Iowa farmers implement sustainable practices


Photo by Alejandro Barru00f3n on Pexels.com

Tyler Chalfant | October 17th, 2019

Iowa farmers are implementing practices to increase sustainability and reduce environmental threats to public health, including crop rotation, use of cover crops, eliminating pesticides, and using alternatives to chemical weeding. One group called Practical Farmers of Iowa organized a series of educational field days over the summer, providing opportunities across the state for farmers to share and discuss these practices. One of the environmental threats in the state comes from nutrient runoff from agricultural fertilizers, which recently have contributed to the growth of toxic microcystins in some Iowa bodies of water, making sustainable farming not just an environmental issue, but a public health concern as well. 

Research published last month from Iowa State University scientists found that the widely-used practice of crop rotation helps to reduce pollution, but also depletes organic matter in soil over time. Rotating between corn and soybeans requires less nitrogen fertilizer than continuous corn production, as soybeans leave behind a nitrogen-rich residue in the soil. This allows farmers to save on costs and reduce nitrogen runoff into freshwater lakes and streams. However the abundance of nitrogen contributes to the growth of microbes which, on years when corn is planted, consume nutrients needed for corn production, depleting this organic material in the long run.

Federal flooding buyouts more available in wealthier areas


Flooded Home
Photo by Chris Sirrine, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 15th, 2019

A federal program that buys and demolishes homes in flood-prone areas has been disproportionately implemented in counties with higher incomes and higher populations, a recent study found. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has bought more than 43,000 homes since 1989 in an effort to make communities less vulnerable to flooding. Though this study raises concerns that the program isn’t helping the areas most at risk. 

The number of Americans with flood insurance has been declining in recent years, while flood-prone areas in coastal states have the highest rates of construction, as the frequency of flooding events increases. The buyout program allows homeowners to relocate further inland, rather than continuously rebuilding after a storm, in a process known as managed retreat. 

Homeowners can’t apply for the buyouts themselves, and FEMA doesn’t determine who can participate. That decision is left to local officials. One explanation for the wealth disparity offered by the study’s authors was that wealthier and more populous jurisdictions may be more likely to have the staff and expertise required to successfully apply for federal funds. Within the counties that receive more funding, poorer neighborhoods are more likely to be demolished.

Another paper, published last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council, also highlighted inefficiencies in the FEMA buyout program. The NRDC found that wait times averaging five years for FEMA to complete a project contribute to inequity in the program, as many give up waiting and rebuild instead. 

Trump administration ethanol rules may help Iowa farmers


Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

Tyler Chalfant | October 10th, 2019

On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture proposed new rules promoting ethanol consumption over petroleum. This move is considered primarily to be an economic strategy aimed at reducing the pressure placed on farmers by ongoing trade wars.

The plan would involve increasing biofuel sales above the current 15 billion gallons annually. It would also make 15 percent ethanol fuels more available at gas stations domestically as well as increase access to foreign markets. Iowa farmers say they have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars due as U.S. trade policy has destabilized agriculture markets and EPA waivers have decreased demand for ethanol. 

Iowa is the nation’s leading producer of ethanol biofuels, and the industry supports nearly 43,000 jobs in the state. Elected officials from Iowa have criticized the Trump administration on previous moves perceived as harming the biofuel industry. In August, the EPA granted 31 waivers to oil refineries, exempting them from laws requiring them to blend biofuels into their gasoline. 

Since January 2017, the Trump administration has granted 85 biofuel waivers to small refineries. The new proposal claims that larger refineries will carry the extra burden by blending in ethanol for those exempted, although this is something that the EPA has not successfully enforced in the past. Farmers say that the new plan also lacks details on how these rules will be enforced going forward.

Crowd of 3,000 heard Greta Thunberg speak in Iowa City


Photo by Joe Bolkcom

Tyler Chalfant | October 8th, 2019

Iowa City high school and middle school students were joined by thousands of Iowans at a climate strike on Friday, along with Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. 

The students, who were inspired by Thunberg, have been striking since March to demand that governmental leaders at all levels take action to address climate change. Some of the strikers led the crowd in chants calling out specific leaders and listing their goals, including that the University of Iowa power plant “end coal now.”

The University of Iowa currently aims to fully transition from coal by 2025, with 40% of campus energy coming from renewable sources by 2020. Although the power plant has reduced its use of coal considerably since 2008, it released the equivalent of more than 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in greenhouse gases last year from the burning of coal alone. 

The power plant has replaced coal in part through the increased burning of biomass, it has also increased its use of natural gas by 61% since 2014. Natural gas is cleaner than coal, and releases significantly fewer greenhouse gases than other fossil fuels, but still contributes to global warming through the release of carbon dioxide as well as methane leaks occurring during its extraction and transportation. 

Attendants of the rally spoke of the need for larger, structural changes, in addition to individual action, to address climate change. “Obviously there are things that individuals can do,” Melina Hegelheimer, a first year student studying Ethics and Public Policy at the university said, “but the biggest things that can contribute are coal, farming, and more ethical and more environmentally friendly practices for those types of things.”

A UI senior studying Geographical and Environmental Sustainability Cayla Baldus added that Thunberg’s speech inspired her as a climate activist and geographer. “You don’t fail and stop,” she said, paraphrasing Thunberg, “You fail and you keep going, and that’s kind of what I needed to hear in this political climate.”

Activist Greta Thunberg to join Iowa City climate strikers


Massimo Biggers speaks at the Iowa City Climate Strike on September 20th, 2019

Tyler Chalfant | October 3rd, 2019

16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg announced Wednesday on Twitter that she will be joining Iowa City students in their strike this Friday. This spring, it was Thunberg who inspired Massimo Biggers, an Iowa City middle school student, to begin striking.

Since the local movement began, both the Iowa City School Board and City Council have passed climate plans, and this September, hundreds of students and community members joined Biggers and the other strikers in a march on City Hall and the University of Iowa campus. 

“Greta coming to Iowa City means that people have paid attention to our climate strikes and we have been heard,” Biggers told the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Thunberg gained international attention for protesting outside the Swedish parliament last year. After taking a sailboat across the Atlantic Ocean to speak at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, also spoke before Congress and has become a focal point for both supporters and critics of addressing climate change. 

“We are honored and inspired and emboldened by Greta’s campaign,” Biggers said, “and we hope her visit brings together our town and the university to join together for a real climate plan, end coal and the power plant, and put Iowa City in the forefront for climate emergency action in the nation.”

Iowa landowners are restoring native habitats


Prairie Grass
Photo by David Cornwell, Flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 1st, 2019

Tall grass prairie once covered 70-80% of Iowa, but today, less than 0.1% of that remains. Some conservationists and landowners are working to change that, planting native species to restore Iowa’s natural ecosystems. 

The fourth annual Linn Landowners Forum was held in Marion on Sunday, educating landowners large and small on restoring native habitats, planting pollinators, and reviving the monarch butterfly population. Mark Vitosh, from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, spoke at the forum about the effects of invasive species, which can push out native plants and disrupt natural habitats.

The Iowa DNR Prairie Resource Center purchases thousands of acres per year to restore natural habitats. The loss of prairie has caused the decline of many native species. Tall grasses provide winter cover for a variety of species and are home to insects and small mammals important to the ecosystem’s food chain. Additionally, native grasses can slow soil erosion and nutrient runoff, protecting lakes, rivers, and streams from pollution.

The event’s finale featured the release of 500 monarch butterflies, captured by the Monarch Research Station, which tags hundreds of butterflies each year to track their migration patterns. According to the station’s manager Mike Martin, those patterns are often disrupted by habitat loss, pesticide and herbicide use, and the elimination of milkweed. 

Iowa researchers recommend infrastructure changes in response to rising temperatures


Tyler Chalfant | September 26th, 2019

Researchers from the University of Iowa spoke at a press conference last week about rising temperatures in the state. The models used in the 2019 Iowa Climate Statement indicate that the number of days over 90 degrees in Iowa will rise from 23 to 67 by 2050.

Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, spoke at the Cedar Rapids Public Library on Wednesday, September 18th about the changes needed to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. 

Those changes include solar farms and installing solar panels on homes, building wind turbines, improving energy efficiency and battery storage, along with carbon sequestration, regenerative agriculture practices, and reforestation. “All of these things take time. It takes time to change our infrastructure,” Schnoor said, but added that action is necessary in the next 16 months. 

Peter Thorne, of the UI Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, also spoke at the press conference, warning of the health risks posed by extreme heat. Heat is responsible for more than 600 deaths in the U.S. every year, making it the leading cause of weather-related deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control. 

Schnoor and Thorne also suggested infrastructure improvements to help prevent these deaths. This could include a program to cool homes during hotter months the way the Low-income Home Energy Assistance Program helps with heating costs during the winter.