, an interactive website that’s free to the public, and is an important resource for landowners and municipalities during heavy rainstorms and other flood events.

Since rainfall can vary over small distances, the Iowa Flood Center is currently seeking funding to install new flood sensors in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. To see the history of the technology and to learn more, watch the video below.

Proposed bill would tighten Iowa manure application laws


With over 60 million chickens, 20 million pigs, 9 million turkeys, and 4 million cows, Iowa farms and livestock operations produce large quantities of manure. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)
With over 60 million chickens, 20 million pigs, 9 million turkeys, and 4 million cows, Iowa farms and livestock operations produce large quantities of manure each year. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)

 

Nick Fetty | March 3, 2015

An Iowa Senate subcommittee has approved a bill it hopes will improve water quality by tightening manure application laws.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City) from the Natural Resources and Environment Subcommittee introduced the bill last month. If passed, the bill would bar farmers from applying fertilizer when (1) the ground is frozen or snow-covered; (2) the ground is water-saturated; (3) the 24-hour weather forecast calls for a half-inch of rain or more; or (4) the ground is sloped at 20 percent or greater. The currently law – which was added to the Iowa Code in 2010 – states that farmers cannot apply fertilizer to their soil between December 21 and April 1.

The proposed bill is also supported by the non-profit Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. ICCI organizer Jess Mazour believes the proposed bill will be more effective at cleaning up Iowa’s waterways compared to the current voluntary system.

“It is very much needed because voluntary compliance is not working,” Mazour said in an interview with WNAX. “And if we just leave it up to farmers to pick and choose what they think is safe it’s showing us that our water is just going to keep getting dirtier. We have to be very specific about what we want.”

An identical bill was also introduced to the Iowa House by Rep. Dan Kelly (D-Newton). These proposals come on the heels of a recent measure drafted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which allows the DNR to inspect manure-handling practices by farmers and to issue fines for those not in compliance with current codes.

Approximately 76 manure spills were reported in 2013. In 2014, a dairy farm was fined $160,000 after improper manure disposal killed hundreds of thousands of fish.

Water polluters spent millions on lobbying efforts in 2014, report finds


The United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Stacy / Flickr)
The United States Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Stacy / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | February 25, 2015

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers look to restore Clean Water Act  protections to smaller waterways around the country, industries and trade groups are putting millions of dollars into lobbying efforts to prevent such a move.

Using publicly available data, environmental advocacy group Environment Iowa found that some of the biggest industrial water polluters also contributed large monetary amounts to lobbying efforts in 2014. The ten companies that dumped the most toxic chemicals into the nation’s waterways in 2012 – a combined 95 million pounds of material – spent more than $53 million on lobbying last year, as well as nearly $10 million in campaign contributions.

At stake is a broader definition of terms like “navigable waters” which are offered protection under the Clean Water Act (CWA). This would include more than two million miles of streams and 20 million acres wetlands which feed into much of America’s drinking water supply. The EPA is currently limited in its enforcement of CWA offenses over the thousands of miles of pipelines stretched over wetlands and waste dumped into smaller streams because of the provisions of current definitions.

The millions spent by companies like Tyson Foods and Kock Industries were used to fund campaign contributions, corporate lobbying and the formation of influential industry groups. Through the hiring of full-time lobbying staff who are able to secure multiple meetings with lawmakers, these companies have an unbalanced level of influence compared to everyday citizens. In 2014, one of these groups, The Waters Advocacy Coalition, sent a letter urging members of the House of Representatives to block the Clean Water Act rule affecting smaller waterways.

Environment Iowa is urging federal officials to “restore Clean Water Act protections to America’s streams and wetlands.” Click here for the full report.

On the Radio: Bakken pipeline presents environmental risks


An oil pad near the Little Missouri River near Billings, North Dakota (NPCA / Flickr).
An oil pad near the Little Missouri River near Billings, North Dakota (NPCA / Flickr).
February 23, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at environmental concerns raised by farmers and climate experts related to the Bakken oil pipeline. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Bakken pipeline environmental concerns

A proposed crude oil pipeline spanning the state is causing environmental concerns among Iowans.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Texas-based Dakota Access has officially sought permission from the state Utilities Board to build a pipeline across 18 Iowa counties. The pipeline would carry oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to central Illinois.

Similar projects have led to serious spills, like one that leaked 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana in January, contaminating the water supply of nearby cities.

Farmers and landowners at informational meetings in December spoke out against the pipeline’s construction, arguing that the project would interfere with drainage systems built to address Iowa’s growing runoff problem. Others noted that such a project may further Americans’ dependence on fossil fuels, at a time when climate experts are urging a shift to clean, renewable energy.

For continuous updates on the Bakken pipeline, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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

New rules for Jordan Aquifer under review


Locations of Water Use Permits for Wells tapping the Jordan Aquifer (Iowa DNR)
Locations of Water Use Permits for Wells tapping the Jordan Aquifer (Iowa DNR)
KC McGinnis | February 18, 2015

In a meeting Tuesday, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission approved a plan to look into new rules for using the Jordan Aquifer, an underground water source that supplies water to much of the state. Increased demand has strained the aquifer, leading to concerns that the state may need to take action to preserve it.

The proposed rules included new limits on cooling and geothermal use, as well as a new classification system that would arrange aquifer use into three tiers based on depth. Users pumping 300 feet below 1978 levels will be required to follow a water use reduction plan, while users pumping 400 feet below would have to minimize use altogether.

The proposed rules also included the creation of two “protected source areas” in Johnson/Linn Counties and Webster County. This would require that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources conduct all permitting for new well construction within those areas.

These recommendations will be open for public comment at meetings around the state in April. For the complete report from Tuesday’s meeting, visit the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

DNR: Low levels of ethanol detected in Mississippi River after train derailment


An aerial shot of the Mississippi River near Keokuk. (Dual Freq/Wikimedia Commons)
An aerial shot of the Mississippi River near Keokuk. (United States Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons)

Nick Fetty | February 13, 2015

Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources have detected low levels of ethanol in the Mississippi River following a train derailment near Dubuque last week.

An official with the Iowa DNR said the fuel “dissipated fairly quickly in the first mile downstream” and that levels were barely detectable 10 miles from the crash site. Monitoring stations have been set up in approximately 6,000 feet intervals and crews been conducting approximately 100 tests each day. Officials have also monitored areas near Muscatine (approximately 130 miles downstream from the crash site) and no ethanol was detected during the initial tests.

Recovering ethanol that spilled onto iced-over parts of the river has been difficult because the ice isn’t strong enough to support machinery and other equipment for the recovery effort. Air pumps are being used in non-frozen segments of the river to extract ethanol from the water. Oxygen levels have remained steady indicating that aquatic life should not be affected.

Approximately 305,000 of 360,000 gallons of ethanol that spilled has been recovered but officials with the Iowa DNR plan to continue monitoring for ethanol levels for “quite some time.”

Multiple agencies have assisted with clean up and monitoring efforts including the U.S. EPA, Iowa DNR, Wisconsin DNR, Illinois EPA, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Department of Interior.