Iowa’s Drought Is Likely to Stretch into Planting Season


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | January 19th, 2021

Iowa is currently experiencing drought conditions in the western portions of the state that climate officials say could last into the spring planting season.

In a recent meeting with regional climate and natural resources officials, Dennis Todey, the director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub, emphasized that Iowa is entering the new year with dry soil and that it is unlikely soil conditions will change quickly.  Since more rainfall is needed to address Iowa’s dry soil there is an increased chance Iowa will continue to be dry into the spring.  2020 was the 36th driest year out of 149 years on the record, leaving around 61% of the state at some level of drought.

Iowa’s drought conditions can likely be attributed to La Niña conditions which usually indicate a greater chance for colder temperatures and average or slightly above average precipitation. La Niña weather patterns develop as colder sea surface temperatures occur in the Pacific around the equator as part of the El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  These ocean conditions can result in warmer winter temperatures for the southeast U.S, and colder winter temperatures for the north west.

Percent of Global Population Experiencing Drought Could Double By The End of The Century


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Thomas Robinson | January 12th, 2020

Scientists have projected that by the end of the 21st century,, the percent of the global population at risk for extreme drought will double compared to current conditions.

In a recent study, researchers at Michigan State University have simulated hydrological conditions expected by the end of the 21st century, and their findings suggest that the number of people at risk for severe drought could increase from 3% between 1976 and 2005, to 8%.  The southern hemisphere, which already faces severe water shortages, such as in South Africa, is expected to be disproportionately affected by climate change. Unfortunately, the United States is also expected to have increased risks of drought because terrestrial water storage (TWS) will likely decrease in the coming years.

Terrestrial water storage is a measure of water stored in rivers, soils, and other reservoirs that plays an important role in how available water is as a resource. The researchers used recent modelling advancements to include TWS in global hydrological, and land surface models to better analyze how changes to TWS can influence drought conditions across the globe. 

Iowa has suffered from drought conditions over the past two decades, and climate projections suggest that extreme weather, like the Derecho, will become more commonplace.  Extreme weather poses a threat to Iowa’s crops and residents, and in the face of concerning projections, steps should be taken to help mitigate the effects climate change has on Iowans.

Nuclear Energy Plant Closure Decreases Clean Energy In Iowa


via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | January 5th, 2021

The Duane Arnold Energy Center (DAEC) near Palo, IA was decommissioned in August after incurring damage from the Derecho which decreases the amount of clean energy in Iowa.

The DAEC began commercial operation in February 1975 and served Iowa for 45 years before plans to decommission the plant in October, 2020 were sped up after the cooling towers were damaged by the Derecho.  Plans for the decommission will have all nuclear fuel in dry storage by 2023, and all building structures removed by 2080 once radioactivity has decreased. 

Approximately 10% of Iowa’s electricity came from the DAEC which means alternative energy sources such as natural gas and coal will be required to cover energy demand until alternative sources such as windmills are installed.  Other states, such as Illinois, are facing similar nuclear plant closures but have previously taken steps to prolong the lifespan their of nuclear power plants. Iowa has not taken steps to promote nuclear energy as a tool to combat climate change.

Approximately 20% of all U.S. energy has been reliably provided by nuclear energy since 1990, and nuclear energy has been deemed necessary to achieve global climate goals.  Energy produced by nuclear sources is commonly equated with energy produced by fossil fuels, however, they are not the same as carbon emissions are generally ignored in these types of comparisons.   Nuclear energy can be used to aid the transition from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy, but to meet our goals current nuclear capabilities must be increased.

Controversial Aviation Greenhouse Gas Emission Rule Finalized by the EPA


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Thomas Robinson | December 29th, 2020

The EPA has finalized a new greenhouse gas (GHG) emission standard for aviation that was made public in July, the first standard for the country.

The new GHG standard works to regulate U.S aviation emissions into compliance with similar standards made by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  The new standards have not been projected to reduce emissions, and the EPA believes that any changes made by manufacturers were likely to happen regardless of the implementation of new standards.

Unfortunately, critics argue that the new rule will fail to effectively address climate change and represents a continuation of the “do-nothing” status quo.  Toxic contaminants and particulate matter are not addressed in the new rule, both of which can result in negative health outcomes for communities close to airports.  In October, the EPA was charged by 11 states to strengthen the finalized rule which has been described as “entirely insufficient.”

Approximately 2% of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted by the aviation industry.  While significant advances have been made recently in alternative fuels and fuel efficiency, the U.S has observed growth in the aviation sector which will only increase GHG emissions.

New Report Suggests Human Health is Threatened by Plastics


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Thomas Robinson | December 22nd, 2020

A recent report by the Endocrine Society, and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) presents a concerning summary of the widespread health effects from plastic pollution.

Within the report, around 144 hazardous chemicals are highlighted because they are used in plastics for a variety of purposes, such as flame retardants, and because they are hazardous for human health.  These chemicals can leach from the plastic products throughout the entire lifespan of the material increasing the potential for human exposure.  Unfortunately, human exposure has been measured and the study reports that nearly everyone tested for endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), tested positive.  While testing positive for EDCs doesn’t mean the person tested has acute health risks, little is known about what chronic exposure to a mix of the 144 chemicals culminates in.

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that influence how hormones in the body behave and are commonly linked to developmental and reproductive issues.  Some of these chemicals are widely known, such as Bisphenol A (BPA), while others, such as Per- and Polyfluoroalkly substances (PFAS) are beginning to capture attention.

It is projected that plastic production is likely to increase within the next six years, and as plastic production increases, so too does human exposure to these harmful chemicals.  Effective public policy is needed to gain a better understanding of how the chemicals used in plastic manufacturing influence human health, and how to address human exposure to them.

Lead in School Drinking Water: Opportunities for Improving Public Health in Iowa’s Schools


With permission from Amina Grant

Thomas Robinson | December 15th, 2020

In a legislative presentation Tuesday morning, David Cwiertny, Director of CHEEC, and Dr. Michelle Scherer, a professor at the University of Iowa, presented their work on lead in Iowa’s drinking water. 

CHEEC, the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, has worked with schools around the state to assess the amount of lead in drinking water through their Grants to Schools program.  The program provides $10,000 for schools to sample every drinking water outlet, and then take steps to address any potential lead or copper contamination.  On average, they’ve found it only takes $2,800 for testing and remediation suggesting that more can be done for Iowa’s schools without breaking the bank.  Cwiertny emphasized the large cost to benefit ratio seen for lead interventions, where for every $1 invested there is around a $10 benefit.  Unfortunately, COVID-19 has created concerns about school drinking water as stagnation can increase lead and copper levels in drinking water. As schools begin to operate drinking fountains again there may be an increased chance for lead and copper exposure.

Dr. Michelle Scherer discussed her research group’s efforts to test drinking water from both municipal systems, as well as private wells in Iowa.  Recent work by graduate students Amina Grant, and Danielle Land has found that some Iowans are potentially being exposed to lead in their drinking water.  Shockingly, they found that potentially 65,000 Iowans had drinking water that exceeded the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).  Dr. Scherer’s take-away message was that we need to know more about the challenge facing Iowa.  She emphasized that in home lead and copper testing needs to be more prevalent and available to properly evaluate the issue. Similarly to work being done in Illinois, Iowa needs to map lead service lines (LSLs) so that consumers can be made aware of potential exposures. Currently the Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that public health interventions need to happen at 5 microgram per deciliter blood lead levels in children and Dr. Scherer suggested that in the face of recent work these interventions should happen at lower blood lead levels. To better address the lead challenge facing Iowa both speakers stressed the importance of filter first legislation that could help reduce lead exposure in children.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead as there is no safe level of exposure without potential health risks.  In Iowa, 1 in 5 newborns have elevated blood lead levels, and there is no difference between rural and urban populations.  Traditionally, lead is thought to come from paints, air, and soils, however, it is becoming more apparent that drinking water is a prevalent source for lead exposure.  Lead in drinking water is difficult to control and regulate since most contamination comes from the distribution system and not providers.  Currently, there are many different guidelines and regulations for lead contamination. Unfortunately, Iowa is on the back end where water outlets are taken out of service only if lead levels exceed 20 ppb, which is 4 times the level accepted for bottled water (5 ppb).  Iowa needs a health based lead regulation that can be used by consumers to evaluate whether their drinking water is safe, and it isn’t unreasonable for a low level like 1 ppb to be the goal.

Number of Iowa Park Rangers Decline As Park Visits Increase


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Thomas Robinson | December 8th, 2020

In an IowaWatch review, Iowa’s parks may be at risk of declining quality as the number of Iowa park rangers and funding decreases.

Iowa’s parks will likely see around 16 million visits in 2020, an above average number of visits for the state.  The heightened number of visits comes as the number of park rangers has declined to 35 rangers from around 55 almost 20 years ago.  The decline in park rangers presents a challenge to maintain the quality of the parks, and, while the review found most parks were doing well, there is potential for future damage.

Unfortunately, the reason for ranger decline is that general funding for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has been too low according to Sen. Ken Rozenboom.  In 2018, the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission warned that if the general fund contribution was reduced further it may prevent the DNR from carrying out its mission.  Amid budget challenges, the DNR closed their forestry bureau which ended checks for the Big Tree program that now only functions with the help of volunteers.

Coronavirus has emphasized the importance of Iowa’s state parks as places for people to explore and safely get out of their homes.  For these parks to remain in good quality and accessible to those looking to be outside, future funding will be required to support the DNR and park rangers.

Climate Change Clearly Linked To Hurricane Intensity After Landfall


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Thomas Robinson | December 1st, 2020

In a recent study, researchers demonstrated have linked slower hurricane decay after landfall to increased moisture from warming oceans.

As a historic hurricane season ends, a paper has linked global warming to the increased strength of hurricanes after they’ve hit land.  The researchers found that hurricanes are decaying slower now compared to 50 years ago, with rates that correlated with sea surface temperatures.  They also discovered that moisture in the storms provides a heat source which allows the storm to travel further inland and affect communities that may not be prepared for hurricanes.

The 2020 hurricane season broke numerous records, and was predicted to be an above-average hurricane season.  Scientists projected 12 named storms to occur in 2020, but instead, there were 30 named storms.  A concerning trend is that each named storm, except for three, was the earliest named storm on record.  This indicates that these storms are coming earlier than previous years, and that there are connections to climate change.

Climate change is also likely to influence storms affecting Iowa such as the Derecho event in August.  While the conditions that led up to the storm are difficult to forecast, it is believed that warming could increase the frequency of severe storms.

Johnson Clean Energy District 2020 Virtual Clean Energy Tour


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Thomas Robinson | November 24th, 2020

The Johnson Clean Energy District (JCED) held a virtual tour of solar energy installations across Johnson County this past Friday.

The event was held to celebrate and discuss clean energy transitions occurring within the county.  The tour included the Prairie Hill Cohousing site, the Johnson County solar power installation by the county building, and an installation at Herbet Farms.  Attendees included state legislators and community members who are involved in the district.

Clean energy districts are local groups that strive to speed up transitions to clean energy. These organizations have been styled after the soil and water conservation districts that emerged in the 1930s following the Dust Bowl.  The first district formed in Iowa was the Winneshiek Energy District and the idea has spread to surrounding states like Illinois and Wisconsin.  The JCED works for homeowners and businesses alike, through education on available energy incentives, as well as their STEP program that installs energy efficiency measures directly in homes.

In a recent brief, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has confirmed that solar energy is the cheapest electricity in history.  Their report emphasizes the importance of a clean energy transition, and the potential cost reductions it could bring for consumers around the world and right here in Iowa.

New Research Estimates Lead Exposure In Iowa’s Drinking Water


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Thomas Robinson | November 17th, 2020

Researchers at the University of Iowa have reported that between 51,000 and 79,000 Iowans may be exposed to unsafe lead levels in their drinking water

In a recent paper, Iowa researchers have used data collected for compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) to estimate how many Iowans might be at risk for lead exposure from their drinking water.  Their findings demonstrate that current in home water testing measures fail to adequately capture lead exceedances, and that water systems serving smaller populations were more likely to exceed accepted limit. From their estimates, around 65,000 Iowans are likely at risk for lead exposure above the EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, particularly for young children.  Low levels of lead exposure can have a large influence on children’s development resulting in behavioral and learning problems as well as slowed growth. Surprisingly, most lead in drinking water comes from pipes in individual homes meaning that enforcement of lead limits for water utilities likely misses lead exposure at the point of consumption.

While Iowa is not facing a lead crisis like those in Flint, MI or Washington D.C., the testing for lead in drinking water opens the door for consumers to be unknowingly exposed in their homes.  The findings of Iowa researchers suggests that changes are needed in how we ensure public protection from legacy toxins in our drinking water.