CGRER researcher awarded for developing self-cleaning culvert

Dr. Marian Muste with his self-cleaning culvert design. (IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering/University of Iowa)
Dr. Marian Muste with his self-cleaning culvert design to the left. (IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | July 14, 2016

University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research member Marian Muste was recognized earlier this year for his efforts in developing a self-cleaning culvert.

Region 3 of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Research Advisory Council recognized Muste’s project along with three others in the Midwest region. Muste’s project is among 16 nationwide to be dubbed the “‘Sweet Sixteen’ High Value Research Projects” of 2016.

Muste’s research – “Development of Self-Cleaning Box Culvert Design: Phase II” – examines a system that uses the natural power of a stream flow to flush out sediment deposits in culverts. The system does not require intensive maintenance and can be constructed in new culverts or retrofitted for old ones. The design prevents buildup of sedimentation or vegetation in culverts which during rain events can cause culverts to overflow and damage adjacent property.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has implemented Muste’s design in a culvert along Highway 1 in Iowa City. Muste and his research team have monitored the site since the new design was installed in 2013 and he said it has been “working very well.”

Muste – who also serves on the faculty of the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Geography – concluded his report by outlining the benefits of his design.

“Besides their primary role in sediment mitigation, the designed self-cleaning structure maintains a clean and clear area upstream the culvert, keeps a healthy flow through the central barrel offering hydraulic and aquatic habitat similar with that in the undisturbed stream reaches upstream and downstream the culvert. It can be concluded that the proposed self-cleaning structural solution ‘streamlines’ the area adjacent to the culvert in a way that secures the safety of the culvert structure at high flows while disturbing the stream behavior less compared with the traditional constructive approaches.”

Iowa solar advocate Tim Dwight featured in Sports Illustrated

Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association president Tim Dwight, right, during a CGRER 25th anniversary event presented by WorldCanvass at FilmScene in Iowa City on Tuesday, October 13, 2015. (KC McGinnis/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | July 12, 2016

Former University of Iowa football player Tim Dwight was featured in Sports Illustrated last week as part of the magazine’s “Where Are They Now?” series.

Dwight was born in Iowa City and attended City High where he excelled at track and football. Despite his relatively small 5-foot 8-inch frame, Dwight found a niche as a wide receiver and kick returner for the Iowa Hawkeyes before a decade-long stint in the National Football League.

Dwight attributed his interest in solar energy to his travels to Africa and the Middle East after his football career.

“The world runs on energy everywhere and energy runs everything so I knew that market was not going to go away,” Dwight told Iowa Environmental Focus in 2015.

The recent Sports Illustrated article discusses the ways in which solar has changed since Dwight got into the game, pointing out that solar modules have decreased from $4 per watt in 2008 to about 70 cents per watt today.

The piece also touches on the breadth of Dwight’s knowledge when discussing solar.

It also helps that Dwight can speak flawlessly and passionately about all sides of the industry. As we chat, he riffs on about electricity, amps, volts, wire sizes, how to pinpoint a connection to a grid, how to break down a single-line diagram, and how energy is currently bought, sold and created.

Throughout our conversation, the solar advocacy never slows. Just like his skills as a returner, you think he’s done and then he goes in a new direction, passionately and convincingly adding yet another reason to go solar. “It’s like, guys, you’re living in the 1800s, man. In Iowa we’re 50% coal. We dig from Wyoming, my money is going to Wyoming. With renewables, it’s local job creation, local investment.”

In addition to his role at president of the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association, Dwight is also founder and owner of the California-based Integrated Power Corporation.

UI researchers study mussels to improve water quality

Craig L. Just is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. (University of Iowa)
Craig L. Just is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. (Tim Schoon/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | July 8, 2016

University of Iowa researchers are studying the role freshwater mussels play in the nitrogen cycle as a way to improve water quality in the Hawkeye State.

Craig L. Just – an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering – and Ellen Black – PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering and Science – are studying the potential of using freshwater mussels as a way to remove nitrogen from Iowa waterways. Nitrogen contributes to the growth of algae which serves as a food source for the mussels. Specially, Black is looking at the effect that microbial communities have on native freshwater mussels.

“Mussels filter water and excrete nitrogen into underlying sediment, thus sequestering biologically active nutrients for microorganisms to consume and possibly remove from river systems,” Black told The Daily Iowan.

Through the use of generation sequencing, Black is able to pinpoint all bacteria found in mussel beds which can help researchers to better determine the effect that mussels have on microbial processes.

In addition to his work with mussels, Just has also worked with civil and environmental engineering PhD candidate Hunter Schroer. Just and Schroer are studying ways to make military explosives less prone to self-detonation. The researchers also seek to discover and potentially mitigate the impact that explosives have on the environment by finding organisms that detoxify explosives by converting them into carbon dioxide. They’re also studying ways they can use plants as a cost-effective way to detect explosives in soil.

For more information about Black and Schroer’s research, check out The Daily Iowan.

Manure spill affects nearly two miles of creek in northwest Iowa

A creek that runs through Story County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
A creek that runs through Story County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 7, 2016

Approximately 2,500 fish were killed after a manure spill in northwest Iowa last week.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported that the spill occurred on June 30 when Doug Streit, an O’Brien County hog farmer, was transferring manure from one tank to another. A broken hose led to an estimated 5,000 gallons of manure spilling onto the ground but Streit quickly dammed the area above Barry Creek to prevent further spillage.

The spill contaminated nearly two miles of creek and mostly affected smaller fish like minnows, shiners, stonerollers and chubs. The site was cleaned up the following day using a pump and other equipment. Iowa DNR officials said they do not expect the spill to affect Waterman Creek downstream but will continue to monitor the situation and take appropriate enforcement action as necessary.

Manure spills can cause a slew of public health and environmental concerns. Not only can manure spills contaminate surface waters – such as creeks, rivers, and lakes – but manure can also seep its way into the ground and penetrate aquifers. Increased nitrate levels in waterways caused by manure spills can lead to blue-baby syndrome in infants. Elevated levels of nitrate and other compounds can also lead to fish kills and other ecological impacts.

According to the Iowa DNR’s Hazardous Material Release Database, nearly 350 spills have been reported since the start of the year. Iowa DNR encourages farmers, landowners, and anyone else from the public to report manure spills or suspected spills. Information on how to report spills and other resources are available on the Iowa DNR website.

Iowa Sierra Club aims to restore turtle populations

Painted turtles bask in the sun on this log near Pasadena, Maryland. ()
Painted turtles bask in the sun on a log near Pasadena, Maryland. (Matthew Beziat/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 5, 2016

Officials with Iowa’s Sierra Club  want the Iowa Department of Natural Resources to consider new limits on harvesting turtles as a way to restore populations in the Hawkeye State.

Current regulations allow Iowa anglers with a valid fishing license “to take and possess a maximum of 100 pounds of live turtles or 50 pounds of dressed turtles.” A special license is required to sell live or dressed turtles.

The Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club is calling for the Iowa DNR to close turtle season from January 1st to July 15th to allow the animals more time to nest and repopulate. The environmental advocacy group is also calling for catch limits on certain species including the common snapping turtle, spiny softshell turtle, smooth softshell turtle, and painted turtle.

In March, the Iowa Legislature approved a bill that reestablishes turtle harvesting season in Iowa and calls for a study of turtle populations in the state by 2021. House File 2357 was signed by Governor Terry Branstad on March 23.

Documentation of commercial turtle harvesting in Iowa dates back to 1987. A 2013 report by the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club points out that just under 30,000 pounds of turtles were harvested in 1987 compared to more than 200,000 pounds annually in recent years. The increase in annual turtle harvesting has been attributed to greater demand for turtle meat in Asian countries where turtle populations have dwindled, particularly China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

City, county officials to study possible ban on plastic bags at Iowa City landfill

(Kate Ter Haar/Flickr)
(Kate Ter Haar/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 1, 2016

Over the coming months, officials with the City of Iowa City and Johnson County will conduct research to determine the potential effects of a plastic bag ban at the Iowa City landfill.

Plastic bags account for about 360 tons – or 0.3 percent – of the Iowa City landfill’s annual intake. As part of the city’s Waste Minimizing Strategy, officials aim to not only reduce the number of plastic bags in the landfill but also cardboard and electronic devices.

The idea of a plastic bag ban has been floated in Iowa City multiple times in recent years. The Iowa City Council discussed a plastic bag ban in 2008, after San Francisco implemented a first-in-the-nation ban, however an Iowa City ban was never implemented. 100 Grannies for a Liveable Future – an Iowa City-based advocacy group – supported a plastic bag ban in 2012, but efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Another unsuccessful attempt to ban plastic bags in Iowa City occurred in 2014.

Marshall County was the first and is currently the only place in the state that has banned plastic bags after a 2009 decision by the Marshall County Board of Supervisors.

To find out about plastic bag legislation in your area, visit

Critical Zone Observatory Environmental Science Workshop

(Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | June 29, 2016

Nearly two dozen Eastern Iowa K-12 teachers attended a workshop Tuesday to learn about hands-on activities and lesson plans for engaging students in science.

The Critical Zone Observatory Environmental Science Workshop brought together the University of Iowa College of Education, the UI Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, the UI State Hygienic Laboratory, and the Intensively Managed Landscapes-Critical Zone Observatory to help teachers connect their students to environmental science. While the workshop focused mostly on science, Leslie Flynn, a clinical assistant professor in the UI College of Education, said the workshop also aims to show teachers and students how science is connected to other fields.

“I think what (earth and environmental sciences professor) Dr. Bettis did that was interesting for the teachers was show them how our landscape has changed over time. As farm practices have changed and more people have moved into the area, it’s changed the Clear Creek Watershed,” said Flynn. “Teachers were drawing connections not just between the science but also the history of the landscape, geography, political considerations in terms of zoning. I think what it showed us is that it’s a very interdisciplinary topic and that we can use the environment and the watershed to look through multiple lenses. Through math, science, social studies, engineering and I think that really struck a chord with the teachers.”

Workshop attendees spent the morning at a research site in rural Iowa County to learn about hands-on activities and potential field trip opportunities related to environmental science. The afternoon session was at the UI State Hygienic Laboratory where teachers developed environmental science lessons plans. Flynn said she thinks inter-departmental cooperation, particularly between she and CGRER member Dr. Art Bettis, was key to the success of the event.

“One thing that’s really important to me is finding people who want to partner. In this project, Art and I said “yes” to each other. We didn’t know each other (prior to this event.) Then the State Hygienic Laboratory welcomed us in here,” said Flynn. “So one of the great things is finding people who say “yes” and when they do you can solve problems for K-12 and the community so it’s just been a great experience.”

AMA: Proper LED steet light technology leads to environmental benefits

A LED street light in Tuscon, Arizona. (Bill Morrow/Flickr)
An LED street light in Tuscon, Arizona. (Bill Morrow/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | June 28, 2016

Proper LED – or light emitting diode – technology for street lights could benefit both human health and the environment, according to the American Medical Association (AMA).

During its annual meeting earlier this month, the AMA “adopted guidance for communities on selecting among LED lighting options to minimize potential harmful human and environmental effects.” About 10 percent of existing U.S. street lighting has been converted to LED which often have economic and environmental benefits compared to conventional lighting. However, despite these benefits, officials with the AMA feel that certain forms of LED technology in street lighting may actually cause more harm than good.

“Despite the energy efficiency benefits, some LED lights are harmful when used as street lighting,” said AMA Board Member Maya A. Babu. “The new AMA guidance encourages proper attention to optimal design and engineering features when converting to LED lighting that minimize detrimental health and environmental effects.”

The lighting from high-intensity LED designs can harm some bird, insect, turtle, and fish species that are naturally accustomed to a darker environment. To avoid these potential ecological threats, national parks in the U.S. have utilized optimal lighting designs in an effort to minimize the effects of light pollution on the environment. In addition to harming the environment, high-intensity LED lighting can cause distractions for drivers and also disrupt circadian sleep rhythms in humans.

Specifically, the AMA recommends that communities use LED technology with the lowest emission of blue light possible. AMA also recommends that LED lighting be properly shielded to reduce glare and that LED lighting be dimmed during non-peak time periods

In 2015, MidAmerican Energy announced plans to convert more than 100,000 Iowa streetlights to LED over a 10-year period.

Iowa City Science Boosters Club at the Linn County Fair

(Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | June 24, 2016

The Iowa City Science Boosters Club taught children about climate change through a hands-on experiment at the Linn County Fair on Thursday June 23.

Hundreds of children stopped by the ICSBC booth in the Lynn Dunn Memorial Building at the Linn County Fairgrounds to learn about the effects that ocean acidification can have on marine life. Participants blew bubbles into cups of water and then measured the water’s pH level. They found the carbon from their breath lowered the pH level similar to how with climate change excess carbon in the atmosphere contributes to more acidity in oceans. The higher acidity level in oceans can damage the shells of mussels, clams, and other shellfish which can make them more susceptible to predators and create a whole slew of ecological issues.

“We’re here for youth day and this is related to our outreach work with schools. The National Center for Science Education is really interested in changing community attitudes towards science education and supporting science teachers,” said Emily Schoerning, Director of Research at the National Center for Science Education. “So if we can give these families a positive, upbeat, hands-on experience with climate change that will make them less concerned with talking about climate change and less concerned about their kids learning about climate change in schools.”

Schoerning also said that the ICSBC has raised more than $10,000 in its first year which provided Iowa classrooms with durable science equipment. To learn more about the ICSBC club check out their Facebook page or to establish a science boosters club in your area, find out how to do so with information from the Nation Center for Science Education.

Cedar River sees spike in water level and nitrates after rainstorms in Eastern Iowa

(Iowa Flood Information System)
(Iowa Flood Information System)
Nick Fetty | June 23, 2016

Sections of the Cedar River reached “flood level” after heavy rains earlier this week.

Data from the Iowa Flood Information System show that National Weather Service (NWS) sensors near Conesville and Palo detected levels in the Cedar River that exceeded “flood level” stage. NWS sensors use a four-point scale to rank flood severity: “Action Level, “Flood Level, “Moderate Level,” and “Major Level.” While “flood level” typically does not present a serious immediate threat, the system is meant to warn communities, landowners, and others about potential upcoming threats.

Sensors at Palo – which is about about 10 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids – recorded levels that exceeded “flood stage” over the weekend and on Monday but those level began to recede by Tuesday. Sensors at Conesville – roughly 60 miles southeast of Cedar Rapids – recorded “flood stage” levels around the middle of the day Wednesday. Unlike the Iowa River, the Cedar River does not have a dam or reservoir which helps to control flow rates downstream after heavy rains.

Spikes in nitrate levels were also detected in the Cedar River following this week’s rainstorms, according to data from the Iowa Water Quality Information System. The sensors at Palo and Conesville detected nitrate levels 2 mg/l or more above 10 mg/l, which is the Maximum Contaminant Level allowed for drinking water as established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The National Weather Service issued a Flash Flood Warning early Wednesday morning for parts of Benton, Iowa, Johnson, and Linn Counties. The precipitation elevated humidity levels across much of the state and a heat advisory was issued Wednesday for Southern Iowa, with parts of the region experiencing heat index values that exceeded 100 degrees. These heavy rains and elevated river levels follow weeks of “abnormally dry” conditions in Southeast Iowa.