UI Flood Center Created an Interactive Flood Map


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Josie Taylor | September 6, 2021

Northeastern Iowa experienced flooding last weekend. On Sunday, August 29, the Cedar River quickly rose following heavy rainfall. Minor flooding was then seen in Cedar Falls at Tourist Park. 

Park Manager Lori Eberhard with the Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources said, “Trails are still underwater and there’s going to be a number of them that are going to be underwater for a few days”, in regards to Tourist Park. 

Luckily for Iowa, the University of Iowa Flood Center has an interactive map to help Iowans understand flood forecasts in their area. This tool updates every few minutes making it easy to predict flooding. 

Gabriele Villarini, an associate professor with the The University of Iowa’s hydraulics laboratory, uses the tool to study the rise of floods.
Villarini said, “There is no login, very easy to access, and you can think of it as your one-stop-shop for all of your hydrometeorological needs”. Any Iowan, now matter their understanding of flooding, or their income can utilize this user-friendly tool.

Iowa Group Turns the Water Pollution Issue into a Clickable Map


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Josie Taylor | September 2, 2021

The Environmental Working Group has developed a clickable map that describes some of Iowa’s most pressing pollution problems in fine detail. 

This map, called “water atlas” shows that Iowa is being polluted by manure and commercial fertilizers. This is something that affects every Iowan. These pollute Iowa’s waters, which makes tap water more expensive for residents. 

The Environmental Working Group map details fertilization statewide and the nitrate and phosphorus pollution associated with the practices in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin. As many already know, these states are agriculture hot spots. 

Soren Rundquist, the organization’s director of spatial analysis, said the idea for this interactive map was to make data points easily accessible for Iowans, so they could understand what is going on. 

Des Moines Water Works CEO, Ted Corrigan has declared the Des Moines River “essentially unusable” for tap water at times due to algae toxins from farm runoff. 

Water Works drew national attention when it sued upstream drainage districts to force them to address pollution, but a federal judge threw the case out. A Des Moines Register Iowa Poll in 2015 found that almost two-thirds of Iowans supported the lawsuit. 

Iowans clearly want safe drinking, and the Iowa Environmental Working Group has made it easier to understand what is going on.

Drake Professor calls Iowa’s approach to water quality “magical thinking”


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Elizabeth Miglin | August 3, 2021

Iowa’s voluntary program to improve water quality and reduce farm runoff is called “magical thinking” designed to prevent farmers “from having to do something” by a Drake University law professor, on Thursday. 

Drake law professor and former director of the Drake Agricultural Law Center, Neil Hamilton recently spoke on the failures of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy to the Iowa Farmers Union, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. Hamilton highlighted how the lack of hard targets and requirements for state officials makes the strategy designed to “deny and defer any potential action.”

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a series of environmental goals adopted in 2013 aimed at reducing the number of nutrients found in Iowa’s waters. The document provides ideas for actions farmers may voluntarily take as well as add a few requirements for sewage treatment plants. Regarding farm conservation and fertilizer regulations, however, “it doesn’t ask for or expect anyone to do anything” as they are suggestions, said Hamilton. 

Among the issues with the strategy, consistent funding has become a major point of contention for environmental groups and farmers. The original goals recommended $89.3 million to $1.4 billion a year when adjusted for inflation be directed towards sustainability costs. However, the Iowa Environmental Council reported findings that of $500 million spent in Iowa on federal conservation programs in years past, only $17 million was focused directly on the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. 

U.S. House Will Vote on PFAS Regulation


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Josie Taylor | July 19, 2021

PFAS chemicals, often referred to as forever chemicals, which have been found in many places in Iowa, are not currently regulated federally. Members of Congress, along with Biden administration officials at a conference on Wednesday explained that they are trying to start regulation for toxic chemicals found in water, like PFAS, starting with a vote in the U.S. House this week. 

Two representatives from Michigan, Reps. Debbie Dingell and Dan Kildee, said that House Democratic leaders will introduce the PFAS Action Act of 2021. This has the goal of reducing Americans’ exposure to the toxic chemicals in air, water and consumer products.

Rep. Dingell’s bill would define PFOA and PFOS chemicals as hazardous substances, which would make it so federal cleanup would have to occur. This clean up would likely start on military bases. 

There are currently no EPA regulations that restrict manufacturers and companies from releasing PFAS chemicals into the environment.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan said the agency is currently in the process of regulating PFOS and PFOA.

“We recognize PFAS is an urgent health challenge,” Regan said. “We’re committed to working with all stakeholders to protect the health and safety of all of our communities.”

The bill introduced this week would also identify nine industries for which EPA must set standards. These industries are: organic chemicals, plastics and synthetic fibers; pulp, paper, and paperboard; textile mills; electroplating; metal finishing; leather tanning and finishing; paint formulating; electrical and electrical components; and plastics molding and forming.

Severe Storm Hit Central Iowa Friday


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Josie Taylor | July 12, 2021

Friday afternoon through Friday evening, The National Weather service warned central Iowa that “all modes of severe weather may be possible including damaging winds, very large hail, and even tornadoes.” 

The severe thunderstorm warning was issued for Polk County, southwestern Story County, northeastern Madison County, southeastern Boone County and eastern Dallas County Friday afternoon. 

Luckily, this severe storm ended up being quite elevated, so it was not close to the ground. This meant that tornadoes were not touching down in central Iowa on Friday. Hail, however, did occur and was the size of a half-dollar. 

The hail occurred inside of a severe thunderstorm which produced heavy rain, thunder, lightning, and strong winds. 

The National Weather Service called Friday’s storm “dangerous” and told central Iowans to prepare for “large destructive hail capable of producing significant damage.” Officials also warned that residents should shelter inside a strong building and stay away from windows. 

This storm was a drastic change for central Iowa. The counties affected by the storm were all in moderate to severe drought just days before. In fact, Des Moines, which is in Polk County, was just asked to conserve water last week because of the severe lack of rain.

Des Moines Water Works plans to drill wells in search for clean water


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 7, 2021

The Des Moines Water Works is now considering drilling wells to find clean water. After years of lawsuits and legislative lobbying, the utility has been unable to keep farmers upstream in order to reduce runoff. These efforts have cost Water Works $18 million to treat the polluted river water over the last two decades. Resulting in the utility now planning to spend $30 million in order to drill wells which will mix in pure water when the nitrate levels rise seasonally. 

Major cities are often discouraged from taking such a dramatic measure, as reliance on wells for large populations would quickly deplete the groundwater. Comparatively, small communities may often use wells but surface sources such as rivers and lakes, supply 70% of the freshwater used in the U.S. 

Nitrate levels in central Iowa have become so bad that Des Moines Water Works’ CEO Ted Corrigan said to Iowa Public Radio “for 110 days last year [Water Works] could not use the Des Moines River as a water source…That is shocking.” 

Since many Iowa farmers are unable to privately invest in ways to filter out chemicals and public funding through the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy is limited, the utility has few alternative options. 

Water Works has paid the U.S. Geological Service $770,000 to analyze drilling sites north of the city, according to The Gazette. Thereafter, the utility will have to work with state and federal agencies to get the permits to build the wells. 

Lake Darling Faces Continuing Bacteria Problems Despite $12 Million Restoration


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Elizabeth Miglin | July 6, 2021

Once the pinnacle of Iowa perennial lake improvement, Lake Darling now reports one of the highest amounts of swimming advisories in Iowa. 

Despite a $12 million restoration concluded in 2014, Lake Darling has had problems maintaining its renewed water quality. A study by the Iowa Environmental Council found Darling had 30 beach advisories for fecal bacteria and nine for algae toxins between 2014 and 2020. In a rare discovery for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Darling was found to have violated three state swimming standards in a single round of tests last week. Only seven other lakes received “swimming not recommended” warnings.

The restoration of Lake Darling began in the early 2000’s after Iowa DNR tests for bacteria found high levels of animal waste due to the local area’s high concentration of hog confinements. Animal bacteria and algae toxins can result in intestinal and other illnesses in humans, especially those with weakened immune systems. However, many of these concerns seemed to be put to rest due to the restoration. In 2007, the Iowa DNR even published an article titled “Lake Darling: A snapshot of success.

In an interview with the Iowa Capital Dispatch, Alicia Vasto, the associate water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, said the increase in algae toxin microcystin has been a major concern. Vasto noted the beginning of July is very early in the season for microcystin advisories, however the precipitation patterns and drought increases the difficulty to draw conclusions. 

Water Conservation is Being Requested Despite Rain


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Josie Taylor | July 5, 2021

Recently the Des Moines area has received rain, causing a lower demand for water. Despite this good news, next week there will likely be more heat and less rain, which could cause more strain on Des Moines Water Works. Des Moines Water Works had a high demand this summer because of the dryness Iowa is experiencing.

Des Moines Water Works pumped 89 million gallons on June 9. Two days later it was closer to 90 million gallons but luckily rain came. The rain brought demand down to 86 million, which is still high. The record is 96 million gallons, which occurred in 2012. 

On June 14 Des Moines citizens were asked to conserve their water when possible. This brought demand down by about 5 million gallons a day. 

Demand for water got down to 50 million gallons a day in late June after multiple rain showers. This did not last long, and by Thursday, July 1 it was up to 73 million gallons a day.

Ted Corrigan, Des Moines Water Works CEO, told Iowa Capital Dispatch that Water Works will continue to ask their customers to try to avoid watering their lawn, and to follow a watering schedule. Their goal is to cut down lawn watering by 25 percent.

Utility workers also installed flashboards on the Raccoon River in hopes to raise the water level because the river has been running low recently. The Raccoon River is a large source of water in the Des Moines area.

UI Professor Explains Forever Chemicals


Josie Taylor | June 28, 2021

University of Iowa professor, Dave Cwiertny gave a presentation via Zoom to a CGRER member. He explained PFAS chemicals in drinking water, which are also referred to as forever chemicals. He gave an explanation for what they are, why people should be concerned, and what can be done now.

Professor Cwiertny near the beginning of the presentation tells us why PFAS exists in the first place. PFAS is a man-made chemical that does have some desirable traits. They have oil and water repellence, temperature resistance and friction reduction. They are used in non-stick cookware and fire fighting foams. Areas near fire fighting locations, like airports, landfills or near food processing locations are at a higher risk of being exposed to PFAS chemicals in their drinking water. Here you can view the PFAS cycle.

PFAS chemicals are something to be concerned about because they can cause problems, specifically for pregnant women. Exposure to PFAS chemicals can cause low birth weight, preterm birth and other problems.

If you have an unregulated private well, you should check if you are near a location that has history of PFAS contamination. Free testing could be available through Iowa Grants to Counties. If you have public water, contact your provider and ask about their plans testing for PFAS chemicals through the Department of Natural Resources.

If you have extra concerns or questions you can contact Professor Cwiertny through his email (david-cwiertny@uiowa.edu) or by phone (319-335-1401).

Poor Water Quality Costs Iowa Millions in Annual Tourism


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Elizabeth Miglin | June 22, 2021

This week, The Cedar Rapids Gazette is hosting a series of virtual panels on water quality issues as a part of the Gazett’s Iowa Ideas 2021 virtual conference. Tuesday’s panel, “A Recreational View: Ecotourism” will focus on the growing role water quality plays on recreation and tourism.

2020 has set records for lakeside and outdoor vacations; in Iowa 16.6 million people visited state parks especially those near rivers, lakes or streams according to IowaWatch.org. One of the most popular sites, Okoboji lake in northwest Iowa, reports $300 million in the annual economic impact of tourism. However, as over half of Iowa’s state park beaches had at least one swim warning, it is unsurprising the cities around Okoboji were some of the first in the state to pass ordinances requiring environmental and infrastructure preservation around the lakes to improve water quality. 

More than 60% of Iowa’s rivers, streams, lakes and reservoirs are currently considered impaired due to harmful levels of bacteria and algae fueled by runoff of manure and fertilizers according to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. The disparity between usage and water quality has resulted in around $30 million lost in annual tourism from Iowans who would pay more to visit cleaner lakes and rivers according to a 2018 Iowa State University study. Respondents ranked agricultural runoff as the biggest contributor to poor water quality, followed by livestock manure. 

Other Iowa Ideas events this week will feature conversations about controlling water pollution and share ideas on solutions. Panels and discussions begin at noon Monday through Friday with different guests daily. Free registration is open for the event on the Iowa Ideas website.