Roadside prairie: little strips of sustainability


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Native prairie plants are hardy and beautiful (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 17, 2019

Over the past 200 years, Iowa’s once ubiquitous prairies have been almost totally edged out by farmland and urbanization. Only a fraction of one percent of what used to be remains. It is unlikely that Iowa’s prairies will ever be restored to their full former glory, but some counties are regenerating slivers of native prairie along county roadsides.

The practice, called Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management, cannot reestablish the value of Iowa’s lost prairies, but it does help humans and nature coexist little more sustainably. The strips of prairie:

  • Create habitat for species like pollinators, birds and small mammals
  • Trap pollutants and sediments that would otherwise contaminate water and soil, like motor oil and road salt, while remaining tough enough to withstand harm
  • Promote soil health and reduce flooding by incorporating air and organic matter into the soil structure
  • Give drivers a glimpse at the state’s historic beauty

Counties aim to manage these areas sustainably with minimal use of pesticides, strategically timed mowing and burning. These efforts are funded through the Living Roadway Trust Fund and supported by the University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center. Over 100,000 acres have been planted since the start of the program in 2009.

To learn more about what this program has accomplished and see some pretty flowers, check out this online presentation from the Tallgrass Prairie Center.

 

 

It’s ‘Radon Action Month’ in Iowa (for very good reason)


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The entire state of Iowa is at risk for high levels of radon (Wikimedia Commons).

Julia Poska | January 17, 2019

This week, Gov. Kim Reynolds designated January as “Radon Action Month” for the state of Iowa. Various areas across the country share that designation. Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Public Health encourage people to test their homes for radon and take steps towards resolving the issue if a problem is discovered.

Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that forms when naturally occurring uranium in soil and rocks decays. It often leaks from soil into homes via water, cracks in foundations and walls, or poorly sealed windows. Long-term exposure to elevated levels of radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers in the U.S.

Iowa has high levels of radon across the board. Every county is listed as EPA Radon Zone 1, meaning over 50 percent of tested households had radon levels above the EPA’s 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) threshold for recommended testing. In 2014, testing in some Iowa counties indicated average levels above 10 ppi. The U.S. average is 1.3 pC/I, according to the Iowa Radon Homebuyers and Sellers Fact Sheet.

If a homeowner determines that radon in their home is above 4 pCi/L, public health agencies recommend mitigating the issue. First, call Iowa’s Radon Hotline (1-800-383-5992) for information and guidance. Then contact a registered radon mitigation contractor to determine how to best solve the issue in your home and implement strategies like suction, sealants and pressurization.  According to the Kansas State University National Radon Program Services, such a system typically costs about $800 to $1500 dollars.

RESOURCES

Testing kits can be purchased cheaply your local county health department, at the Iowa Radon Hotline (1-800-383-5992), or online (ratings here).

Information about mitigating a radon issue can be found here.

The Iowa Department of Public Health’s official list of registered radon mitigation specialists can be found here.

Learn about radon data for your locality here.
*** Keep in mind that these data are based on averages from a small sample of homes    in the area, and may not be a useful indicator for radon exposure risk in your home.

More information on radon

Report details health effects of exposure to common road material slag


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Slag is used to cheaply supplement gravel on roads like this one (flickr). 

Julia Poska | January 11, 2019

A report from the Iowa Department of Public Health has stirred up concern in Muscatine County and around the state this week over the health effects of steel slag, a cheap waste product from steel manufacturing that’s used to supplement gravel on rural roads.

Muscatine County has used slag in county roads for over 5 years, and many private homes and businesses use the material as well. Residents have complained to the county about bits of metal in the roads and health concerns about slag dust for years, but this report was the first official indication of risk. It found that children up to 18 years old are exposed to potentially dangerous levels of metals like manganese when playing near slag-supplemented roads.

The Muscatine County Board of Supervisors will vote Monday on whether to stop using slag in county roads, and will likely formulate a plan to remove existing slag. A local slag opposition group will collect samples from households before then to determine current levels of dangerous metals.

Many people are upset that the state and county allowed slag to be used in roads to begin with, and are unhappy with Muscatine County’s initial response to the report.

“I suppose that all county boards and city councils have problems, but our county leaders just seem to care about making themselves look good and it makes all the people who they represent look like idiots,” one Muscatine woman write in a letter to the Des Moines Register, who wrote about the issue in depth earlier this week.

The news has alarmed people in other Iowa counties as well. Engineers in Marion, Warren, Winnebago and other counties have since conducted tests for dangerous slag on their own roads.

 

From humid air to clean water: new innovation in sustainability


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Cacti inspired a recent study on water condensation, with potential implications for water-stressed areas around the world (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 10, 2019

Ohio State University researchers believe clean drinking water can be harnessed from nighttime air, when water is more prone to condensing. They have been developing methods for capture with the aid of some unusual experts: desert lifeforms.

The pointy tips and sharp spines on cacti collect water from nighttime fog and funnel it town to the plants roots. Desert grasses do the same with pointed blades.  Beetles collect water on their backs, which feature water-repellant and water-attracting spots that push the water towards the bugs’ mouths. These features help the plants and insects survive in harsh, low-water conditions.

The researchers, led by Bharat Bhushan, professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State, have been experimenting with materials, shapes and textures using 3D printed models in foggy enclosures. They have already determined that conical shapes and grooved textures are efficient water collection methods and hope to test prototypes in deserts outside the lab as they continue to develop designs. They published their findings so far in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in late December.

The final products of their work could have implications for water-scarce areas, where strife over clean water will only worsen with climate change. Water captured by such devices could supplement the drinking water supplies of private homes or whole communities.

“Water supply is a critically important issue, especially for people of the most arid parts of the world,” Bhushan said in a Science Daily report. “By using bio-inspired technologies, we can help address the challenge of providing clean water to people around the globe, in as efficient a way as possible.”

Iowa increased biodiesel production in 2018


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About 296 gallons of soy biodiesel were produced in Iowa last year (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 4, 2019

Iowa produced about 80 million more gallons of biodiesel in 2018 than 2017, bringing the total up to about 365 million gallons. The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association estimates that Iowa generated about one fifth of total biodiesel produced in the U.S. last year.

Monte Shaw, the director of the IRFA, attributed the increase in production to reduced foreign imports of biodiesel. Last spring, the United States International Trade Commission determined that Argentina and Indonesia were selling biodiesel in the U.S. at unfairly low rates, harming the domestic industry. Subsequent tariffs increased demand for U.S.-produced biodiesel.

Much of the demand was met with soybean oil, which totaled about 81 percent of the market share, up from 2017. Corn oil comprised 10 percent, while animal fat dropped to 5 percent, and used cooking oil contributed about 4 percent of the share.

Shaw believes Iowa could produce even more biodiesel, up to 400 million gallons in its 12 facilities, if nationwide Renewable Fuel Standard levels were higher. These levels determine the minimum quantity of biofuel that U.S. transportation fuels must contain and are administered by the Environmental Protection Agency. Levels increase each year. In 2019, 2.1 billion gallons of biodiesel should be mixed into U.S. diesel. By 2020, the amount should increase to 2.43 billion gallons.

 

Iowa reacts to proposed EPA Clean Water Rule rollback


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Regulation over streams on farmland is in dispute (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 3rd, 2019

The Trump administration’s proposed rollback of the 2015 Clean Water Rule would reduce federal jurisdiction over wetlands, streams and other small water bodies on Iowa farmland. Some Iowans see the proposal, officially made in mid-December, as a win for farmers, while others see it as a hit to much needed water quality regulation in the state.

Since the start of his term, Pres. Trump has wanted to limit Obama’s 2015 Clean Water Rule, which more clearly defined “Waters of the United States” within the Clean Water Act of 1972. This increased the protected area by about 3 percent (according to an op-ed from Bloomberg News) by adding more streams and neighboring wetlands, ponds and impoundments into federal jurisdiction and reducing those waterbodies that could once be given/denied protection on a “case-by-case” basis.

The current administration proposes removing wetlands without clear surface connection to larger bodies of water from protection, as well as “ephemeral” streams that only flow with rainfall or snowmelt, about 18 percent of the country’s total streams. The proposal is now undergoing 60 days of public comment.

In November, Iowa already allowed Iowa to halt enforcement of the rule until disagreement over it was settled in court. The most farmers seem to want that allowance made permanent by the Clean Water Rule rollback. The Iowa Farm Bureau shared a statement of support in December after the EPA announced the proposed rollback, and called the Obama Era rule an “overreach.”

As Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told reporters, “Iowa’s farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and small businesses can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that going forward a tire track that collects rain water won’t be regulated by the federal government.”

Iowa has serious water quality issues, however, caused for the most part by runoff from farm fields containing harmful nutrients like nitrate and phosphorus. The state recognizes the importance of on-farm streams and wetlands in managing soil and water quality, and encourages the construction of buffers between crops and waterways to minimize runoff into streams or wetlands.

Curt Zingula, a Linn County farmer who uses a saturated buffer on his farm to protect a creek, told the Sioux City Journal he is proactive about water quality management, but thinks the Clean Water Rule “cast a shadow” over a landowner’s entire farm.

Others believe the rule was necessary, however, and think the proposed rollback will worsen Iowa’s water problem. A staff editorial in the Gazette called Ernst’s statements “hyperbole” and pushed for more focus on the water itself in the discussions surrounding the proposed rule change.

“If the Trump administration can’t explain how its definition will lead to cleaner water, and all of its related benefits, it should go back to the drawing board,” it reads. “Otherwise, it’s simply replaced Obama’s ‘overreach’ with a dereliction of duty to protect the nation’s waters for future generations.”

DNR reports 3% increase in Iowa greenhouse gas emissions


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This pie chart shows 2017 greenhouse emissions in Iowa by sector (from the 2017 Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report). 

Julia Poska | December 28th, 2018

Greenhouse gas emissions in Iowa rose 3 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to a new report from the state Department of Natural Resources.  The report accounted for 131 million metric tons of emissions released throughout the state in various sectors including energy, agriculture and solid waste.

The largest sources of increase were waste and industrial processes. Emissions from waste rose 28.62 percent due to increased decomposition of older waste in landfills. Emissions from industrial processes rose 31.73 percent percent, largely due to increased production of ammonia, up over 180 percent from 2016. The only sector to see decrease was natural gas production and distribution, which decreased about 10 percent and accounts for only 1 percent of total emissions.

Agriculture contributes about 30 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions,  mainly methane and nitrous oxide, which are respectively about 25 and 298 times more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide. These emissions largely come from animal waste and soil management.

Despite this increase, total emissions are down 6 percent from 2008.  The DNR projects that emissions will continue rising through at least 2020, and drop a bit more by 2030.