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.

Earth Day water symposium will include debate on Des Moines Water Works lawsuit

An icy section of the Raccoon River near Columbus Park in Des Moines. (Michael Leland/Flickr)
An icy section of the Raccoon River near Columbus Park in Des Moines. (Michael Leland/Flickr)
KC McGinnis | April 21, 2016

A water quality symposium will take place in Des Moines on Friday, April 22, Earth Day.

The symposium is part of the Iowa Academy of Science’s annual conference being held at Grand View University this weekend. It will be held at 2 p.m. in the Student Center – Speed Lyceum.

The 2-and-a-half hour symposium, now in its fourth year, will feature seven speakers to discuss the water quality issues that led to the Des Moines Water Work lawsuit and how those issues can be addressed both inside and outside the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The speakers include:

Jerry Anderson, Drake Law School professor. Anderson will provide an overview of Iowa’s nitrate issues.

Matt Liebman, Professor of Agronomy and Henry A. Wallace Endowed Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University professor. Liebman will talk about how native prairie can be used to prevent erosion that leads to nitrate runoff.

Lora Friest, of the Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation, will talk about the watershed work she is involved in that is related to the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. CGRER featured her work in a 2015 hydrologic network documentary.

Fred Kirschenmann, of the Leopold Center, will talk about a 50 year farm bill that uses native prairie plants bred for human and animal consumption.

Kathleen DeLate, Professor of Horticulture at Iowa State University, will talk about the role small and organic farms can have in reducing nutrient pollution.

Bill Stowe, General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works, will present arguments for the DMWW lawsuit.

Steve Bruere, President, People’s Co., who will present arguments against the DMWW lawsuit.

Question & Answer sessions will follow each speaker segment. The event is free and open to the public.

University of Iowa gains permit to experiment with biofuels


A tour of the University of Iowa Power Plant

KC McGinnis | April 19, 2016

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has granted the University of Iowa a unique clean air permit that will allow it to experiment and test biofuels as an alternative to burning coal.

The Plantwide Applicability Limit (PAL) allows the University of Iowa Power Plant greater flexibility in using biomass products like oat hulls, wood chips and miscanthus as local energy sources. It’s part of the UI’s goal of generating 40 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020.

The permit allows the UI to further experiment with its burning of biomass, which may not always produce lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal, without violating clean air standards. Further research and development like what the University of Iowa is currently doing may help bring emissions from those biofuel sources further down, making them a more viable option for clean, renewable, local energy in the future.

The University of Iowa Power Plant already burns oat hulls and wood chips using specialized technology, and the UI has its own experimental miscanthus crop just outside Iowa City. These sources are not only renewable, but unlike coal they also produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide during their lifetime, further offsetting net emissions.

MidAmerican Energy to invest $3.6 billion in wind


KC McGinnis | April 14, 2016

MidAmerican energy announced Thursday that it plans to invest $3.6 billion in an ambitious wind project in Iowa.

“The announcement is a giant step toward realizing the company’s vision of 100 percent renewable energy for customers in the state,” according to a release.

MidAmerican is currently filing a request with the Iowa Utilities Board for a project that the company claims will add up to 2,000 megawatts of wind generation, a 50% increase on top of the 3,450 megawatts of wind energy the company has already built in the state since 2004. Bill Fehrman, CEO and president of MidAmerican Energy, said once the project is complete the company will be able to generate energy equivalent to 85% of annual sales.

The announcement comes shortly after Iowa was named the top wind energy producer per capita in the country, the first to generate more than 30% of its energy from wind. Thursday’s announcement also highlighted the economic benefits of the project, bringing millions of dollars to the state in the forms of property taxes and payments to landowners and farmers. It would also push MidAmerican’s investment in Iowa wind energy over $10 billion over the last 12 years.

Metro Waste Authority helping Des Moines residents compost

An example of healthy compost (normanack / Creative Commons)
An example of healthy compost (normanack / Creative Commons)
KC McGinnis | April 12, 2015

With spring weather giving Iowans the chance to get started on yard work, the Des Moines Metro Waste Authority is encouraging Iowans to turn yard waste into compost.

Metro Waste Authority’s weekly waste collection program began March 28. The program allows Des Moines residents to have materials from their yards collected and transported to the Metro Compost Center, where the waste will be converted into nutrient-rich compost that can be used as a fertilizer and soil conditioner in other areas.

While the Metro Waste Authority is only collecting yard waste like grass clippings, leaves, and branches, anyone can compost at home using all kinds of organic materials. These should include a healthy mix of carbon-rich materials like leaves and wood chips and nitrogen-rich materials like kitchen scraps. All that’s required is a composting bin and periodic mixing. This compost can then be used as a soil-healthy alternative to chemical fertilizers.

For more information about Metro’s compost collection program click here.