Iowa GOP Senators Move to Cut Tax Exemptions for Forest Reserves


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Nicole Welle | February 15, 2021

GOP members of the Senate Natural Resources and Environment Committee voted last week to advance a bill that would reduce tax breaks for Iowa forest reserves.

Currently, landowners qualify for a 100% tax break on land made up of forests as small as two acres. The new bill would reduce the forest reserve tax break to 75% of the property value, require a minimum of 10 acres to qualify and place a five-year limit on exemptions. GOP senators who introduced the bill argued that it could prevent landowners from cheating the system, but Democrats criticized its timing as Iowa fights chronic water pollution and continues to recover from the derecho that destroyed 25% of the state’s trees last August, according to an Iowa Capital Dispatch article.

Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids criticized Republicans for pushing a bill that could interfere with derecho recovery. Lawmakers have made little effort to help landowners recover, and increased taxes would only add to the burden of recovery costs, Hogg said. Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott also opposed the bill, saying that Iowa’s limited forest helps reduce water pollution and supports the state’s wood industry.

Iowa’s woodlands currently support a $4 billion forest industry. Because woodland owners have to wait until a tree is mature enough to cut it down, the tax breaks help alleviate the costs of growing and maintaining their trees in between harvests. Without the current exemption, some woodland owners could be forced to replace some of their trees with row crops. This crop conversion could accelerate soil erosion and increase water pollution in the state, according to the Des Moines Register.

If passed by the Senate, the bill’s language would require the Iowa DNR, rather than the agriculture department, to verify that land qualifies as a reserve. However, the bill does not allocate extra money to the DNR, and the state did not conduct a financial study to estimate the added cost.

Climate Driven Increase In Bat Species Richness Likely Connected To COVID-19


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Thomas Robinson | February 9th, 2021

In a new study, researchers have published a link between climate driven shifts in bat populations, and the emergence of COVID-19.

Researchers mapped the global range of bat populations, as well as changes in global vegetation within the past 100 years to determine how changes in global bat species richness were driven by climate change. There were many regions across the globe that experienced local increases in bat populations, such as parts of Brazil and eastern Africa, however a major hotspot was the Yunnan province in southern China.  Over the 100 year time span, around 40 bat species flocked to the province, which is a significant concern as it is known that the number of coronaviruses in a region is closely linked to local bat species richness.  Researchers point out that the Yunnan province is also the likely place of origin for both SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2. 

Bats are studied because they are known to carry the largest amount of zoonotic diseases out of all mammals, and both the SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks have been attributed to bat populations.  Zoonotic diseases are illnesses that are transferred to humans by animals when both populations begin to interact. As human’s develop and expand into animal habitats these interactions become more common, especially as climate change drives the spread of disease vectors such as mosquitoes.  In a separate study, it was shown that over 60% of emerging infectious diseases, like COVID-19, are linked to animal to human transmission.

Arctic Drilling Leases Might Not Get Many Takers as Deadline Approaches


Caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
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Nicole Welle | December 31, 2020

The Trump administration successfully opened roughly one million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil drilling following his election defeat, but oil companies might not have any interest in buying the 10-year leases.

Today marks the deadline for submitting bids on the oil leases, so the exact number of companies that have expressed interest is unclear. However, there has previously been little indication that oil companies are interested in buying the leases for several reasons. The drilling conditions would be difficult and the cost of locating the oil is high. Many companies are also concerned about damaging their reputation by drilling on previously-protected lands as Alaska natives and environmentalists continue to oppose drilling on the refuge, and many major banks have refused to finance companies who wish to drill there. The oil industry is struggling to make money during the pandemic as global interest shifts to renewable energy sources as it is, so the state of Alaska might be forced to step in and buy the leases itself, according to a New York Times article.

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state-owned corporation, recently voted to authorize bidding up to $20 million for some of the oil leases. If the corporation succeeds in securing the leases, the state of Alaska could become the sole owner and would be left with hoping that it can sublease the tracts to someone else if interest in drilling on the refuge ever picks up. There are legal questions as to whether the corporation qualifies as a bidder and ongoing efforts by Alaska natives and environmental groups to halt the bidding and sale of the leases altogether, so it is still unclear how the sales will proceed.

The National Arctic Wildlife Refuge was protected for decades by Democrats in Congress. It provides a sanctuary for polar bears, caribou, migrating waterfowl and other wildlife, and the Trump administration was the first to successfully push a bill through that allowed for drilling on 1.5 million acres of protected land. The Bureau of Land Management was able to remove about half a million acres from the bidding after citing concerns about disturbing caribou calving areas and other wildlife, but about a million acres across 22 tracts are still available. The Bureau of Land Management will reveal the number of bids received once the bids are opened after the submission deadline.

Hydrologist Warns A Proposal to Export Iowa’s Water Could Threaten City Water Supplies


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Thomas Robinson | October 27th, 2020

State hydrologist Mike Gannon warns that a request to export water from Iowa’s Jordan aquifer to other states would set a bad precedent.

Pattison Sand Co. of Clayton, IA wants to pump water from the Jordan Aquifer and export it to other states.  Gannon says that while the proposed pumping operation will be offset by high recharge rates in north-eastern Iowa, allowing a public resource to be used for private profits may draw other operations to Iowa. Additional pumping from the Jordan aquifer may threaten water supplies for cities across Iowa as drought and severe weather conditions become more common.

The Jordan aquifer is used by multiple cities for drinking water, including both Iowa City, and Des Moines.  The water level for the aquifer has already decreased by up to 150 feet in parts of Iowa because of heavy use, and recharge would potentially take around 300,000 years.

The proposal has been opposed by the Sierra Club and has been already been denied three times by Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources. There is another hearing for the case spanning November 9th, and 10th after Pattison Sand Co. appealed a previous ruling.

Climate change clearly linked to increased wildfire severity


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Thomas Robinson | September 29th, 2020

In a review of recent climate science, researchers have demonstrated that climate change increases the risk of wildfires across the globe.

Their review makes it clear that the influence of anthropogenic climate change on fire weather is moving beyond what can be accounted for by normal climate variations. Locations around the world have seen an increase in the severity and extent of fires, such as Australia or the Amazon and fire trends are only worsening. Models suggest that the length of fire season in the higher latitudes may increase by more than 20 days per year by 2100.

An unsurprising finding from the report is that fire weather only results in fires if natural or human sources of ignition occur. One way for humans to influence the frequency of wildfires is to manage burnable areas and address potential ignition sources.

These observations come as California is facing the worst fire season in the state’s history that is currently threatening the wine country. Climate conditions have led to drier vegetation and longer periods of drought that have resulted in these severe wildfires that have burnt more than a million of acres and displaced around 200,000 people.

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.

Annual Report Shows Decreased Phosphorous Load And An Increased Nitrogen Load


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Thomas Robinson | August 25th, 2020

The 2018-2019 Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) report, released in late June, details that while phosphorus loads in Iowa’s waters has decreased, nitrogen loads have increased.

Within the past year, Iowa has seen phosphorus loads decrease by 18% because of land use change and conservation practices.  Unfortunately, nitrogen loads increased by 5% over the same time period suggesting that Iowa is not doing enough to reach the goals established by the INRS.  Additionally, the INRS reports that funding has increased by $48 million dollars for a total budget of $560 million.  That budget is used to educate communities and farmers about how best to reduce nutrient pollution such as cover crops or riparian buffer strips

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2013, is a collaborative effort by state agencies to evaluate and decrease the amount of nutrients that pollute Iowa’s waterways.  The overall goal established by the strategy was to reduce annual loads of nitrogen and phosphorus that leaves Iowa by 45%.  Iowa’s nutrients are a concern because Iowa contributes a significant amount of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Mississippi river.  These nutrients result in widespread hypoxia caused by algal growth spurred by the influx of nutrients.  

Dakota Access Pipeline Is Ordered To Shutdown Pending Environmental Impact Statement


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Thomas Robinson | July 7th, 2020

The Dakota Access Pipeline has been ordered to shutdown for additional environmental review after a Washington D.C. court ruling on Monday.

After more than three years post completion, a judge has ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline be emptied within 30 days to allow for further environmental review.  The judge argued that the U.S. Corps of Engineers had failed to satisfy the provisions required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before granting an easement required for the pipeline’s construction. 

NEPA is a broad environmental law that requires environmental consideration in project planning as well as community input for federal projects.  The Trump administration has been attempting to enact changes to NEPA which would narrow the scope of the law to better assist business interests. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline crosses diagonally across Iowa and was recently approved to double the amount of oil that flows through the pipeline in Iowa.  Oil pipelines in Iowa have had issues previously, such as the spill that occurred in Worth County back in 2017. That spill is just one of 28 spills that occurred between 2000 and 2017 on pipelines owned by Magellan Midstream Partners in Iowa.

Iowa Farmers Join Initiatives that Pay Them to Reduce Carbon Emissions


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Nicole Welle | June 22, 2020

An increasing number of Iowa Farmers have begun growing cover crops as part of an effort to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.

Carbon farming involves growing cover crops, like cereal rye, in alternating rows with crops like soybeans and refraining from tilling fields. These practices increase the level of nutrients in the soil, help prevent erosion, and can help sequester more carbon in the ground.

While carbon farming is not hugely profitable now, many farmers are getting paid to participate in these initiatives. It can help farmers who are currently struggling with low corn and soybean prices reach profitability, and it leaves them with healthier soil and a more sustainable way to farm, according to a Hawk Eye article.

Sequestering carbon in the soil also comes with a number of environmental benefits. The stored carbon in the ground is cut off from contact with the atmosphere where it would combine with oxygen to create carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. By reducing erosion, it also improves the health of Iowa’s rivers, lakes, streams and wildlife.