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.

White House: Climate change a danger to public health

A chart showing the human health impacts of climate change. (The White House).
A chart showing the human health impacts of climate change. (The White House).
KC McGinnis | April 7, 2016

A new assessment released by the White House this week highlights the significant impacts climate change will have on the health of Americans in coming decades.

The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment was released earlier this week. The three-year study includes findings from about 100 experts in climate change and public health, and comes to some alarming conclusions.

“Rising greenhouse gas concentrations result in increases in temperature, changes in precipitation, increases in the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. These climate change impacts endanger our health by affecting our food and water sources, the air we breathe, the weather we experience, and our interactions with the built and natural environments.”

The White House release raises similar concerns to those in the Iowa Climate Statement 2014: Impacts on the Health of Iowans. These include the health-related effects of extreme weather events not limited to heat waves and droughts but to increased humidity and more intense rain events, which can be a factor in spreading disease. Agricultural states like Iowa can also be at greater risk of experiencing water quality issues from increased precipitation. Climate change will also affect Iowans’ respiratory health, according to the statement.

UNI Study: 70% of Iowans willing to change behavior to improve water quality

(Jason Mrachina/Creative Commons)
(Jason Mrachina/Creative Commons)
KC McGinnis | April 5, 2016

A survey conducted by researchers at the University of Northern Iowa shows that a majority of Iowans would be willing to change their behavior to help improve water quality.

The study, Public Perceptions of Water Quality in Iowa: A Statewide Survey, produced by the UNI Center for Social & Behavioral Research, recorded answers to a range of questions posed to Iowans on their views on water quality. 70% of those surveyed said they would be willing to change a single behavior to improve water quality. These changes in behavior could be as simple as going to a car wash instead of washing on the street or in a driveway, where water carrying detergents and residue from exhaust fumes goes untreated into storm drains that discharge directly into waterways.

Since most Iowans (80%) reportedly prefer using a car wash anyway, they may need to find additional behavioral changes that can contribute to improving water quality. These include refraining from pouring fat or oils down the drain (instead collecting the fat in a jar or other container as a solid), avoiding the garbage disposal and composting instead, going meatless one day per week, and even placing a brick in a toilet tank to save water when flushing. Each of these simple practices is proven to save water and reduce strain on waterway infrastructure.

Iowa attorney general defends Clean Power Plan

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller
KC McGinnis | March 31, 2016

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller has joined the defense of the Environmental Protection Agency in its legal challenge to uphold the Clean Power Plan against the State of West Virginia, which opposes the plan in part because it claims it will hurt the economies of coal states like itself.

In advance of oral arguments to be heard in the United States Court of Appeals on June 2, Miller has joined 17 other state attorneys general in a brief defending the Clean Power Plan. Among its arguments is that states have “a compelling and urgent interest in reducing dangerous carbon-dioxide pollution from the largest source of those emissions: fossil-fueled power plants.”

Iowa’s role in the case is unique as it currently produces the highest percentage of wind energy production per capita in the country, which has contributed to a moderate deceleration in fossil-fuel growth. In 2013, for the first time ever, fossil-fueled power plants were not the top emitter of carbon dioxide equivalent in the state (the agriculture sector now holds that title). This continued into 2014.

Opponents of the Clean Power Plan claim it is an overreach of the Clean Air Act. The brief signed by Miller, however, claims that the Clean Power Plan is an important step for the EPA in fulfilling key goals of the Clean Air Act, which requires the EPA to establish a nationwide framework for carbon-dioxide emission reductions.

Iowa district court: DNR failed to uphold water anti-degradation standards

Water Works Park in Des Moines.
Water Works Park in Des Moines.
KC McGinnis | March 29, 2016

An Iowa district court ruled that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources did not hold up Iowa’s clean water standards in its recent approval of a wastewater treatment plant in Clarion.

The decision, which came earlier this month, will force the DNR to revisit their analysis of Clarion’s wastewater treatment project proposal. The DNR had approved the least expensive option presented by Clarion for its plant expansions without adequately considering Iowa’s clean water anti-degradation standards, as it is required to do, the court found.

The judicial review came after an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center filed a petition on behalf of the Iowa Environmental Council. They argued that alternative plans submitted by Clarion would have reduced nitrate and phosphorous pollution in waterways that eventually make their way to the Des Moines River. This year nitrate pollution in the Des Moines River has well outpaced previous years, with 13,000 metric tons of nitrate passing through Des Moines every day since the beginning of March — a level that wasn’t reached until June of 2015 and September of 2014. Iowa’s clean water anti-degradation standards, a requirement under the Clean Water Act, compel the DNR to more thoroughly consider alternative options that may increase environmental benefits, the court found.

Six public forums planned for Iowa Energy Plan

(Don Graham / Flickr)
(Don Graham / Flickr)
KC McGinnis | March 24, 2015

As part of developing the Iowa Energy Plan, the State of Iowa will hold six public forums in late March and early April to review data and discuss next steps.

Although Iowa leads the nation in wind energy produced per capita, it is one of only ten states that does not have its own state energy plan. State energy plans collect data to create a state energy profile while analyzing market trends and predicting future challenges and opportunities. Iowa’s plan, being developed by the Iowa Economic Development Authority and the Iowa Department of Transportation, will address the four categories of Economic Development and Energy Careers, Iowa’s Energy Resources, Transportation and Infrastructure, and Energy Efficiency and Conservation.

The upcoming forums will be open to the public and will include one-on-one and group discussions with development teams. Each forum will also include an informational presentation.

Ames – Tuesday, March 29
5:30 to 7:30 pm
Iowa State University (Iowa State Center)
Scheman Building, Room 204
1805 Center Drive, Ames, IA 50011

Storm Lake – Wednesday, March 30
5:30 to 7:30 pm
Buena Vista University, Dows Conference Center
610 W 4th St., Storm Lake, IA 50588

Council Bluffs – Thursday, March 31
5:30 to 7:30 pm
Iowa Western Community College
Looft Hall Conference Center. Room 006
2700 College Rd., Council Bluffs, IA 51503

Ottumwa – Tuesday, April 12
5:30 to 7:30 pm
Indian Hills Community College, The Formal Lounge (Building C)
525 Grandview Ave., Ottumwa, IA 52501

Cedar Rapids/Marion – Wednesday, April 13
6:00 to 8:00 pm
Kirkwood Community College Training and Outreach Center
3375 Armar Dr., Marion, IA 52302

Dubuque – Thursday, April 14
5:30 to 7:30 pm
Northeast Iowa Community College – Conference Center 1 and 4
700 Main St., Dubuque, IA 52001

The Iowa Energy Plan is tentatively scheduled to be completed by November 2016.

Iowa researchers: nutrient reduction could take decades

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 | March 22, 2016

With both record precipitation and record nitrate loads being recorded this winter, Iowa’s nutrient crisis doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon. In fact, according to Iowa scientists, Iowa’s nutrient reduction goals could take decades.

In recent interviews with the Gazette, leading Iowa scientists said the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, with the goal of reducing nutrient pollution by 45 percent, could take more than a generation, thanks in large part to fluctuating weather patterns that bring more extreme and unpredictable weather events.

University of Iowa IIHR — Hydroscience & Engineering hydrologist Keith Schilling noted that weather plays a larger role in increased nutrient loads than agricultural practices. The increased intensity of both droughts and wet weather seasons makes it tougher for farmers to plan their nutrient practices and for scientists to assess long-term trends.

Real-time data from the Iowa Water Quality Information System (IWQIS) shows that nitrate levels at more than half of the recorded streams in Iowa are above the 10mg/L drinkable threshold. More than 13,000 metric tons of nitrate have passed through Des Moines along the Des Moines River every day since the beginning of March, according to an IWQIS sensor. This well outpaces nutrient levels from previous years: nitrates in the Des Moines River didn’t reach their current levels until June in 2015 and until September in 2014.