Waste, water, and nitrates: Iowa’s growing problem


group of pink pigs on cage
Iowa’s livestock contributes heavily to our nitrate problem | Photo by John Lambeth on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 18th, 2019

Nitrates are not a new subject for Iowans. We’ve already published a nitrate breakdown that explains the nitrate pollution contributions Iowa makes to the many larger bodies of water our rivers drain into and how nitrate pollution can affect our bodies.

With some new research emerging, it’s become clear that Iowa’s nitrate problem is intricately linked with its status as a heavily agricultural state–our amounts of livestock have a heavy effect on the quality of our water, and the problem may be larger than we realize.

Back in March, Chris Jones, a research engineer from IIHR, broke down what he calls Iowa’s “real population”–a collective census of our state’s population, one that includes more than just its people. By calculating the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and total solid matter excreted by different types of livestock and comparing those values to human waste, he was able to roughly calculate how many people each livestock group accounted for–and the numbers are staggering.

According to this line of logic, pigs in Iowa roughly equal a mind-blowing 83.7 million people. Dairy and beef cattle account for 33.6 million people. Chickens and turkey nearly equal 16 million themselves. Altogether, our livestock theoretically gives Iowa–a relatively small state with less than 4 million humans–an extended population of about 134 million. Recently, Chris Jones applied his research to Iowa’s actual area to determine the concentration of those numbers, and, in the process, updated that overall population to 168 million after some new data from the USDA.

Iowa produces a lot of waste. Livestock-heavy watersheds tend to have higher concentrations of nitrate runoff. We are not a large state, but when we account for our animals, we are one of the most densely populated for our total land area.

Overall, dissecting the effect that agriculture and livestock have on the environment is tricky, because our state relies heavily on our agricultural economy for many, many things. Advancements in green and natural nitrate filters and better methods of waste management seem to be some of the solutions we can work towards to solve our looming nitrate problem.

 

On The Radio- West Nile virus in Iowa


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(flickr/cesar monico)

Kasey Dresser| June 17, 2019

This week’s segment looks at the unwanted guest brought into Iowa by the rain and flooding this season. 

Transcript: 

The West Nile virus may soon run rampant because of the flooding that has been occurring in western Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Mosquitoes are not abnormal residents in the western region of Iowa. Yet these types of mosquitoes, the Culex tarsalis (Cool-ex tar-say-lis)  is carrying a virus that could hurt human beings.

The Culex tarsalis, have risen in grand numbers because they gather and breed in large pools of water and flooded areas. Iowa State University came out with new research that shows western Iowa has the largest presence of the West Nile virus, due to the resurgence of these mosquitoes.   

Iowa State professor and entomologist Ryan Smith believes that the virus is concerning as it is the common mosquito-born disease in the United States. The virus could affect one in five people bitten by the mosquito, and could lead people to develop fevers and potentially fatal symptoms.

The best way to protect yourself, would be to consistently spray insect repellent or wear long sleeve shirts. Make sure that you are fully covered before stepping outside.

For more information, visit Iowa environmental focus dot org.

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

 

Iowa Flood Center 10 years later: preventative measures for the future


By Julia Shanahan | June 14th, 2019

The Iowa Flood Center celebrated its 10th anniversary on Thursday, where members reflected on the center’s growth and development since the devastating 2008 flooding.

Larry Weber, IFC co-founder and research engineer, said after the 2008 flood, which came just 15 years after another historic flood in 1993, the state of Iowa began to realize that these horrific floods were not just going to be a “once in a lifetime” occurrence.

“Prior to 2008, however, [the Iowa Flood Center] had very little direct impact in the state of Iowa,” Weber told media and community members at the Stanley Hydraulics Lab on Thursday.

Weber said working with the community and government officials during the 2008 flood was a learning experience for many involved, but that it pushed the IFC to be a more resourceful organization ten years later.

With help from the state and IFC, the University of Iowa and surrounding community had to restore damages in 18 buildings. Now, nearly everything has been repaired except for the UI’s Museum of Art. Construction is slated to start this year.

Witold Krajewski, IFC co-founder and rainfall monitoring and forecast expert, said since the 2008 flood, the IFC has mapped areas around streams and rivers that are exposed to innovation and monitors streamflow forecasts in real-time at about 400 locations across the state – all of which are available on an interactive web-based platform.

“While today we are celebrating ten years of accomplishments, we and the people of Iowa have a long road ahead of [us] to a sustainable future,” Krajewski said, referencing concerns about climate change, intensifying land use, and beginning new approaches to hazard-assessment programs.

IFC members also highlighted the role state government has played in restoring communities hit by flooding. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has signed disaster proclamations for more than half the state in recent months after the Missouri River flooded in southwest Iowa.

State Senators Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, and Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, commended the bipartisanship in the Iowa Legislature and the devotion of community members and Iowans who pitched in to help in 2008.

Hogg said 11 years ago on the night of June 12, thousands of Iowans showed up to help safeguard the final water intake in Cedar Rapids by laying down sand bags into the morning hours of June 13. He said after an overflow of people showed up to help, some were sent to secure Mercy Medical Center to prevent its bottom level from collapsing.

“I have said since that time that when it comes to preventing future flooding, we need that same spirit of the sandbag that we displayed on June 12 and 13 of 2008,” Hogg said.

Hogg said that today, the “spirit of the sandbag” can be applied to building detention basins, flood-safe architecture, and conservation efforts on farmlands.

Year-round E15 available for consumer access


By Julia Shanahan | June 13th, 2019

President Donald Trump recently approved the sale of year-round ethanol for consumer access – a move that was applauded by Iowa’s Republican Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst.

In a joint press release from Grassley, Ernst, and Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, they commended Trump for “keeping his promise” to Iowa farmers.

“[Trump’s] directive to EPA to finalize a rule allowing year-round sales of E15 will allow for an open marketplace with more fuel options, encourage competition and drive down fuel costs — all while improving the environment,” said the June 11 press release.

Trump made an Iowa campaign stop on June 11 in Council Bluffs and West Des Moines, where he touted his approval of year-round E15 to farmers and manufacturers in Council Bluffs. E15 is championed as something that could boost Iowa’s economy because of the use of corn in its manufacturing.

E15, a gasoline blend with 15 percent ethanol, burns cleaner than standard fuel and can be used in all 2001 and newer vehicles. Burning ethanol does result in the emission of greenhouse gas, but when the combustion of ethanol is made from corn or sugarcane, it’s considered atmospheric neutral, because the biomass grows and absorbs CO2.

As of March 2019, Iowa’s ethanol industry has accounted for 43,697 jobs and $4.7 million in GDP, according to the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. In 2018, there was 4.35 billion gallon of ethanol production.

In a 2016 editorial from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, a professor of food and agriculture policy wrote that increasing corn production in the Midwest for ethanol use has repercussions on the environment, and questioned the profitably of the ethanol industry. He referenced ethanol production taking off in the mid-2000s and corn prices reaching record highs in 2007.


However, the USDA cites other contributing factors to the high corn prices, including the depreciating U.S. dollar, bad weather, and policy responses on imports and exports of commodities.

Iowa Flood Center celebrates its 10th anniversary


C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory | Iowa City, Iowa| Iowa Flood Center

Sthefany Nóbriga | June 12, 2019

The Iowa Flood Center will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Thursday, June 13 at the C. Maxwell Stanley Hydraulics Laboratory from 8:30 am to 4 pm. The Iowa Flood Center invites friends, partners, and the public to take part in a day-long celebration to celebrate this ten year milestone. The day’s events include; presentations, tours, hands-on activities and more.

Social Hour and Flood Panel Discussion at the Big Grove Brewery

A social hour and flood panel discussion will take place starting at 4:30 pm at the Big Grove Brewery. The flood panel will be moderated by Erin Jordan, a Cedar Rapids Gazette investigative reporter.

The event panelists include:

•    Wiltold Krajewski: One of the world’s most respected experts in rainfall monitoring and forecasting using radar and satellite remote sensing. He is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa College of Engineering and faculty research engineer at IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering. 

•    Larry Weber:Co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center and former director of IIHR. He is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa.

•    Lora Friest:Executive director of the Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) in Postville, Iowa. A regional nonprofit organization that specializes in system change related to economic development and natural resources. 

•    Rob Hogg:State senator from Cedar Rapids, Iowa that represents portions of southwest, southeast and northeast Cedar Rapids. Senator Hogg has worked alongside legislators to pass legislation to assist Iowans with flood recovery and investing in flood protection, as well as helping establish the Iowa Flood Center.

•    Rick Wulfekuhle:  Buchanan County emergency management coordinator since 1997. Wulfekuhle has coordinated 14 Presidential Disaster Declarations and is passionate about bringing awareness to flood safety and procedures.

The panelist will gather to talk and share their knowledge and ideas about the recent floods affecting the Midwest and how the Iowa Food Center is helping the communities become better prepared for more flooding.   

For more information, visit the Iowa Flood Center.

Plants have been quietly going extinct for centuries


pink tiger lily on bloom
Two different reports highlight the immense loss in biodiversity in the past few hundred years | Photo by Anthony on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | June 11th, 2019

Environmental changes are impacting our plants, and our shrinking biodiversity is bad news for everyone–according to multiple studies uncovering the loss of a large percentage of our natural world.

A comprehensive UN report released back in May discusses multiple facets of this mass extinction: our accelerating loss of different animal and plant species, our steadily strained biodiversity, the way that our lives hang in balance with a wide variety of plants and animals. Around 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction within the next few hundred years. Multiple factors are at play–including our increased land and water dedication to agriculture, a significant increase in plastic pollution, and unsustainable rates of fishing.

A different report published by researchers at Stockholm University, Kew, and Royal Botanic Gardens detail how over 600 plant species have been confirmed extinct over the past 250 years, a staggering number considering the short window of time in which these extinctions have occurred.

Extinction rates are higher in some locations than in others, with plants of all types at significant risk in Mediterranean climates–anywhere where land-use has changed in any significant way.

The threat of extinction spells disaster for our ecosystem, as many insects and animals depend on a variety of plants to keep them fed and safe. The two reports suggest that–working on a local level upwards–we can eventually reach a point of stabilization and protect many of our remaining plant and animal species, but those that have already left us are never coming back.

 

On The Radio- Multi-billion dollar floods


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Flooding in Des Moines from 2008 (flickr/Joe Germuska)

Kasey Dresser| June 10, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how Midwestern Governors are coping with flood season.

Transcript: 

The Missouri River saw record runoff during March’s multi-billion dollar floods.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reported that 11 million acre-feet of water flowed through the upper Missouri River Basin in March. That is equivalent to 11 million acres of land covered in one foot of water, 51 percent more water than the previous record set in 1952.

The corps increased storage and release at several dams in Montana and the Dakotas in an attempt to protect communities along the river from further flooding. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and the governors of South Dakota and Missouri do not believe those efforts are enough.

Together they are imploring the corps to find new solutions for controlling the Missouri River in the future. The trio did not mention climate change at their press conference, but scientists expect that the Midwest will experience more intense rain events and, therefore more frequent extreme flooding in coming decades as the climate warms.

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

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