As flood risk increases, FEMA pushes updates on southwest Iowa levees


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Levees hold back floodwaters from developed areas (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska | December 6, 2019

FEMA will “de-accredit” 94.5 miles of levees in southwest Iowa and northwest Missouri unless owners make updates that ensure protection within new 100-year flood boundaries, the Des Moines Register reported Wednesday.

The levees protect parts of Pottawattamie, Mills and Fremont counties, which experienced historic flooding this spring.

Affected communities have historically been located in FEMA’s 500-year floodplain, giving them a 0.2% chance of flooding in a given year (NOT flooding once in 500 years, as is a common misconception). Flood recurrence is calculated from historic averages, and increasing flood frequency due to climate change now puts those areas within the 100-year flood plain, making flood risk 5 times higher.

The floodplain updates take effect in the spring but levee owners have a few years to make updates before official losing accreditation. The Register reports, “It’s estimated that work to meet FEMA’s standards could cost upwards of $1 million per mile of levee,” a steep price for an area still recovering from the last round of floods.

The Register reported that nearly 1,500 home and business owners would need to purchase flood insurance in the spring the levees don’t receive updates. In such a high-risk area, insurance would become mandatory, and rates in some areas could increase 2600%, according to the Register. 

 

Iowa Energy Districts bring local leadership to renewables


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Energy Districts encourage home solar projects like this one (via Creative Commons). 

Julia Poska| November 22, 2019

Though the state of Iowa as a whole has focused on shifting to renewable forms of energy–wind in particular–for years, some localities feel the transition has not been speedy enough. A handful of “Energy Districts” have formed in recent years with intent to push their communities forward in the renewable energy adoption.

These districts are independent and non-partisan entities led by a small staff and a local board of directors, according to the Winneshiek Energy District website. Winneshiek’s was the first such district to form (in 2010) and has since has encouraged and aided others. A recent Energy News Network article said Iowa now has eight districts active or in planning, including two in Iowa City and Des Moines.

The Energy Districts are modeled after Soil and Water Conservation Districts, local authorities formed after the 1930s Dust Bowl to encourage local solutions to resource conservation. With the goal of empowering locals to transition to renewables on their own terms, Energy Districts provide services such as:

  • Energy auditing and planning assistance to homes, farms, businesses and institutions (often in partnership with Green Iowa AmeriCorps).
  • Educational opportunities
  • Advocacy for improved renewable energy policy
  • Guidance to other localities hoping to establish Energy Districts

A fact sheet provided by the Winneshiek County Energy District says the entity has helped create a $14 million investment in renewable energy, over 100 energy jobs and a 100,000 ton reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Winneshiek County alone.

North Carolina hurricane victims take a lesson from Iowa Flood Center


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Hurricane Florence as seen from space (via flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 15, 2019

A North Carolina mayor hopes to make his city more resilient against flooding following hurricanes using a method he learned from Iowa experts.

At the end of August, the Iowa Flood Center hosted a “flood resilience learning exchange” for 20 scientists, conservationists, farmers and officials from North Carolina communities impacted by devastating flooding from recent hurricanes. The two-day event featured talks from Iowan experts, a tour of Cedar Rapids’ flood infrastructure and a visit to a farm implementing such strategies.

News source kinston.com reported this week that Mayor Dontario Hardy of Kinston, North Carolina had been advocating for increased funding for flood resiliency projects since attending the event almost two months ago.

In just the past few years, Kinston–located along the Neuse River– faced widespread flooding after Hurricanes Matthew (2016) and Florence (2018). Though the Iowa Watershed Approach was not developed with hurricanes in mind, the basic concept–implementing conservation practices on land that will reduce the speed at which precipitation enters and floods our waterways– can apply to all types of flooding.

 

 

UI offers free lead testing kits to state residents


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Faucet from Creative Commons. 

Julia Poska | October 16, 2019

Iowa residents can improve their drinking water and support environmental research by participating in the University of Iowa’s “Get the Lead Out” initiative through Oct. 26.

The program offers free lead testing kits to Iowa residents outside of Johnson County. The UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering; and Center for Health Effects and Environmental Contamination are leading the initiative to collect information for a new database of lead levels in drinking water across Iowa.

Because lead, especially toxic to children, was once used commonly in household products, it may still be present in aging household plumbing across the state.

Interested households can email get-the-lead-out@uiowa.edu  to request and receive three bottles (and instructions) for collecting tap water samples.  After sending samples back to the university for testing, they will receive their results, an explanation and suggestions for improvement (such as adding a filter to the faucet).

Johnson County residents can contact any DNR-certified testing lab, such as the State Hygienic Laboratory, to acquire testing kits.

 

 

EPA announced a ​new proposal to update the Lead and Copper Rule


 

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Irrigation (flickr/UTDNR)

 

Kasey Dresser| October 14, 2019

After nearly 30 years of a stagnant Lead and Copper Rule, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new proposal to update the regulation. The new regulations are aimed to increase lead identification, sampling, and strengthen treatment by increasing the number of hours a service provider needs to notify a customer that their water is contaminated with lead.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental activists have expressed concern that the new regulation allows communities more to time to replace the lead service lines, indicating these regulations may be weaker than the previous. The new proposal also establishes a lower “trigger level” of lead to 10 parts per billion from 15 parts per billion. The main counterargument is health experts have never established that any level of lead can be sustainable. “Even low levels of lead can cause harm to developing brains and nervous systems, fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney problems, and elevated blood pressure. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable,” the NRDC said in a statement.

The last major lead pipe exposure in Iowa outbreak was December 2016. More than 6,000 Iowans were exposed to contaminated water for over six months. The issue brought up major incongruency in the method to solve the problem between University of Iowa engineers or Iowa Departments of Public Health and Natural Resources.

UI professor and researcher calls on economic reform to address the changing climate


By Julia Shanahan | September 20th, 2019

Jerry Schnoor, University of Iowa civil and environmental engineering professor and co-director of the Center for Global and Environmental research, wrote an op-ed in the Des Moines Register, calling for economic reform to reduce global carbon emissions.

Schnoor listed several economic changes that would help to reduce carbon emissions by 45 percent in the next ten years:

  • Install solar panels and build large solar power plants
  • Improve battery storage
  • Massive reforestation
  • Implement regenerative agriculture to keep carbon in the ground
  • Expand electrical vehicle usability

Schnoor pointed to extreme weather events like the spring flooding from the Missouri river, category five hurricanes, wildfires, drought, and failed crops. This op-ed comes ahead of the Sept. 20 global climate strikes, where people of all ages from all over the world are rallying for environmental reform. 

Schnoor says in the piece that “time is running out” to address the changing climate, writing,  “Without a drastic reduction in burning of fossil fuels now — a reduction of 45% in the next 10 years — we commit ourselves to increasing climate catastrophes at great economic cost.”


In Iowa, where agriculture is a leading industry, many have called on farmers across the midwest to begin more sustainable farming methods, like planting cover crops, leaving organic materials in the fields after harvest, and adding additional crops to a soybean-corn rotation.

Iowa environmental groups say proposed Alliant rate hike is uneconomical


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Two Iowa environmental non-profits are concerned about proposed cost increases for Alliant Energy customers(via flickr).

Julia Poska | September 11, 2019

The Iowa Environmental Council and Environmental Law and Policy Center last month submitted testimony  from five “expert witnesses” to the Iowa Utilities Board regarding Alliant Energy’s proposed base rate increases, currently under review.

The environmental groups disapprove of the proposal overall and said they believe they have identified alternative “solutions that will save customers money while cleaning up Alliant’s generation mix.”

Below are summaries of Alliant’s proposal and the environmental groups’ critique.

About Alliant’s proposal

On April 1, 2019, Alliant customers began seeing an interim base rate increase (about $8 for the typical residential customer) on their energy bills.

The company plans to further raise the rate beginning January 1, 2020. The total increase of $20 (24.45%) for typical  residential customers would bring about $203.6 million in revenue into the company annually.

In a proposal to customers, Alliant said the company is “investing in new wind farms, energy grid technologies including advanced metering infrastructure, and environmental controls that reduce emissions.”

The company has also said that the additional cost to customers would be offset over time by reductions in other costs like energy efficiency.

 The proposed increases are awaiting a hearing in November from the Iowa Utility Board. If the increases are not approved, Alliant would have to refund customers for excess paid during the interim increase. 

The IEC/ELPC perspective 

The IEC and ELPC have both economic and socioeconomic concerns about the proposal, as outlined in their testimony to the IUB. The testimony also provided economic analysis of the utility’s current coal power generation. 

A few highlights from the testimony include:

  1. Coal generation costs more than renewables. An analysis by Rocky Mountain Institute Principal Uday Varadarajan on behalf of the two organizations found that the cost of Alliant’s coal generation exceeds that of projected renewable energy costs. Retiring three Alliant coal plants and purchasing market energy or purchasing or generating wind energy could save customers $16 million in 2020, he found.  This was proposed as an alternative move for Alliant to make, increasing renewables while reducing rather than increasing cost to consumers. (Read more from U.S. Energy News).
  2. Revenue would be spent on wasteful initiatives. The groups call out one initiative Alliant has proposed — putting power lines underground — as a poor use of consumer funds.
  3. Proposed solar programs could undermine the industry. The groups believe Alliant’s new community solar program (implied to be funded in part by the rate increase) would compete with solar businesses and potentially create a monopoly. They said the proposal also includes measures similar to those proposed in the “Sunshine Tax” legislation earlier this year to increase cost for solar customers.