New report shows Iowa’s slow progress in meeting Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals

By Julia Shanahan | July 19th, 2019

In a report from the Iowa Environmental Council, it will take about 900 years to meet wetland goals and 30,000 years to implement enough bioreactors to treat the number of acres set out it in the 2013 Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

The Nutrient Reduction Strategy was implemented in Iowa in 2013 with the goal of reducing the amount of nitrate and phosphorus runoff in waterways, and then eventually into the Gulf of Mexico. The state hopes to cut nutrient runoff by 45 percent through voluntary programs and conservation practices.

In 2018, Iowa had about 880,000 acres of cover crops planted – a way to reduce soil erosion and prevent nutrient runoff. However, the NRS says Iowa needs about 12.6 million acres of cover crops, and the Iowa Environmental Council estimates it will take another 93 years until the state reaches that goal. The average rate of cover crop installation has decreased since the NRS implementation in 2013, but increased in 2018 by about 16 percent.

The NRS also aims to treat 7.7 million acres of wetlands – or see a 45 percent decrease in nutrient pollution – and as of 2017, about 104,000 acres were treated. The Environmental Council estimates it will take 913 years for the state to reach that goal at Iowa’s rate of adoption.

Bioreactors, which cost about $10,000 to $15,000 to install, only cover 1,250 acres of the state. Iowa’s strategy aims for bioreactors to treat 6,000 acres of the state.

Study shows states in the U.S. can expect more hot days

Photo by Jonathan Petersson on

By Julia Shanahan | July 18th, 2019

The number of Iowa’s heat index is above 90 degrees is expected to triple, bringing the average up to 64 days per year by mid-century and 92 days by the century’s end, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Iowa’s heat index includes the temperature and humidity combined. This potentially lethal heat is caused by climate change, according to the study. These heat increased will affect other states across the country as well.

The study says that if there is no action to reduce carbon emissions, then by the end of the century Florida and Texas could experience the equivalent of about five months per year where the average temperature “feels like” its above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with most days surpassing 105 degrees. The study said that some southern states could experience temperatures that would exceed the upper-limit of the National Weather Service heat index scale, causing potential, and unprecedented, health risks.

By mid-century, the study found that 401 U.S. cities, places with more than 50,000 residents, would experience an average of about a month or more a year where temperatures surpass 90 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the usual 239 cities. More than 6 million people would experience “off-the-charts” heat days for about a week or more on average. Overall, the study showed that the Southeast and Southern Great Plains will experience the worst of these effects.

Iowa is experiencing a heat index value of 110 degrees Fahrenheit this week. According to the UCS, heat related injuries can happen at temperatures above 90 degrees, making small children and elderly the most susceptible.  

Building in floodplains will always be risky

The Mississippi has a swath of natural floodplains–ones that we keep flowing into | Photo by Tom Fisk on

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 17th, 2019

Flooding risks in cities and towns along the Mississippi are only increasing with time, but this isn’t stopping some cities from continuing development along the river.

St. Louis is just one of the many places building along its floodplain, a move that many climate scientists advise against. A river’s floodplain is naturally occurring land carved out by the river’s swells and recessions, and it often ends up functioning as a buffer zone for floodwater to fill.

Around 41 million Americans live in a 100-year floodplain — areas by major rivers that have a 1% chance of flooding annually. This risk will only increase as extended rainfall becomes more and more prevalent.

Climate change and inclement weather have only increased flooding and water damage in Mississippi towns. Tropical Storm Barry, after manifesting as a hurricane on Saturday, generated rainfall that will channel up along the river, swelling the Mississippi with more water than many of the flood levees that riverside cities have constructed can likely handle.

Flood levees that block potential floodwater are a commonly implemented solution, but levees can break – -as evidenced by the temporary floodwall break in Davenport. Levees also prevent swelling rivers from spilling out into their natural floodplains, forcing the rising waters to the doorsteps of cities without adequate flood protection.

While special FEMA permits are required before cities can develop business or residential areas on floodplains and in high-risk flooding areas, some strongly believe that building in floodplains, even when precautions are taken, is always a bad idea, tempting disaster. Unless strict guidelines emerge that prevent floodplain building entirely, development in these areas will continue — albeit at the risk of becoming victim to an increasing chance of an annual rising of water.

Cold storage struggles to keep up with online food orders

More and more food sales are being made online | Photo by on

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 16th, 2019

Online food orders, groceries purchased through Amazon, fruits and vegetables shipped to your door — many people, for various reasons, choose to shop for food online instead of grabbing produce from a local grocery store.

These orders are typically shipped out from warehouses and fulfillment centers. The same holds true for food shipped out to fulfill online orders, with an important difference: food warehouses typically need to be kept cold.

Cold storage centers can be tough to maintain, with internal temperatures averaging around -10 degrees Fahrenheit. Although online grocery sales only account for about 3% of grocery buys overall, that number is expected to steadily rise over the next few years, especially with major grocery chains launching delivery services.

Aversions to preservatives and an increasing demand for natural foods make cold storage more necessary than ever. This shift in food preferences, along with new online grocery store launches and an increasing interest in meal kits, will likely force the US to build about 100 million square feet of new cold storage to keep pace as demand increases over the next five years.

For now, that demand is growing faster than cold storage centers can be built–and the problem is only likely to get worse if builders can’t work fast enough to obtain government permission and construct these buildings. This simply becomes a case of supply needing to rise and meet demand. Online demands are ever-changing — and suppliers have to race to keep up with new waves of customers.

On The Radio- Chimpanzees feel anxiety too

(flickr/Aaron Logan)

Kasey Dresser| July 14, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how social stress manifests in chimpanzees. 


Chimpanzees react to social stress, just like humans.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Behavioral dominance is the hierarchical relationship between members of a community established through force, aggression or even submission. In many animal species, dominant individuals have health and fitness benefits, more than their peers. However, a new study from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology uses chimpanzees to study some costs of behavioral dominance. 

In a community of chimpanzees, there are periods where the social dominance hierarchy shifts and there is competition among the males. Surprisingly, a majority of chimpanzees become less aggressive during that time due to stress. The senior author for the study, Roman Wittig, explained that chimpanzees are territorial but employ conflict management to diminish the risk of injuries. 

This reaction is not only behavioral. The authors collected urine samples and discovered high cortisol levels, indicating high stress, during such periods. The study showed that aggression alone is not a good indicator of competition between chimps.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.





Scientists predict the 2019 Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” to be one the largest

Gulf of Mexico. Photo by eutrophication&hypoxia, Flickr.

By Julia Shanahan | July 12th, 2019

The 2019 Gulf of Mexico “dead zone” will be the second-largest recorded, scientists from Louisiana State University announced this week.

The “dead zone” – an oxygen-depleted area of water in the Gulf of Mexico caused by nitrogen and phosphorus – will cover 8,717 square-miles as of this summer. Unusually high river discharge from the Mississippi River in May contributed to the growth of the dead zone. Oxygen depletion, or hypoxia, also threatens marine life, including fish, shrimp, and crabs.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also predicted the dead zone to reach record-highs. In 2017, the dead zone reached about 8,776 square-feet, as reported by the NOAA.  LSU scientists predict the 2019 hypoxic area to be about the size of New Hampshire.

The NOAA also attributed the growth in the annual dead zone to the record rainfall and flooding that happened in the spring months. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated a total of 156,000 metric tons of nitrate and 25,300 metric tons of phosphorus were carried from the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico in May alone.

Iowa experienced record flooding from the Missouri River in the spring, which contributed to the nutrient runoff in the Mississippi River. Iowa remains a major contributor to the annual Gulf of Mexico dead zone.

Low oxygen levels appeared about 50 years ago when farming intensified in the Midwest, according to the press release from LSU. In the last few decades, there has not been a reduction in the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus from the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico. 

Solar panels in Central Iowa

Photo by Carl Attard on

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | July 11th, 2019

Waukee has started encouraging central Iowans to rely more on the sun.

The first buy-in program in central Iowa gives discounts to interested residents and business owners looking for solar panel installations, an encouraging step towards a more solar-powered future.

Though originally intended for those in the Waukee district, the program has expanded to include everyone in Dallas County.

Solar panels have a high initial installation cost–around $11,000. The discount program can help residents install panels for about 9% less than market price, a reduction that will increase as more and more people join the program.

With panels installed, most customers will save over $1,000 a year in energy costs for their homes.

Currently, a 30% tax cut has been offered by Congress to those that install solar panels onto their homes before the end of 2019–an offer that, in most cases, allows the panels to pay for themselves within five to ten years.

Check out some solar panel details if you’re considering installing them for your home