Iowa’s Drought Is Likely to Stretch into Planting Season


Via Flickr

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


Via Flickr

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.

New Research Estimates Lead Exposure In Iowa’s Drinking Water


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | November 17th, 2020

Researchers at the University of Iowa have reported that between 51,000 and 79,000 Iowans may be exposed to unsafe lead levels in their drinking water

In a recent paper, Iowa researchers have used data collected for compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) to estimate how many Iowans might be at risk for lead exposure from their drinking water.  Their findings demonstrate that current in home water testing measures fail to adequately capture lead exceedances, and that water systems serving smaller populations were more likely to exceed accepted limit. From their estimates, around 65,000 Iowans are likely at risk for lead exposure above the EPA’s maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

There is no safe level of lead in drinking water, particularly for young children.  Low levels of lead exposure can have a large influence on children’s development resulting in behavioral and learning problems as well as slowed growth. Surprisingly, most lead in drinking water comes from pipes in individual homes meaning that enforcement of lead limits for water utilities likely misses lead exposure at the point of consumption.

While Iowa is not facing a lead crisis like those in Flint, MI or Washington D.C., the testing for lead in drinking water opens the door for consumers to be unknowingly exposed in their homes.  The findings of Iowa researchers suggests that changes are needed in how we ensure public protection from legacy toxins in our drinking water.

Water Export Deal Delayed After Water Futures Trading Discussed


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | November 10th, 2020

Pattison Sand Co. has delayed their appeal of a decision by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to deny a permit to pump water from the Jordan aquifer in Clayton, Iowa and export it out of the state.

The delay comes after the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) recently discussed trading on water futures based on the California Water Index.  Trading on water futures could potentially make the proposed water export much more lucrative, or, it could also make the market more competitive making the proposal less favorable.  The appeal will now be heard starting on December 1, 2021.

Concerns over the project’s implications have been raised by the Sierra Club and an Iowa state hydrologist suggesting that the pumping operation would set a dangerous precedent.  The Sierra Club has been prevented from intervening in the case after the judge overseeing the hearing ruled that the nonprofit organization lacked legal standing.

The Iowa DNR has previously denied Pattison Sand Co.’s proposal three times starting back in February of this year.  Pumping water from the Jordan aquifer could increase an already strained water resource which is used for drinking water and irrigation across the state.

Hydrologist Warns A Proposal to Export Iowa’s Water Could Threaten City Water Supplies


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | October 27th, 2020

State hydrologist Mike Gannon warns that a request to export water from Iowa’s Jordan aquifer to other states would set a bad precedent.

Pattison Sand Co. of Clayton, IA wants to pump water from the Jordan Aquifer and export it to other states.  Gannon says that while the proposed pumping operation will be offset by high recharge rates in north-eastern Iowa, allowing a public resource to be used for private profits may draw other operations to Iowa. Additional pumping from the Jordan aquifer may threaten water supplies for cities across Iowa as drought and severe weather conditions become more common.

The Jordan aquifer is used by multiple cities for drinking water, including both Iowa City, and Des Moines.  The water level for the aquifer has already decreased by up to 150 feet in parts of Iowa because of heavy use, and recharge would potentially take around 300,000 years.

The proposal has been opposed by the Sierra Club and has been already been denied three times by Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources. There is another hearing for the case spanning November 9th, and 10th after Pattison Sand Co. appealed a previous ruling.

Areas Devastated by Wildfires Face Emerging Water Contamination Challenge


Via Flickr

Thomas Robinson | October 6th, 2020

Attention is being drawn to municipal water contamination in Californian towns after exposure to devastating wildfires.

After the Camp fires ravaged California in 2018, testing of municipal water systems revealed widespread contamination by volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Unfortunately, it isn’t known exactly how VOCs infiltrate the water pipes, however, it is thought that potentially melted plastics, or contaminated air and broken pipes could be the cause. Another issue for the recovering areas is that many water pipes in California are polyethylene based, which can melt during fires.  These pipes can absorb VOCs flowing through them and release them over a longer time period at lower concentrations.

One chemical measured in water tests that could be absorbed and leeched over time is Benzene, a known human carcinogen.  Benzene showed up at levels over two thousand times the federal level in drinking water samples after the Tubbs fire in 2017.  Benzene is part of a family of contaminants called BTEX which are connected to petroleum products. 

Fire damaged drinking water systems pose another challenge for struggling families returning to their homes after wildfires.  Contamination at the levels observed after wildfire events can lead to acute and chronic health outcomes, which will leave their mark on the affected communities for years to come.

UI Chemists Study Nanomaterials in Batteries and their Effects on Plant Health


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | September 28, 2020

The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) recently received new funding to continue studying how some nanomaterials in rechargeable batteries and phones can harm the environment and now other nanoparticles can improve soybean plant health.

The CSN is a multi-institutional venture and includes the University of Iowa where Sara E. Mason, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry, led a group that determined how toxic metal ions released by batteries dissolve in water. The sophisticated models used in her studies can be used in designing rechargeable batteries with fewer negative effects on the environment in the future, according to an Iowa Now article.

The CSN received an initial grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation in 2012. The new round of funding will last through 2025 and allow Mason’s group to work with a new partner, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, to expand their research. At the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, researchers recently discovered that copper oxide nanomaterials can help soybean plants with fungal infections recover and return to a healthy growth cycle. Mason’s team was able to combine their modeling system with this new information to discover which class of nanomaterials worked best to improve the plants’ health. The journal Nature Nanotechnology has accepted the results of their research.

The team will continue to learn more about nanomaterials in batteries and their effects on plant health, and they are currently searching for undergraduates to join in on their efforts.