Controversial Manure Management Plan Approved By Iowa DNR


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | April 6th, 2021

Supreme Beef, a cattle operation stationed in northeastern Iowa, has had their proposed Manure Management Plan (MMP) approved by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

The approval comes after a long series of hearings for the MMP that has faced scrutiny for the risk the plan poses to some of Iowa’s cleanest waters.  In particular, critics emphasized how unlikely it was that the cattle operation would evenly spread manure in the proposed 30 mile radius and that over application on farms closer to the feedlots could potentially pollute surface and groundwaters in the area. 

Northeastern Iowa is particularly susceptible to groundwater pollution from runoff and infiltration because of the porous karst topography found in the area.  Environmentalists who opposed the plan focused on Bloody Run Creek, a popular spot for fishing tourism because of the brown trout that can be found there, as an example of a pristine water that could be harmed by the IDNR’s decision. If the Creek was harmed Iowan’s could lose out on fishing tourism and the loss of one of the few “high quality” waters present in the state.

The Iowa Environmental Council has spoken out against the IDNR’s decision to approve the plan in a statement that took aim at the preferential treatment agriculture receives over environmental concerns.  

Des Moines Water Works Detects Toxic PFAS in Drinking Water


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Nicole Welle | March 29, 2021

Des Moines Water Works recently detected low levels of PFOS, a toxic chemical found in multiple human-made products, in finished drinking water in Des Moines.

PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) is part of a large list of compounds called PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances), which are commonly found in products like popcorn bags, pizza boxes and clothing. These chemicals repel water and oil, and they are commonly called “forever chemicals” since they do not break down and stay in the environment for a long time. PFAS levels detected in Des Moines drinking water were at 6.5 parts per trillion, which is well below the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 ppt. However, even low levels are a concern and have triggered further investigation, according to a Des Moines Water Works announcement.

PFAS chemicals are known to pose threats to human health and the environment. The EPA has connected them to cancer, low birth weight, immune system problems and thyroid issues. While the levels detected in Des Moines’ drinking water are low, a lot more testing is required before specialists can fully understand how PFAS are affecting Iowa’s water supply.

Des Moines Water Works has reached out to the Iowa DNR, the Iowa Attorney General and Iowa’s Congressional delegation to ask for help in resolving the issue. The Iowa DNR plans to test 50 locations they consider highly vulnerable to pollution for PFAS contamination. The federal Department of Defense is also conducting tests to follow up on high PFAS contamination previously detected in groundwater near the Des Moines and Sioux City airports.

Microplastics And Biofilms Can Promote The Antibiotic Resistance Of Pathogens


Via Flickr

A recent study conducted at the New Jersey Institute of Technology demonstrated that biofilms formed on microplastic surfaces can serve as reservoirs for pathogens and promote antibiotic resistance.

Researchers found microplastic particles in wastewater treatment facilities boosted the antibiotic resistance of measured pathogens by around 30 times. Plastic surfaces are relatively hydrophobic which can result in the formation of biofilms that allow pathogens to interact with antibiotics in the wastewater.  When pathogens in the biofilms are able develop antibiotic resistance they can create a new challenge by sharing their resistance with other pathogens using antibiotic resistance genes (ARGs).  Increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics has been labeled a significant global threat which is now likely to be influenced by the prevalence of microplastics our wastewater. 

Microplastics are either manufactured for products like toothpaste or handsoaps, and can also be found as debris from other plastic products.  These plastic pollutants have been detected across the globe in many different environments and they present a unique public health challenge.  Additionally, toxic chemicals are known to be attracted to plastic debris in the oceans which can then be released into organisms when they ingest plastics. 

We currently don’t fully understand how low level chronic exposure to microplastics and the contaminants they may release has on the human body, but there is evidence that these particles can act as endocrine disruptors and cause significant harm. 

High Quality Waters At Risk From Proposed Manure Plan


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Thomas Robinson | March 2nd, 2021

A proposed plan for a manure application has come under scrutiny for the potential harm it could cause in some of Iowa’s high quality waters.

Supreme Beef, a cattle company in northeastern Iowa, has applied to spread cow manure in a 30 mile area around their operation near Monona IA.  Critics have warned that the plan may threaten water quality in the region, and pose a risk to the brown trout, a popular Iowa fishing attraction.  The plan proposed by Supreme Beef has been targeted for the likelihood for manure overapplication as well as a failure to include required conservation practices.

The area where manure would be spread is close to the headwaters of Bloody Run Creek, an area where brown trout reproduce, which presents a threat to water quality because of northeastern Iowa’s karst topography.  Karst topography is characterized by easy groundwater flow, which means that any manure seepage or contamination from the surface could easily influence the water quality of the region. Iowan’s in the area have needed to address similar issues previously, particularly for private well owners.

Currently the DNR is accepting written comments for the plan until March 8th before they will issue a decision for Supreme Beef’s manure application.

WOTUS Rule Changes Could Potentially Harm Iowa Farmers Says Iowa Ag Secretary


via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | January 26th, 2021

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Mike Naig says that if the Biden administration follows through with plans to change the rules of the Waters Of The United States (WOTUS) provision in the Clean Water Act, Iowa farmers could pay the price.

While exact details of the coming changes to WOTUS rules are unknown, it is likely the Biden administration will return components back to where they were under the Obama administration.  Secretary Naig’s reservations have been labelled by as a “political hoax” since the Clean Water Act already excuses much of the regulation on non-point sources of pollution such as agricultural fields. 

The discussion around the WOTUS rule centers on what can be defined as a “navigable” body of water.  A navigable water is defined as a water that is affected by tides, or has been used for transport in the past, present, or future.  The Trump Administrations changed the WOTUS rule in April, 2020 to improve the clarity for what waters are considered “navigable”, however, the changes failed to add any clarity and likely resulted in a lessening of water quality protections.

The issue of non-point source pollution in Iowa has made the news before when the Des Moines Water Works sued multiple drainage districts over their pollution of the Racoon River. The utility hoped that tile drainage from fields could be regulated as a point source rather than a non-point source and help alleviate the strain nitrogen pollution was placing on their operations.  The suit was dismissed after the court ruled the drainage districts could not address the injuries incurred by the utility while also ignoring whether drainage systems are point source pollutants.

Iowa’s Drought Is Likely to Stretch into Planting Season


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Thomas Robinson | January 19th, 2021

Iowa is currently experiencing drought conditions in the western portions of the state that climate officials say could last into the spring planting season.

In a recent meeting with regional climate and natural resources officials, Dennis Todey, the director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Midwest Climate Hub, emphasized that Iowa is entering the new year with dry soil and that it is unlikely soil conditions will change quickly.  Since more rainfall is needed to address Iowa’s dry soil there is an increased chance Iowa will continue to be dry into the spring.  2020 was the 36th driest year out of 149 years on the record, leaving around 61% of the state at some level of drought.

Iowa’s drought conditions can likely be attributed to La Niña conditions which usually indicate a greater chance for colder temperatures and average or slightly above average precipitation. La Niña weather patterns develop as colder sea surface temperatures occur in the Pacific around the equator as part of the El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO).  These ocean conditions can result in warmer winter temperatures for the southeast U.S, and colder winter temperatures for the north west.

Percent of Global Population Experiencing Drought Could Double By The End of The Century


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Thomas Robinson | January 12th, 2020

Scientists have projected that by the end of the 21st century,, the percent of the global population at risk for extreme drought will double compared to current conditions.

In a recent study, researchers at Michigan State University have simulated hydrological conditions expected by the end of the 21st century, and their findings suggest that the number of people at risk for severe drought could increase from 3% between 1976 and 2005, to 8%.  The southern hemisphere, which already faces severe water shortages, such as in South Africa, is expected to be disproportionately affected by climate change. Unfortunately, the United States is also expected to have increased risks of drought because terrestrial water storage (TWS) will likely decrease in the coming years.

Terrestrial water storage is a measure of water stored in rivers, soils, and other reservoirs that plays an important role in how available water is as a resource. The researchers used recent modelling advancements to include TWS in global hydrological, and land surface models to better analyze how changes to TWS can influence drought conditions across the globe. 

Iowa has suffered from drought conditions over the past two decades, and climate projections suggest that extreme weather, like the Derecho, will become more commonplace.  Extreme weather poses a threat to Iowa’s crops and residents, and in the face of concerning projections, steps should be taken to help mitigate the effects climate change has on Iowans.

Lead in School Drinking Water: Opportunities for Improving Public Health in Iowa’s Schools


With permission from Amina Grant

Thomas Robinson | December 15th, 2020

In a legislative presentation Tuesday morning, David Cwiertny, Director of CHEEC, and Dr. Michelle Scherer, a professor at the University of Iowa, presented their work on lead in Iowa’s drinking water. 

CHEEC, the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, has worked with schools around the state to assess the amount of lead in drinking water through their Grants to Schools program.  The program provides $10,000 for schools to sample every drinking water outlet, and then take steps to address any potential lead or copper contamination.  On average, they’ve found it only takes $2,800 for testing and remediation suggesting that more can be done for Iowa’s schools without breaking the bank.  Cwiertny emphasized the large cost to benefit ratio seen for lead interventions, where for every $1 invested there is around a $10 benefit.  Unfortunately, COVID-19 has created concerns about school drinking water as stagnation can increase lead and copper levels in drinking water. As schools begin to operate drinking fountains again there may be an increased chance for lead and copper exposure.

Dr. Michelle Scherer discussed her research group’s efforts to test drinking water from both municipal systems, as well as private wells in Iowa.  Recent work by graduate students Amina Grant, and Danielle Land has found that some Iowans are potentially being exposed to lead in their drinking water.  Shockingly, they found that potentially 65,000 Iowans had drinking water that exceeded the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).  Dr. Scherer’s take-away message was that we need to know more about the challenge facing Iowa.  She emphasized that in home lead and copper testing needs to be more prevalent and available to properly evaluate the issue. Similarly to work being done in Illinois, Iowa needs to map lead service lines (LSLs) so that consumers can be made aware of potential exposures. Currently the Center for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that public health interventions need to happen at 5 microgram per deciliter blood lead levels in children and Dr. Scherer suggested that in the face of recent work these interventions should happen at lower blood lead levels. To better address the lead challenge facing Iowa both speakers stressed the importance of filter first legislation that could help reduce lead exposure in children.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead as there is no safe level of exposure without potential health risks.  In Iowa, 1 in 5 newborns have elevated blood lead levels, and there is no difference between rural and urban populations.  Traditionally, lead is thought to come from paints, air, and soils, however, it is becoming more apparent that drinking water is a prevalent source for lead exposure.  Lead in drinking water is difficult to control and regulate since most contamination comes from the distribution system and not providers.  Currently, there are many different guidelines and regulations for lead contamination. Unfortunately, Iowa is on the back end where water outlets are taken out of service only if lead levels exceed 20 ppb, which is 4 times the level accepted for bottled water (5 ppb).  Iowa needs a health based lead regulation that can be used by consumers to evaluate whether their drinking water is safe, and it isn’t unreasonable for a low level like 1 ppb to be the goal.

TODAY Virtual Event: Erin Brockovich to Discuss Her New Book on Combatting America’s Water Crisis


Image by Gage Skidmore, Via Wikimedia Commons

Nicole Welle | December 7, 2020

Prairie Lights is hosting a virtual event today at 7 p.m. with Erin Brockovich for a special reading of her new book, Superman’s Not Coming: Our National Water Crisis and What We the People Can Do About It. Journalist and co-author, Suzanne Boothby, and the UI Director of Graduate Studies in Civil and Environmental Engineering, David Cwiertny will join her in the discussion.

Brockovich is an environmental activist and public speaker. She founded the Erin Brockovich Foundation, a non-profit organization that educates and empowers communities fighting for access to clean water, and is known for leading a successful lawsuit against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company on behalf of hundreds of Californians who were unknowingly exposed to toxic waste in their drinking water. Her efforts became the subject of the 2000 Oscar-wining film, Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts. Brockovich is also the co-author of Take It from Me: Life’s a Struggle but You Can Win and hosts a show on PodcastOne.

Register here to join this free event.

‘Waste’ Activist Fights Sanitation Crisis Affecting the Rural Poor in the U.S.


Image from Wikimedia Commons

Nicole Welle | November 26, 2020

Activist and author Catherine Coleman Flowers’ work spurred a study in 2017 that revealed environmental and sanitation problems in rural America.

The 2017 study discovered that more than one in three people in Lowndes County, a rural county in Alabama, had tested positive for hookworm. This parasite was previously thought to have been eradicated in the United States because it usually only infects people in areas without access to proper waste management and sanitation, but this study revealed that it is not an issue confined to “developing” countries. The large number of infections in rural America revealed significant gaps in access to basic sanitation and led activists to look further into the cause of the issue, according to an Iowa Public Radio article.

When looking at rural areas in Alabama, Flowers found that many families lacked access to an on-site septic system and were sometimes facing fines and jail time when they could not afford to have one installed. Lowndes County has dense clay soils and a high water table, so families living there need access to a special, more expensive septic system that can cost around $28,000. Most families, both poor and middle-class, do not have the resources to have one installed and are forced to deal with improper sanitation and legal action.

The current septic system technology was designed before climate change caused sea levels and water tables to rapidly rise and changed rainfall patterns. Flowers says that the next steps toward solving the sanitation problem in Lowndes County and elsewhere will require people to acknowledge climate change and work towards developing new, more affordable technologies that will account for rising sea levels.