Reflections on my two years at CGRER


The Iowa Advanced Technologies Laboratory, left, houses the University of Iowa's Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. (Optical Science and Technology Center/University of Iowa)
The Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories, left, houses the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. (Optical Science and Technology Center/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | August 5, 2016

It’s hard to believe that it’s been just over two years since I first entered the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories – which I had previous referred to as the shiny metal building next to the Iowa Memorial Union – to interview for a graduate assistantship with the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research.

Despite having studied at the UI for my undergrad and the fact that I have had a casual interest in the environment for as long as I can remember, I had never heard of CGRER prior to my interview. I interviewed with CGRER’s Outreach and Community Education Director Joe Bolkcom – whose name I was quite familiar with from constantly reading about his efforts as a state senator – who made it clear from the start that his work with CGRER is separate from his work in the Iowa legislature. Though I had no formal experience covering scientific issues, I was offered the position because of the journalistic skills I had developed as an undergrad and during my time as a reporter with the Iowa City Press-Citizen. My colleague, KC McGinnis, was hired at the same time I was and similar to me he had little formal experience covering environmental or scientific issues. Joe felt that KC and I would compliment each other well as he was more of the multimedia expert while my specialty was writing.

During my two year stint with CGRER I not only learned a tremendous amount about environmental policy in the Hawkeye State specifically and environmental research more broadly but I also informally served as a teacher educating my friends, family, and others about these issues. Whenever possible I avoided the partisan divisiveness often associated with environmental issues and instead focused on the positives. As a lifelong Iowan I’m proud to tell people about how this upper-Midwestern state with just over three million inhabitants is a national leader in wind energy. Or how there is tremendous potential for solar energy in the Hawkeye State despite cold and snowy winters that occupy about a quarter of the year. I’ve even had intelligent and civil conversations with farmers about the benefits of cover crops, no-till, and other conservation practices, even though I know we wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on many political issues.

My time at CGRER was not only a learning experience for me in terms of the environment but I was also able to further develop my journalistic skills, especially in terms of multimedia. I felt that I learned more about video production working with KC during two short years than I did during any of my formal education.

My two years with CGRER has paid off as next week I will begin my new position as a Communications Specialist for the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Iowa State University. (Don’t worry I’ll always be a Hawkeye at heart!) I am confident in the abilities of KC and I’s replacements – a graduate student from the College of Education and an incoming freshman – and am eager to see the direction they take things. There are already talks of revising our On The Radio segments to follow more of a longer-form podcast format, which as an avid podcast listener myself, I think has potential to be awesome.

Perhaps the biggest thing I’ve taken away from my time at CGRER is that many of these environmental issues should not be political. I’m not a scientist myself but I understand that a certain amount of skepticism is important with scientific research but there’s a difference between healthy skepticism and outright denying what is perceived as fact by the majority of the scientific community. I understand that politicians and lobbyists often have business interests which will influence their opinions. While I would still disagree with them on ideological grounds, it would be a step in the right direction if these politicians would come out and say “I’m not going to deny the science but I disagree with this policy because I think it’s detrimental to a particular business or economic interest.”

I’m not one to buy into American exceptionalism but I think higher education is one thing we truly do right in this country. (With that said, I think there are always ways higher education can be improved.) During my time at the University of Iowa, I have met hundreds of students from dozens of different countries, all of whom came to the UI to get a world class education. Not only should we as country be quick to welcome these international students to our colleges and universities but we should do more to support the scientific research taking place as opposed to denying it, especially when that opposition is often based in political ideology as opposed to scientific fact.

University of Iowa receives funding to study, monitor Zika virus


Infected mosquitoes can transmit the Chikungunya virus to humans (Gustavo Fernando Durán/Flickr)
(Gustavo Fernando Durán/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | August 4, 2016

Iowa is among 39 other states and territories to receive more than $16 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor and study the Zika virus.

Though the amount of funding was not specified, the University of Iowa is the agency within the Hawkeye State that will receive money to study Zika. The UI is the only university to receive funding as state departments of public health were awarded the funds in the other states and territories.

The funding will “establish, enhance, and maintain information-gathering systems to rapidly detect microcephaly – a serious birth defect of the brain – and other adverse outcomes caused by Zika virus infection.” The funding is temporarily being diverted from various public health resources until congress approves of specific moneys for Zika.

Within weeks of the first reported cases of Zika in the United States, officials with the University of Iowa’s State Hygienic Laboratory (SHL) and the Iowa Department of Public Health “were preparing for the worst.” As of May 19, the SHL had tested nearly 200 specimens, most of which were determined to be negative. In addition to six specimens that tested positive for Zika, there were two reports of Dengue virus but zero reports of Chikungunya. Chikungunya and Dengue – both of which are vector-borne similar to Zika – and their impact in the Hawkeye State were discussed during the 2014 Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum.

The first travel-related case of Zika virus in Iowa was reported on February 19 of this year. Since then, eight other case of Zika have been reported. All reports of Zika in Iowa have occurred in adults who had recently traveled to Central or South America or the Caribbean and none of the women who reported the virus were pregnant at the time. The Iowa Department of Public Health provides weekly updates about Zika on its website.

CGRER’s Schnoor honored by science journal


CGRER co-founder Jerry Schnoor speaks at a World Canvass event celebrating CGRER’s 25th anniversary in 2015. (KC McGinnis/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | August 2, 2016

CGRER co-founder Jerry Schnoor was recognized last month by the journal Environmental Science & Technology for his research contributions as well as his work as the publication’s editor-in-chief.

Schnoor was featured in the July 5th edition of ES&T in a commentary authored by Joel Gerard Burken, a former student of Schnoor’s who now serves on the faculty in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Burken – who holds his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD from the University of Iowa – recounted studying under Schnoor in the 1990s. Burken discussed Schnoor’s sincerity and passion when working with students and colleagues as well as his genuine concern for public health and the environment as opposed to just conducting research, gathering data, and publishing papers.

“Sincerity and culture are corner posts to Jerry that are just as important as remarkable acumen and abilities. Though his sincere quality of person, Jerry sets a solid foundation that he stand upon in scientific work and in using this foundation as a position for strong speech on important topics,” Burken wrote. “…Impacts we can have go beyond data generation and being involved in policy issues, and speaking out for what we believe to be important. Jerry certainly spoke out on topics of importance.”

Schnoor served as editor-in-chief of ES&T from 2003 to 2014. During that time he helped to expand the journal’s international reach and established Environmental Science & Technology Letters, “an international forum for brief communications on experimental or theoretical results of exceptional timeliness in all aspects of environmental science (pure and applied), and short reviews on emerging environmental science & technology topics.” Schnoor also covered the COP21 climate summit in Paris for ES&T in December 2015.

Schnoor’s areas of research include global air issues, groundwater pollutant transport, and remediation.

ES&T is a biweekly, peer-reviewed scientific journal that covers research in environmental science, technology, and policy. For Burken’s full article and for links to various editorials Schnoor has published in ES&T, click here.

Iowa’s Rep. Loebsack encourages Hillary Clinton to focus on renewable energy


Rep. Dave Loebsack. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Rep. Dave Loebsack proposed legislation that would establish a national flood center, possibly at the University of Iowa, during an press conference in Iowa City on June 6, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | July 29, 2016

Iowa congressman Dave Loebsack encouraged Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to make renewable energy a major part of her platform during an event earlier this week, as reported by the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Rep. Loebsack – who serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee – spoke at a forum Wednesday entitled POLITICO Caucus: Energy and the Election, sponsored by Vote4Energy. The forum was part of the events associated with the Democratic National Convention which took place in Philadelphia this week. Joining Loebsack on the panel was Reps. Boyle (D-PA) and Tonko (D-NY) as well as former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell.

Much of Loebsack’s emphasis was on energy issues important to Iowans such as biofuels, wind, and solar.

“Energy policy is exceedingly important in Iowa. The renewable fuel standard has been important in Iowa, not just for ethanol, not just for corn ethanol, but for cellulosic ethanol, for biofuels of other sorts as well. These are also good for the environment. They can bring together people as far as I’m concerned,” Loebsack said at the forum.

Loebsack – currently the lone Democrat in Iowa’s congressional delegation – represents Iowa’s 2nd District, the southeast corner of the state that includes Iowa City. The Sioux City native and former Cornell College political science professor has held his seat since 2006.

Full video of the panel discussion is available on politico.com.

Alliant Energy announces $1B investment for Iowa wind farm


Wind turbines in northern Iowa. (Brooke Raymond/Flickr)
Wind turbines in northern Iowa. (Brooke Raymond/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 28, 2016

Alliant Energy announced Wednesday that it will invest more than $1 billion over the next five years to expand wind energy projects in Iowa.

The Madison, Wisconsin-based utility company will seek regulatory approval to expand the Whispering Willow Wind Farm in Franklin County in north central Iowa. The project would add 500 megawatts of clean energy over the next five years and Alliant officials do not expect to use eminent domain. The project is expected to provide power for 215,000 homes, generate thousands of dollars in property tax revenue, and create as many as 1,500 jobs during the height of construction.

“Our customers expect low-cost, clean energy, which is exactly what this project will bring to the communities we serve,” said Doug Kopp, president of Alliant Energy’s Iowa utility. “Wind has no fuel costs and zero emissions, making it a win-win for Iowans and the Iowa economy.”

Alliant Energy’s announcement was lauded by local environmental groups, including Nathaniel Baer with the Iowa Environmental Council.

“Alliant Energy’s new wind project will continue Iowa’s strong momentum on clean energy leadership. Across the state, utilities and developers are placing 10,000 MW of wind by 2020 – a major milestone – within reach,” Baer said in a statement.

Alliant Energy also said that it would be receptive to expanding other projects in Iowa outside of Franklin County. The proposed expansion is part of the utility’s vision for a clean energy future which includes a goal to reduce carbon emissions by 40 percent between 2005 and 2030.

In May, Alliant’s competitor MidAmerican Energy announced a $3.6 billion investment for its own wind energy project in Iowa.

‘Iowa Watch’ article examines concerns with common Iowa herbicides


A tractor applied pesticide to a field. (Pieter van Marion/Flickr)
A tractor applies pesticide to a field. (Pieter van Marion/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 26, 2016

A recent article by Iowa Watch reporter Lauren Mills examines new research into the environmental and public health concerns of two herbicide chemicals commonly used in the Hawkeye State.

Atrazine and glyphosate – both of which are key ingredients in the herbicide Roundup – have come under scrutiny recently for their potential environmental and health impacts on humans. Earlier this month, California required that labels be placed on all products containing atrazine to warm consumers about the potential human health impacts of the chemical. Specifically, atrazine – the second-most commonly used pesticide in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – has been linked to “birth defects, reduced male fertility and reproductive toxicities in women.”

Glyphosate – the most commonly used pesticide in the U.S. – was determined to be “probably carcinogenic to humans” in a 2015 report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, a division of the World Health Organization.

Last May in Iowa City, the Pesticide Action Network of North America released a report which outlined the impact that pesticide exposure has on children living in rural areas.

To read Lauren’s full piece, visit IowaWatch.orgIowa Watch is produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, an independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan news service established in Iowa City in 2010.

USDA awards Iowa more than $1M for job growth and economic development


U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack during an event hosted by the Great Green Fleet on Jan. 20, 2016. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack during an event hosted by the Great Green Fleet on Jan. 20, 2016. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 22, 2016

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack announced last week that the U.S. Department of Agriculture will award more than $1 million for job growth and economic development efforts in Iowa.

Iowa Lakes Electric Cooperative was awarded a $300,000 grant so the Iowa Lakes Corridor Development can construct a facility in the Spirit Lake Industrial Park and attract new businesses to the area. Winnebago Cooperative Telecom Association will receive a loan of $780,000 to help All States Ag Parts purchase machinery, equipment and inventory for business expansion and relocation to a new building. The investment is expected to create 51 jobs.

The funding is part of more than $9 million in grants and loans for 15 projects dispersed across 12 states. Other states to receive funding include Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. The funding is part of USDA’s Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant program which offers “zero-interest loans and grants to utilities that lend funds to local businesses for projects to create and retain employment.”

“Small businesses are the cornerstone of the rural economy,” said Vilsack, who is among the finalists for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hilary Clinton’s vice president pick. “During the Obama Administration, USDA’s investments have directly helped more than 100,000 small business get off the ground or expand, and the projects announced today will help 15 more rural communities see job growth and economic development.”

Funding for each project is contingent upon the recipient meeting the terms of the loan or grant agreement.

Iowa State’s solar car team prepares for 1,800-mile trek across Midwest


Members of Team PrISUm -- from left, Charlotte Brandenburg, Garret Coleman, Philip Gates, Arun Sondhi and Matt Goode -- are preparing their solar racing car for this summer's two races. Larger photo. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)
Members of Team PrISUm — from left, Charlotte Brandenburg, Garret Coleman, Philip Gates, Arun Sondhi and Matt Goode — are preparing their solar racing car for this summer’s two races. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)
Nick Fetty | July 21, 2016

Members of Iowa State University’s solar car team – PrISUm – are preparing for an 1,800-mile trek from Ohio to South Dakota.

Later this month Team PrISUm will compete in the Amesican Solar Challenge road race which will begin at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Brecksville, Ohio and end at Wind Cave National Park in Hot Springs, South Dakota. The race is in collaboration with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and will include stops at national battlefields, monuments and historical parks. The route does not go through Iowa and instead cuts south across Missouri.

Prior to the American Solar Challenge (July 30-August 6), Team PrISUm will compete in a qualifying race at the Pittsburgh International Race Complex July 26-28. The team hopes to use these races to prepare them for the 2017 World Solar Challenge, a 1,900-mile trek across the Australian outback scheduled for next October.

Team PrISUm claimed its first overall victory last year during the Formula Sun Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. The team and its car, Phaëton, bested the second place team by more than 31 laps and also recording the fastest lap of any of its competitors by about 14 seconds. The car, Phaëton, is named for the son of Greek sun god, Helios.

The team’s newest model, Phaëton 2, improved upon several aspects from the previous design including a new motor, new batteries, and live telemetry which allows the public to use the internet to track location, speed, and other metrics measured by the car.

PrISUm team members Charlotte Brandenburg, right, and Matt Goode look over the car's batteries and fuses outside the team's Sweeney Hall garage. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)
PrISUm team members Charlotte Brandenburg, right, and Matt Goode look over the car’s batteries and fuses outside the team’s Sweeney Hall garage. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University News Service)

July marks peak season for blue-green algal blooms in Iowa


A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 19, 2016

While not expected to be as severe as last summer, Iowa outdoor recreation enthusiasts should be mindful of blue-green algal blooms this time of the year.

Warm July temperatures coupled with excess phosphorus that often runs off of farm fields into lakes and waterways creates the ideal breeding ground for blue-green algae. These conditions lead to the creation of microcystin toxins which can cause skin rashes and asthma-like symptoms for humans and potential fatalities for dogs, livestock, and other animals.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources monitor state beaches and other waterways to determine if the water is safe for recreational activities. The state’s first instances of blue-green algae were reported at the end of June. Last summer, blue-green algae blooms led to a record closure of Iowa beaches. Iowa DNR officials have also recorded bacteria growth – such as E. coli – at some state beaches this summer.

Earlier this month, Florida governor Rick Scott issued a state of emergency because of harmful algal blooms on bodies of water in the Sunshine State. NASA satellites captured images of algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee in May.

Check out the Iowa DNR website for reports of blue-green algae and other bacteria at state-owned beaches. Mary Skopec with the Iowa DNR advises swimmers, boaters, others to be cautious of water that is green in color or scummy in texture.

“When in doubt, stay out,” Skopec said.

Study finds consumers, retailers waste about half the produce grown in the U.S.


(Nick Saltmarsh/Flickr)
(Nick Saltmarsh/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 15, 2016

New research suggests that as much as half of the food produce in the United States is wasted.

“demand for unattainable perfection” in the appearance of fruits and vegetables is largely to blame for the vast amount of wasted food. Fruits and vegetables are often led in the field to rot, fed to livestock, or shipped directly to landfills when deemed unsellable because of cosmetic imperfections. According to government data, about 60 million tons of produce, worth about $160 billion, is wasted by American retailers and consumers annually. Globally, about 1.6 billion tons, valued at about $1 trillion, is wasted each year.

Despite these findings, researchers recognize that there is currently no clear way to account for food loss in U.S. However, the World Resources Institute and other thinktanks are developing methods to more accurately account for food waste. Wasteful food production practices are detrimental to efforts to fight global hunger and climate change.

Last year U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack called for a 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030. However, one expert argues that Vilsack’s goal could have a negative effect on food economics. Roger Gordon – founder of the Food Cowboy – told The Guardian that a 50 percent reduction in food waste could reduce the profit margin of produce at grocery stores by half. He added that fresh produce accounts for about 15 percent of supermarket profits.

The University of Northern Iowa’s Iowa Waste Reduction Center was established in 1988 with the intention of helping businesses reduce food waste in the Hawkeye State. In 2013, the center released a report entitled “Iowa Food Waste Reduction Program Market Analysis.”