Suburban “agrihood” proposed near Des Moines


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The proposed development would feature community gardens and organic farming (Wikimedia Commons).

Julia Poska | February 15, 2019

A tiny Iowa town may soon get an unprecedented expansion. Diligent Development wants to build Iowa’s first “agrihood” on 400 acres just south of Cumming, bringing food and outdoors living to the center of a relocalized community.

According to the Des Moines Register, which featured Diligent’s plans yesterday, over 200 such communities already exist elsewhere in the U.S.. Agrihoods bring the country closer to the city, integrating food production and nature into suburban areas without spreading neighbors too far apart or committing them to a fully rural lifestyle.

The Register reports that the Cumming agrihood could bring over 1,800 new residents into the 400-person town with mixed housing; apartments, condos, townhomes and single-family homes would all surround a large organic vegetable farm.  Farmers would sell through subscription-based services or at local stands, and residents would maintain smaller community gardens as well.

Residents would have easy access to parks and green space too, as the Great Western Trail. The community would also feature a craft brewery, an orchard and retail space.

Cumming is 20 minutes southwest of Des Moines, close to Interstate Highway 35 and Iowa Highway 5. The development would cost about $260 million and is awaiting approval by the Cumming City Council.

Noise from wind turbines poses no threat to human health


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Sunset at an Iowa wind farm (flickr). 

Julia Poska | February 1, 2019

Though many neighbors of wind farms complain that the turbines are an eyesore and that their whirring causes headaches or disturbs sleep, there is little scientific evidence to suggest that the noise from wind farms causes any harm to humans beyond annoyance.

That’s the main message in a report released yesterday by the UI Environmental Health Sciences Research Center, Iowa Policy Project and Iowa Environmental Council. They based their conclusion on a review of two previous reviews of academic literature on wind turbines and human health.

Those reviews, conducted a few years ago, found no link between health outcomes and wind turbines, though they did find evidence of annoyance. The authors of the new report believe that risk perception plays a major role in perceived “annoyance” for neighbors of wind farms. Those that have a negative view of the turbines will be more likely to report negative health outcomes, whether or not they are actually exposed to harmful noises. Those that receive monetary compensation for the potential nearby nuisance will be less likely to report annoyance or health problems.

Nearly 37 percent of energy produced in energy is generated by wind power, according to the American Wind Energy Association. At over 8,400 megawatts, Iowa has the second highest wind power capacity in the nation. Ten wind power facilities have saved over 8.8 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon and provided over 7,000 jobs since the state started developing wind power infrastructure almost 20 years ago.

The authors of the report believe the benefits of the industry outweigh potential annoyances to neighbors.

“Given the evidence and confounding factors, and the well-documented negative health and environmental impacts of power produced with fossil fuels, we conclude that development of electricity fromwind is a benefit to the environment,” they wrote. “We conclude that wind energy should result in a net positive benefit to human health.”

On The Radio- Native American reservations


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Navajo Reservation, Arizona (Alexandra Carré/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| January 21, 2019

This weeks segment looks at the averse affects of climate change on Native American reservations. 

Transcript:

Native Americans are among the most vulnerable groups affected by climate change, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Of the five-point-five million registered Native Americans, about one million of them live on or around reservations dotted throughout the country. Native Americans have long fought against unjust laws, practices, and stereotypes embedded in our society, but climate change poses another risk to many natural resources used by these communities.

In the southwest, heat spikes bring parched terrain, which then fails to properly absorb vast amounts of precipitation leading to flash-flooding. Warmer winters have lengthened the lives of deer ticks and other parasites, leading to a shortage of moose and other game that many Midwestern tribes rely on for food. 

When reservation property is damaged and when precious resources dwindle, there is little that most of these communities can do to reverse the negative effects of climate change on their land. Native Americans are already at a significantly higher risk for depression, alcoholism, and unemployment than many other demographics, and a blow to their land and resources will only increase that divide unless they receive the help and tools they need to battle against these changes.

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

Roadside prairie: little strips of sustainability


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Native prairie plants are hardy and beautiful (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 17, 2019

Over the past 200 years, Iowa’s once ubiquitous prairies have been almost totally edged out by farmland and urbanization. Only a fraction of one percent of what used to be remains. It is unlikely that Iowa’s prairies will ever be restored to their full former glory, but some counties are regenerating slivers of native prairie along county roadsides.

The practice, called Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management, cannot reestablish the value of Iowa’s lost prairies, but it does help humans and nature coexist little more sustainably. The strips of prairie:

  • Create habitat for species like pollinators, birds and small mammals
  • Trap pollutants and sediments that would otherwise contaminate water and soil, like motor oil and road salt, while remaining tough enough to withstand harm
  • Promote soil health and reduce flooding by incorporating air and organic matter into the soil structure
  • Give drivers a glimpse at the state’s historic beauty

Counties aim to manage these areas sustainably with minimal use of pesticides, strategically timed mowing and burning. These efforts are funded through the Living Roadway Trust Fund and supported by the University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center. Over 100,000 acres have been planted since the start of the program in 2009.

To learn more about what this program has accomplished and see some pretty flowers, check out this online presentation from the Tallgrass Prairie Center.

 

 

On The Radio- The impacts of climate change on the Midwest


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A midwest sunset (Sue Varga/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| January 14, 2019

This weeks segment looks at the affects of climate change on the Midwest covered in the Fourth National Climate Assessment. 

Transcript: 

Increased heat and rain will strike Midwest agriculture from multiple directions. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, released in November, details the impacts of climate change for the Midwest. Productivity in the agriculture sector is a top concern.

The Midwest has long sustained an ideal climate for growing crops, but projections forecast rising temperatures and more intense rainfall in the region, far from optimal for the healthy growth of corn and soy.  

Warmer winters will also encourage survival of pests season to season, and rising temperature and humidity in spring may increase disease outbreaks in crops. 

More intense rainfall will also increase soil runoff, already a major issue in the region. When soil washes off of fields and into waterways, there are fewer nutrients for plants in the field and more in the water, which can fuel harmful algae blooms. 

Scientists project a 5 to 25 percent drop in corn productivity throughout the Midwest by mid-century. Soy yields may fall about 25 percent in the southern Midwest, but could increase in northern states. 

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

Report details health effects of exposure to common road material slag


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Slag is used to cheaply supplement gravel on roads like this one (flickr). 

Julia Poska | January 11, 2019

A report from the Iowa Department of Public Health has stirred up concern in Muscatine County and around the state this week over the health effects of steel slag, a cheap waste product from steel manufacturing that’s used to supplement gravel on rural roads.

Muscatine County has used slag in county roads for over 5 years, and many private homes and businesses use the material as well. Residents have complained to the county about bits of metal in the roads and health concerns about slag dust for years, but this report was the first official indication of risk. It found that children up to 18 years old are exposed to potentially dangerous levels of metals like manganese when playing near slag-supplemented roads.

The Muscatine County Board of Supervisors will vote Monday on whether to stop using slag in county roads, and will likely formulate a plan to remove existing slag. A local slag opposition group will collect samples from households before then to determine current levels of dangerous metals.

Many people are upset that the state and county allowed slag to be used in roads to begin with, and are unhappy with Muscatine County’s initial response to the report.

“I suppose that all county boards and city councils have problems, but our county leaders just seem to care about making themselves look good and it makes all the people who they represent look like idiots,” one Muscatine woman write in a letter to the Des Moines Register, who wrote about the issue in depth earlier this week.

The news has alarmed people in other Iowa counties as well. Engineers in Marion, Warren, Winnebago and other counties have since conducted tests for dangerous slag on their own roads.

 

On The Radio- Ecosystem services


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Flickr/ckocur

Kasey Dresser| December 24, 2018

This weeks segment looks at how the relationship between humans and ecosystems will change with the affects of climate change.

Transcript:

Climate change will alter the relationship between humans and ecosystems. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Ecosystem services are benefits that humans gain from nature. Some of these benefits will diminish in coming years, according to the Fourth National Climate Assessment released in November. 

Some ecosystem services provide resources like food, water and fuel. Iowa’s economy depends heavily on one such service—agriculture. The growing season is starting earlier and becoming wetter, which will impact crop yields.

Other services protect humans from natural dangers such as disease-carrying insects, like mosquitoes and ticks. As northern climates get warmer the ranges of such pests and the diseases they carry are expanding. 

Cultural services include natural provisions for recreation, tourism, aesthetics and spirituality. Climate change will impact sporting seasons and threaten cherished landscapes. 

Changes will vary among regions and ecosystems, making the future hard to predict. Some losses are inevitable, though, and may compromise human industry, livelihood and sustenance. 

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

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.