This weeks segment looks at how towns along the Mississippi are preparing for flood season.
As flood season begins, mayors of towns along the Mississippi prepare for potential disaster.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
It’s not easy maintaining a city or town along the Mississippi. The river—one of the largest in the world—is especially susceptible to floods during spring, when rain and melting snow cause the water levels to rise significantly.
The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative is a collection of 88 mayors spanning 10 states that work together to find solutions for flooding. They’ve been setting safety measures in place for this coming flood season, one that’s predicted to be especially disastrous.
In late March, the group talked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to figure out some preventative measures. Previously, they gathered in Washington DC to work out a nearly eight billion dollar deal to help reinforce existing infrastructure. Midwestern states have sustained billions in flood damages just this year, and supposedly once-in-a-lifetime floods have hit St. Louis on three different occasions since 2011.
These previously rare weather events have been happening more and more frequently, and the coalition is amping up their defenses to beat back the oncoming waves.
For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org.
From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E Mason.
The Flood Recovery Advisory Board, formed by Governor Reynolds to coordinate statewide recovery and rebuilding following this year’s devastating floods, will gain expertise from Larry Weber, a co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center.
Dr. Weber can offer valuable experience and insights in several areas related to flooding. He is a former director of IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa, conducting research in areas including river hydraulics, hydropower, ice mechanics, water quality and watershed processes.
Weber also conducts research for the UI Public Policy Center and worked with the state legislature in 2013 to implement the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He and his wife have won several awards for conservation work on their own property.
Recently, he wrote an op-ed about his vision as leader of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s $96 million Iowa Watershed Approach. This program addresses factors that contribute to Iowa’s increasing flood risk in nine distinct watersheds, with the ultimate goals of reducing risk, improving water quality and increasing resilience.
In the piece, Weber said he aims to restore natural resiliency through conservation measures like farm ponds, wetlands and terraces. Floodplain restoration is another important piece of his plan.
“We need to allow our rivers room to flood,” he said. “The floodplain is an integral, natural part of the river. They also keep people safe and remove us from the heartbreaking cycle that so many Iowans know all too well: Lose everything to a flood.”
His expertise in all-things-flooding, from hydraulics to conservation to policy, will surely prove valuable as Iowa begins to move forward from this year’s floods and better prepare for flooding to come.
If you own a private well in Iowa, it’s likely contaminated with dangerous bacteria, nitrates or both, according to a new report from the Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Working Group.
“Wherever Iowans test for these contaminants, they have a pretty good chance of finding them,” the report’s primary author, economic analyst Anne Schechinger said in a press release.
The report was released yesterday as an interactive map, using dots in three colors to indicate the relative levels of contamination between counties based on state testing from 2002 to 2017. Because the EPA does not require testing for private wells, the vast majority of Iowa’s private wells are never tested. Only 55,000 of Iowa’s estimated 290,000 wells were tested during the study period.
Over 40 percent of those wells contained fecal coliform bacteria, considered unsafe in any amount. Twelve percent had nitrate levels above the EPA’s 10 parts per million safety standard. Twenty-two percent had nitrate levels above 5 ppm, which recent studies have linked to increased risk of numerous health problems, according to the report. The average nitrate level rose to 5.7 ppm over the years of study.
Over that entire period, eight counties tested fewer than 10 wells, meaning this report tells an incomplete story. Findings indicate that those counties, which appear the cleanest on the map, may actually be among the most at risk. Only one-third of wells were tested more than once. Those that were tested repeatedly often showed continued contamination, indicating lack of action.
“Earth Day deals to save money and help the planet,” one headline reads. “10 products that will help you buy less this Earth Day,” says another. Other articles advertise “clean” beauty products or “green” technology.
Don’t fall for it; buying anything, especially anything you don’t need, ultimately contributes to fossil fuel emissions, resource consumption and the planet’s pervasive trash problem.
“Greenwashing” occurs when an institution puts more resources and effort into marketing itself as eco-friendly than it does actually minimizing its environmental impact. This doesn’t only happen on Earth Day, of course. Many companies, public figures and organizations feature “sustainability missions” on their websites year long, making vague claims about their “zero-waste journey” or “environmental stewardship,” with little concrete information about the implementation or outcomes of such initiatives.
Rebecca Leber, an environmental reporter for Mother Jones, wrote today that she “hates” Earth Day, mostly because it has devolved from a day of protest and activism to a day when anyone can claim to care. Every April, her inbox floods with PR pitches promoting Earth Day news from companies that she knows are less-than-sustainable 364 days of the year.
“Earth Day provides a fine opportunity to showcase how [a company’s] generally negligible corporate gestures demonstrate their commitment to ‘going green,'” she said.
Reducing consumption by fully utilizing what we already own or sharing with others is far better for the planet than consuming new products, even if those products are well-intended. So think critically about the messages you come across. Use up all your shampoo before you invest in that more natural version, buy a used shirt instead of a brand new “organic” tee and forego using a straw at all over buying a metal one.
And if you want to absolutely minimize your carbon footprint today, Quartz writer Ephrat Livni makes the case for “sitting perfectly still” at home with the lights and air conditioning turned off, so that “ever-so-briefly you are not contributing to climate change.”
Betsy Stone looks at the very air she breathes every day on a microscopic level.
“Since I started my career here at the University of Iowa, I’ve been amazed at the very interesting air quality events that we’ve been able to study here locally,” the associated professor of chemistry and chemical engineering said.
Her group has researched the environmental impact of a massive tire fire at the Iowa City landfill in 2012 and the ongoing impact of biomass incineration at the University of Iowa Power Plant. Earlier this month, they embarked on a new project to study pollen fragmentation in the local atmosphere.
Listen to learn about Stone’s findings on the air quality impacts of the university’s Biomass Project.
Stone explained that pollens are fairly large particles and tend to settle out of air quickly. If humans inhale them, they immediately get stuck in the nostrils. Rain events often wash pollen out of air, but in 2013 Stone observed an unusual phenomenon; after thunderstorms, pollens fragmented into much smaller particles and their concentration in the air greatly increased.
Other researchers had observed this phenomenon elsewhere, but never in the Midwest.
“We’re able to follow up with a very heavily instrumented field campaign that we think is going to answer a lot of the burning questions that we have about this type of event,” Stone said.
She’s hoping to learn more about the conditions for fragmentation, the species of pollens present and how they fragment. To do so, the group will use a large suite of equipment—including a meteorological station, an aerosol biosensor, particulate matter monitors and particle samplers—stationed at the university’s cross country course.
Stone said this research has implications for understanding the effects of climate change.
Stone studies air quality variation across space. Hear her speak on some key differences between rural and urban areas.
“Part of the reason this research is so important to do right now is that we’re starting to observe changes in our seasons as well as increases in the intensity of thunderstorms,” she explained.
Pollen season is starting earlier, and increased storms mean fragmentation could happen more frequently. Higher temperatures increase pollen loads, too. That’s bad news for people with allergies or asthma, especially since small fragments can travel deeper into the respiratory tract.
Particulate matter can impact the temperature, too. Atmospheric particles can scatter incoming sunlight, creating a cooling effect, but can also absorb energy like greenhouse gases do. Cloud droplets form around particulates, and the quality of the particles impacts the longevity and precipitation cycles of the clouds.
Stone’s group researches more distant phenomena as well, mainly sea spray aerosol collected at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.
Chemical reactions in the atmosphere can create new particles. Hear Stone talk about Secondary Organic Aerosols.
Ocean bubbles release particles into the air when they burst, which contain both salt and organic matter. Stone’s lab seeks to understand what type of organic matter is present and how it chemically transforms in the sky. This too has implications for understanding climate.
“It’s really important to understand a natural source of particles like the ocean because we have a lot of uncertainty associated with aerosol loadings and composition in preindustrial times,” she said. Thus, our estimates of past climates are not especially accurate.
Understanding natural sources of particulate matter, like pollen and sea spray aerosols, helps provide a baseline to measure climate variation over time. Data on particulate matter can provide a baseline for measuring the success of emission reduction plans and other policies as well, she said.
***This post is part of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a blog series running every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspectives and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***
On April 22, people around the world celebrate Earth Day, spending time cleaning, greening and appreciating the life-giving planet we too often take for granted.
Iowa, of course, will join in on the party. Read below about Earth Day events cities in Iowa will host next week, as well as some activities you can do individually to make a difference.
Des Moines: Festivities in the state capital will begin this weekend. On Friday, Des Moines Parks and Recreation will host an Earth Day Trash Bash, where registered teams will pick up trash around the city. Everyone is welcome to join in on the kick-off party and several other events hosted Friday and Saturday as part of the bash, including a Downtown Earth Day Tour through the science center, botanical garden and riverwalk. A number of other events on Saturday and Monday include wildlife restoration, crafting and stream cleanup.
Cedar Rapids: The city’s 10th annual EcoFest will be on Saturday, April 20. The day’s events include performances, presentations, hands-on activities, tours, awards and more. Last year over 4,000 people attended!
Dubuque: The Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium will participate in a nationwide Party for the Planet event Saturday. Visitors attend presentations, meet animals and do hands-on activities to learn about environmental conservation. Participation in the celebration will be included with general admission and free for children 3 and under.
Davenport: Visit the Freight House Farmer’s Market Saturday morning for speakers, demonstrations, music and activities to learn about problems facing the planet and how you can help fight them.
University of Iowa student organizations have been hosting Earth Month events for weeks, and still have more to come. Consider visiting the Student Garden Open House Saturday, April 27 for food and DIY Chia Pets with the UI Gardeners and attending an environmental benefit concert the following night with the UI Environmental Coalition.
If you’d like to celebrate on your own or with friends consider these activities:
Picking up trash in your neighborhood or at a local park
The Iowa Legislature and Governor Reynolds passed a bill this week in support of chemical recycling facilities for plastic in the state.
The bill defines gasification and pyrolysis, two chemical recycling methods, as processes that convert waste plastics into raw materials like crude oil, gasoline and other chemicals by heating and melting them in oxygen-deficient environments then processing them accordingly. Those materials can be used to make new plastic products or as “feedstock” to fuel industrial processes. Plants conducting these activities in Iowa will be regulated more like manufacturing plants than solid waste disposal facilities, according to the trade publication Plastics Recycling Update.
There are obvious benefits to recycling plastics. Transforming plastic waste into useful materials will keep it out of landfills, rivers and oceans. A National Geographic story on plastic recycling said that pyrolysis plants can handle filmy plastic bags, which most traditional recycling plants cannot. Recycling also reduces the amount of new material that must be manufactured to meet demands.
Recycling Today reported that five advanced recycling facilities could generate $309 million annually by converting 25 percent of Iowa’s plastic waste into industrial feedstocks or transportation fuel. According to National Geographic, however, it is still cheaper to make diesel from fossil fuel than plastic. The article said pyrolysis startups have closed in the past because they haven’t been able to make money or meet pollution control limits.
Plastics Recycling Update said the Iowa Recycling Association had been opposed to the bill but did not say why. This post will be updated if and when the Iowa Environmental Focus is able to learn more.