Number of Impaired Waters in Iowa Decreases for the First Time in 22 Years


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Nicole Welle | December 3, 2020

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released the impaired waters list Tuesday, and the report showed that segments of 750 Iowa lakes and waterways contain pollution levels that fail to meet state requirements.

Almost 60% of Iowa’s lakes, rivers, streams and reservoirs assessed by the DNR over the last five years fell short of state requirements for one or more functions. These include fishing, supporting aquatic insects or recreational swimming and boating. Parts of the Des Moines River, which provides drinking water for 500,000 Iowa residents, and recreational areas like Lake MacBride are on the list, according to a Des Moines Register article.

This year’s list reveals the daunting reality that over half of the state’s waters are polluted, but it also provides some hope for the future. It showed that since 2018, the number of impaired waters in Iowa has decreased by 2.2%. It is not a huge decline, but it is the first time the number has gone down in 22 years. Bodies of water were taken off the list either because conditions improved or the DNR wrote plans to improve water quality.

Solving Iowa’s water pollution problem will require follow-through on those plans, and some environmentalists think waters should only be taken off the list after that happens. Cooperation from farmers will also be crucial since fertilizer and manure runoff is one of the state’s biggest contributors to water pollution. The state reported manure spills as the leading cause of the 97 reported fish kills this year, and farmers have so far been reluctant to take advantage of incentives to take part in conservation practices.

Gov. Kim Reynold’s proposed a tax raise earlier this year that would help fund water quality improvements, but the COVID-19 pandemic has suspended legislative action. Organizations like the Iowa Environmental Council continue to call for an increase in mandatory regulations since the current voluntary compliance system is not doing enough to improve Iowa’s poor water quality, and they hope that the state government will do more to address the issue in the future.

Farmers are Beginning to Back the Fight Against Climate Change


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Nicole Welle | November 23, 2020

The American Farm Bureau has strongly opposed legislation aimed at slowing global warming in the past, but its recent decision to form the Food and Agriculture Climate Alliance indicates that it may be changing course.

This coalition brings together climate advocates and agricultural lobbies that plan to urge the government to adopt policy changes that will make it cheaper and easier for farmers to reduce emissions. The coalition’s list of proposals do not include an increase in regulation or mandatory cuts to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, the proposals are voluntary and, in some cases, involve paying farmers for their efforts, according to an Iowa Public Radio Article.

The recent shift in farmers’ willingness to address climate change is happening for a few different reasons. Many big food companies, like Pepsico and Kellogg’s, have committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and are pushing farmers to make changes as well. Some are even paying farmers to do so. More farmers are also starting to feel the effects of climate change as droughts and flooding events become more common.

The coalition did not quantify the impact of their proposed policy changes, and some environmentalists are against the idea of farmers making money from their greenhouse gas reductions since it is not known how much pollution might actually be reduced. However, while farmers are still opposed to direct regulation, many environmentalists are celebrating the coalition as a step forward in adding farmers to the conversation about climate change.

Incentives Alone are Not Enough to Solve Iowa’s Dirty Water Problem


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Nicole Welle | October 29, 2020

Governor Kim Reynolds plans to revive her stalled Invest in Iowa plan during the legislative session next year, but experts warn that tax money going towards voluntary farm-based projects to improve Iowa’s water quality is not enough to make a difference.

Gov. Reynolds introduced the Invest in Iowa plan as a way to improve Iowa’s business climate and boost the state’s image. The plan would raise Iowa’s sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, lower income taxes, provide mental health funding and improve water quality, according to an article in The Gazette.

The funds for improving water quality would go towards incentive-based farm projects aimed at reducing fertilizer runoff into Iowa’s waterways. However, the plan does not include any accountability measures to ensure that funded projects are actually successful. University of Iowa professor Larry Weber, a co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center and former director of the IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering Institute, said in a panel that adding restrictions is crucial to the plan’s success. He also noted that Iowa’s nitrate load has doubled over the last 20 years even though the state has payed farmers $600 million over that time period for conservation projects.

On top of adding restrictions, many environmental experts also believe the state needs to reduce the rate of agricultural intensification, ensure farmers volunteering for these programs are educated and understand the problem, discourage the overuse of manure and commercial fertilizers and rethink the state’s system for siting livestock confinement operations. Livestock confinements are a big contributor to water pollution, but they are quickly increasing in number in Iowa’s watersheds.

Iowa’s water quality problem is a complex issue that requires multiple solutions. However, these additional solutions would require changes in law that would get a lot of pushback from powerful ag interests that sell seed, feed and fertilizer, so experts like Larry Weber fear that Iowa’s water quality will continue to decline under Gov. Reynolds’ plan.

August’s Derecho Was The United States Most Expensive Thunderstorm In Recent History


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Thomas Robinson | October 20th, 2020

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported that August’s Derecho caused $7.5 billion worth of damages and that the number is still increasing.

The Derecho in August resulted in extensive damage to Iowa and has been identified as the most expensive thunderstorm to hit the US in recent history.  August’s storm comes second only to Hurricane Laura, which had a damage cost of $12 billion, for storm damages for this year.  Cedar Rapids was hit particularly hard, where it is estimated that 90% of all buildings sustained damages from the storm.

A factor for why the storm has cost so much is that the corn crop had grown enough in August to be damaged by the heavy winds.  That damage has resulted in around 850,000 acres of corn crop lost, around 50% more than previously thought.  Unfortunately, grain silos were also affected by the storm where it is estimated that 57 million bushels of stored grain were damaged.

Even now in October, Iowa is still working to recover from the storm.  Some Iowans remain unable to return home after the events and there was a spike in people filing for unemployment benefits after the storm.  Around $4 billion in federal help was asked for by Gov. Kim Reynolds to address the damages to Iowa’s farms.

Record Pesticide Complaints As Iowa Sees Excessive Dicamba Damage


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Thomas Robinson | October 13th, 2020

Crop damage from the weedkiller Dicamba is the “most excessive” it has been since the 1960s leading to a record 329 pesticide misuse complaints.

Dicamba damage was already being observed at high levels earlier this summer as agronomists raised awareness about the pesticide.  The record number of complaints comes as farmers across the state have experienced crop damage even after proper application of the pesticide.  Dicamba application has been made more difficult this year as poor weather conditions for the pesticide’s application covered Iowa, and a court decision created uncertainty about the future of the pesticide. 

Monsanto, now owned by Bayer, has a history of lawsuits for Dicamba damages.  In 2016, Monsanto settled a complaint for $265 million after the destruction of a Missouri peach farm was connected with Dicamba drift.  A class-action lawsuit against Monsanto in Missouri resulted in an additional $400 million settlement with other plaintiffs across the state. 

Iowa currently allows Dicamba to be applied up to 45 days after planting, a practice which has come under criticism with calls for stronger restrictions.  Dicamba use is fraught with difficulty and without serious changes it is unlikely that Iowa will see any changes in the number of pesticide misuse complaints moving forward.

UI Chemists Study Nanomaterials in Batteries and their Effects on Plant Health


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Nicole Welle | September 28, 2020

The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) recently received new funding to continue studying how some nanomaterials in rechargeable batteries and phones can harm the environment and now other nanoparticles can improve soybean plant health.

The CSN is a multi-institutional venture and includes the University of Iowa where Sara E. Mason, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, led a group that determined how toxic metal ions released by batteries dissolve in water. The sophisticated models used in her studies can be used in designing rechargeable batteries with fewer negative effects on the environment in the future, according to an Iowa Now article.

The CSN received an initial grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2012. The new round of funding will last through 2025 and allow Mason’s group to work with a new partner, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, to expand their research. At the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, researchers recently discovered that copper oxide nanomaterials can help soybean plants with fungal infections recover and return to a healthy growth cycle. Mason’s team was able to combine their modeling system with this new information to discover which class of nanomaterials worked best to improve the plants’ health. The journal Nature Nanotechnology has accepted the results of their research.

The team will continue to learn more about nanomaterials in batteries and their effects on plant health, and they are currently searching for undergraduates to join in on their efforts.

Iowa City Climate Fest – Day Two: Taco ‘bout a sustainable lifestyle


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Thomas Robinson | September 22, 2020

Iowa City’s Climate Fest begins its second day and will be focused on sustainable lifestyles.

The title for the second day of the fest is “Taco ‘bout a sustainable lifestyle” and the personal challenge is to eat a plant-based meal.  Local restaurants are participating in the climate fest and can be found using this map for taco options.  A plant based diet has been shown to positively influence land use which can help to slow climate change.    

For Tuesday’s community event, FilmScene will be hosting the movie The Biggest Little Farm online for free.  The movie can be watched at any point during the day, but Iowa City’s Climate Action staff will be live tweeting the film starting at 7 pm.  The movie will be followed by a discussion beginning at 8:30 and will include panelists from the Climate Action Division, Field to Family, and Film Scene.

Half of Soil Phosphorus Losses Attributed to Erosion


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Thomas Robinson | September 15th, 2020

According to a recent study, global phosphorus levels in soils are declining despite high levels of applied chemical fertilizers and soil erosion is to blame.

Researchers have analyzed global phosphorus levels in soils and found that all continents, except for Asia, Oceania, and Australia, have net negative soil phosphorus balances.  Phosphorus loss from soils poses a challenge to the global food supply because without phosphorus, an essential plant nutrient, crops are more susceptible to disease, and are likely to have stunted growth.  The most striking finding in the study was that around 50% of phosphorus losses from soils was attributed to soil erosion, a preventable but commonly neglected aspect of agriculture. 

Unfortunately, the phosphorus lost because of soil erosion poses another threat in the form of eutrophication. Eutrophication is caused by high levels of nutrients in aquatic ecosystems and is associated with declining water quality.  The increased nutrient concentrations promote large populations of algae, which consume large quantities of oxygen when they die and decompose.

Soil erosion in Iowa is a large concern as millions of tons of Iowa’s soil runs off tilled fields and into the rivers across the state each year.  Since soil erosion has now been identified as a leading cause for phosphorus losses in soils, Iowa is not only losing tons of topsoil per year, but also losing appreciable amounts of phosphorus as well.

Microplastics In Farm Soils Have Adverse Effects On Wheat Crops


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Thomas Robinson | September 8th, 2020

Microplastics in soils have recently been linked to increased cadmium uptake and root damage in wheat plants.

Researchers at Kansas State University have demonstrated that crops grown in the presence of microplastics are more likely to be contaminated with cadmium than crops grown in the absence of microplastics.  Cadmium is a heavy metal that is known to be carcinogenic and is commonly found in the environment from industrial and agricultural sources.  The researchers also found that microplastics were able to damage the roots of the wheat plants by clogging soil pores and preventing water uptake.

Microplastics are fragments of plastic products that are 5 millimeters or less in length, which is about the size of a sesame seed.  The influence these particulate plastics have on the environment and human health is still not well understood, and they are a growing environmental concern.  While most of the attention microplastics have received is in relation to the amount found in the oceans, a study published in 2016 demonstrates that microplastics actually accumulate more on land surfaces. 

Unsurprisingly, there have been microplastics found in Storm Lake, Iowa.  These pollutants can be found almost everywhere in the world which suggests we need a better understanding of microplastics and their effect on the environment. We also need to make changes to our behavior to prevent further pollution on top of what plastics have already been deposited across the globe.

New Study Highlights Environmental and Financial Benefits of Diversifying Crop Rotations


Graphic of an Iowa corn field
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Nicole Welle | September 3, 2020

A new study from researchers at Iowa State University and the University of Minnesota found that diversifying crop rotations keep farms profitable while greatly reducing the negative environmental and health impacts of farming.

Farmers have practiced corn and soybean crop rotation for a long time. However, this new research found that adding more crops, like oat and alfalfa, to the rotation can improve soil quality and the productivity of farmland. It also benefits the environment and human health by reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.

The study used data from a long-term field experiment at Iowa State University’s Marsden Farm. This experiment began in 2001 and compared performance characteristics of a two-year corn-soy rotation with a three-year corn-soy-oat rotation and a four-year corn-soy-oat-alfalfa rotation. They used this information to better understand the amount of pollution and fossil fuel use associated with each cropping system, according to a Phys.org article.

By looking at pollution from both farming and the supply chain, researchers found that the production of synthetic fertilizer requires a lot of fossil fuel. Its application also produces poor air quality by emitting greenhouse gases and pollution. Less fertilizer is required when small grains and forages are added into rotations, and the addition of just one small grain crop can reduce fossil fuel use and pollution by half, according to the study.

While it may take time for farmers to further diversify their crop rotations, this information could provide long-term success for farmers, the public and the environment.