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.
The Midwest has long sustained an ideal climate for growing crops, but projections forecast rising temperatures and more intense rainfall in the region, far from optimal for the healthy growth of corn and soy.
Warmer winters will also encourage survival of pests season to season, and rising temperature and humidity in spring may increase disease outbreaks in crops.
More intense rainfall will also increase soil runoff, already a major issue in the region. When soil washes off of fields and into waterways, there are fewer nutrients for plants in the field and more in the water, which can fuel harmful algae blooms.
Scientists project a 5 to 25 percent drop in corn productivity throughout the Midwest by mid-century. Soy yields may fall about 25 percent in the southern Midwest, but could increase in northern states.
Ohio State University researchers believe clean drinking water can be harnessed from nighttime air, when water is more prone to condensing. They have been developing methods for capture with the aid of some unusual experts: desert lifeforms.
The pointy tips and sharp spines on cacti collect water from nighttime fog and funnel it town to the plants roots. Desert grasses do the same with pointed blades. Beetles collect water on their backs, which feature water-repellant and water-attracting spots that push the water towards the bugs’ mouths. These features help the plants and insects survive in harsh, low-water conditions.
The researchers, led by Bharat Bhushan, professor of mechanical engineering at Ohio State, have been experimenting with materials, shapes and textures using 3D printed models in foggy enclosures. They have already determined that conical shapes and grooved textures are efficient water collection methods and hope to test prototypes in deserts outside the lab as they continue to develop designs. They published their findings so far in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Societyin late December.
The final products of their work could have implications for water-scarce areas, where strife over clean water will only worsen with climate change. Water captured by such devices could supplement the drinking water supplies of private homes or whole communities.
“Water supply is a critically important issue, especially for people of the most arid parts of the world,” Bhushan said in a Science Daily report. “By using bio-inspired technologies, we can help address the challenge of providing clean water to people around the globe, in as efficient a way as possible.”
The Trump administration’s proposed rollback of the 2015 Clean Water Rule would reduce federal jurisdiction over wetlands, streams and other small water bodies on Iowa farmland. Some Iowans see the proposal, officially made in mid-December, as a win for farmers, while others see it as a hit to much needed water quality regulation in the state.
Since the start of his term, Pres. Trump has wanted to limit Obama’s 2015 Clean Water Rule, which more clearly defined “Waters of the United States” within the Clean Water Act of 1972. This increased the protected area by about 3 percent (according to an op-ed from Bloomberg News) by adding more streams and neighboring wetlands, ponds and impoundments into federal jurisdiction and reducing those waterbodies that could once be given/denied protection on a “case-by-case” basis.
The current administration proposes removing wetlands without clear surface connection to larger bodies of water from protection, as well as “ephemeral” streams that only flow with rainfall or snowmelt, about 18 percent of the country’s total streams. The proposal is now undergoing 60 days of public comment.
In November, Iowa already allowed Iowa to halt enforcement of the rule until disagreement over it was settled in court. The most farmers seem to want that allowance made permanent by the Clean Water Rule rollback. The Iowa Farm Bureau shared a statement of support in December after the EPA announced the proposed rollback, and called the Obama Era rule an “overreach.”
As Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told reporters, “Iowa’s farmers, ranchers, manufacturers and small businesses can now breathe a sigh of relief knowing that going forward a tire track that collects rain water won’t be regulated by the federal government.”
Iowa has serious water quality issues, however, caused for the most part by runoff from farm fields containing harmful nutrients like nitrate and phosphorus. The state recognizes the importance of on-farm streams and wetlands in managing soil and water quality, and encourages the construction of buffers between crops and waterways to minimize runoff into streams or wetlands.
Curt Zingula, a Linn County farmer who uses a saturated buffer on his farm to protect a creek, told theSioux City Journal he is proactive about water quality management, but thinks the Clean Water Rule “cast a shadow” over a landowner’s entire farm.
Others believe the rule was necessary, however, and think the proposed rollback will worsen Iowa’s water problem. A staff editorial in the Gazette called Ernst’s statements “hyperbole” and pushed for more focus on the water itself in the discussions surrounding the proposed rule change.
“If the Trump administration can’t explain how its definition will lead to cleaner water, and all of its related benefits, it should go back to the drawing board,” it reads. “Otherwise, it’s simply replaced Obama’s ‘overreach’ with a dereliction of duty to protect the nation’s waters for future generations.”
We already know climate change is having major impacts on rainfall. The 2018 Iowa Climate Statement said the strongest rainfall events of the year may double in intensity by 2025. Climate change will alter the hydrologic cycle in other ways as well, majorly changing society’s relationship with water.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment, controversially released Black Friday, details the forecasted changes to water supplies in the U.S.. It compiles the findings of over 300 experts and has been reviewed by 13 federal agencies, in an effort to inform top decision-makers and common citizens.
More intense rainfall will be met with more intense drought and reduced snowpack, which is bad news for communities that rely on glacial melt for their water supply. These changes are exacerbating water availability issues caused primarily by overuse of groundwater aquifers in much of the U.S..
As higher temperatures create even higher demand for water for drinking and irrigation, this problem will only get worse and worse, which will have major implications for both the food supply and the industrial sector.
The altered hydrologic cycle will impact the quality of our limited quantity of water as well. Rising water temperatures will impact the health of ecosystems, and changes runoff patterns of pollutants into water will impact human health and pose challenges for water treatment facilities. Sea level rise could also threaten coastal drinking water supplies with the potential intrusion of saltwater flooding.
The report says the biggest water issues for the Midwest are adapting stormwater management systems and managing harmful algae blooms. Iowa is already familiar with floods produced by intense rainfall. Algae blooms, fueled by nutrient-runoff from farm fields, will be further increased by rising temperatures.
Other water-related challenges detailed in the assessment include the deterioration of water infrastructure and managing water more strategically in the future.
In light of upcoming midterm elections, Popular Science wants voters to be informed about science policy, even if campaigners are not. The national magazine recently released a list of each U.S. state’s most pressing science policy issue.
Unsurprisingly, Iowa’s biggest challenge is to reduce pollution from farms. Because intensive agriculture takes place on over two-thirds of Iowa’s land, nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous leak from the state’s ubiquitous farm fields into waterways at alarming rates.
The list cites a University of Iowa study from earlier this year, which found that Iowa’s nitrogen runoff into the Mississippi River rose 47 percent over the last five years. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, initiated in 2013, aimed to reduce this rate 45 percent in that same time span.
Nutrient loss degrades soil quality for growers, and has created legal tensions between farmers and local waterworks. The loss creates issues far downstream as well. An overabundance of nutrients in the Gulf of Mexico has created a “dead zone” where low-oxygen conditions are inhospitable to aquatic life, which threatens the area’s fishing industry.
The Nutrient Reduction strategy pushes conservation practices like planting cover crops on otherwise bare fields, diversifying land use, and creating buffers along waterways out to farms, but adoption of such practices is still too low.
The next round of political leaders will need continue searching for a solution, something Iowa voters should take into consideration. As Popular Science wrote, “Even if it never surfaces on the campaign trail, science is always on the ballot.”
Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu and Kasey Dresser | October 11, 2018
The Iowa Climate Statement 2018: Designing Buildings and Communities for Iowa’s Future Climate was released earlier today at the Cedar Rapids Public Library. The statement was announced by Jerry Schnoor, the co-director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, and Ulrike Passe, Associate Professor of Architecture at Iowa State University.
The eighth annual statement, “Iowa Climate Statement 2018: Designing Buildings and Communities for Iowa’s Future Climate,” released Thursday, October 11 was signed by a record 201 science faculty and researchers from 37 Iowa colleges and universities. The statement describes the urgent need to fortify our building and public infrastructure from heat and precipitation and looks to the future weather of Iowa, suggesting ways to improve Iowa’s buildings to suit those changing weather patterns.