Iowa farmers implement sustainable practices


Photo by Alejandro Barru00f3n on Pexels.com

Tyler Chalfant | October 17th, 2019

Iowa farmers are implementing practices to increase sustainability and reduce environmental threats to public health, including crop rotation, use of cover crops, eliminating pesticides, and using alternatives to chemical weeding. One group called Practical Farmers of Iowa organized a series of educational field days over the summer, providing opportunities across the state for farmers to share and discuss these practices. One of the environmental threats in the state comes from nutrient runoff from agricultural fertilizers, which recently have contributed to the growth of toxic microcystins in some Iowa bodies of water, making sustainable farming not just an environmental issue, but a public health concern as well. 

Research published last month from Iowa State University scientists found that the widely-used practice of crop rotation helps to reduce pollution, but also depletes organic matter in soil over time. Rotating between corn and soybeans requires less nitrogen fertilizer than continuous corn production, as soybeans leave behind a nitrogen-rich residue in the soil. This allows farmers to save on costs and reduce nitrogen runoff into freshwater lakes and streams. However the abundance of nitrogen contributes to the growth of microbes which, on years when corn is planted, consume nutrients needed for corn production, depleting this organic material in the long run.

UI offers free lead testing kits to state residents


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Faucet from Creative Commons. 

Julia Poska | October 16, 2019

Iowa residents can improve their drinking water and support environmental research by participating in the University of Iowa’s “Get the Lead Out” initiative through Oct. 26.

The program offers free lead testing kits to Iowa residents outside of Johnson County. The UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering; and Center for Health Effects and Environmental Contamination are leading the initiative to collect information for a new database of lead levels in drinking water across Iowa.

Because lead, especially toxic to children, was once used commonly in household products, it may still be present in aging household plumbing across the state.

Interested households can email get-the-lead-out@uiowa.edu  to request and receive three bottles (and instructions) for collecting tap water samples.  After sending samples back to the university for testing, they will receive their results, an explanation and suggestions for improvement (such as adding a filter to the faucet).

Johnson County residents can contact any DNR-certified testing lab, such as the State Hygienic Laboratory, to acquire testing kits.

 

 

Federal flooding buyouts more available in wealthier areas


Flooded Home
Photo by Chris Sirrine, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 15th, 2019

A federal program that buys and demolishes homes in flood-prone areas has been disproportionately implemented in counties with higher incomes and higher populations, a recent study found. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has bought more than 43,000 homes since 1989 in an effort to make communities less vulnerable to flooding. Though this study raises concerns that the program isn’t helping the areas most at risk. 

The number of Americans with flood insurance has been declining in recent years, while flood-prone areas in coastal states have the highest rates of construction, as the frequency of flooding events increases. The buyout program allows homeowners to relocate further inland, rather than continuously rebuilding after a storm, in a process known as managed retreat. 

Homeowners can’t apply for the buyouts themselves, and FEMA doesn’t determine who can participate. That decision is left to local officials. One explanation for the wealth disparity offered by the study’s authors was that wealthier and more populous jurisdictions may be more likely to have the staff and expertise required to successfully apply for federal funds. Within the counties that receive more funding, poorer neighborhoods are more likely to be demolished.

Another paper, published last month by the Natural Resources Defense Council, also highlighted inefficiencies in the FEMA buyout program. The NRDC found that wait times averaging five years for FEMA to complete a project contribute to inequity in the program, as many give up waiting and rebuild instead. 

EPA announced a ​new proposal to update the Lead and Copper Rule


 

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Irrigation (flickr/UTDNR)

 

Kasey Dresser| October 14, 2019

After nearly 30 years of a stagnant Lead and Copper Rule, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a new proposal to update the regulation. The new regulations are aimed to increase lead identification, sampling, and strengthen treatment by increasing the number of hours a service provider needs to notify a customer that their water is contaminated with lead.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental activists have expressed concern that the new regulation allows communities more to time to replace the lead service lines, indicating these regulations may be weaker than the previous. The new proposal also establishes a lower “trigger level” of lead to 10 parts per billion from 15 parts per billion. The main counterargument is health experts have never established that any level of lead can be sustainable. “Even low levels of lead can cause harm to developing brains and nervous systems, fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney problems, and elevated blood pressure. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable,” the NRDC said in a statement.

The last major lead pipe exposure in Iowa outbreak was December 2016. More than 6,000 Iowans were exposed to contaminated water for over six months. The issue brought up major incongruency in the method to solve the problem between University of Iowa engineers or Iowa Departments of Public Health and Natural Resources.

Wet September eases drought, creates flood risk in Iowa


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Map from iowaagriculture.gov

Julia Shanahan | October 11, 2019

This past September was the 15th wettest September on record for Iowa, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. This has been able to remove drought locations that happened over the dry summer months.

Iowa’s average rainfall amounted to 6.17 inches — 2.79 inches above normal for September. The temperature average to 68.2 degrees, making it the ninth warmest September on record. While it has been able to offset drought damage, the DNR stated in a press release that saturated soils make the state vulnerable to flooding if rainfall continues.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that June 2018 to May 2019 were the wettest 12 months on record for Iowa since 1895. Iowa received extreme flooding in the spring from the Missouri River. Early snow melt from not only Iowa, but also South Dakota and Minnesota, contributed to the rising water levels in the river.

Iowa also received heavy rainfall, which some reports attributed to a changing climate and warm ocean temperatures. In the June to May time frame, Iowa received 50.73 inches of rain.

Effects of the changing climate in Iowa were seen into the summer months. The Iowa Climate Statement was released Sept. 18, which outlined trends in temperatures and how Iowa can expect more 90 degree days in a year. The report also serves as a warning to Iowans and Midwesterners to expect extreme heat, and provides guidelines on how one can properly prepare.

 

Trump administration ethanol rules may help Iowa farmers


Photo by Todd Trapani on Pexels.com

Tyler Chalfant | October 10th, 2019

On Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture proposed new rules promoting ethanol consumption over petroleum. This move is considered primarily to be an economic strategy aimed at reducing the pressure placed on farmers by ongoing trade wars.

The plan would involve increasing biofuel sales above the current 15 billion gallons annually. It would also make 15 percent ethanol fuels more available at gas stations domestically as well as increase access to foreign markets. Iowa farmers say they have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars due as U.S. trade policy has destabilized agriculture markets and EPA waivers have decreased demand for ethanol. 

Iowa is the nation’s leading producer of ethanol biofuels, and the industry supports nearly 43,000 jobs in the state. Elected officials from Iowa have criticized the Trump administration on previous moves perceived as harming the biofuel industry. In August, the EPA granted 31 waivers to oil refineries, exempting them from laws requiring them to blend biofuels into their gasoline. 

Since January 2017, the Trump administration has granted 85 biofuel waivers to small refineries. The new proposal claims that larger refineries will carry the extra burden by blending in ethanol for those exempted, although this is something that the EPA has not successfully enforced in the past. Farmers say that the new plan also lacks details on how these rules will be enforced going forward.

Iowa State research proposes ‘sustainable intensification’ of Iowa drainage network


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Drainage tile helps keep farm fields dry, but Iowa’s system needs a more sustainable upgrade (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska | October 9, 2019

Agronomy researchers at Iowa State University have proposed ideas for an ambitious and much-needed update to Iowa’s agricultural drainage system. Their study makes suggestions for mitigating the effects of altered precipitation patterns due to climate change while reducing pollution to air and water.

The concept of “sustainable intensification” (the authors define this as “producing more food from the same amount of land with fewer environmental costs”) is at the core of the research. ISU agronomist Michael Castellano led the study in partnership with University of Kentucky and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH-Zurich.

Artificial drainage systems are comprised of underground pipes, tiles and drains that move water off farmland, discharging it into ditches that flow into natural surface waterbodies. Without this network, most of Iowa’s land would be too waterlogged to farm, but drainage systems increase runoff of nutrient and bacterial pollution from fields into waterways.

The increasing frequency of both intense rain events and draught in Iowa due to climate change is also putting extra pressure on those systems, which were designed before Iowa agriculture became so intense.  The study, published in Nature Sustainability, describes several solutions. “Controlled drainage,” or installing gates that can temporarily open/close at the ends of drains, could allow farmers to increase drainage during wet springs and retain more water during dry summers.

Installing narrower, shallower drains could further reduce nutrient concentration in drainage water, the authors claim. They say it could also reduce needed fertilizer inputs and decrease greenhouse gas emissions from the soil.

The study also describes the need to increase on-farm conservation practices, like returning some farmed land to wetland, in conjunction with updating infrastructure.