Dubuque to hold water quality summit next week


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Screenshot from the event’s promotional flyer. 

Julia Poska | February 21, 2019

The 11th Annual Dubuque Area Watershed Symposium will be Wednesday, Feb. 27 at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium from 3 to 9pm. The event is free to the public, but pre-registration is required to attend.

Subtitled “The True Value of Clean Water”, the event will focus on Iowa’s water quality concerns and current efforts to resolve them.  One of the first items on the agenda will be a presentation on the City of Dubuque’s recent Iowa Partners for Conservation Grant: $326,712 to be put towards engaging local farmers and helping them become leaders in efforts to reduce flooding and improve water quality in the Catfish Creek Watershed.

Other presentations will cover conservation practices, land-use practices, soil health, and water quality.

Later in the evening, keynote speakers Michael Schueller, director of environmental operations the State Hygienic Lab, and Larry Webber, IIHR research engineer and co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center, will share their knowledge and ideas about Iowa water quality.

The organizers want to hear from non-experts, too, and will hold a roundtable discussion on drafting the Dubuque County Conservation Strategic Plan, as well as encourage questions after the keynotes.

For more information visit the City of Dubuque’s official website.

 

 

 

Suburban “agrihood” proposed near Des Moines


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The proposed development would feature community gardens and organic farming (Wikimedia Commons).

Julia Poska | February 15, 2019

A tiny Iowa town may soon get an unprecedented expansion. Diligent Development wants to build Iowa’s first “agrihood” on 400 acres just south of Cumming, bringing food and outdoors living to the center of a relocalized community.

According to the Des Moines Register, which featured Diligent’s plans yesterday, over 200 such communities already exist elsewhere in the U.S.. Agrihoods bring the country closer to the city, integrating food production and nature into suburban areas without spreading neighbors too far apart or committing them to a fully rural lifestyle.

The Register reports that the Cumming agrihood could bring over 1,800 new residents into the 400-person town with mixed housing; apartments, condos, townhomes and single-family homes would all surround a large organic vegetable farm.  Farmers would sell through subscription-based services or at local stands, and residents would maintain smaller community gardens as well.

Residents would have easy access to parks and green space too, as the Great Western Trail. The community would also feature a craft brewery, an orchard and retail space.

Cumming is 20 minutes southwest of Des Moines, close to Interstate Highway 35 and Iowa Highway 5. The development would cost about $260 million and is awaiting approval by the Cumming City Council.

Iowa solar employment is on the rise


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Most solar jobs are in installation and project development (flickr).

Julia Poska | February 14, 2019

Despite a 3.2 percent drop in solar energy jobs nationwide, solar jobs in Iowa grew 4 percent in 2018, according to the recently released National Solar Jobs Census.

Various solar projects recent years likely contributed to job growth in Iowa. In 2017, Alliant Energy built Iowa’s biggest solar farm on 21 acres near Dubuque, but the Central Iowa Power Cooperative recently announced plans to surpass that record with an 800 acre solar farm in Louisa County in 2020. Solarize Johnson and Linn Counties brought a combined 1,760 kilowatts of residential solar power to eastern Iowa in 2017 and 2018. Ideal Energy in Fairfield is currently building a solar array with special battery storage at Maharishi University of Management as well.

But still, only 844 Iowans are employed in solar. The state ranks 45 in solar jobs per capita despite 2018 growth, according to the census, which is conducted annually by the Solar Foundation.

Overall, U.S. solar employment has risen 159 percent since 2010 and is projected to continue growing. The price of solar installation has fallen dramatically, too. At the utility scale, the cost of a one Watt segment of a solar panel dropped from $4.40 in 2010 to $1.03 in 2018. For residential panels, the cost dropped from $6.65 to $2.89 per Watt.

 

 

 

CGRER Looks Forward: Geographer Eric Tate


Julia Poska | February 8, 2019

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Eric Tate, shot by Julia Poska 2019

Natural disasters are enormously costly. The U.S. incurred an estimated $306 billion in physical damage from extreme weather events like hurricanes and floods in 2017 alone.

CGRER member Eric Tate, a professor in the University of Iowa geography department,  quantifies disaster impacts in a bigger way.

“Looking at these impacts just by dollars affected may not really get at the true impact of how people are affected, how their livelihoods are affected,” he said.

Tate studies the social effects of disasters, with an emphasis on floods. Looking beyond physical damage, he determines how population characteristics like age, disability, education and poverty create social vulnerability to harm.


Listen to Tate explain social vulnerability in his own words. 

Disaster impacts are typically distributed unevenly; certain groups suffer disproportionately due to social, political, economic and institutional inequalities. These processes may debilitate some households while neighbors go unaffected during the same storm.

Using mainly government disaster relief data, Tate has measured and mapped the social reality of disasters like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. He’s currently examining 2015 flooding in South Carolina. His research aims to inform planning and policy by lending insight into how various population characteristics contribute to vulnerability.

“What is needed in this field is a bunch of studies looking at different disasters at different scales of analysis, looking at different variables, looking at different outcomes,” he said. “When you put them all together, now you start to get some generalizable understanding.”

Officials can use such analyses to help vulnerable populations before, during and after disasters with adjusted mitigation and primary response plans. The social dimension of sustainability is often underemphasized, but is crucial for implementing effective change.

“If we want to have sustainable futures but the gains aren’t equitably shared, then is that sustainable?” Tate asked.


Tate on the need for research into the spillover effects of disasters. 

He sees several ways policymakers on all levels can more deeply embed equity into decision making. They can model vulnerability among their constituents themselves or look to academic research that does so. They can seek to be inclusive and involve a diverse cross section of the population early on in the decision making process.

Tate pointed to the National Environmental Policy Act as well, which requires the government to complete environmental impact assessments prior to undergoing all federally funded executive projects. He thinks a similar statute could mandate assessments of the far-reaching social consequences of such projects.

He also advised considering climate change in proactive disaster planning, as atmospheric carbon seems to amplify climatological weather events. In Iowa, flooding has already become pronouncedly more intense and will continue to get worse in coming decades.

“Regardless of your belief in climate change or not, we’re seeing changes in hydrological extremes,” Tate said.


Tate on how to help protect yourself and your community from flooding. 

Intensified flooding will increase pressure on the already vulnerability and likely push some previously unaffected households beyond their coping capacities.

Tate calls for updated statistical analysis to better inform everyone from city planners to homeowners about risk and vulnerability in different areas. The 100-year floodplain of today may become the 50-year floodplain in 15 years, but flood maps are based on historical frequencies and do not reflect projections for the future.

“Trying to understand future risk based on past occurrences is likely to lead you to faulty conclusions,” he said. “We should be thinking maybe a little less probabilistically and a little more possibilistically.”

 


 

***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. ***

Soil conservation demonstrations extended after early success


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Water that washes off of farm fields poses major challenges for water quality in Iowa (flickr).

Julia Poska | February 7, 2019

Last week, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig announced a three year extension and $2 million of extra state funding for three innovative projects promoting soil conservation and water quality on farms.

These projects  are part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, which partially funds 65 water quality projects around the state. This initiative is part of the larger Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, an effort to reduce harmful nutrient runoff from farm fields into waterways.

The Taylor County Water Quality Initiative, one of the three extended projects, identifies specific areas on farms that could benefit from alternative practices like land retirement or drainage management. Over 60 farmers have so far used the program to reduce nutrient runoff while maintaining or increasing profitability.

The Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative engages partners like the Iowa Seed Association to encourage cover cropping: growing alternative crops on otherwise bare soil during the off season. Cover crops hold soil in place and can help with weed management and soil compaction issues. Some seed companies say this initiative has increased cover cropping among their clients from less than 10 percent to over 50 percent.

The Central Iowa Watershed Management Authority Project has so far installed five wetlands, five saturated buffers and two bioreactors on farms. Saturated buffers use strips of wetland to filter nutrients from drainage water, and bioreactors use organic carbon sources, like wood chips, for denitrification. Both are expensive and difficult for most farmers to install without assistance.

Iowa Water Quality Initiative projects like these are funded by both state and private money, as well as in-kind donations. Other active projects target entire watersheds and demonstrate methods for improving urban water quality.

Noise from wind turbines poses no threat to human health


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Sunset at an Iowa wind farm (flickr). 

Julia Poska | February 1, 2019

Though many neighbors of wind farms complain that the turbines are an eyesore and that their whirring causes headaches or disturbs sleep, there is little scientific evidence to suggest that the noise from wind farms causes any harm to humans beyond annoyance.

That’s the main message in a report released yesterday by the UI Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, Iowa Policy Project and Iowa Environmental Council. They based their conclusion on a review of two previous reviews of academic literature on wind turbines and human health.

Those reviews, conducted a few years ago, found no link between health outcomes and wind turbines, though they did find evidence of annoyance. The authors of the new report believe that risk perception plays a major role in perceived “annoyance” for neighbors of wind farms. Those that have a negative view of the turbines will be more likely to report negative health outcomes, whether or not they are actually exposed to harmful noises. Those that receive monetary compensation for the potential nearby nuisance will be less likely to report annoyance or health problems.

Nearly 37 percent of energy produced in energy is generated by wind power, according to the American Wind Energy Association. At over 8,400 megawatts, Iowa has the second highest wind power capacity in the nation. Ten wind power facilities have saved over 8.8 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon and provided over 7,000 jobs since the state started developing wind power infrastructure almost 20 years ago.

The authors of the report believe the benefits of the industry outweigh potential annoyances to neighbors.

“Given the evidence and confounding factors, and the well-documented negative health and environmental impacts of power produced with fossil fuels, we conclude that development of electricity fromwind is a benefit to the environment,” they wrote. “We conclude that wind energy should result in a net positive benefit to human health.”

Polar Vortex breaks Iowa cold records


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Temperatures dipped well below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit in Iowa on Wednesday (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 31, 2019

Early Wednesday morning, while many across Iowa were still asleep, records were broken by the so-called “Polar Vortex” over the Midwest. Before 4 a.m. Des Moines saw a minus 20 degree temperature, making it the coldest Jan. 30 the city has seen in recent history. Waterloo got an even colder minus 24 degrees, breaking the same record in that city. Farther north, temperatures reached minus 29 degrees, as reported by the Des Moines Register.

Windchill made the cold temperatures feel even more brutal. In Cedar Rapids, windchill Wednesday morning reached minus 55 degrees, a tie with the 1985 record for the coldest windchill ever recorded there. According to the Registerwinds were steadily between 15 and 25 mph, but at times blew into the mid-30s.

Climate change and extreme cold

Some studies suggest that such extreme “Polar Vortex” events in the Midwest could become more common with climate change, though more research needs to be done to make a definitive call on the matter.

It appears that warmer arctic temperatures cause the jet stream, a westerly moving band of air circling the northern part of the globe, to dip farther south, bringing the North Pole’s extreme cold into the United States. Read this article from National Geographic for a more in-depth look at the science.