University of Minnesota research shows grassland-to-cropland conversion is contributing to groundwater contamination


A southern Minnesota farm just before harvest. (keeva999/Flickr)
A southern Minnesota farm just before harvest. (keeva999/Flickr)

Southeast Minnesota farmers converting their grassland into cropland could be contributing to increased nitrate levels in groundwater, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota.

The research estimates that it will cost between $700,000 and $12 million over the next 20 years to address increased nitrate levels in private wells throughout southeastern Minnesota. Researchers Bonnie Keeler and Stephen Polasky used biophysical models and economic valuation to draw their conclusions.

Between 2007 and 2012, more than one-quarter of grassland in southeastern Minnesota were converted into cropland. This led to higher amounts of fertilizer being used which then led to higher nitrate levels in waterways. This creates both health and financial risks for 70 percent of Minnesotans who rely on groundwater as well as for the 1 million residents who get their water from public wells.

The southeastern portion of Minnesota is especially vulnerable to groundwater contamination because of its karst geology which contains cracks and fissures in underground rock formations that can easily be penetrated and jeopardize the quality of the water. Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota Extension found tillage to be the most effective method to protect water quality in southeastern Minnesota.

Both the Upper Iowa River and Cedar River Watersheds begin in southeastern Minnesota and travel down through portions of eastern Iowa before draining into the Mississippi River.

On the Radio: Iowa lakes undergo restoration projects


A lake near Buena Vista, Iowa. (Flickr)
A lake near Buena Vista, Iowa. (Flickr)

This week’s On the Radio segment highlights the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ ongoing lake restoration program. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

 

Transcript: Iowa Lake Restoration Program

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is cleaning dozens of Iowa lakes this summer as part of its ongoing lake restoration program.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Iowa DNR has selected 35 Iowa lakes and watersheds for restoration with the goals of improved water quality, a balanced aquatic community and improved fishing and swimming. Their 2013 report states that many Iowa lakes suffer from excessive algol growth and sedimentation.

The DNR plans to work with local towns and watershed groups to develop action plans, including marsh rehabilitation, wetland reconstruction and lake dredging. Similar projects at Clear Lake, Storm Lake and Lake MacBride have enhanced recreation opportunities, putting them in the top five most visited lakes in the state.

For more information about the Iowa lake restoration program, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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

Iowa could soon face water situation similar to Toledo


Blue green algae growing on Lake Eric. ( NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory/Flickr)
Blue green algae growing on Lake Erie. (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory/Flickr)

Algae blooms in Iowa could contaminate the water supply, similar to what recently happened in Toledo, and according to one expert, “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus inundate Iowa waterways and that coupled with high temperatures provides the perfect breeding ground for algae. The state has implemented a voluntary plan which encourages farmers to practice agricultural techniques that will lessen the amount of fertilizer run-off which leads to contaminated waterways in Iowa.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently advised beach-goers to avoid the waters at Lake Red Rock in Marion County due to excessively high levels of blue green algae which is known to contain toxins that are harmful to humans and can be lethal for animals. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources advises swimmers to take extra precaution in Iowa lakes during this time of the year. There are currently about dozen state-operated beaches in Iowa where swimming is not advised.

Attornys general from Iowa and 14 other agricultural and ranching states have spoken out against a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed rule for the Clean Water Act, fearing the proposal would place excessive regulations on farmers and ranchers. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has defended the proposal and said it does not intend to place strict federal regulations on farmers.

Approximately 600 households in southwest Iowa were recently issued a boil order before consuming tap water after water quality tests concluded that chlorine levels were not sufficient. Chlorine is used to kill bacteria and other harmful toxins as part of the water filtration process but there was no indication that bacteria or other toxins had actually contaminated the water supply.

Iowa fields are eroding at an unsustainable rate, study says


Agricultural runoff in Iowa (Lynn Betts/Flickr)
Agricultural runoff in Iowa (Lynn Betts/Flickr)

The rate of soil runoff from Iowa fields may be many times higher than previous estimates, according to a recent study.

The report, released by Environmental Working Group, shows that Iowa fields are eroding at unacceptable rates, depleting Iowa’s rich topsoil and sending sediment and chemicals into streams and rivers. Between 2002 and 2010, many fields consistently lost more than the sustainable rate of five tons of soil per acre from storms and other erosion events. A single storm in May of 2007 eroded up to 100 tons of soil per acre.

Much of the soil is carried away by gullies that are increasingly appearing in Iowa fields. These low channels are a telltale sign of high erosion, and are often refilled with soil only to be emptied again with the next storm.

High erosion creates high agricultural and environmental risks by carrying away Iowa’s rich topsoil and by polluting waterways with sediment and chemicals. An effective means of curbing this is to plant grass and trees along the edges of fields and in areas where gullies are likely to form. A series of buffers implemented in various fields reduced sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus by more than 90 percent in 2009.

Toledo drinking water contamination is sign of bigger problems for Lake Erie


Blue green algae grows near Duncan's Dam in Northern Ireland. (Bobby McKay/Flickr)
Blue green algae floats near Duncan’s Dam in Northern Ireland. (Bobby McKay/Flickr)

The recent water contamination in Toledo, Ohio is yet another instance of the pollution that is a growing problem for Lake Erie.

Local health officials advised residents that both boiling and filtering the water were ineffective in eliminating the toxins which affected the water supply of nearly half a million residents. Toledo’s public water supply was deemed unfit to consume on Saturday and remained so until Monday when Mayor Michael Collins drank a glass of tap water in front of residents and media to signal that it was once again safe for consumption. During the shortage, football players and other athletic staff from Bowling Green State University drove 26 miles up I-75 to provide fresh water for their rivals at the University of Toledo who started practice on Sunday.

Fertilizer runoff, livestock operations, and faulty septic systems have all contributed to increased nitrogen and phosphorus levels in Lake Erie, which has seen seen greater levels of phosphorus compared to the other Great Lakes. However, this algae problem is not unique to the Great Lakes region.

Iowa waterways too have been contaminated with algae. Heavy rainfall in the spring and early summer led to an estimated 15 million pounds of Iowa soil being eroded away which causes runoff and other contamination in Iowa waterways. Blue green algae can produce toxins that are harmful for humans and can be deadly for animals. Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources advise beach-goers to take extra precaution when swimming in Iowa lakes this time of year since algae blooms are at their peak.

DNR looking for Iowans’ input on water quality


Story County, Iowa. Photo by Carl Wycoff; Flickr
Story County, Iowa. Photo by Carl Wycoff; Flickr

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has announced a series of public meetings to review the state’s water quality standards. The open discussions, which occur triennially in accordance with the federal Clean Water Act, will be held throughout Iowa in early September.

Iowans with ideas and opinions about state water quality goals are encouraged to attend one of the events. After the meetings, the department will review the public’s suggestions and adjust their work plan accordingly.

Rochelle Weiss, DNR water quality standards coordinator, describes the meetings as “the public’s opportunity to tell us what is important to them.”

Visit the DNR’s website to find a meeting near you, and find out more about the review process here.

$1.4 million towards water quality improvement


Skunk River east of Cambridge, IA.  Photo by Carl Wycoff; Flickr
Skunk River east of Cambridge, IA.
Photo by Carl Wycoff; Flickr

Last week, the state of Iowa made $1.4 million available to farmers in an effort to improve water quality through nutrient reduction practices. Farmers have now claimed all of these funds and will match the amount, bringing the total to $2.8 million.

The 597 farmers who received funds plan to either plant cover crops, utilize no-till or strip-till cultivation, or apply a nitrification inhibitor.

Earlier this year, the Legislature appropriated $11.2 million for environmental conservation, but the amount was vetoed by Gov. Terry Branstad.

According to a report by the Iowa Policy Project, the state’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy needs more funding in order to succeed.

 

USGS study finds waterways have high levels of neonicotinoid in Iowa, Midwest


The Raccoon River near Water Works Park in Des Moines. Photo by Carl Wycoff; Flickr
The Raccoon River near Water Works Park in Des Moines.
Photo by Carl Wycoff; Flickr

A new study by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) finds that waterways in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest are experiencing particularly high levels of an insecticide known as neonicotinoid.

Farmers and gardeners use neonicotinoids – or neonics – because their effectiveness against a whole range of pests. However, the insecticide has been linked to decreased bee populations as well as a fall in the number of certain prairie bird species.

Neonics – which are chemically similar to nicotine – disolve in water quickly which means they’re susceptible to running off fields and polluting rivers, streams, and other waterways. A 2013 Dutch report found that imidacloprid – one of the chemicals in neonicotinoid – had harmful effects on “a wide range of non-target species.” Similarly, a 2014 Canadian study found neonics to be detrimental on wetland ecosystems.

The use of clothianidin – another chemical found in neonicotinoid – on corn in Iowa nearly doubled from 2011 to 2013. In 2013 the Iowa DNR released a 114-page report examining polluted waterways throughout the state.

Agricultural and environmental interests may be at odds


Photo by OakleyOriginals; Flickr
Photo by OakleyOriginals; Flickr

Earlier this week, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and several other members of the Senate Agriculture Committee met with U. S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. The aim of the closed-door meeting was to clarify several intersections between environmental regulations and agricultural practices.

However, the meeting failed to resolve tensions between the two interests. Grassley released a statement noting his discontent with the EPA’s efforts, stating that “the meeting did little to alleviate [his] concerns.”

Issues discussed in the meeting included methane emission regulations, the amount of ethanol in the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, and U. S. Supreme Court decisions on the 1972 Clean Water Act. EPA officials maintain that agricultural exemptions are still in place, while Republican senators claim that the Agency is overreaching.

Republican committee members had called for the meeting in a May 23 letter.

Asphalt: both victim and culprit of Iowa flooding


Flood damage to Highway 1 north of Solon after 2008 floods. John Johnson/Flickr
Flood damage to Highway 1 north of Solon after 2008 floods. John Johnson/Flickr

Heavy rainfall throughout Iowa over the weekend caused flash floods in several cities, resulting in two deaths and causing millions of dollars in infrastructure damage.

Some of the most striking damage was to Iowa’s roads. Floods closed off residential roads and highways across the state, including Iowa Highway 14 north of Marshalltown and sections of Highway 330. Emergency repairs have closed off Highway 1 near Mt. Vernon after floodwaters washed out a bridge on Monday.

Asphalt and concrete play a unique role in flooding as both victim and culprit of the damage. The surfaces of our roads and highways are made of two of the least absorbent materials around, resulting in immediate runoff and significant damage if drainage systems aren’t in place. This often results in heavy damage to roads and structures themselves, when the combination of soaked and washed-out soil beneath and high pressure from floodwaters above causes cracks, displacement and collapses.

Fortunately, most Iowa cities have vast drainage infrastructures to prevent roads from becoming waterlogged. Yet continued heavy rains, like Iowa’s record rainfall in June, will continue to put those systems to the test.