On the Radio: Soil conservation gains popularity among farmers

An Iowa farm in early Summer (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
An Iowa farm in early Summer (Carl Wycoff / Flickr)
January 26, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a recent report that shows Iowa farmers are increasingly turning to environmentally friendly soil conservation practices. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Soil Conservation

Cover crops, crop rotation, and other soil conservation practices are gaining in popularity with Iowa farmers, according to a recent report.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The international consulting firm Datu Research released the 53-page report in December which found that 23 percent of those surveyed reported that they planted cover crops on their farms. Eighty percent of respondents said they alternate their fields between corn and soybeans each year while 70 percent of farmers said they practice minimum or conservation tilling practices.

These techniques improve soil health and help to regulate moisture content. This allows soil to retain more nitrate and phosphorus, saving farmers on fertilizer costs while also reducing nutrient runoff which is a major cause of water pollution in Iowa.

Agricultural runoff accounts for approximately 70 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that enters the Gulf of Mexico through the Mississippi River.

For more information about this report this IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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

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.

Iowa awarded $5M+ for water quality improvement projects



Nick Fetty | January 15, 2015

The federal government has awarded more than $5 million as part of a conservation project that aims to clean up waterways in the Hawkeye State.

The state of Iowa will receive $3.5 million for the project while the city of Cedar Rapids will get $2.1 million. The funding is part of U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s $370 million Regional Conservation Partnership Program. An additional $400 million is expected to be leveraged by other groups participating in the program. The program aims to “cut down on fertilizer runoff, expand bird nesting areas, and restore native grasslands” in an effort to improve water quality across the country.

This project brings together a wide variety of partners from private companies to universities to local and tribal governments and gives these entities the opportunity to develop their own unique plans. In addition to the conservation efforts, this program is also expected to create jobs.

“This is an entirely new approach to conservation efforts,” Vilsack said in a press release. “These partnerships empower communities to set priorities and lead the way on conservation efforts important for their region. They also encourage private sector investment so we can make an impact that’s well beyond what the Federal government could accomplish on its own.”

This funding comes on the heels of announcement by Des Moines Water Works to pursue a lawsuit against three Iowa counties for failing to manage nitrate levels in the Raccoon River.

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.

Iowa Environmental Focus: Best of 2014


As 2014 comes to a close, it’s time to look at some of the Iowa Environmental Focus’s most shared and talked-about blog posts of the year. These are the posts that helped spur conversation on important environmental topics in Iowa and around the world. Thanks for your support, and Happy New Year!

Climate and health experts discuss effects of climate change on Iowans – The Iowa Environmental Focus visited the 2014 Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum in October, to learn how climate change is affecting Iowa’s air quality, water quality and public health.

Large solar energy project coming to Mitchell county in northern Iowa – This project could be one of the largest in the state, with 1,200 solar panels.

Iowa Climate Statement 2014: Impacts on the Health of Iowans – The 4th annual Iowa Climate Statement was released in October, highlighting the health effects of climate change on Iowans. The blog  took photos and video of the event, which took place at the Des Moines statehouse.

University of Iowa research examines health effects of frac sand mining – A look into the research on the health effects of frac sand mining, or fracking, in Iowa.

MIT engineers discover way to create efficient solar panels using lead recycled from car batteries – The future of solar power could lie in old car batteries, according to engineers at MIT.

Grinnell College blown off course on campus wind energy project  – The Iowa Environmental Focus covered a setback at Grinnell College, where plans for a 5.1-megawatt wind farm were halted in October.

Proposed oil pipeline would run through 17 Iowa counties – An 1,100-mile oil pipeline was proposed to run from Lyon County in the northwest corner of Iowa to Lee County in the southeast.

Ottumwa meat plant is Iowa’s top waterway polluter – A report that showed, among other concerns, that one Iowa meat plant dumped three million pounds of chemicals into the Lower Des Moines River in 2012.

Iowa’s Allamakee county looks to implement nation’s strictest fracking ordinance – In June, the Allamakee County (Iowa) Board of Supervisors voted 3-0 to approve what looks to be “the most strict frac sand mining ordinance in the nation.”

Hemp advocates announce 6th Annual Hemp History Week – This event, taking place in 2015, aims to bring attention to hemp as an environmentally sustainable crop with both nutritional and medical uses.

On the Radio: New rule to curb agricultural pollution

A tractor sprays liquid manure onto an Iowa field (Mark Evans / Flickr)
A tractor sprays liquid manure onto an Iowa field (Mark Evans / Flickr)
December 8, 2014

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at a new measure that provide stricter enforcement of rules against manure spills. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: New Rule

A new rule to curb agricultural pollution in Iowa waterways is now in effect.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources, as part of a deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, has developed a new measure which will provide stricter enforcement of rules against manure spills on livestock farms. More than 60 such spills have been reported over the last year, which have caused contamination leading to fish kills and water pollution.

The DNR is poised to inspect farms’ handling of manure more stringently, issuing fines to operations that don’t cooperate. Earlier this year, a dairy farm was ordered to pay over $160,000 for a spill that killed hundreds of thousands of fish in a nearby lake.

Iowa farms produce waste from 60 million chickens, 20 million pigs, 9 million turkeys, and 4 million cows.

For more information about the new environmental measure, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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