Flood fallout: statewide disaster proclamation and precaution


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The Iowa Flood Information System as of Thursday night. 

Julia Poska | March 15, 2019

Iowa’s flood season started off with an splash this week. The state saw road closures, city evacuations and one even one collapsed bridge. In wake of major damage from east to west, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statewide disaster proclamation Thursday.

The official proclamation activates the State Emergency Operations Center to coordinate disaster response using state resources. It also activates the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program for qualifying residents; those with household incomes up to twice the federal poverty level have 45 days after the proclamation to apply for up to $5,000 in flood damage repairs.

The proclamation also activated the Disaster Case Management Program in 21 counties. Case managers help those seriously affected by disasters overcome adversity by helping them create a disaster recovery plan and offering guidance, advice and referrals.

Better safe than sorry

The flood season has only just begun and is expected to be brutal this year. Flood insurance takes 30 days from purchase to become active, but flood risk is an all-year hazard, especially in Iowa. It is not too late to protect your household from future floods.

Do you live in a flood plain? Find out here and remember that over 20 percent of flood insurance claims come from properties outside the supposed “high-risk” zone. The average claim is about $30,000: six times more than the maximum granted by the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program and with no income requirement.

Be aware of present flood risk as well. Watches are ongoing in much of the state. Be sure to…

  • Avoid driving across even shallowly flooded roads.
  • Keep at least a day’s supply of shelf-stable food and water in your home, especially if you live in a floodplain.
  • Check here for up-to-date road closures.
  • Visit the Iowa Flood Information System for flood alerts and more.

Flood watch continues across Iowa; the latest in your part of the state


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Check the Iowa Flood Information System for current alert statuses. 

Julia Poska | March 14, 2019

While Iowans rejoiced over spring-like weather this week after a long, brutal winter, flooding caused by rapid snowmelt and heavy rains has threatened communities across the state.

Iowa weather services have been reporting higher-than-average risks for major flooding this spring since late February, and many outlooks have only increased within the last week, according to the Des Moines Register. The risk is most pronounced along the Mississippi River, where a Quad Cities survey found the risk of flooding through May to be 95 percent last week. The National Weather Service says flooding in the Quad Cities could break records.

The National Weather Service issued a flood watch Wednesday morning that will last until at least this evening across most of the state. In some areas the watch will extend into next week. Below is information on flooding and alerts throughout the state as of this morning.

East

  • Major flood stage was reached in Waterloo, Maquoketa and DeWitt as of Thursday morning. Moderate flood stage was reached in many areas Wednesday, including Kalona, Atkins and Augusta (IFIS).
  • Yesterday, Cedar Rapids expected a “moderate flood stage” when the Cedar River crests early next week. Officials said this should be fairly insignificant for residents. The city had already reached moderate flood stage as of Wednesday night (Gazette/IFIS).
  • An ice jam raised alarm in Ottumwa Wednesday morning, though it only caused minor agricultural flooding (Des Moines Register).

Central

  • Squaw Creek in Ames reached major flood stage Wednesday afternoon. As of Thursday morning, all areas were at or below moderate levels (IFIS).
  • An ice jam collapsed a bridge in Johnston Wednesday evening. The trail leading to the bridge had been closed prior to the collapse (Des Moines Register).
  • Des Moines Public Works closed parts of George Flagg Parkway and Fleur Avenue. These could remain closed for days (WHOtv).
  • An ice jam in the Raccoon River flooded rural communities in Dallas County (Des Moines Register).

West

  • Western Iowa was hit worst of all. As of Thursday morning, eight communities from north to south were at major flood stage (IFIS).
  • The Boyer River in Hogan and the West Nishnabotna River near Avoca reached major flood stage Wednesday afternoon. A Red Cross station was set up in Avoca for those displaced from homes (kwbe/IFIS).
  • Underwood in Pottawattamie County lost function of its sewer lift system Wednesday. Residents were asked to stop flushing toilets temporarily (kwbe).
  • Harrison County Emergency Management ordered a partial evacuation of Missouri Valley Wednesday night. As of 9:20pm, 2,600 people were underwater (Des Moines Register).
  • Several roads have been closed as well. Check 511ia.org for current closures. 

Take care around even shallowly flooded areas, especially when driving. Remember that while newly-purchased flood insurance takes 30 days to go into effect (and will therefore not help you this week), Iowa’s flood season has only just begun.

Visit the Iowa Flood Information System to monitor current flood alerts, stream levels and rainfall forecasts for your area.

CGRER Looks Forward: Anthropologist Matt Hill


Julia Poska | March 8, 2019

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Matt Hill, shot by Julia Poska, 2019.

In their relatively short residence on Earth, humans have survived several dramatic climate change events, albeit with more natural causes than at present. They have endured man-made environmental challenges, like deforestation, as well.

So could the key to modern climate adaptation lie in the triumphs and mistakes of ancient civilizations? Matthew Hill, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, sees potential.

“I think that you can use the past—carefully—to see patterns, see how certain strategies were attempted to deal with these environmental changes and see whether they have failed or succeeded,” Hill said. “I see it as one helpful guidepost to how people have responded to similar changes.”

Anthropology, broadly, is the study of human cultures. Hill primarily focuses on human interactions with the environment. As an archaeologist, he spends a lot of time studying ancient peoples and their technologies—specifically, how indigenous hunters interacted with animal populations in North America.

Hill describes his research on ancient North American peoples and animals. 

One of his earliest studies involved North American bison. They sustained native populations in the Great Plains for tens of thousands of years but declined rapidly once Europeans joined the hunt. Hill sought to understand the differences in strategy and mindset that led to dramatically different outcomes for bison before and after colonization.

About half of Hill’s recent research focuses on modern humans, too. With an interdisciplinary team of Iowa researchers, he is studying the social and environmental positions of wood-burning stove users in rural India.

“We’re trying to understand how these women are coping and adapting to a changing environment, one in which there’s deforestation and one in which governments and international organizations are targeting their way of life for change,” he said.

Hill discusses his research on biomass burning in rural India. 

Adaptation is the common thread throughout Hill’s projects. In both past and present peoples, he has examined a number of successful and failed strategies for dealing with all sorts of environmental problems.

As he sees it, innovation is not an issue. He said people have always been clever and able to develop new technologies and approaches. The bigger problem seems to be motivating political and economic elites to work towards positive change.

“Even if there’s goodwill, there’s not a single direction that a country or large group moves toward,” Hill said. “It’s often contradictory forces.”

Hear Hill’s thoughts on the political reality of environmental action. 

The masses often have more incentive –they are harmed by environmental isues far more than elites – but the poor and disenfranchised typically lack adequate resources to be a “positive push forward,” he said. It is up to leaders to be proactive and implement solutions that work for everyone.

But still, successful adaptation is possible. Hill pointed to North American big game hunters as evidence. At the end of the paleolithic Ice Age they faced mass extinction of food sources like mammoths and mastodons.

Amazingly, they managed to “not just survive but thrive,” he said. He attributes thoughtful resource management and long-term planning to their success.

“We can only hope that American society can point to these kinds of behaviors,” Hill said. “Not just thinking about next quarter or the next year, but thinking about the next generations, we too can not just survive change, but flourish in the face of change.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

Journalists and scientists talked environment at summit Tuesday


 

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Cwiertny, Dalrymple and Jones answer audience questions on nitrate pollution in Iowa (photo by Julia Poska).

Julia Poska | March 7, 2019

Urgent environmental challenges like climate change have made it increasingly vital for the public to know the facts. General audiences get information largely through news media, but distilling complicated science accurately is not always easy for writers. Friendly collaboration between scientists and journalists is crucial, for the sake of accuracy and public good.

An Environmental Journalism Summit in Grinnell, Iowa brought students and professionals in both fields together Tuesday to share thoughts on improving environmental science communication.

The University of Iowa’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center organized the summit and presented on three “hot topics” in environmental news. Peter Thorne, head of the UI Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, spoke about his experiences advising the EPA under changing administration. Dr. Robert Blount discussed his medical research on air pollution and tuberculosis.  Darrin Thompson, associate director of the UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), shared his knowledge and research on neonicotinoids, a controversial class of pesticides.

Two expert panels shared their knowledge and answered questions from moderators and audience members. The “Science and Media” panel featured Iowa Public Radio’s Amy Mayer, journalism professor Daniel Lathrop, Iowa Watch executive director Lyle Muller and engineer Craig Just, who discussed the complexities of communicating science. They stressed the importance of fact checking, including people in storytelling and maintaining responsibility to the audience.

Another panel focused on nitrates and water quality, featuring IIHR research engineer Chris Jones, CHEEC director David Cwiertny and Kajsa Dalrymple, who researches media effects on agricultural practices. They discussed gaps in coverage of the issue, the magnitude of the problem and the complex system that created it. 

Researchers also participated in more journalistic activities, like generating story ideas on hog manure. The summit ended with a showcase on Cedar Fall High School’s news team, which has published award-winning investigations on pesticide drift, climate  change education and drinking water nitrates through Iowa Watch. 

The environmental legacy of Vietnam War herbicide weapons


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U.S. planes sprayed herbicide over the Vietnam jungle in the 1960s (flickr). 

Julia Poska | March 1, 2019

Forty-four years since the fall of Saigon, chemical weapons still exist in Vietnamese ecosystems. A new study from the University of Illinois and Iowa State University assessed the environmental impacts of one especially persistent chemical byproduct.

“Agent Orange,” banned in the U.S. since 1971, was a combination of two herbicides sprayed from U.S. aircraft to thin out the jungle and destroy crops. Individually, the herbicides would have disappeared in just days, but together they produced “TCDD,” a highly toxic dioxin can last over 100 years in the right conditions.

Illinois’ Ken Olson, professor emeritus of environmental science, and Iowa State professor of sociology Lois Wright Morton sorted through previous research and humanitarian reports on contaminated Vietnam air bases. They were able to determine TCDD’s paths through the environment, as well as “hotspots” where it still enters the human food supply.

They found that TCDD destroyed Vietnam’s mangroves and mature forests, which may not return to their previous condition for centuries and are now plagued with invasive species. In sprayed areas, runoff, soil erosion and landslides degrade soil, change topography and spread TCDD even further.

Researchers believe that TCDD persists longest in river and sea sediment. TCDD at the bottom of waterbodies is still eaten by bottom-feeding fish and stored in their fatty tissues. The toxin bioaccumulates and biomagnifies in the fatty tissues of their predators when the fish are eaten by humans or other animals.

According to the World Health Institute, the health effects of consuming dioxins like TCDD include skin lesions, altered liver function, and impairment of the immune, nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems.

Olson and Wright Morton advise that the only way to destroy TCDD is to incinerate contaminated soils and sediments.

 

The Iowa ‘sunshine tax’: What you need to know


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The “Solar Options Lead to Affordable Renewables (SOLAR) Act” may not be so sunny (Wikimedia Commons).

Julia Poska | February 28, 2019

The so-called “sunshine tax” might have a bright and cheery name, but the proposed fee could put a real damper on private solar power in Iowa.

Described in House Study Bill 185 and Senate Study Bill 1201, the “Solar Options Lead to Affordable Renewables (SOLAR) Act” would impose an over $300 annual fee on solar customers — property owners with small-scale solar panel setups who sell excess power back to the grid. The fee would cover the cost of using the electric grid and support Iowa’s energy infrastructure.

Currently, such customers can expect to pay off the high initial cost of solar panel installation in less than 10 years through savings on energy bills and sales of excess power. Cedar Rapids City Councilman Tyler Olson told the designated House subcommittee the fee would extend that period to as much as 20 years, as reported in the Gazette. This would greatly discourage private individuals from investing in home setups, which typically last about 25 years.

Supporters of the fee, including major Iowa utilities like MidAmerican and Alliant Energy, say it is unfair that customers who do not generate their own power absorb the cost of maintaining power infrastructure that is used by solar generators.

“Growth is possible when policies allow all customers to benefit from renewable energy,”  MidAmerican Energy’s president and CEO said in a press release. “Common sense legislation focused on keeping costs low and affordable for everyone provides the best opportunity to grow solar in Iowa.”

Opponents say the fee would only allow solar to grow for large corporations, however, and that it would kill the future of Iowa’s growing solar industry, which largely develops and installs systems for private homes, businesses and farms.

On Tuesday, the Gazette reported that the the bill would soon move forward in the Iowa House, to the full House Commerce Committee. Yesterday, the Iowa Senate held a hearing on their version of the bill, and did the same. There is a push among some legislators to delay the conversation until the Iowa Utilities Board finishes an assessment of compensation for solar energy producers next year.

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Electrical and computer engineer Ananya Sen Gupta


Julia Poska | February 22, 2019

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Ananya Sen Gupta, shot by Julia Poska 2019

Ananya Sen Gupta’s entire career may have looked very different had she not serendipitously stopped to pet a colleague’s dog one day as a postdoctoral researcher in Massachusetts. The dog’s owner connected Sen Gupta with a marine chemist who was seeking a data scientist like her to make sense of unknown compounds in the 2010 BP oil spill.

“In his signature way of awesome honesty, he said, ’You are perfect for the job because you don’t understand chemistry at all!’” she recalled.

Sen Gupta successfully “fingerprinted” that spill, and has been looking at the environment as a data problem ever since. Today, as anassistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Iowa, she still lends her computational skills to environmental efforts.


Hear Sen Gupta describe her work in kid-friendly terms. 

Sen Gupta helps a colleague in environmental engineering analyze harmful pollutants in the air and studies the spread of disease-causing pathogens with an environmental health professor. With two physicists, she’s developing algorithms to find high energy events in the Earth’s radiation belts and identifying patterns of particles in the Martian ionosphere.

“I think of myself more as an applied mathematician, honestly,” she said.

While her collaborators see the data through the specific knowledge of their fields, Sen Gupta only learns what she must to develop useful tools. To identify the problem and understand the data, she listens to the experts and takes detailed notes, which she later translates into her own language: mathematics.

She is then able to build algorithms that identify patterns in the datasets, which are far too large for manual processing. Because she does not know what her algorithms should find, they are essentially free from the confirmation bias field experts might carry. Thus, Sen Gupta’s objectivity can add great credibility to a researcher’s findings;  recall the marine chemist’s excitement at finding a chemistry novice all those years ago.

“Sometimes not knowing is a good thing, because it leads to discovery,” she said.

Listen to Sen Gupta’s metaphor comparing mathematics to a verbal language. 

Environmental pollutants and pathogens tend to have complex boundaries that are difficult to define mathematically. Sen Gupta said applying existing models and equations correctly is a skill in itself, but the nature of environmental research lets her work from scratch, too.

“What inevitably happens is when apply something existing to a new problem, it starts well, and then it hits a ceiling,” she said. “To crack that ceiling I have to invent something.”

She makes the majority of her code for those inventions open source, encouraging further discovery from others who can directly use her algorithms.

Though today she is busy teaching and conducting defense-related research on underwater sonar, Sen Gupta said if she could clone herself, she would devote more time to environmental issues, perhaps those related to climate change.

Since she cannot solve every problem on her own, though, she calls for more interaction between other data scientists and environmental researchers.

Learn how a seemingly aimless conversation about coffee and tea came to inform Sen Gupta’s environmental research.

As she sees it, there is unlimited potential for what problems computer engineering can help solve. But such collaborations cannot occur unless experts in vastly different fields come together.

“I would hope that, not just me, but all the data scientists on campus and all the environmental scientists on campus would basically get together in a local coffeeshop, in some happy hour, just sit down and chat about their pet peeves and hopes and dreams,” Sen Gupta said. “Because that would just lead to so much new science.”


***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***