Dubuque to hold water quality summit next week


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Screenshot from the event’s promotional flyer. 

Julia Poska | February 21, 2019

The 11th Annual Dubuque Area Watershed Symposium will be Wednesday, Feb. 27 at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium from 3 to 9pm. The event is free to the public, but pre-registration is required to attend.

Subtitled “The True Value of Clean Water”, the event will focus on Iowa’s water quality concerns and current efforts to resolve them.  One of the first items on the agenda will be a presentation on the City of Dubuque’s recent Iowa Partners for Conservation Grant: $326,712 to be put towards engaging local farmers and helping them become leaders in efforts to reduce flooding and improve water quality in the Catfish Creek Watershed.

Other presentations will cover conservation practices, land-use practices, soil health, and water quality.

Later in the evening, keynote speakers Michael Schueller, director of environmental operations the State Hygienic Lab, and Larry Webber, IIHR research engineer and co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center, will share their knowledge and ideas about Iowa water quality.

The organizers want to hear from non-experts, too, and will hold a roundtable discussion on drafting the Dubuque County Conservation Strategic Plan, as well as encourage questions after the keynotes.

For more information visit the City of Dubuque’s official website.

 

 

 

Soil conservation demonstrations extended after early success


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Water that washes off of farm fields poses major challenges for water quality in Iowa (flickr).

Julia Poska | February 7, 2019

Last week, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig announced a three year extension and $2 million of extra state funding for three innovative projects promoting soil conservation and water quality on farms.

These projects  are part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative, which partially funds 65 water quality projects around the state. This initiative is part of the larger Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, an effort to reduce harmful nutrient runoff from farm fields into waterways.

The Taylor County Water Quality Initiative, one of the three extended projects, identifies specific areas on farms that could benefit from alternative practices like land retirement or drainage management. Over 60 farmers have so far used the program to reduce nutrient runoff while maintaining or increasing profitability.

The Iowa Seed Corn Cover Crops Initiative engages partners like the Iowa Seed Association to encourage cover cropping: growing alternative crops on otherwise bare soil during the off season. Cover crops hold soil in place and can help with weed management and soil compaction issues. Some seed companies say this initiative has increased cover cropping among their clients from less than 10 percent to over 50 percent.

The Central Iowa Watershed Management Authority Project has so far installed five wetlands, five saturated buffers and two bioreactors on farms. Saturated buffers use strips of wetland to filter nutrients from drainage water, and bioreactors use organic carbon sources, like wood chips, for denitrification. Both are expensive and difficult for most farmers to install without assistance.

Iowa Water Quality Initiative projects like these are funded by both state and private money, as well as in-kind donations. Other active projects target entire watersheds and demonstrate methods for improving urban water quality.

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.

 

 

It’s ‘Radon Action Month’ in Iowa (for very good reason)


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The entire state of Iowa is at risk for high levels of radon (Wikimedia Commons).

Julia Poska | January 17, 2019

This week, Gov. Kim Reynolds designated January as “Radon Action Month” for the state of Iowa. Various areas across the country share that designation. Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Public Health encourage people to test their homes for radon and take steps towards resolving the issue if a problem is discovered.

Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that forms when naturally occurring uranium in soil and rocks decays. It often leaks from soil into homes via water, cracks in foundations and walls, or poorly sealed windows. Long-term exposure to elevated levels of radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers in the U.S.

Iowa has high levels of radon across the board. Every county is listed as EPA Radon Zone 1, meaning over 50 percent of tested households had radon levels above the EPA’s 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) threshold for recommended testing. In 2014, testing in some Iowa counties indicated average levels above 10 ppi. The U.S. average is 1.3 pC/I, according to the Iowa Radon Homebuyers and Sellers Fact Sheet.

If a homeowner determines that radon in their home is above 4 pCi/L, public health agencies recommend mitigating the issue. First, call Iowa’s Radon Hotline (1-800-383-5992) for information and guidance. Then contact a registered radon mitigation contractor to determine how to best solve the issue in your home and implement strategies like suction, sealants and pressurization.  According to the Kansas State University National Radon Program Services, such a system typically costs about $800 to $1500 dollars.

RESOURCES

Testing kits can be purchased cheaply your local county health department, at the Iowa Radon Hotline (1-800-383-5992), or online (ratings here).

Information about mitigating a radon issue can be found here.

The Iowa Department of Public Health’s official list of registered radon mitigation specialists can be found here.

Learn about radon data for your locality here.
*** Keep in mind that these data are based on averages from a small sample of homes    in the area, and may not be a useful indicator for radon exposure risk in your home.

More information on radon

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.

Climate change and soil: sink or source?


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Peatlands, or bogs, are wetlands where partially decomposed vegetation accumulates saturated in water. The soil is very rich and productive and contains huge amounts of carbon (flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 29, 2018

The world’s soils hold massive amounts of carbon from decomposed plants and animals. In this way the soil acts as a sink, storing carbon that could otherwise end up in the atmosphere, but soil is a source of carbon emissions.

Two studies published this month highlight just how helpful and harmful the the soil’s carbon storage capacity might be in the face of climate change.

The first, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciencesexamined the changing role of peatlands, also known as bogs or mires, in the carbon cycle. According to author Qianlai Zhuang of Purdue University, peatlands cover about 3 percent of the Earth’s surface but contain 30 percent of soil carbon. This major sink, though, has begun to release large amounts of carbon, too.

When peatlands are drained for human uses like agriculture or mining, they release some of that carbon into the air. The rate of carbon loss is predicted to increase with climate change, even for untouched peatlands.

Northern-hemisphere peatlands in Canada, Siberia and Southeast Asia have already begun releasing significant amounts of carbon, but Zhuang and PhD candidate Sirui Wang found that Amazonian peatlands may soon follow suit, according to a Purdue University media release. The researchers estimate that by the end of the century, peatlands in that area could release an amount of carbon equal to 5 percent of current annual emissions worldwide.

The second study, published in Nature Climate Change, found increased capacity for carbon storage deep within the soil. Much of the soils carbon is stored in a dissolved form; the carbon leaches downwards in the water and attaches to minerals over 6-feet underground.

Little is known about this method of storage, but Washington State University researcher Marc Kramer and Oliver Chadwick from the University of California Santa Barbara have looked at it closely and believe humanity could take advantage of the process to bury more atmospheric carbon deep inside the earth. Unfortunately, they believe climate change will limit this capacity in tropical rainforests, currently the best locations for dissolved carbon storage.

Check out our 2018 Iowa Climate Statement to learn more about the impacts of climate change right here at home.

The Iowa Organic Conference in Iowa City next week


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Organic corn like this one is served popped throughout the conference  (flickr). 

Julia Poska| November 15, 2018

While University of Iowa students are away for Thanksgiving break next week, Iowa’s organic farmers and advocates with gather in the Iowa Memorial Union for workshops, food and community.

The Iowa Organic Conference begins Sunday, Nov. 18 with a 6pm reception in the IMU ballroom. The following morning, keynote speaker David Montgomery, a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington, will speak while attendees eat breakfast at the opening ceremony. His talk, titled Growing a Revolution: Bringing our Soil Back to Life, will discuss ways to enhance seemingly hopeless soils.

Attendees can attend workshops throughout the day and visit around 40 vendors in the main lounge. Highlights include workshops led by Liz Carlisle, author of Lentil Underground, and Iowa journalist Art Cullen, who wrote a series of Pulitzer-winning editorials about Iowa’s water pollution.

Breakfast and lunch are included in the registration fee, and will feature organic fare locally sourced from the Iowa City area. Snacks will be available throughout the day as well.

The event is sponsored by the Iowa State University Organic Program and the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability. Registration is still open for $120.