Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom talks environment, agriculture

Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom presented for the University of Iowa Environmental Coalition on Lecture Series at the Iowa Memorial Union on Thursday, November 20. (Photo by Nick Fetty)
Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom presented for the University of Iowa Environmental Coalition Lecture Series at the Iowa Memorial Union on Thursday, November 20. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | November 21, 2014

Iowa State Senator Joe Bolkcom discussed environmental issues affecting Iowans as part of the montly University of Iowa Environmental Coalition Lecture Series Thurday night in the Iowa Memorial Union.

Bolkcom – who also serves as the Outreach and Community Education Director for the UI’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research as well as the Iowa Flood Center – highlighted issues that farmers face with climate change in a state where agriculture drives the local economy.

“Keeping soil where it is is one of our top, if not our top challenge economically, water quality wise, and to address climate,” Bolkcom said.

By “keeping our soil” he is referred to runoff of topsoil which has been exacerbated by extreme weather events. Topsoil runoff and poor fertilizer application practices has also lead to increased pollution in Iowa waterways.

“The challenge for Iowa is we haven’t had the resources and when we have had the resources, we’ve not made the investments,” he said “If you want ag producers to do more conservation we have to come up with some more resources.”

Bolkcom said the state appropriated $4 million this year for resources to address topsoil runoff though more money will likely be necessary to fully correct the issue. He said the state legislature recently changed the state constitution so that next time there is a sale tax increase, three-eighths of a cent would go toward a fund to address environmental issues. Roughly 70 percent of Iowans expressed support for this environmental protection fund which is expected to generate about $150 million per year. Even though the state has not yet raised the three-eighths of a cent, Bolkcom said it would be a “game-changing investment.”

“It would create a bunch of jobs and it would start the work of cleaning up Iowa’s rivers, lakes, [and] streams,” he said. “It would start the work of putting together the kind of infrastructure on farms that we need because it’s going to take 10 or 20 years and our work’s never done.”

In addition to environmental issues affecting farmers, Bolkcom also discussed renewable energy.

“On the mitigation side its about trying to think about ways to produce energy more efficiently and in environmentally sound ways,” he said.

The wind energy industry is strong in Iowa and there has been a recent increase in solar energy as well. However Bolkcom said more can be done to embrace solar energy in the Hawkeye State.

“We’re kind of behind a number of other states. We’re behind a bunch of other countries in terms of the implementation of more solar technology,” he said.

Currently there are tax credits available at both the state and federal level to help businesses and individuals subsidize the cost for installing solar panels. The federal tax credit covers 30 percent of the cost while the state credit is 15 percent. However the federal credit is scheduled to expire at the end of 2016. Bolkcom said at this point its unclear whether the federal credit will be extended beyond 2016 which also leaves the future of the state-level credit uncertain.

“It’s not clear. Will the federal credits be extended? Don’t know. Can Iowa extend its credit in the absence of a federal credit? Yes, it would just be worth less money if it’s just Iowa’s credit but it might still be worth doing” he said, adding that this past year funding was boosted by $3 million.

Bolkcom concluded his lecture by returning to the topic of climate change. He said further focus on and acceptance of the effects of climate change are crucial for the future of Iowa.

“We’ve had this kind of debate where 50 percent of the time is for the 98 scientists that say we’ve got a big problem on our hands and 50 percent of the time to the two scientists that say no we don’t. So I’m fatigued by that and it’s time to move on.”

For more information about Thursday night’s lecture check out The Daily Iowan.

Community group aims to turn Iowa City into an “ecopolis”

Turning Iowa City into an "ecopolis" includes utilizing local renewable energy sources and constructing environmentally-friendly building (Tom Jacobs/Flickr)
Turning Iowa City into an “ecopolis” includes installing and utilizing local renewable energy sources as well as focusing on locally-grown agriculture (Tom Jacobs/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | November 20, 2014

A group of community members gathered in downtown Iowa City Tuesday to discuss ways in which Iowa City can become “the first regenerative city of the arts, food, renewable energy, and commerce in the heartland.”

The group aims to turn Iowa City into an “ecopolis” through increased renewable energy usage, bicycle and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, and local agriculture initiatives. These efforts would reduce fossil fuel usage between both local commuters and food being transported.

Jeff Biggers – writer in residence for the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability – is a major proponent of the Iowa City ecopolis project. Earlier this month he presented “An Evening at the Ecopolis: Rethinking Iowa City, Regenerating Food, Energy, Trees and the Way We Get Around,” a fictional narrative which “envisions Iowa City full of walkable and vibrant neighborhoods, milkweed to bring back the butterflies, high-tech architecture, easy public transportation, solar power, personal connections to nature and organic urban agriculture.” Biggers also points out that over a century ago, foreign visitors compared Iowa City to St. Omer in France, which has since embraced renewable energy methods and has developed pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.

Grant Schultz - owner of Versaland farm just outside of Iowa City – was the event’s keynote speaker and said that by May 2016 he hopes 90 percent of Iowa City residents live within 16 block (or one mile) of a community garden plot. On his own farm Schultz practices and teaches sustainable techniques such agroforestry and silvopasture.

Biggers and Schultz both helped to organize Tuesday’s event along with Miriam Alarcón Avila, Rockne Cole, Erica Damman, Mara Kardas-Nelson, and Carla Paciotto.

(Grant Schultz/Facebook)


Increased water consumption in Iowa strains Jordan Aquifer


Locations of Water Use Permits for Wells tapping the Jordan Aquifer (Iowa DNR)

Nick Fetty | November 18, 2014

Water demands in Iowa are exceeding the predominate aquifer’s ability to replenish itself and this could have detrimental long term effects on the state’s economy, according to the Des Moines Register.

The Jordan Aquifer – which also supplies water for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Wisconsin – is the water source for approximately half a million Iowans. Cities such as Cedar Rapids, Fort Dodge, and Iowa City in particular are drawing water from the aquifer faster than it can replenish itself which means these communities could see restrictions on water usage if proactive efforts to curb water usage are not implemented.

The recent increase in water usage can partially be attributed to Iowa’s biofuel industry which requires large amounts of purified water during the production process. Some older facilities in Iowa use as much as 200 million gallons of water each year. Approximately 15 percent of Iowa’s aquifer demand is for biofuel production.

Last year families and businesses in Iowa used nearly 26 billion gallons of water from the aquifer. This is a 72 percent increase compared to water usage in the 1970s. Again much of the water usage can be attributed to the biofuels industry in Iowa which went into operation in the 1990s.

The Iowa Environmental Protection Commission is scheduled to meet Wednesday to hear recommendations about whether immediate action is needed to preserve the aquifer. Concerns for aquifer retention are not unique the Midwest and have also affected the western United States and even the Middle East.

14th Annual Iowa Organic Conference coming to Iowa City

The 14th Annual Iowa Organic Conference will be held Nov. 16 and 17 on the University of Iowa campus. (Photo courtesy UI Office of Sustainability)
The 14th Annual Iowa Organic Conference will be held Nov. 16 and 17 on the University of Iowa campus. (Photo courtesy UI Office of Sustainability)

Nick Fetty | November 14, 2014

The 14th Annual Iowa Organic Conference will take place November 16 and 17 at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus.

The conference’s keynote speaker is Mary Berry who is the daughter of Wendell Berry, an American cultural critic, environmental activist, farmer, novelist, and poet. Ms. Berry is the executive director of the Berry Center, an agriculture-focused foundation based in New Castle, Kentucky.

The event will begin with a reception featuring locally and organically grown food and drink beginning at 6 p.m. on Sunday, November 16. Following the reception will be a screening of the movie Fresh which looks at local and organic food markets in the U.S. Sunday night will conclude with a concert by The Slow Draws Band.

The conference will resume at 7:30 a.m. on Monday, November 17 with breakfast. At 8:30 a.m. Ms. Berry will give her presentation, “Rekindling the Light Within: The Art and Science of Organic Farming.” The rest of the day will consist of “breakout sessions” which will include presentations from United States Department of Agriculture representatives, Iowa State Senator Rob Hogg, and others. Lunch will feature a gourmet meal by award-winning UI Executive Chef Barry Greenberg consisting of locally and organically grown produce, meat, and dairy products.

Officials from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, the ISU Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and the UI Office of Sustainability worked together to organize this year’s event.

Cost of attendance is $115 ($35 for students) for anyone who has not already preregistered. For more information visit the UI Office of Sustainability website or contact Kathleen Delate at

Visiting professor talks emerald ash borer, tribal basketmaking

Dr. Darren Ranco discussed ways that Maine is preparing for the emerald ash borer during a lecture at the University of Iowa on Wednesday, November 12, 2014 (Photo by Nick Fetty)

Nick Fetty | November 13, 2014

Dr. Darren Ranco visited the University of Iowa campus this week and on Wednesday night gave a lecture on the emerald ash borer and how it is affecting Native American basketmakers in his home state of Maine.

Ranco is a member of Penobscot Indian Nation and holds a PhD in social anthropology from Harvard University. He is currently the Chair of Native American Programs at the University of Maine and also serves as an associate professor in anthropology. Much of his research focuses on issues of environmental justice for Native American populations. On Wednesday he presented “Wabanaki Diplomacy to Protect the Ash Tree: Sustainability Science and Environmental Justice in Maine” as part of the UI’s Ida. C. Beam lecture series.

He began by discussing the infestation of the emerald ash borer in the United States which was first reported in Michigan in 2002 and has since spread as far west as Colorado and as far east as New Hampshire. In Iowa, the emerald ash borer has been reported in nine counties (Allamakee, Black Hawk, Bremer, Cedar, Des Moines, Jasper, Jefferson, Union, and Wapello).

“The upper part of the Midwest here has a pretty high density of ash trees compared to other places so the rate of spread, in terms of creating a large number of bugs because there’s a lot of food they can eat, is also part of the spread dynamic,” he said.

Dr. Darren Ranco discussed the spread of the emerald ash borer since it was first reported in Michigan in 2002. (Photo by Nick Fetty)

The spread of this species, which is native to China, can also largely be attributed to the transportation of fire wood. Public education campaigns have been launched in an effort to fight the dissemination of the bug with much of the focus on prevention as opposed to eradication.

“The biggest thing that makes it really imposible to fight in a conventional forestry way, in terms of eradication, is simply it’s just so hard to detect at low density,” he said. “By the time it’s in a place after three to five years and kills a tree there’s just no response you can have.”

He added that foresters can sometimes catch the bug before it becomes a problem but it is considerably more difficult for landowners and other members of the public to detect it. The bugs themselves do little damage when eating the tree’s leaves however the larvae burrow underneath the tree’s bark which inhibit the tree’s ability to retain necessary nutrients.

Though the emerald ash borer hasn’t made its way to Maine yet, Ranco and his colleagues are working to make sure they are prepared for the bug’s inevitable arrival. For the past five years, Ranco has conducted research using a combination of sustainability science and indigenous research methods to find solutions for tribal basketmakers, landowners, and others who would be affected.

“Maine is a huge forestry state but ash trees are not a central part of our forests. It’s only about four percent of our forests that are ash trees,” he said.

Because of the lack of ash trees specifically in Maine, Ronco said officials with the state’s forestry industry have been slow to respond to the treat of the emerald ash borer. However, Native American tribes in the area often use brown/black ash trees (fraxinus nigra) to construct wood baskets and a loss of ash trees would mean a loss of this cultural tradition as well as a source of income for some. Regardless of the challenges they face, Ranco said he is confident that Mainers will be prepared for the arrival of the emerald ash borer.

“Once the EAB gets there it wont be just a bunch of politicians and bureaucrats lighting their hair on fire, we will actually know what to do.”

For more information about the effort to preserve ash trees in Maine visit:

Snow expected in Iowa after South Dakota hit with first major snowfall of the season

Snowfall in St. Paul, Minnesota on Monday, November 11, 2014. (Grace/Instagram)
Snowfall in St. Paul, Minnesota on Monday, November 11, 2014. (Grace/Instagram)

Nick Fetty | November 11, 2014

Up to 8 inches of snow fell on parts of South Dakota Monday afternoon and the system is expected to move east into Iowa and parts the Great Lakes region today.

The system is expected to bring up 3 inches to portions of northeast Iowa throughout the day on Tuesday, according to Paul Markert, a meteorologist with MDA Weather Services. The snow is not expected to be a significant threat to farmers who are mostly done harvesting soy beans for the season and who are 82 percent done with the corn harvest. Corns crops are able to withstand cold temperatures however the snow may present some issues with harvesting.

Data released from the United States Department of Agriculture on Monday shows that this year’s corn crop is expected to produce a record harvest with 14.407 billion bushels nationally, down slightly from October’s estimate of 14.475 billion. The soy bean harvest is expected to produce a record 3.958 billion bushels nationally, up less than 1 percent compared to October’s estimate.

Monday’s snow coverage extended from Montana to Wisconsin with areas in between seeing as much as 12 inches. Regions of northern Wisconsin and northern Michigan are expected to be hit with the heaviest snowfalls today, though these are not livestock-heavy areas. In October 2013, roughly 22,000 cattle died after an unexpected blizzard blasted South Dakota with freezing rains, heavy snows, and winds gusts up to 70 miles per hour.

According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Des Moines recorded its snowiest November day on November 10, 1968 with 11.8 inches. This was Des Moines’s highest single-day accumulation of snowfall in November since record keeping began in 1878.

On the Radio: Clarke University adds environmental studies program

Dubuque, Iowa, home of Clarke University (John Kunze / Flickr)
Dubuque, Iowa, home of Clarke University. (John Kunze / Flickr)
November 10, 2014

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at Clarke University’s new environmental studies program. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Clarke environmental studies

A new environmental studies program at Clarke University in Dubuque aims to prepare students for careers in environmental sciences.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job demand for environmental scientists and specialists is expected to grow 15 percent between 2012 and 2022. To accommodate for this demand, Clarke University will offer students a four-year environmental studies major beginning in the fall of 2015.

The new interdisciplinary major aims to prepare students for a whole range of careers from botanists and ecologists to conservationists and environmental educators.

Last year Clarke University opened its 13-million-dollar Center for Science Inquiry. The three-story facility provides integrated labs and classrooms for various science courses.

For more information about Clarke University’s new environmental studies major, visit

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