ISU research complicates cover crops


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Cover crops hold onto soil and carbon during the off-season (via Creative Commons).

Julia Poska| November 13, 2019

Though cover cropping has proven advantageous for soil and water conservation in Iowa, the practice’s benefits to atmospheric quality may be negligible, new research from Iowa State University found.

When farm fields are left bare during the winter and spring, wind and water transport soil and nutrients off the land and into streams and rivers, degrading both the field and water quality. Exposed soil typically releases carbon into the atmosphere at increased rates compared to planted areas, contributing significantly to climate change.

Cover cropping involves planting alternative crops like rye or clover to cover and nourish the land throughout the off-season. The conservation practice holds soil in place, pulls atmospheric carbon into plant material and adds carbon back into soil upon decomposition. Sequestering carbon in plants and soil is key to combatting climate change.

That carbon may not remain in the soil for long, however. The new study, published in Global Change Biology Bioenergy,  found that the added soil carbon stimulates microbes in the soil that emit carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere as they digest the organic matter.

The research — conducted by ISU assistant professor of ecology, evolution and organismal biology Steven Hall and grad student Chenglong Ye —  highlights the need for a variety of solutions for the planet’s numerous natural resource problems. While cover crops are a proven protectors against water pollution, we will need to implement other strategies to make farming carbon neutral, too.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

 

Why is action on climate change more important than ever before?


Kasey Dresser| September 19, 2019

The Iowa Climate Statement 2019: Dangerous Heat Events to Become More Frequent and Severe was released yesterday at press conferences in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

Yesterday, at the Cedar Rapids Press Conference, Dr. Jerry Schnoor was asked what he would say to individuals that do not currently see climate change as a major issue. 

This year’s statement warns Iowans and Midwesterners of sobering extreme heat projections for the region. Based on the most up-to-date scientific sources, the statement makes clear the urgency of preparing for dangerously hot summers in coming decades.  The statement describes some of the sobering impacts of hotter heat waves and more hot days. The 9th annual Iowa Climate Statement was endorsed by a record 216 science faculty, researchers and educators from 38 Iowa colleges and universities.

Check out the full Cedar Rapids Press Conference on our Facebook Page.

On The Radio- Ohio’s bug invasion


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Mayfly (Paul/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| August 26, 2019

This weeks segment looks at the dramatic increase in summer mayflies in Ohio. 

Transcript: 

Part of northeastern Ohio went through a mayfly invasion this summer like never before. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus 

The Mayfly swarm was so dense that weather radars picked up the swarm of mayflies as they moved out of Lake Erie into the nearby cities. 

Mayflies covered cars, buildings, and storefronts. Mayflies are not uncommon for Ohio residents; however, the high volume of mayflies that have descended on some areas is undoubtedly out of the ordinary. 

Mayflies like clean water and they love to hatch their eggs in Lake Erie.  They lay their eggs on top of the water surface and they sink into the lake sediment. In about a one to three years, they ascend to the surface, emerging fully winged and ready to take flight. 

Mayflies do not have a long-life cycle. Individual mayflies live up to two days after they emerge. A swarm of mayflies typically lasts about a month. 

According to The Ohio State University, Sea Grant College Program this is a good thing because a swarm is a sign of healthy water in the Great Lakes. The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency uses insect population data to determine how clean the water is in the Great Lakes.

For more information, visit Iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org. 

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

On The Radio- Drinking water and your health


 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Kasey Dresser| August 19, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how nitrate pollution in drinking water can affect pubic health. 

Transcript:

The Environmental Working Group released a study that links nitrate consumption through water to an increased risk for cancer.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

In Iowa, nitrate pollution in drinking water remains an everyday threat. The current federal limit for nitrates in drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter, but according to the study, adverse health risks can be caused by a nitrate amount just one-tenth under that federal limit. The Environmental Working Group recommends a nitrate limit of 0.14 milligrams per liter in order for there to be no health risks.

The risks for bladder and ovarian cancers are increased for postmenopausal women. According to the study, nitrate pollution potentially caused over 12,000 cases of cancer in the U.S. – or 300 cases annually – totaling $1.5 billion a year in medical costs.   

The high volume of nitrates in water can be attributed to Iowa’s farm runoff that contains fertilizer and manure. In 2018, IIHR research engineer Chris Jones released a study that said the Des Moines River, Cedar River, and Iowa River combined produced a nitrate equivalent of 56 million people.   

There are currently no state or federal regulations for farmers in terms of controlling agricultural run off. Some political leaders and farm groups support the voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy of 2013, which aims to eliminate 45 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

For more information, visit Iowa Environmental Focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E Mason.