Endangered mussel may be making a comeback in the Iowa River


The Higgins' eye pearlymussel, an endangered species which was found in the Iowa River during this year's Mussel Blitz. (USFWSmidwest/Flickr)
The Higgins’ eye pearlymussel, an endangered species which was found in the Iowa River during this year’s Mussel Blitz. (USFWSmidwest/Flickr)

After a week of scouring along the Iowa River, researchers and volunteers from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources made promising findings regarding Iowa River’s mussel population, a critical indicator of the waterway’s aquatic health.

The experts found 20 different species during the 2014 Mussel Blitz, an annual research project to assess the health and diversity of Iowa’s mussels. Among them was the Higgins’ eye pearlymussel, an endangered species which was reintroduced to the river in 2003 by stocking fish with young specimens, at the time just the size of a grain of salt. Researchers found six adult Higgins’ eyes in the Iowa River during the Mussel Blitz, indicating that the species was able to mature in the waterway.

While mussels thrived in Iowa waterways for centuries, most have faced heavy setbacks due to damming, fluctuations in water levels and chemicals in the water. 43% of North America’s 300 mussel species are in danger of extinction, including 78 endangered or threatened species in the Midwest.

Since their primary threats are sedimentation and pollutants, mussels are important to Iowa’s waterways as indicators of aquatic health. Reproducing populations of mussels indicate good water quality and wildlife diversity, and mussels help purify the aquatic system by acting as natural filters. They’re also an important food source for otters, herons and some fish.

Cool July temps helped farmers now hoping for more rain


A corn field in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
A corn field in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)

July 2014 ranked as the fifth-coolest July the Hawkeye State as seen in 142 years of record keeping.

These lower than usual temperatures have been beneficial for farmers in Iowa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects corn production in Iowa to set a record of 2.44 billion bushels, with an average yield of 185 bushels-per-acre. If this per acre number is reached it will beat the previous record of 182 bushels-per-acre set in 2009.

While corn thrives when temperatures are lower than average, it can be detrimental to soy beans. Soy beans require slightly higher temperatures than corn in order for the bean pods to develop. However, the cooler temps have provided a reduction in disease and insect problems for soy bean crops. Soy bean production is also expected to set a record yield of 3.8 billion bushels according to the USDA.

Even though this past June ranked as one of the wettest in the state’s history, a fairly dry July has farmers now hoping for more rain. Despite the lack of rain, it has not hurt water levels on the Mississippi River.

Iowa is expected to retain its spot as the nation’s top corn-producing state. Illinois is right behind Iowa with an expected yield of 2.22 billion bushels followed by Nebraska with 1.51 billion bushels and Minnesota with 1.34 billion.

Iowa City film fest to feature documentary about frac sand mining


A frac sand mine operation in Wisconsin. (Caroll Mitchell/Flickr)
A frac sand mine operation in Wisconsin. (Carol Mitchell/Flickr)

The 8th annual Landlocked Film Festival will take place in downtown Iowa City this weekend and among the films being shown is a documentary that examines the affects that frac sand mining has had on the environment as well as the communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Price of Sand – directed by Minnesota native Jim Tittle – examines the recent boom in mining operations for pure silica. This silica is used in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) operations as well as for manufacturing materials such as glass and toothpaste. The silica acts as a proppant or “a material used in hydraulic rock fracturing in order to keep the fissures open and thereby aid extraction.” The size and shape of different proponents play “a critical role in keeping fractures open and at the desired conductivity.”

These frac sand mining operations are most common along the “driftless area” – also called the Paleozoic Plateau – which “is a unique region of the Upper Mississippi River Basin with a landscape that is rich with ecological and economic opportunities. The area was by-passed by the last continental glacier and has differential weathering and erosion that results in a steep, rugged landscape referred to as karst topography.” The driftless area includes portions of southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin, northwest Illiniois, and northeast Iowa. Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in Iowa currently have a “moratorium on mining.”

Proponents of the practice say that frac sand mining provides a valuable resource while creating jobs. Opponents say that it brings increased traffic as well as wear and tear on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to rural areas. Opponents are also concerned about the potential health effects associated with frac sand mining.

The viewing will take place at 4 p.m. on Friday August 22 in Room A at the Iowa City Public Library. It will be followed by discussion from a panel of experts from the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health.

“The size and the shape of silica make it a particularly dangerous substance. It is regulated as a human carcinogen. It causes siliceous, it causes tuberculous, it causes problems with kidney disease. According to studies on siliceous we can get a certain amount, maybe up to three micrograms per cubic meter, and we have no ill health effects but above that level, so if we have agricultural dust as well as dust coming from a sand plant, we may be above that threshold and then we may begin to see the scarring and the progression of disease associated with silica exposure.”

-University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Associate Nursing Professor Crispin Pierce during an interview with Iowa Public Radio on August 21, 2014.

Climate change could lead to increased mosquito, tick populations in Iowa


Environmental advocates warm that mosquito and tick populations in Iowa could increase because of climate change. (naturegirl 78/Flickr)
Environmental advocates warn that mosquito and tick populations in Iowa could increase because of climate change. (naturegirl 78/Flickr)

A report by the National Wildlife Federation released earlier this week finds that climate change could lead to an increase in mosquito and tick populations as well as stronger strains of poison ivy and more green algae blooms.

These effects will likely have a direct impact on the Hawkeye State. Iowa has seen increased amounts of rainfall precipitation and higher humidity levels in recent years, much of which can be attributed to climate change. Cases of West Nile Virus – the mosquito-borne illness that can lead to fevers and even death – have also been on the rise in Iowa in recent years. There were nine cases of West Nile Virus in Iowa in 2011 and by 2013 that number had increased to 44.

Higher temperatures and greater levels of precipitation will also affect other blood-sucking pests such as deer ticks, an insect that can withstand mild winters. More than 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported each year in the U.S.

These climate changes will not only affect insect populations but also plants. Increased carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels is expected to cause poison ivy to spread more easily and also be more potent. Green algae blooms have also been problematic in Iowa and this too is expected to worsen.

To combat these issues, the report calls for a reduction in carbon pollution through more efficient utilization of renewable energy sources as well as the implantation of certain safeguards for wildlife and wildlife habitat.

University of Iowa hosts international conference about environmental contamination


Water pollution in China. (Bert van Dijk/Flickr)
Water contamination in China. (Bert van Dijk/Flickr)

Beginning today and continuing through Friday, the University of Iowa is hosting a conference to discuss emerging contaminants and their effect on the environment.

EmCon 2014: Fourth International Conference on Occurrence, Fate, Effects & Analysis of Emerging Contaminants in the Environment will feature speakers from all across the world, including a keynote speech from University of Iowa engineering professor and CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor. Representatives from various Big Ten schools (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, Wisconsin) as well as Iowa State, Stanford and several other educational and governmental entities are scheduled to give speeches or other presentations. The event “will focus on the most recent developments and findings concerning the source, occurrence, fate, effects, and analysis of emerging contaminants in the environment, providing an ideal venue for exchange of cutting-edge ideas and information in this rapidly evolving research area.”

The first conference, EmCon 2007, was held in York, United Kingdom and brought in more than 100 attendees from all around the world. EmCon 2009 was in Fort Collins, Colorado and EmCon 2011 was in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The National Hydraulic Engineering Conference 2014 is also taking place in Iowa City this week. This event will focus on “sustainability in the design of infrastructure in a rapidly changing environment.”

EmCon 2014 begins at 4 p.m. today and the full schedule of events is available here.

MIT engineers discover way to create efficient solar panels using lead recycled from car batteries


Old car batteries and other debris strewn across an empty lot in El Paso, Texas. (Paul Garland/Flickr)
Old car batteries and other debris strewn across an empty lot in El Paso, Texas. (Paul Garland/Flickr)

Engineers at MIT have discovered a way to recycle parts from old car batteries and turn them into “long-lasting, low-cost solar panels.”

Scientists have recently discovered new potential for a material known as perovskite solar cells which can be harvested using lead from old car batteries. These cells have shown 19 percent efficiency in converting the sun’s energy into usable electricity and the lead from just one car battery can produce enough solar panels to power 30 homes.

Not only is this new method creating renewable energy but it also serves as a way to recycle lead which can have detrimental effects on entire ecosystems without proper disposal. Lead can also be recycled from an old solar panel and be used to create a new one. The report added that “photovoltaic performance of the PSCs (perovskite solar cells) synthesized by each route is the same, which demonstrates that device quality does not suffer from the materials sourced from spent car batteries. “

Currently about 90 percent of the lead extracted from old batteries is used to create new batteries but an estimated 200 million lead-acid batteries are expected to be retired in coming years as the more efficient lithium-ion batteries are likely to take over the market.

The use of solar power in Iowa is expected to rise in the coming years because of recent reductions in the installation and cost of solar technology

Solar power use in Iowa expected to grow


Solar farm in Spain. (Wikipedia)
Solar farm in Spain. (Wikipedia)

Solar energy use in the Iowa is expected to rise in coming years and much of it can be attributed to decreased installation and equipment costs.

The cost to produce energy using solar panels has deceased from 21.4 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2010 to 11.2 cents per kWh in 2013. The U.S. Department of Energy hopes this decreases to 6 cents per kWh by 2020 which is when solar energy is expected to become the world’s most inexpensive form of energy.

The Iowa Department of Revenue has awarded $ 1,280,243 in Iowa Solar Energy System Tax Credits in 2014. This is nearly double the 2012 figure of $ 650,914. A report by the Iowa Environmental Council ranks Iowa 16th nationally for potential of solar energy production and estimates that 20 percent of the state’s annual electricity needs could be met using rooftop solar grids.

Critics of solar power say the source’s reliability can be intermittent depending on sunlight availability and in California an increase in the number of solar plants has been detrimental for bird species in the state.

Iowa’s largest solar farm – expected to produce enough energy to power 120 homes – opened in Johnson County last month.