July marks peak season for blue-green algal blooms in Iowa

A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
A blue green algae outbreak on Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. (Rob McLennan/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 19, 2016

While not expected to be as severe as last summer, Iowa outdoor recreation enthusiasts should be mindful of blue-green algal blooms this time of the year.

Warm July temperatures coupled with excess phosphorus that often runs off of farm fields into lakes and waterways creates the ideal breeding ground for blue-green algae. These conditions lead to the creation of microcystin toxins which can cause skin rashes and asthma-like symptoms for humans and potential fatalities for dogs, livestock, and other animals.

Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources monitor state beaches and other waterways to determine if the water is safe for recreational activities. The state’s first instances of blue-green algae were reported at the end of June. Last summer, blue-green algae blooms led to a record closure of Iowa beaches. Iowa DNR officials have also recorded bacteria growth – such as E. coli – at some state beaches this summer.

Earlier this month, Florida governor Rick Scott issued a state of emergency because of harmful algal blooms on bodies of water in the Sunshine State. NASA satellites captured images of algal blooms on Lake Okeechobee in May.

Check out the Iowa DNR website for reports of blue-green algae and other bacteria at state-owned beaches. Mary Skopec with the Iowa DNR advises swimmers, boaters, others to be cautious of water that is green in color or scummy in texture.

“When in doubt, stay out,” Skopec said.

CGRER researcher awarded for developing self-cleaning culvert

Dr. Marian Muste with his self-cleaning culvert design. (IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering/University of Iowa)
Dr. Marian Muste with his self-cleaning culvert design to the left. (IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | July 14, 2016

University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research member Marian Muste was recognized earlier this year for his efforts in developing a self-cleaning culvert.

Region 3 of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Research Advisory Council recognized Muste’s project along with three others in the Midwest region. Muste’s project is among 16 nationwide to be dubbed the “‘Sweet Sixteen’ High Value Research Projects” of 2016.

Muste’s research – “Development of Self-Cleaning Box Culvert Design: Phase II” – examines a system that uses the natural power of a stream flow to flush out sediment deposits in culverts. The system does not require intensive maintenance and can be constructed in new culverts or retrofitted for old ones. The design prevents buildup of sedimentation or vegetation in culverts which during rain events can cause culverts to overflow and damage adjacent property.

The Iowa Department of Transportation has implemented Muste’s design in a culvert along Highway 1 in Iowa City. Muste and his research team have monitored the site since the new design was installed in 2013 and he said it has been “working very well.”

Muste – who also serves on the faculty of the Departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Geography – concluded his report by outlining the benefits of his design.

“Besides their primary role in sediment mitigation, the designed self-cleaning structure maintains a clean and clear area upstream the culvert, keeps a healthy flow through the central barrel offering hydraulic and aquatic habitat similar with that in the undisturbed stream reaches upstream and downstream the culvert. It can be concluded that the proposed self-cleaning structural solution ‘streamlines’ the area adjacent to the culvert in a way that secures the safety of the culvert structure at high flows while disturbing the stream behavior less compared with the traditional constructive approaches.”

Several stream gauges shut down around Iowa

The U.S.G.S. provides realtime streamflow compared to historical streamflow for each day of the year (U.S.G.S.)
Jenna Ladd | July 13, 2016

Several U.S. Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.) stream gauges around Iowa were deactivated this month, according to The Gazette of Cedar Rapids. The gauges were initially installed after major floods in 2010 and 2012. Since then, they have cost about 2 million a year to maintain, according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Their primary function is to measure the level of the river water and the volume of the water passing through in cubic feet per second.

Many Iowans are concerned about the impacts the deactivation of these gauges may have on accurate and timely predictions of major floods. When recalling the devastating flood of the Wapsipinicon River in 2008, Brenda Leonard, Jones County Emergency Coordinator, says that a warning like those given by river gauges would have been extremely helpful for the community of Anamosa.

While the budget for stream gauges has not been reduced, the cost associated with maintaining them has risen in recent years. In efforts to keep the gauges in service, public and private funding partners have come forward for the Turkey River in Spillville, the Cedar River in Cedar Bluff and the West Nishnabotna and East Nishnabotna rivers near Riverton.

Deactivated gauges in Eastern Iowa include the Volga River in Fayette, the North Fork Maquoketa River below Bear Creek at Dyersville, the Wapsipinicon River in Oxford Mills, the Cedar River in Osage, the Shell Rock River near Rockford and Indian Creek in Marion.

UI researchers study mussels to improve water quality

Craig L. Just is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. (University of Iowa)
Craig L. Just is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa. (Tim Schoon/University of Iowa)
Nick Fetty | July 8, 2016

University of Iowa researchers are studying the role freshwater mussels play in the nitrogen cycle as a way to improve water quality in the Hawkeye State.

Craig L. Just – an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering – and Ellen Black – PhD candidate in Environmental Engineering and Science – are studying the potential of using freshwater mussels as a way to remove nitrogen from Iowa waterways. Nitrogen contributes to the growth of algae which serves as a food source for the mussels. Specially, Black is looking at the effect that microbial communities have on native freshwater mussels.

“Mussels filter water and excrete nitrogen into underlying sediment, thus sequestering biologically active nutrients for microorganisms to consume and possibly remove from river systems,” Black told The Daily Iowan.

Through the use of generation sequencing, Black is able to pinpoint all bacteria found in mussel beds which can help researchers to better determine the effect that mussels have on microbial processes.

In addition to his work with mussels, Just has also worked with civil and environmental engineering PhD candidate Hunter Schroer. Just and Schroer are studying ways to make military explosives less prone to self-detonation. The researchers also seek to discover and potentially mitigate the impact that explosives have on the environment by finding organisms that detoxify explosives by converting them into carbon dioxide. They’re also studying ways they can use plants as a cost-effective way to detect explosives in soil.

For more information about Black and Schroer’s research, check out The Daily Iowan.

Video – “Iowa’s Drinking Water: Could Flint Happen Here?”

Joyce Zhu presented at “Iowa’s Drinking Water: Could Flint Happen Here?” at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines on June 17, 2016. Zhu, a PhD student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University was part of the Flint Water Studies team. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | June 17, 2016

Pete Damiano (Director at the University of Iowa’s Public Policy Center), Pete Weyer (Director at the UI’s Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination), and Joyce Zhu (PhD student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) discuss “Iowa’s Drinking Water: Could Flint Happen Here?” which was hosted at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines on June 17, 2016.

Gutierrez frames water crises as an opportunity for innovation

Sally C. Gutierrez speaking at the water quality symposium in Des Moines. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | June 17, 2016

More than 150 people met today for the “Iowa Drinking Water: Could Flint Happen Here?”symposium at the Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center in Des Moines.

Peter Gleick, Co-Founder of the Pacific Institute and former recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, began the day by sharing an idealistic vision for the future of water quality and distribution. His 2116 world is one that monitors its water use and quality closely and boasts updated infrastructure. One-hundred years from now, Gleick imagines that water will be priced appropriately so that all people use it more efficiently.

He points out that water crises of today are not the result of absolute water scarcity, but rather ineffective management and inequitable distribution. Gleick’s opening remarks framed the day for what it was: a chance for Iowa citizens, lawmakers, water professionals and the like to work toward a world where all humans have access to clean, safe water. In his words, “We can choose the world of our future by our actions today…The whole point is that we have a choice.”

Lunch keynote speaker Sally C. Gutierrez and her branch of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been working to bring Gleick’s vision of the future to life. Gutierrez is the Director of the Environmental Technology Innovation Cluster Development and Support Program, a specific arm of the EPA that “seeks to advance environmental protection in tandem with economic development” through the formation of technological clusters.

According the the EPA, environmental technology geographic clusters catalyze innovation in three ways:

  1. Clusters create an environment where companies and organizations can easily share ideas and solutions.
  2. Connections within clusters lead to partnerships between businesses and researchers, facilitating the transfer of new technologies to the market.
  3. Clusters provide companies with easier access to test beds and partners for pilot studies, and encourage communication between companies and regulators.

Gutierrez pointed out how the Confluence Water Technology Innovation Cluster of Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky has used concentrated organization collaboration to its advantage. Cluster member company CitiLogics of Northern Kentucky provides next generation analytics to help clients more efficiently “manage and operate urban water infrastructure investments.” The group offers a cutting-edge interactive dashboard to clients called Polaris. The analytics system is web-based tool that allows engineers and water system operators to observe and predict things like pipe breaks before they happen.

Gutierrez argues that many of the technological advancements necessary for a safer and more sustainable water future already exist, the challenge lies in getting these tools onto the market. For CitiLogics and companies like them, participation in a cluster working group can make sharing their technology with local utility companies easier.

In the ten years since the first water cluster community was founded, 17 others have formed across the United States; so far there are none in Iowa. Gutierrez says that these innovation communities can help reframe water quality and use issues. In order to spur this kind of solution-based collaboration in Iowa, she suggests “not just think[ing] about these as water problems, but…[as] economic water opportunity.”


Coralville event focuses on management practices within Clear Creek Watershed

IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering Director Larry Weber presents at the Iowa Watershed Apparoach Kickoff meeting at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering Director Larry Weber presented at the Iowa Watershed Apparoach Kickoff meeting at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | June 16, 2016

Officials with the University of Iowa’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering hosted an event Wednesday in Coralville focused on reducing flood damage and improving water quality within the Clear Creek Watershed.

IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering Director Larry Weber was the event’s main presenter as he discussed efforts in the Clear Creek Watershed which will in part be funded by a $96.9 million grant awarded to the state of Iowa in January by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More than 60 were in attendance for Wednesday’s event at the Coralville Public Library including representatives from city, county, and state governments, Iowa’s three regent universities, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), landowners, farmers, and various engineering firms. Weber said he thinks cooperation between public and private entities will be key in many of the upcoming projects.

“It is a great partnership between the public and private sectors. With the federal and state agencies they have a jurisdiction and they have an authority. So they all work within in their authority to contribute to the program,” said Weber. “Then we have the private sector involved through design consultants, engineering services, technical assistance, and what I was really impressed with in today’s meeting were the number of landowners that were here. So there’s interest. We know there is interest in landowners wanting to make their waters better and to have that number of landowners here interested in the program, already thinking about practices they might want to enroll on their property, that’s exciting.”

Jeff Geerts, Special Project Manager for the Iowa Department of Economic Development, answered questions during the Clear Creek Watershed event at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)

The $96.9 million grant was awarded to Iowa through the National Disaster Resilience Competition. The landlocked Hawkeye State received the fourth largest amount of funding behind disaster-prone coastal areas. Weber said this large sum of funding shows the need for pursuing these projects in Iowa.

“It is really interesting especially since this competition was born out of Superstorm Sandy. The largest recipient was the state of New York followed by Virginia and then New Orleans which has been impacted by every landfall and gulf coast hurricane over the last decade,” said Weber. “Iowa was fourth behind those disaster-prone areas so it really spoke to how well the partnership was, how sound the approach is, and how great the ideas are.”

Weber also said that IIHR’s prior involvement in HUD-funded projects made the process easier when pursuing the most recent grant.

“The Iowa Flood Center and IIHR was fortunate to be part of the team that helped to create this proposal and having the experience from running the previous HUD project we knew what the needs were. We needed money for conservation, we needed technical design assistance, we needed project coordinators, we needed the monitoring and modelling and other outreach services that we provide. So when we saw how all of those elements could fit together we wrote a compelling story for HUD and then ended up with a successful proposal.”

Another reason Iowa was successful in receiving the HUD funding was because of programs and other efforts already in place that will contribute to the HUD project. The Iowa Flood Center, the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, the Iowa Geologic Survey, the Iowa DNR, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and other agencies already have programs in place which HUD felt could be further developed with the funding it granted to Iowa.

Coralville Mayor John Lundell. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Coralville mayor John Lundell also spoke at the Clear Creek Watershed event at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)

In addition, Weber said Iowa was unique among its adversaries in the National Disaster Resilience Competition because of the amount of local financial support for the practices outlined in the state’s plan.

“We have 25 percent local support of these practices. So think about going to a coastal area where they’re going to build a seawall. They don’t ask the residents behind that seawall to commit 25 percent of the funding yet here we’re building practices on private land for public benefit and we’re getting that landowner to cover 25 percent of that cost.”

Weber credited the Iowa legislature and other state leaders for their support with establishing the Iowa Flood Center and funding other water-related activities in the state which helped Iowa’s case when applying for the recent HUD funding.

“Without that commitment we wouldn’t have had the leverage that we did and we wouldn’t have been successful like we were,” he said.

Wednesday’s meeting was part of an eight watershed tour that concludes today in Vinton.