Millions in damages from 2020 Derecho coming out of farmers’ pockets


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 28, 2021

The derecho and drought last year destroyed $802 million in corn, soybeans and pastures with farmers absorbing nearly one-third of the losses, according to a new report.

The American Farm Bureau Federation is lobbying congress for additional disaster aid for US growers due to insurance being unable to total cover the cost of damages. Federal crop insurance covered $560 million in losses leaving $243 million in damages farmers were responsible to pay for out of pocket. 

Across the country, damages caused by natural disasters totaled $6.5 billion last year. Federal crop insurance is only able to cover around $2.9 billion in losses with $3.6 left to farmers. Farm Bureau crop damage estimates do not include other ag losses such as loss of livestock or additional equipment costs farmers experienced. Regardless, it was the fourth-most expensive year of natural disasters since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The derecho’s powerful winds reached 140 mph on August 10 as it traveled 770 miles across eight states. While most of the damages to homes, businesses and farmers centered in Iowa and Illinois, total damage reached $11.5 billion. 

U.S. Representatives Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, and Randy Feenstra, R-Iowa, voted in favor of an $8.5 billion disaster bill to provide coverage for the derecho and other high wind events which the House agriculture committee approved Tuesday according to the Des Moines Register. The bill would provide assistance to farmers and ranchers seeking natural disaster assistance for last year and 2021. 

Iowa climate scientists predicted extreme summer heat, extreme rainfall expected


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 27, 2021

In 1991, scientists accurately predicted climate change would lead to a warmer and wetter Midwest in the spring and summer. Now, 5-day heat wave temperatures in Iowa are anticipated to increase around 7° F in an average year and 13° F once per decade, in comparison to the late 20th century. 

The impact of these findings go beyond weather patterns, degraded public infrastructure is one major ways everyday life will be altered by the new climate. In 2018, a group of climate scientists and researchers from across the state focused the Iowa Climate Statement on infrastructure to emphasize their concerns. In the statement, they explain how daily total rainfall is expected to double in intensity by 2025. 

Flooding along Iowa’s eastern and western borders in 2019 alone resulted in $1.6 billion in damages, according to the Des Moines Register. “…This type of flooding in this region is expected to become even more likely in the future if we do not take immediate actions to cut greenhouse gas emissions,” said University of Iowa Researcher Wei Zhang

Scientists recommend buildings be designed to withstand heavier rain by integrating rain screens, large gutters and downspouts. For the hot summer greater insulation, improved ventilation, planting of shade trees and more are needed.

Since 2011, the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has co-produced an annual Iowa Climate Statement to explain the impact of climate change on Iowa. Released in early October early, nearly every Iowa college and university has agreed to the statement. 

EPA begins demolition at Des Moines Superfund Site


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 21, 2021

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began tearing down contaminated buildings at the Des Moines Superfund site, on Monday. 

The 43-acre site has been chosen for the development of a professional soccer stadium, hotel, businesses and residential areas. At the site, groundwater pollution with the cancer-causing solvent TCE had prompted the EPA to begin removing hazardous substances and update the 35-year-old groundwater treatment system in June 2021. 

The project is one in a series that were approved to receive a portion of $100 million in state aid aimed at creating jobs and infrastructure development, according to the Iowa Economic Development Authority

Previously owned by Dico Inc. and Titan Tire Company, the site was used to manufacture pesticides, steel wheels, and tires. Operations resulted in the release of trichloroethene (TCE), 1,2-dichloroethene (1,2-DCE) and vinyl chloride into the groundwater before remaining vacant for over 25 years. 

In February, a court approved a settlement between Dico Inc. and Titan Tire Co. resulting in the city taking over the property. With the Superfund law used in the settlement, the EPA is able to enforce a “polluter pays” principle which holds Dico and Titan accountable for cleanup and oversight costs. $3 million of the $11.5 million in settlement funds will pay for the EPA’s demolition of the buildings and replacement of the water treatment system. 

Demolition is expected to take a month.

Biden nominates former Iowa Governor Chet Culver to federal rural lending board


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 20, 2021

Former Iowa Governor Chet Culver has been nominated by President Joe Biden to the board of directors for the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation, also known as Farmer Mac. 

Culver served as Governor of Iowa from 2007 to 2011. During his governorship Culver built up a large budget surplus and earned Iowa a ‘Triple A’ bond rating, which helped the renewable energy industry grow in Iowa. Culver also served as the Iowa Secretary of State from 1999 to 2007 and founded the Chet Culver group, a renewable energy consulting firm, in 2011. 

Farmer Mac is a federally chartered organization aimed at increasing access to capital in rural and agricultural communities. Created in response to the 1980’s farm crisis, the organization is now the largest secondary market investor of USDA loan guarantees in the U.S. and has provided over $63 billion in loans to rural borrowers. 

“Any rural-based business or industry can benefit from Farmer Mac. I want to make sure that continues into the future, and that’s another reason I’m privileged and honored to serve,” said Culver. 

The president is able to appoint five members to the board of fifteen as representatives for farmers, the Farm Credit System and commercial banks. If approved by Congress this will be Culver’s second term serving on Farmer Mac. 

California wildfires have burned 3x more land than last year’s record setting season


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 14, 2021

Severe drought coupled with the climate crisis has culminated in a second record setting year for land burned in California’s annual wildfire season. 

Reduced snowpack and early snowmelt alongside warmer temperatures in the spring and summer have created drier seasons according to CNN.  In 2020, around 4.1 million acres were estimated to be burned according to the National Interagency Fire Center. However, 2021 is expected to cause far more damage. On Monday, fires had burned over 142,477 acres in the state, 103,588 more than during the same time period last year. 

Scientists say the interconnectedness of heat and drought are causing a vicious feedback loop which climate change makes even more difficult to break in the region. As heat increases the drought, the drought increases the heat. 

Across the country, more than 30 million people are under heat warning. The risks for underlying health issues and other dangers for those working outside are “very high” according to the National Weather Service

Vilsack announces $500 million in loans to increase competition in meatpacking industry


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 13, 2021

U.S. Agriculture Secretary and former Iowa Governor, Tom Vilsack announced plans to provide $500 million in loans and grants to increase competition in the meat processing industry, on Friday.

In his speech, Vilsack emphasized the negative effects of four major meatpacking companies dominating over 80% of the beef market. Noting, 89.6% of farms do not generate the majority of income for the families who own and operate them. The loans and grants are aimed to help small and medium sized packing operations expand over time. 

The announcement occurred on the same day President Biden signed an executive order which requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to add rules to the Packers and Stockyards Act in an effort to allow farmers more sway in determining prices for livestock. 

Both Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, voiced cautious optimism for the efforts to address the anticompetitive practices in the livestock markets. However the United Food and Commercial Workers International, a major union for meatpacking company employees say the aid is necessary. Adding, meatpacking workers were among the most negatively impacted by COVID-19. 

Des Moines Water Works plans to drill wells in search for clean water


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 7, 2021

The Des Moines Water Works is now considering drilling wells to find clean water. After years of lawsuits and legislative lobbying, the utility has been unable to keep farmers upstream in order to reduce runoff. These efforts have cost Water Works $18 million to treat the polluted river water over the last two decades. Resulting in the utility now planning to spend $30 million in order to drill wells which will mix in pure water when the nitrate levels rise seasonally. 

Major cities are often discouraged from taking such a dramatic measure, as reliance on wells for large populations would quickly deplete the groundwater. Comparatively, small communities may often use wells but surface sources such as rivers and lakes, supply 70% of the freshwater used in the U.S. 

Nitrate levels in central Iowa have become so bad that Des Moines Water Works’ CEO Ted Corrigan said to Iowa Public Radio “for 110 days last year [Water Works] could not use the Des Moines River as a water source…That is shocking.” 

Since many Iowa farmers are unable to privately invest in ways to filter out chemicals and public funding through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is limited, the utility has few alternative options. 

Water Works has paid the U.S. Geological Service $770,000 to analyze drilling sites north of the city, according to The Gazette. Thereafter, the utility will have to work with state and federal agencies to get the permits to build the wells. 

Lake Darling Faces Continuing Bacteria Problems Despite $12 Million Restoration


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 6, 2021

Once the pinnacle of Iowa perennial lake improvement, Lake Darling now reports one of the highest amounts of swimming advisories in Iowa. 

Despite a $12 million restoration concluded in 2014, Lake Darling has had problems maintaining its renewed water quality. A study by the Iowa Environmental Council found Darling had 30 beach advisories for fecal bacteria and nine for algae toxins between 2014 and 2020. In a rare discovery for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Darling was found to have violated three state swimming standards in a single round of tests last week. Only seven other lakes received “swimming not recommended” warnings.

The restoration of Lake Darling began in the early 2000’s after Iowa DNR tests for bacteria found high levels of animal waste due to the local area’s high concentration of hog confinements. Animal bacteria and algae toxins can result in intestinal and other illnesses in humans, especially those with weakened immune systems. However, many of these concerns seemed to be put to rest due to the restoration. In 2007, the Iowa DNR even published an article titled “Lake Darling: A snapshot of success.

In an interview with the Iowa Capital Dispatch, Alicia Vasto, the associate water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, said the increase in algae toxin microcystin has been a major concern. Vasto noted the beginning of July is very early in the season for microcystin advisories, however the precipitation patterns and drought increases the difficulty to draw conclusions. 

Biden Plans to Restore Endangered Species Regulations Rolled back by Trump


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 23, 2021

The Biden administration announced plans to rewrite changes made to the Endangered Species Act, on Friday.

Led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the focus will be on five regulatory changes made by the Trump administration. The revisions will significantly shift rules on habitat designations and reinstate the “blanket rule,” which requires additional protections for newly classified threatened species. 

Under Trump, habitat protections were rolled back in order to reduce limits on energy industries such as oil drilling and mining. However, the weakening of regulations, such as the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act, made it harder to prosecute bird and other animal deaths caused by energy development. The bird act was among more than 100 business-friendly amendments made by Trump that Biden plans to reconsider according to The Chicago Tribune

A few of the Trump administration changes have been delayed or stopped prior to implementation. One of these changes includes the one-third reduction of protected federal old-growth forest used by the spotted owl which was announced during the final days of the Trump administration. 

The reviews announced by the Biden administration will take months or years to complete, continuing a decades-old debate between Republican and Democratic approaches to environmental regulation.

Poor Water Quality Costs Iowa Millions in Annual Tourism


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 22, 2021

This week, The Cedar Rapids Gazette is hosting a series of virtual panels on water quality issues as a part of the Gazett’s Iowa Ideas 2021 virtual conference. Tuesday’s panel, “A Recreational View: Ecotourism” will focus on the growing role water quality plays on recreation and tourism.

2020 has set records for lakeside and outdoor vacations; in Iowa 16.6 million people visited state parks especially those near rivers, lakes or streams according to IowaWatch.org. One of the most popular sites, Okoboji lake in northwest Iowa, reports $300 million in the annual economic impact of tourism. However, as over half of Iowa’s state park beaches had at least one swim warning, it is unsurprising the cities around Okoboji were some of the first in the state to pass ordinances requiring environmental and infrastructure preservation around the lakes to improve water quality. 

More than 60% of Iowa’s rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs are currently considered impaired due to harmful levels of bacteria and algae fueled by runoff of manure and fertilizers according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The disparity between usage and water quality has resulted in around $30 million lost in annual tourism from Iowans who would pay more to visit cleaner lakes and rivers according to a 2018 Iowa State University study. Respondents ranked agricultural runoff as the biggest contributor to poor water quality, followed by livestock manure. 

Other Iowa Ideas events this week will feature conversations about controlling water pollution and share ideas on solutions. Panels and discussions begin at noon Monday through Friday with different guests daily. Free registration is open for the event on the Iowa Ideas website.