Crop production linked to regional changes in climate


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Corn and soy plants can cool the climate on a regional level, but intensified conventional agriculture can harm water and soil quality. (Lana/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 14, 2018

A new study by researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College detail the way intensive agriculture has influenced precipitation and temperature patterns in the midwest.

During the second half of the 20th century, corn production in the midwest increased by 400 percent and soybean yields doubled due to more intensive agricultural practices. The study, which was published in Geophysical Research Letters, found that the midwest also saw significantly more precipitation and lower temperatures during the summer months over the same period of time. They concluded that the changes were not merely correlated, but that the land use change actually caused the regional climate changes.

The authors explain that each time plants take in carbon dioxide, they release moisture into the atmosphere through pore-like structures called stoma. With more plentiful and robust plants due to intensive agriculture, the amount of moisture corn and soy crops collectively release into the atmosphere has increased in the midwest since the 1950’s. This extra moisture, the study found, has caused summer air to cool and more precipitation to fall. In the last fifty years, average summertime rainfall in the midwest has increased by 15 percent and average summer temperatures have dropped by 0.5 degrees Celsius.

Roger Pielke Sr., a senior researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder commented on the study, he said, “This is a really important, excellent study. The leadership of the climate science community has not yet accepted that human land management is at least as important on regional and local climate as the addition of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by human activities.”

Since completing the study, the researchers have developed a formula that accounts for the causative relationship between plants and regional climate changes that can be entered into U.S. regional climate models. It correctly predicted those changes that have been observed in the midwest over the last 50 years.

The study opens the door for further research into land use changes and how they can affect local climate.

On The Radio- The affects of mass producing corn


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Corn Fields (Victor Bayon/ flickr)

Kasey Dresser | January 29, 2018

This week’s segment looks at research from the University of Wisconsin regarding corn’s ability to adapt to environmental changes.

Transcript:

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin report that mass produced corn has lost its ability to adapt.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Like most plants, corn adapts to changes in the surrounding environment, including things like drought, wind, sunlight, and insects.

In order to mass produce corn, seed companies have breed the most productive corn varieties to fit local environmental conditions. However over the past 100 years, acclimating corn to a specific environment has impacted its ability to adjust to new or stressful environmental changes. The existing corn is strong and stable but not flexible.

To test this, the researchers planted 850 unique corn varieties in 20 different states and Canada. They tested 12,000 different plots and recorded  weather patterns and corn height. The corn with the most genetic selection performed the worst, producing the least amount of grain. According to University of Wisconsin Professor of Agronomy, Natalia De Leon, mass productivity is the tradeoff for flexibility. She worries the more corn is engineered to grow in a specific area, the less likely it will adapt well in other environments.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

 

Despite criticism, water quality bill heads to Governor’s desk


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Iowa is a main contributor to nutrient pollution that renders enormous parts of the Gulf of Mexico completely lifeless. (Michael Leland/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 25, 2018

A long-awaited bill to improve water quality in Iowa is set to be approved by Gov. Reynolds soon, but critics say it does not go far enough.

Scientists who have been working to curb nutrient runoff in Iowa’s waterways since 2010 through the Nutrient Reduction Strategy have publicly estimated that it would cost billions of dollars to adequately address Iowa’s water quality problem. Senate File 512 falls short, allocating $282 million to water quality improvement over the next twelve years. The plan draws money from an existing tax on tap water that used to go into the state’s general fund and gambling revenue that was once used for infrastructure projects.

Republican John Wills of Spirit Lake spearheaded the bill’s passing. According to the Register, he said, “The bill builds upon the successful implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy and provides for long-term and sustainable funding. This is just the beginning, not the end.”

While the measure passed the House of Representatives 59-41, both Republicans and Democrats criticize the bill for not going far enough to clean up Iowa’s nearly 700 impaired waterways. Republican representative Chip Baltimore of Boone, Iowa said “I don’t know about all of you, but I did not come down here to check a box. Just because the words ‘water quality’ are in the title of a bill does not make me proud to vote for it so that I can put it on a postcard when I go campaign.”

Iowa’s largest environmental coalition, the Iowa Environmental Council, released a statement criticizing the bill. In the statement, the organization’s Executive Director Jennifer Terry, said, “Our legislature today chose a failed business-as-usual approach to cleaning up our polluted lakes and rivers.” She continued, “The legislation passed today lacks a scientifically-proven watershed approach, lacks funding for adequate financial and human capital, lacks required water quality monitoring or assurance of public access to data about Iowa’s water quality.”

The coalition calls on Republican Gov. Reynolds to veto the bill.

Iowans ask to halt CAFO construction until water is clean


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Large livestock feeding operations often pollute local waterways with organic waste. (Waterkeeper Alliance/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 19, 2017

Local, state and national organizations showed up at the capitol in Des Moines this week to ask lawmakers to halt Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) construction until fewer than 100 of Iowa’s waterways are impaired.

Called Iowa Alliance for Responsible Agriculture, the coalition rallied behind Independent Senator David Johnson of Ocheyedan as he introduced a group of 15 bills designed to tighten environmental regulations on large hog farms. At present, 750 of the state’s waterways are polluted to the point of impairment due to industrial agriculture byproducts.

Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works and member of the coalition, said that industrial agriculture is making Iowa’s “rivers, lakes and streams filthy — filthy with nutrients, filthy with bacteria, filthy with organic matter,” according to the Register.

He added, “Iowans need to push back on this and join together with leaders here in the Legislature to stop the status quo.”

There are 13,000 CAFOs in the state of Iowa and that number continues to grow. The current regulatory document for new hog facilities was developed in 2002 and only requires CAFOs to meet 50 percent of its requirements to be approved for construction.

Senator Johnson’s package of bills would also require CAFO applicants to notify nearby landowners and give county supervisors the power to determine CAFO locations. Johnson said, “It’s time to get tough on the poor siting of hog confinements, including those being built in environmentally sensitive areas, where the smell and sound of someone else’s money is in your bedroom every night.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Reynolds has said that she would consider the legislation if it reaches her desk.

November 2017 brought drought to Iowa


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A portion of the dried up East Indian Creek southeast of Nevada during the 2012 drought. (Carl Wycoff/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 5, 2017

Last month was the driest month since 2007 according to state climatologist Harry Hillaker.

Hillaker spoke with Radio Iowa this week and said, “Overall a state average of .43 of an inch of moisture for the month, which is about 20 percent of what is usual. And actually the driest of any calendar month going back to November of 2007.”

Conditions were abnormally dry at all monitoring stations, especially in northwestern Iowa, where some areas of Ida county and Cherokee county received zero precipitation last month. The whole state only saw a minuscule amount of snow for the eighth time in Iowa’s 131-year weather record.  Hillaker said, “The statewide average was just a trace of snow and typically we’d get three to four inches of snow during the month of November.”

While there were some colder days in the beginning of November, warmer than average temperatures during the second half of the month made snowfall even less likely. The climatologist pointed out that there was virtually no precipitation in the state after the 18th of November.

November wraps up the fall season of September, October and November. Although November 2016 brought record-high temperatures, Iowa Environmental Mesonet reports that temperatures for last month were near average.

Trump sides with farmers on biofuel debate


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Corn Field (fishhawk/ Flickr)
Kasey Dresser | December 1, 2017

During the 2016 election, Trump promised farmers that he would maintain the Renewable Fuel Standard. The Renewable Fuel Standard requires refiners to blend biofuel into gasoline nationwide. His support was questioned with nominations to the EPA for Carl C. Icahan and Scott Pruitt. Icahn is a billionaire Texas oil refiner and Scott Pruitt favored decreasing biofuel levels. Icahn has since stepped down after backlash from Congress that his policy on ethanol was influenced by his financial investment.

Yesterday, the Trump administration announced that they will continue to support Iowa farmers and maintain a similar quota for biofuel.  Refineries are required to blend approximately 20 billion gallons of biofuel. According to Department of Agriculture, about 40% of domestic corn, and about 30% of domestic soybeans now go into ethanol for biofuel.

Support for biofuel is not universal. Oil companies argue that recent research shows biofuel is not better than oil, so ethanol is only benefitting famers. Scientists worry that an increase demand for corn and soybean production has backfired. Farmers are having to expand their farmland. This cuts down open grasslands which hurts biodiversity and the ability for the air to store carbon.

Chet Thompson, the president of the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, wrote in an email, “Unfortunately it appears that EPA did exactly what Senator Grassley demanded, bowing the knee to King Corn.”

 

Construction of 10,000 head cattle lot could ruin Bloody Run Creek


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Cattle (LHOON/ flickr)
Kasey Dresser | November 24, 2017

Walz Energy is building a 10,000 head cattle feeding facility and methane digester near Highway 18 & 52 east of Monanan. The company’s goal is to capture methane from the manure and other added food waste to generate natural gas that can be used to power cars and trucks. This is a part of Iowa’s Energy Plan to support 1,000 more biogas projects. A biogas project takes raw materials like sewage, plant waste, etc. and turns it into renewable energy.

Jon Haman, Walz Energy’s chief operating officer, has openly discussed the project’s positive environmental impact. The facility will generate new and renewable energy without a carbon footprint and reduce waste in landfills. Over the last few months, the process has received a lot of backlash from nearby residents. One of the biggest concerns is contamination to Bloody Run Creek.

On October 11th, a violation was issued for inadequate stormwater protection after waste leaked into Bloody Run Creek. Bloody Run Creek is the ninth most fished creek in Iowa and known for the crystal clear water. A lot of money and resources were invested in the stream and it would be extremely harmful to the nearby community if it were polluted.

After inspection the DNR ordered Walz Energy to fix their containment basin to prevent further discharge and the company began to make changes hours later. The Iowa DNR has inspected the project several times since and Walz Energy is ensuring their cooperation. At this point, the DNR has still denied a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit (NPDES) three times.

Bill Ehm, the lead on DNR’s environmental services, has asked them to improve protection from leakage but does not have authority at this time to ask them to stop construction.

According to Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, “Bloody Run will continue to be degraded with each rainfall as long as construction is allowed to continue without an effective pollution prevention plan.” On November 29th the Iowa DNR will be holding a public hearing about the stormwater construction permit from 4 to 6pm in the Clayton County Building, 600 Gunder Road in Elkader.

More information about other concerns can be found at https://www.desmoinesregister.com