Iowa DNR Issued Water Quality Warnings for Half of State Park Beaches This Summer


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Nicole Welle | September 17, 2020

The Iowa DNR issued advisories for over half of state park beaches this summer due to unsafe levels of E. Coli bacteria or microcystins in the water.

DNR conducted weekly tests Memorial Day through Labor day, and 39 state park beaches had at least one week during the summer where toxin levels were high enough to trigger a warning. They reported a total of 118 advisories over the summer, an increase from the 79 advisories issued in 2019, according to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article.

E. Coli, which indicates the presence of feces in the water, was responsible for most of the warnings. However, elevated levels of microcystins, which caused 12 advisories, can lead to a range of health problems in people exposed to them. These include gastroenteritis, allergic reactions and potentially life-threatening liver damage. Microcystins are produced by certain types of freshwater blue-green algae.

Studies have shown that much of the bacteria and toxins causing the warnings come from manure runoff and contaminates from nearby fields. Sandy beaches also tend to have higher levels of bacteria from manure from geese and other animals. Higher levels of toxic algae blooms, however, can have a variety of causes. Weather, temperature, nutrient availability and other environmental stressors are all factors, according to Dan Kendall, and environmental specialist in charge of the beach monitoring program.

The DNR’s Lake Restoration Program has plans to begin reducing bacteria in some of Iowa’s lakes that have been most heavily affected and continue testing each summer to monitor toxin levels.

Half of Soil Phosphorus Losses Attributed to Erosion


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Thomas Robinson | September 15th, 2020

According to a recent study, global phosphorus levels in soils are declining despite high levels of applied chemical fertilizers and soil erosion is to blame.

Researchers have analyzed global phosphorus levels in soils and found that all continents, except for Asia, Oceania, and Australia, have net negative soil phosphorus balances.  Phosphorus loss from soils poses a challenge to the global food supply because without phosphorus, an essential plant nutrient, crops are more susceptible to disease, and are likely to have stunted growth.  The most striking finding in the study was that around 50% of phosphorus losses from soils was attributed to soil erosion, a preventable but commonly neglected aspect of agriculture. 

Unfortunately, the phosphorus lost because of soil erosion poses another threat in the form of eutrophication. Eutrophication is caused by high levels of nutrients in aquatic ecosystems and is associated with declining water quality.  The increased nutrient concentrations promote large populations of algae, which consume large quantities of oxygen when they die and decompose.

Soil erosion in Iowa is a large concern as millions of tons of Iowa’s soil runs off tilled fields and into the rivers across the state each year.  Since soil erosion has now been identified as a leading cause for phosphorus losses in soils, Iowa is not only losing tons of topsoil per year, but also losing appreciable amounts of phosphorus as well.

Microplastics In Farm Soils Have Adverse Effects On Wheat Crops


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Thomas Robinson | September 8th, 2020

Microplastics in soils have recently been linked to increased cadmium uptake and root damage in wheat plants.

Researchers at Kansas State University have demonstrated that crops grown in the presence of microplastics are more likely to be contaminated with cadmium than crops grown in the absence of microplastics.  Cadmium is a heavy metal that is known to be carcinogenic and is commonly found in the environment from industrial and agricultural sources.  The researchers also found that microplastics were able to damage the roots of the wheat plants by clogging soil pores and preventing water uptake.

Microplastics are fragments of plastic products that are 5 millimeters or less in length, which is about the size of a sesame seed.  The influence these particulate plastics have on the environment and human health is still not well understood, and they are a growing environmental concern.  While most of the attention microplastics have received is in relation to the amount found in the oceans, a study published in 2016 demonstrates that microplastics actually accumulate more on land surfaces. 

Unsurprisingly, there have been microplastics found in Storm Lake, Iowa.  These pollutants can be found almost everywhere in the world which suggests we need a better understanding of microplastics and their effect on the environment. We also need to make changes to our behavior to prevent further pollution on top of what plastics have already been deposited across the globe.

Des Moines Water Works Calls For Water Conservation In Face of Drought


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Thomas Robinson | September 1st, 2020

Des Moines Water Works is struggling with low water levels and poor water quality leading to calls for water conservation.

Des Moines Water Works, is asking city residents to change their lawn watering schedules to help alleviate high water demand and an abnormally low supply.  The utility is asking that customers who live at even-numbered addresses water their lawns on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, while odd numbered addresses water on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Residents are also asked to water before 10 am or after 5 pm to avoid water evaporation from their lawns. 

Iowa is facing serious drought conditions across most of the state which has resulted in low river levels in many of Iowa’s waterways.  Des Moines Water Works uses two rivers, the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers, as the primary source for the city’s water.  Low river levels on the Raccoon river are making it difficult to pump water into the city’s treatment plant. To address the issue, flashboards were installed near the Des Moines Water Works’ treatment plant to raise the river level.

Under normal conditions, the water utility would be able to draw from the Des Moines River as well to meet water demands. Unfortunately, the Des Moines River is currently suffering from a toxic algal bloom that has limited the amount of water drawn from that river.  Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) can contaminate waters with toxins, like microcystins, which can cause vomiting, stomach pain, and even pneumonia.

Annual Report Shows Decreased Phosphorous Load And An Increased Nitrogen Load


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Thomas Robinson | August 25th, 2020

The 2018-2019 Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy (INRS) report, released in late June, details that while phosphorus loads in Iowa’s waters has decreased, nitrogen loads have increased.

Within the past year, Iowa has seen phosphorus loads decrease by 18% because of land use change and conservation practices.  Unfortunately, nitrogen loads increased by 5% over the same time period suggesting that Iowa is not doing enough to reach the goals established by the INRS.  Additionally, the INRS reports that funding has increased by $48 million dollars for a total budget of $560 million.  That budget is used to educate communities and farmers about how best to reduce nutrient pollution such as cover crops or riparian buffer strips

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, adopted in 2013, is a collaborative effort by state agencies to evaluate and decrease the amount of nutrients that pollute Iowa’s waterways.  The overall goal established by the strategy was to reduce annual loads of nitrogen and phosphorus that leaves Iowa by 45%.  Iowa’s nutrients are a concern because Iowa contributes a significant amount of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Mississippi river.  These nutrients result in widespread hypoxia caused by algal growth spurred by the influx of nutrients.  

Around 1 in 3 Children Globally Have Blood Lead Levels Above CDC Action Levels


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Thomas Robinson | August 4th, 2020

Around 800 million children globally have blood lead levels at or above 5 micrograms per decilitre according to a new report from UNICEF. 

UNICEF reports that children around the world are exposed to lead on a previously unknown scale. Most of the affected children live in parts of Africa and Asia but there are also affected populations living in Central and South America, as well as parts of Europe.  Children are exposed to lead through the inhalation or ingestion of lead particles from contaminated drinking water or materials such as lead paint.  One particularly concerning route of exposure is from poorly recycled lead-acid batteries.  These batteries are becoming increasingly common as countries begin to develop and introduce vehicles.

Lead is known to have cumulative and adverse health effects on children’s development.  Lead impairs brain functions and can also cause damage to the nervous system and the heart.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe an actionable level of 5 micrograms per decilitre to identify children with blood levels higher than most.  Unfortunately, no amount of lead is safe as even low blood lead levels have been linked to long term cognitive impairment.    

The United States is not immune from lead contamination in drinking water as can be seen through high profile events such as Flint, MI or Washington, DC.  Recent work in Iowa is looking to determine the extent of lead in local school’s drinking water which can be used to inform schools if they need to replace failing infrastructure.

Iowa Soybean Association Receives 2020 U.S. Water Prize


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Nicole Welle | July 23, 2020

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) received the U.S. Water Alliance 2020 U.S. Water Prize.

The U.S. Water Alliance selected ISA for its solutions that benefit both farmers and the environment. ISA promotes farming practices that help build stronger soils and achieve cleaner water, and the ISA Center for Farming Innovation conducts watershed analyses to help find solutions, according to a KIWAradio article.

Agricultural runoff is the leading source of pollutants in Iowa’s lakes and waterways. Agricultural activities that cause non-point source pollution include plowing too often or at the wrong time, and the improper application of pesticides, irrigation water and fertilizer, according to the EPA. ISA works to educate Iowa farmers about these issues and help them switch to more sustainable practices.

“A special thank you goes out to our farmers leaders who provide oversight and guidance in these efforts,” said Roger Wolf, ISA director of innovation and integrated solutions. “And, of course, our farmer champions and participants in these water quality initiatives. We are unable to do this work without your participation and engagement.”

Dakota Access Pipeline Is Ordered To Shutdown Pending Environmental Impact Statement


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Thomas Robinson | July 7th, 2020

The Dakota Access Pipeline has been ordered to shutdown for additional environmental review after a Washington D.C. court ruling on Monday.

After more than three years post completion, a judge has ordered the Dakota Access Pipeline be emptied within 30 days to allow for further environmental review.  The judge argued that the U.S. Corps of Engineers had failed to satisfy the provisions required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before granting an easement required for the pipeline’s construction. 

NEPA is a broad environmental law that requires environmental consideration in project planning as well as community input for federal projects.  The Trump administration has been attempting to enact changes to NEPA which would narrow the scope of the law to better assist business interests. 

The Dakota Access Pipeline crosses diagonally across Iowa and was recently approved to double the amount of oil that flows through the pipeline in Iowa.  Oil pipelines in Iowa have had issues previously, such as the spill that occurred in Worth County back in 2017. That spill is just one of 28 spills that occurred between 2000 and 2017 on pipelines owned by Magellan Midstream Partners in Iowa.

Researchers Develop a New Process for Detecting and Removing Harmful Wastewater Pollutants


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Nicole Welle | June 29, 2020

A group of researchers at Swansea University came up with a new, more efficient way to detect and remove pollutants found in wastewater that come from pharmaceuticals and personal care products.

The research, published in Analytical Science Advances, outlines a one-step process for quantifying and separating a range of chemicals and pharmaceuticals commonly found in medicine and personal care products that often end up in wastewater sludge. This new method could increase our understanding of which pollutants may be released from these products and help reduce their effects on the environment, according to a Science Daily article.

Contaminated wastewater makes its way into rivers and streams or is recycled as fertilizer to be used on fields. Chemicals from certain pharmaceuticals have been found to negatively impact human health and some animal species that come into contact with them. For example, multiple species of vulture in Asia have become critically endangered after being regularly exposed to components of Diclofenac, a common non-steroidal inflammatory drug. Fish populations around the world are also decreasing after being exposed to female contreceptives that cause the feminization of male fish.

The new method will allow the detection and extraction of harmful compounds using one process where multiple where needed before. Researchers hope that this process will allow for future advances in the wastewater treatment process that will ensure these harmful pollutants are degraded or removed before they come into contact with humans and wildlife.

EPA releases FY 2019 Superfund Annual Accomplishments Report


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Thomas Robinson | June 16th, 2020

The EPA has released their annual accomplishment report for fiscal year 2019 and Iowa has two sites mentioned in the report. 

The Superfund Annual Accomplishment Report summarizes the work the EPA has done to clean up contaminated sites on the National Priorities List (NPL).  The report also details the efforts being taken to improve the Superfund program based on recommendations made by the Superfund Task Force.  In FY 2019, the EPA fully deleted 12 sites and partially deleted 15 sites across the country.  There were 6 less deleted sites and 11 more partially deleted sites in 2019 over 2018.

Iowa saw two Superfund sites deleted from the NPL in 2019, one completely deleted, and the other only partially deleted.  The Electro Coating Inc. site in Cedar Rapids was deleted, making it the first Superfund site in Iowa to be closed since 2005, while the Shaw Avenue Dump site in Charles City was partially closed.  A partial closure means that some portions of the site still require clean up, while other portions are no longer a hazard to human health.

Superfund is the informal name for the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) passed in 1980.  CERCLA allows the EPA to clean up contaminated sites across the country and to engage those responsible for the contamination.  Since CERCLA was passed, 424 sites have been removed from the list out of 1335 sites total.