Authorities block Bakken pipeline on sacred Indian land in northwest Iowa

Pipes to form a pipeline in Williston, North Dakota (Lindsey G / Flickr)
Pipes to form a pipeline in Williston, North Dakota (Lindsey G / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | May 27, 2016

A section of the proposed Bakken oil pipeline in northwest Iowa has been blocked because of the historic and spiritual significance of the land to Sioux tribal members, according to The Des Moines Register.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has revoked the permit issued to Dakota Access LLC, the Texas-based company attempting to build a controversial oil pipeline from North Dakota and through the state of Iowa, to build and work in parts of Lyon county in northwest Iowa. Authorities from the Upper Sioux tribe reported that a portion of the pipeline planned for that area was to go straight through Indian grave sites.

The revoked permit will lead to a significant setback for the pipeline planners, who had hoped to finish gathering the necessary permits by mid-June. Dakota Access has already begun work on areas of the pipeline where it is currently permitted, despite not having the necessary forms in hand for the entirety of the route.

The setbacks come after more than a year of controversy over the Bakken pipeline in Iowa, which has been met with opposition from both environmentalists and farmers. Environmentalists are concerned that the pipeline will expand Americans’ dependence on fossil fuels at a time when divestment is necessary, and farmers are concerned the pipeline could interfere with drainage systems built to address runoff. A pipeline leak in January 2015 spilled 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River in Montana, contaminating nearby water supplies.

Register report highlights what Iowa can learn from Minnesota on water quality

Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis, Minnesota (urbanfoodie33/Creative Commons)
Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis, Minnesota (urbanfoodie33/Creative Commons)
KC McGinnis | May 26, 2016

A Sunday Des Moines Register investigation into Minnesota’s water quality practices may contain lessons for Iowans.

A year after Minnesota’s Pollution Control Agency found that half of the state’s lakes in heavy farming areas were not suitable for swimming because of toxic algal blooms caused by nutrient runoff, the state provided a massive funding push that brought together farmers and water authorities to improve water quality. The program, which still had voluntary elements for farmers, included mandatory buffer strips for public waterways, advanced testing procedures, and watershed approaches similar to those being used in parts of Iowa.

While Minnesotans still report having a long way to go in bringing water quality up to the standards they want, their approach so far may be a model for Iowans moving forward. Read the full in-depth Resister story here.

Carbon sequestration could make agriculture carbon neutral

An example of healthy compost (normanack / Creative Commons)
An example of healthy compost (normanack / Creative Commons)
KC McGinnis | May 19, 2016

A lengthy New York Times article published this week lays out agriculture’s relationship with carbon emissions and soil health.

The article points out how regenerative soil practices can be used to fight climate change by bringing carbon lost to the atmosphere back into the soil. Sources claim that these practices could eventually make agriculture carbon neutral, while it is currently one of the largest industry emitters of carbon dioxide. The agriculture industry was the top greenhouse gas emitter in Iowa during 2013 and 2014, outpacing both the transportation and industrial energy sectors. Soil management alone produced nearly as many greenhouse gases as transportation, even after accounting for all the traffic on Iowa’s major interstates.

Now, however, experts estimate that soils currently lacking carbon due to years of non-regenerative practices have the potential to absorb billions of metric tons of carbon, bringing atmospheric carbon dioxide down by as much as 50 parts per million from its current average above 400 parts per million.

Some regenerative farming practices are already in use by Iowa farmers in some form, like planting cover crops and allowing livestock to graze in harvested fields, reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. Buffer strips with trees can help bring back some of the biodiversity lost to modern farming practices.

The article lists incentives as one way to help farmers employ regenerative practices, with financing from carbon taxes allowing them to charge a higher price for their regeneratively-grown crops.

Des Moines Water Works trial rescheduled for 2017

The Des Moines River near downtown Des Moines. (Michael Leland/Flickr)
The Des Moines River near downtown Des Moines. (Michael Leland/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | May 17, 2016

The Des Moines Water Works has decided to delay a trial to decide its lawsuit against three Iowa counties until 2017, according to The Des Moines Register. The trial has been rescheduled for June 26, 2017.

The trial was delayed due to an Iowa Supreme Court request to decide if drainage districts can be held accountable for damages. The Des Moines Water Works filed a suit against Calhoun, Buena Vista and Sac counties in 2015, attributing high nitrate levels to drainage from farm fields into the Raccoon River, which is a water supply for the Des Moines metro area. The utility argues that the above-normal nitrate levels forced it to spend $1.5 million to remove the pollutant — costs which were then passed on to Water Works customers.

The 2017 trial will address whether or not the utility has the authority sue the counties for a lack of regulation in agricultural areas, where farmers are recommended but not required to follow Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy. It also allows more time for agricultural leaders to address the issue or to demonstrate whether or not current approaches are working. Nitrate levels in 2016 have so far exceeded those recorded in 2015 and 2014, according to the Iowa Water Quality Information System.

Iowa Environmental Focus to be recognized with media award

Screen Shot 2016-05-12 at 9.38.04 AM

KC McGinnis | May 12, 2016

Two members of the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) will receive awards from the Iowa United Nations Association at a ceremony on May 14.

CGRER Co-Director Jerry Schnoor will accept the Iowa UNA’s Garst Media Award on behalf of CGRER. The award recognizes the achievements of the CGRER daily blog, Iowa Environmental Focus. The Iowa Environmental Focus has long partnered with local radio stations, providing weekly audio clips for its On the Radio segment on environmental news and analysis that were long voiced by Schnoor. The award also recognizes the Iowa Environmental Focus’ presence at COP21, the annual UN climate summit held in Paris in 2015. Schnoor and two CGRER media staff provided daily updates from the summit and interviewed leaders and policy makers facing challenges relevant to Iowans. Schnoor interviewed Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie for a segment that was aired by the Iowa Environmental Focus from COP21.

Environmental science writer Cornelia Mutel will receive the Garst Leadership Award from the Iowa UNA for her efforts to increase public understanding of environmental issues. Former Iowa UNA President Wayne Osborn will also receive an award, the Garst Service Award. The awards are given in memory of Roswell Garst established by his wife Elizabeth Garst.

Northeast Iowa frac sand mining company faces opposition over Wisconsin expansion

MPCA Photos
MPCA Photos
KC McGinnis | May 10, 2016

A Clayton County frac sand mining company is facing opposition over plans to expand its underground mining operation into Wisconsin.

Pattison Sand Co. plans to expand its 100 acre underground mine by requesting 746 acres of agricultural land across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin be rezoned to heavy industrial. A report from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism shows that the company has received the most industrial sand mine workplace violations in the country, nearly double its nearest competitor, causing its expansion to stir controversy in southwest Wisconsin.

Cited in the report is University of Iowa Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health Patrick O’Shaughnessy, who seemed to advise against the mine expansion before a county committee in Elkader in April. Infractions against Pattison Sand Co., which mines sand for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, include multiple injuries sustained by employees, a fire, multiple roof collapses, and one death.

Concerned citizens at the Elkader meeting were concerned about the effects of frac sand mining on public health, including air quality from airborne silica sand.

Iowa researchers publish thorough policy recommendations to reduce agricultural runoff

The Raccoon River near Walnut Woods States Park in Des Moines, Iowa. (Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr)
The Raccoon River near Walnut Woods States Park in Des Moines, Iowa. (Christine Warner Hawks/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | April 5, 2016

Inspired by policy innovations in other Midwestern states, a team of Iowa researchers has built a comprehensive policy plan to address agricultural runoff in the state.

A report from The Iowa Policy Project titled Saving Resources: Manure and Water recognizes the important role fertilizer has in Iowa’s agriculture industry and the negative effects of under-regulation on water quality. These negative effects include nutrient runoff, an issue that continues to cause headaches for water treatment plants around the state and which can lead to dangerous toxic algal blooms. When these blooms surround water intakes at water sources as they did for the city of Toledo, Ohio in 2014, they can make tap water undrinkable for thousands, even after boiling.

The team of researchers led by Iowa Policy Project co-founder and University of Iowa Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health David Osterberg looked to how Ohio handled its own water crisis after the algal blooms caused it to declare a state of emergency. The state enjoyed bipartisan support of measures that have the potential to greatly reduce nutrient runoff if applied in Iowa. The report included those measures in its five policy recommendations for manure application in Iowa:
—  An outright ban on manure application in liquid form from medium and large animal production facilities when the ground is frozen or snow-covered.

—  An outright ban when the top two inches are saturated from precipitation or when weather is expected that will be detrimental to the environment and to the utilization of the manure.

—  Ample “boots on the ground” enforcement capabilities with long-term funding allocated to maintaining adequate staffing.

—  Immediate adoption of restrictions on all operations at 300 animal units (AU) or more for manure application during unfavorable soil conditions.

—  Progress toward placing application restrictions on all facilities above 100 AU in size.

“Iowa should be proactive on this issue,” said Nick Fetty, a University of Iowa graduate student and co-author of the report with Osterberg. “The reaction in the state of Ohio, after a large city lost its drinking water system because of pollution, led to stronger laws to limit both farm and urban runoff. Iowa does not need to wait for the same thing to happen here.”

To read the full report or for more information, click here:

Majority of Iowa waterways exceed drinkable nitrate limit after week of heavy rain

Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 8.57.35 AM
Data from the Iowa Water Quality Information System
KC McGinnis | May 3, 2016

Data from the Iowa Water Quality Information System (IWQIS) shows that more than half of Iowa’s waterways being recorded currently exceed the nitrate threshold of 10 mg/l, with several outpacing levels from previous years.

Weeks of warm spring temperatures followed by a week of consistent rain throughout the state last week may have contributed to a spike in nitrate in Iowa’s waterways as it was washed out of fields where it had previously been applied in fertilizers, either as part of the planting process or in the form of anhydrous ammonia in the fall. Nitrate is a pollutant that must be removed at water treatment plants before the water can be suitable for drinking, sometimes at great cost to the plants. Excess nitrate can also cause the spread of toxic algae in lakes and ponds and contributes to a lack of oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico, causing what’s known as a Dead Zone.

Nitrate levels are well ahead of where they were in previous years by this time. Annual data available through IWQIS shows that the Daily Accumulated Yield (the amount of nitrate per watershed acre) in the North Raccoon River is at a level not reached until late May of 2015 and not until late September of 2014. Similar progress can be seen at the South Fork Iowa River in north central Iowa, where nitrate levels are currently the highest in the state at about double the drinkable limit.

The Iowa Water Quality Information System, developed by the University of Iowa IIHR—Hydroscience & Engineering, has a wealth of data available to the public on Iowa’s water quality. A tutorial on how to use the program can be viewed below.

Jobs report: Wind and solar could employ 18,000 Iowans

Iowa leads the nation in percentage of electricity generated by wind energy at 28.5 percent. (Tom Corser/Wikimedia)
Iowa leads the nation in percentage of electricity generated by wind energy at 28.5 percent. (Tom Corser/Wikimedia)
KC McGinnis | April 28, 2016

A new report shows that Iowa’s growing renewable energy industry could employ an average of 18,000 per year for the next 15 years.

The American Jobs Project, a research collaboration with 10 states on best practices for creating high-paying jobs in the advanced energy industry, shows that Iowa’s already strong advanced energy economy could lead to significant job creation in the wind and solar energy industries. Citing a 2014 study that shows that renewable energy is becoming one of Iowa’s most important economic drivers, the report provides detailed steps on maximizing the industry to lead to more jobs.

The report comes with comprehensive policy recommendations for Iowa’s wind and solar industries informed by Iowa experts including those at the University of Iowa Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research (CGRER). Recommendations for wind energy include further collaboration between investor-owned utilities, municipal utilities, rural cooperatives, and community stakeholders, as well as incentive programs to attract wind turbine assembly companies and localized innovations like small wind tax credits.

For solar energy, the report recommends enabling home owners to take out loans for solar energy that can be repaid through their property tax bill (PACE financing) and policies that encourage distributed generation, especially allowing third-party solar providers in the state.

The full report is available here:

Drinking water symposium to ask: Could Flint Happen Here?


KC McGinnis | April 26, 2016

A public symposium to take place June 17 will bring together experts from Iowa and Flint, Michigan to ask if Iowa could face similar water crises.

Iowa’s Drinking Water: Could Flint Happen Here? will be held all day on Friday, June 17 at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines. The event will feature presentations by members of academia, industry, and the public sector to discuss whether Iowa’s drinking water supplies are susceptible to the same issues faced in high-profile cases like that of Flint, Michigan. Members of the Flint Water Study will also present their experiences fighting the effects of contamination in Flint.

Water quality has been near the top of Iowa’s minds in recent years. A University of Northern Iowa study found most Iowans are aware of the problems Iowa water faces from factors like nutrient pollution and willing to change their behaviors to address it. A Des Moines Water Works lawsuit against three Iowa counties over nutrient pollution has further placed water quality in the public spotlight.

University of Iowa professor Jerry Schnoor found that water treatment could be a factor in lead contamination. His recent article, published in the journal Science, suggests that the use of different types of chlorine in the disinfecting process can cause lead to leach from older pipes. Chlorine treatment may not be necessary if water infrastructures are up to date and well-maintained.