A Study Reveals that the Missouri River Basin Was Recently the Driest It’s Been in 1,200 Years


Image via Flickr

Nicole Welle | May 14th, 2020

Between 2000 and 2010, the Missouri River was the driest it has been in 1,200 years, according to a study published Monday.

The study showed that rising temperatures linked to climate change was the cause. The higher temperatures reduced snowfall in the rocky mountains, resulting in reduced runoff into the Missouri River basin. Researchers involved with “The Turn-Of-The-Century Drought Study” studied instrumental data on water levels collected over the last 100 years but had to rely on tree rings to give them an idea of when droughts occurred and how severe they were over previous centuries. This study concluded that the Missouri River has not been that low since a single drought event in the 13th century.

Continued droughts could be disastrous for farmers in the Midwest who rely on the Missouri River for crop irrigation and municipalities that use it as a fresh water source. Species of freshwater fish and waterfowl, tourism industries, and hydropower production along the Missouri River could also be negatively impacted, according to a Washington Post article.

This study only focussed on the years between 2000 and 2010, but data from more recent years shows that droughts in the Midwest are likely to increase in frequency and severity in coming years due to climate change.

Climate Change Could Improve Hydropower Generation


via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | May 12, 2020

Researchers suggest that climate change will result in a larger benefit to hydropower generation if the 1.5˚C Paris climate goal is met, than if it is exceeded.

The researchers modelled how climate change would influence hydropower production for the tropical island of Sumatra and found a 40% increase in the ratio of hydropower production to demand at the 1.5˚C mark compared to 2.0˚C.  The model used by the researchers included both climate, and economic factors which were used to explore how increased temperatures would influence hydropower potential.  The study emphasized the importance of finding optimal locations for new hydropower plants considering the reality of a changing climate. 

Hydropower is an essential resource for the world’s carbon free energy supply and is expected to be an important component for improving energy systems around the world. In Iowa, wind and solar energy make up a larger fraction of Iowa’s renewable energy than hydropower.  In 2018, only 1.5% of Iowa’s electricity was generated from hydroelectric sources but it is thought that approximately 5% of the state’s electricity usage could come from hydropower if changes were made. 

Earth Day in the time of COVID-19: A Message from Co-Director Jerry Schnoor


Jerry Schnoor at Eawag
CGRER Co-Director Jerry Schnoor shares his reflections on the 50th annual Earth Day (contributed photo). 

Jerry Schnoor | April 22, 2020

April 22, 2020, is not just another Earth Day.  It is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day – the one that changed my life forever.  Naive and over my head as student body president at Iowa State-1970, my world was on fire with righteous indignation against a compulsory draft for an unjust War in Vietnam.  At times I actually thought that it would tear the country apart.

The first Earth Day strangely diverted my immediate attention, and the diversion would last a lifetime.  Brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson and organized by Denis Hayes as a national Teach-In, Earth Da

 

y spawned immense bipartisan gatherings of 20 million people in the streets for one unifying goal – a healthy Planet Earth.  Earth Day ignited in me a realization that my chemical engineering education from ISU could morph into something green and more fascinating, that is, trying to understand water quality, biodiversity, and the biogeochemistry of Earth’s processes.  Discerning remedies for the massive disruptions that 7.7 billion people and an $80 trillion GWP can inflict on the earth has proven even more challenging.

This year we celebrate Earth Day with digital gatherings due to coronavirus.  It’s not the same, but perhaps the pandemic can teach us some valuable lessons.  Some people were slow to accept the dismal science of a spreading pandemic – they lacked trust in health professionals’ recommendations for social distancing, staying home, and closing businesses, sporting events, churches and social gatherings.  But the flattening curves of Wuhan, South Korea, Singapore, and even Italy, Spain, and New York bear testament to the wisdom of their call.

Our national plan for the pandemic Covid-19 was non-existent, like the Emperor’s new clothes, plain for all to see.  Pandemics are “global disease outbreaks” and they require national plans and concerted global action.  As recently as 2003-2004, WHO mitigated much more rapidly a similar virus, SARS, by careful messaging and international cooperation of 11 labs in 9 different countries.  U.S. and Chinese scientists together developed a vaccine within a year.  Far too little cooperation exists today, both at home and abroad.  Politics and hyper partisanship are disastrous in a time of global need.  We can do better.

Analogies between climate change and our pandemic response are obvious.  We have no national plan for either.  As a young egg-head professor at the University of Iowa, I published my first modeling paper on climate change and its consequences in 1994, many years after others had done so.  It projected (surprisingly accurately) the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today with business-as-usual.  That’s exactly what happened – business as usual.  If you had told me that the U.S. would still not have comprehensive climate change and energy legislation in 2020, I would have told you, “you’re crazy”.

But it’s in the history books.  We have failed to listen to the science and failed to reduce our gargantuan greenhouse gas emissions — the planet cannot take it anymore.  Now it really is a Climate Emergency.  What’s more, we are threatening to extinct 1 million species in the next generation as well – the Biodiversity Crisis.

Coronavirus humbles us all.  How can one not be moved by the sight of doctors, nurses, custodians, and admissions clerks risking their lives for the rest of us?  How can one not weep to see the miles of cars lined-up at food banks because families have nowhere else to turn?  Playing out in the richest country in the world gives great pause.

Yes, we need science-based decision making on coronavirus and on climate change, but we need compassion and understanding as well.  Noted columnist Sarah Van Gelder writes, “Changing hearts and opening minds begins when we listen”.  Imagine the world we want, where everyone is safe and healthy, where the air is clean and the water is pure. Then, let us celebrate the 50th Anniversary of that spontaneous, bipartisan, original Earth Day by speaking from the heart and listening to each other.

Jerry Schnoor is professor of civil and environmental engineering and co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Research at the University of Iowa.

 

EPA Suspends Enforcement of Environmental Compliance Reporting During COVID-19 Pandemic


(Image via Flickr)

Nicole Welle | April 16th, 2020

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an order on March 26 announcing the suspension of the enforcement of environmental compliance reporting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before this change, businesses were required to report and limit all air emissions and water discharges, meet requirement for hazardous waste management and maintain standards for safe drinking water. Businesses that failed to meet these EPA-issued standards could face fines.

The recent order states that factories, power plants, and other facilities are encouraged to keep records of any instances of non-compliance with EPA instituted regulations. However, they will not face any fines for violations as long as the EPA agrees that the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than intentional disregard for the law, is the cause.

In its order, the EPA did not designate an end date for the suspension or address the potential ramifications this decision could have for public health and safety. Allowing industry to police itself could cause air and water pollution to go unchecked and put the safety of drinking water at risk, according to the Iowa Environmental Council.

Compromising access to clean water could make it more difficult for the U.S. healthcare system to provide the sanitary conditions necessary for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic according to the IEC. The Washington Post also reported that the wording of the EPA’s order is broad enough that companies could get away with practices that put public health at risk well into the future.

Flood Risk Decreases in the Upper Mississippi River Basin


2020 U.S. Spring Flood Outlook (via NOAA)

Thomas Robinson | April 9th, 2020

In a recent flood forecast update, the National Weather Service predicted that sites within the Upper Mississippi River basin will have a lower risk of reaching major flood stage this spring than previously predicted. 

Dubuque, for example, saw the probability of having a major flood event drop from 51% to 37%.  Even though the decrease in flood risk is encouraging, the flood risk for Dubuque is still well above the historic probability of 12%.

The reason for this decrease in flood risk is that the bulk of spring snowmelt will have moved through the river basin by the end of March.  Even though there is improvement, the river basin still has a high risk of flooding due to the potential combination of residual snowmelt paired with above normal spring precipitation events.

One tool for Iowans concerned about floods is the recently updated Iowa Flood Information System where a statewide sensor network provides real-time information about Iowa’s waterways.

USDA approves hemp farming in Iowa


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Nutritional hemp seeds will soon be grown in Iowa (via flickr). 

Julia Poska | April 6, 2020

The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved Iowa’s hemp production plan last week. The move opens the door for Iowa farmers to begin growing the crop, often praised for its environmental advantages.

Hemp is a strain of the cannabis plant that contains very low levels of the psychoactive compound THC, which is more highly concentrated in marijuana.

Proponents of hemp often promote the crop based on its environmental footprint. Hemp grows well nearly everywhere with relatively low water, pesticide and fertilizer demands in comparison to other cash crops.

The national rise in hemp growing has been largely fueled by demand for CBD, a compound increasingly used in foods and personal care products for its alleged calming properties. The various parts of the hemp plant can produce a wide range of other products, as well, however.

Hemp seeds and milk provide plant-based protein. Hemp resin can produce petroleum-free plastic. Hemp fiber can make paper with a smaller environmental footprint than wood paper and textiles with a smaller footprint than cotton.

Industrial hemp cultivation and products are not legal everywhere however, posing regulatory challenges for those wishing to trade the crop.

The new Iowa law should become official Wednesday, when it’s scheduled to be published on the Iowa Administrative Bulletin, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. The USDA  indicated that Iowa farmers would be allowed to grow 40 acres of hemp, with THC levels below 0.3 percent.

 

Dakota Access Pipeline to double its oil under Iowa


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The path of the Dakota Access Pipeline (via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Julia Poska | March 30, 2020

Oil flowing under Iowa through the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline will soon double, as permitted by the Iowa Utilities Board Friday.

Where there were previously 550,000 barrels of oil daily, there will be 1.1 million barrels,  according to the Des Moines Register.  The Register reported that the state determined risk of increased spill probability or volume to be low.

The Dakota Access Pipeline, which carries oil from the Dakotas to Illinois, was heavily protested in 2016 and 2017 by the Standing Rock Sioux and allies. Critics feared that the pipeline, which passes under the Missouri River, would contaminate water supplies on the Standing Rock Reservation.

The Iowa Utilities Board order occurred two days after a federal judge on Wednesday ordered a major environmental review of the Dakota Access Pipeline to more thoroughly assess risk of environmental contamination.