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.

Supreme Court Allows Construction of a Pipeline that May Cross Underneath the Appalachian Trail


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Nicole Welle | June 18, 2020

The Supreme Court ruled Monday in favor of a pipeline company by saying that a new natural gas pipeline could cross underneath the Appalachian trail on federal land.

The 600-mile pipeline is being developed by Duke Energy and Dominion energy and would run from West Virginia to population centers in Virginia and North Carolina. The 7-2 Supreme Court ruling overturned part of a lower court decision that blocked construction of the pipeline, and the case revolved around the question of which federal agency, if any, had the authority to grant the permit for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, according to an Iowa Public Radio article.

The U.S. Forest Service initially granted the permit in 2018 since they administer George Washington National Forest where the pipeline would cross the trail. However, a number of environmental groups raised concerns over the agency’s authority to do so. They believe that because the Appalachian trail is part of the National Park System, rules that govern National Park lands should apply instead.

There are also a number of environmental concerns associated with the construction of the pipeline. However, the Supreme Court noted that the pipeline would run hundreds of feet underground and entry and exit points are nowhere near the trail when making their decision. The winning argument centered on the interpretation of certain words in various federal laws and succeeded in disentangling the trail from the land beneath it. This will allow construction of the pipeline to proceed under the permit granted by the Forest Service.

Trump Signs an Executive Order Waiving Environmental Reviews for Key Construction Projects


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Nicole Welle | June 8, 2020

The current economic “emergency” caused by COVID-19 gave President Trump the ability to sign an order on Thursday that allows federal agencies to waive environmental reviews for the approval of major construction projects.

The president used a section of federal law that allows “action with significant environmental impact” without observing the usual requirements set by laws like the Endangered Species Act and the National Environment Policy Act. These laws normally require agencies to analyze how decisions on construction projects could negatively impact the environment, according to a Washington Post article.

The executive order will speed up approval for the construction of highways, pipelines, mines and other federal projects. In the order, the president stated that the normal regulatory processes required by law would keep Americans out of work and hinder economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, this decision could lead to increased negative environmental impacts and harm plant and animal life in construction areas.

Many conservation groups are concerned that this could also lead to further dismantling of environmental laws in the future. However, while some companies could benefit from these changes in the near future, they also may be reluctant to rely on the order out of fear of legal backlash from environmental and public interest groups. Some companies may also hesitate to use the order to push projects forward since they would likely need to show proof that they were operating in an emergency.

Iowa City and MidAmerican may team up on solar project


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A cheerful row of solar panels (via flickr). 

Julia Poska | March 5, 2020

MidAmerican Energy has proposed its first-ever solar energy project: a public-private partnership with the City of Iowa City.

The city would lease nearly 19 unused acres at Waterworks Prairie Park to MidAmerican for 30 years, installing 10,000 solar panels, according to The Gazette. The energy generated would be able to power 580 average Iowa homes, a MidAmerican representative said in the article.

The Iowa City City Council will hold a hearing on the proposal later this month. If the city approves the plan, it will receive annual payment for the land.

The project would not impact the park’s walking trail. The Gazette reported that the land in question is currently planted with prairie, which would be replaced with “low-growth pollinators and perennials.”