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.

Alissia Milani and Dr. Betsy Stone Discuss Exciting New Research


Nicole Welle | November 30, 2020

University of Iowa undergraduate Alissia Milani recently led a group of researchers in discovering a new compound in the atmosphere that can help track the effects of personal care products (PCPs) on air quality.

Common PCPs, like antiperspirants, shampoos and hairspray, contain colorless and odorless chemicals called cyclic volatile methyl siloxanes. These chemicals can quickly evaporate into the atmosphere after they are applied, and Milani’s group worked on identifying a secondary aerosol tracer called D4TOH in urban environments like Houston and Atlanta to better understand the impact of pollution from PCPs. D4TOH is the oxidation product of D5, one of the most prominent methyl siloxanes found in PCPs, according to the group’s new article.

Graphical Abstract from ScienceDirect article

The health and environmental impacts of PCP use are not yet fully understood, but this work will help provide a new way for researchers to begin tracing and assessing those impacts. Milani hopes that her work will allow researchers across the globe to begin detecting this compound and use it to better understand how PCPs can affect air quality in both urban and rural environments.

This crucial work is only the first step toward better understanding the health and environmental implications of PCP use, but there are steps the public can take in the meantime. Milani says that people should look into the chemicals that make up the products they use and think about what they might be exposing themselves and others to. Some potentially harmful chemicals found in PCPs are not currently regulated, so it is important for people to learn about those chemicals and seek out alternatives that work best for them.

Milani received support from the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates and was joined in her work by Dr. Betsy Stone, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Iowa. The article outlining their work was accepted on November 11, 2020.

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.

Scientists say War on Plastic Could Distract from Bigger Environmental Threats


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A team of environmental experts with the University of Nottingham has warned that, while plastic waste is an important issue, its prominence in public concern is taking attention away from greater threats like climate change and biodiversity loss.

The team of 13 published an article in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, WIREs Water. In it, they argue that the discourse around plastic waste is not always representative of the environments being sampled, and the aversion to plastic can promote the production of alternative materials with potentially greater harmful effects, according to a Science Daily article.

The authors also warn that the general public’s concern over plastic pollution has been exploited politically. Emotional imagery of wild animals stuck in plastic, small political gestures like banning microplastics in some cosmetics and promoting reusable bags and containers, for example, can instill societal complacency towards other, less tangible environmental issues made worse by today’s throw-away culture.

The authors use their article to urge governments to minimize the environmental impacts of over-consumption no matter how inconvenient, and they call on media outlets to make sure that the realities of plastic pollution are represented accurately. To do this, they say governments and other entities should also focus on environmental degradation associated with alternative materials, promote recyclable materials that have their end-of-life built in and ensure that more markets and facilities exist to recycle plastic waste.

The authors’ full article, It’s the product not the polymer: Rethinking plastic pollution, is accessible on the Wiley Online Library website.

Environmental Group Report Says Two Iowa Companies Have Escaped Enforcement Action for Multiple Clean Water Violations


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Nicole Welle | October 12, 2020

Two Iowa companies have repeatedly reported to state and federal governments that they have exceeded limits set for how much pollution they can discharge into Iowa’s rivers over the past three years, but environmental agencies have not taken action against them.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center blames this lack of enforcement on federal and statewide budget cuts that came as a result of President Trump’s decision to cut spending and staffing needed to enforce the Clean Water Act. Trump shifted responsibility to the states, but many states in the Midwest have also reduced their budgets, according to a Des Moines Register article.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center’s report says that ADM in Clinton and Gelita USA in Sergeant Bluff have violated permit limits dozens of times since 2017 by dumping pollution into the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. ADM spokeswoman Jackie Anderson said that their corn processing plant has struggled to meet requirements over the last few years, but that the company has worked with enforcement officials to resolve the problem. The Environmental Law and Policy Center was unable to find any formal public record of ADM solving the issue, however.

The center focussed on the two companies in Iowa that had the most violations, but they think it is likely that there are other companies in the state escaping enforcement as well. The report states that funding for pollution control in Iowa dropped 19% in 2018. A lack of funding for enforcement could lead to further increases in pollution levels in Iowa’s rivers, a scenario that could put wildlife and communities who use these rivers as sources of drinking water at risk. About 28 million people currently get their drinking water from the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.

Areas Devastated by Wildfires Face Emerging Water Contamination Challenge


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Thomas Robinson | October 6th, 2020

Attention is being drawn to municipal water contamination in Californian towns after exposure to devastating wildfires.

After the Camp fires ravaged California in 2018, testing of municipal water systems revealed widespread contamination by volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Unfortunately, it isn’t known exactly how VOCs infiltrate the water pipes, however, it is thought that potentially melted plastics, or contaminated air and broken pipes could be the cause. Another issue for the recovering areas is that many water pipes in California are polyethylene based, which can melt during fires.  These pipes can absorb VOCs flowing through them and release them over a longer time period at lower concentrations.

One chemical measured in water tests that could be absorbed and leeched over time is Benzene, a known human carcinogen.  Benzene showed up at levels over two thousand times the federal level in drinking water samples after the Tubbs fire in 2017.  Benzene is part of a family of contaminants called BTEX which are connected to petroleum products. 

Fire damaged drinking water systems pose another challenge for struggling families returning to their homes after wildfires.  Contamination at the levels observed after wildfire events can lead to acute and chronic health outcomes, which will leave their mark on the affected communities for years to come.

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 DNR Issued Water Quality Warnings for Half of State Park Beaches This Summer


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Nicole Welle | September 17, 2020

The Iowa DNR issued advisories for over half of state park beaches this summer due to unsafe levels of E. Coli bacteria or microcystins in the water.

DNR conducted weekly tests Memorial Day through Labor day, and 39 state park beaches had at least one week during the summer where toxin levels were high enough to trigger a warning. They reported a total of 118 advisories over the summer, an increase from the 79 advisories issued in 2019, according to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article.

E. Coli, which indicates the presence of feces in the water, was responsible for most of the warnings. However, elevated levels of microcystins, which caused 12 advisories, can lead to a range of health problems in people exposed to them. These include gastroenteritis, allergic reactions and potentially life-threatening liver damage. Microcystins are produced by certain types of freshwater blue-green algae.

Studies have shown that much of the bacteria and toxins causing the warnings come from manure runoff and contaminates from nearby fields. Sandy beaches also tend to have higher levels of bacteria from manure from geese and other animals. Higher levels of toxic algae blooms, however, can have a variety of causes. Weather, temperature, nutrient availability and other environmental stressors are all factors, according to Dan Kendall, and environmental specialist in charge of the beach monitoring program.

The DNR’s Lake Restoration Program has plans to begin reducing bacteria in some of Iowa’s lakes that have been most heavily affected and continue testing each summer to monitor toxin levels.

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.