On The Radio – Des Moines sorority engages students on climate change


Members of the Iota Zeta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha participated in the Central Iowa Heart Walk on April 16, 2016. (Alpha Kappa Alpha-Iota Zeta Omega/Facebook)
Members of the Iota Zeta Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha participated in the Central Iowa Heart Walk on April 16, 2016. (Alpha Kappa Alpha-Iota Zeta Omega/Facebook)
Nick Fetty | April 18, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at a Des Moines sorority that is part of an initiative to teach high school students about the ways that climate change affects different countries.  

Transcript: Des Moines sorority engages students on climate change

An Iowa sorority is working on a new effort to teach Des Moines-area students about climate change.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Des Moines was selected as one of ten cities nationwide to be part of an EPA-funded project to bring a climate change curriculum to high needs students. Members of the Iota Zeta Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority have worked with students at North High School in Des Moines and aim to engage 1,000 students city-wide. Participants in the program role-play as ambassadors from various nations to understand how climate change affects countries differently.

The Chapter’s Vice President and Program Chair Lagi Roberts said the program serves as an important learning opportunity for students involved.

Roberts: “I believe exposing students from communities disconnected from international concerns like climate change, is not only important, but necessary. This experimental learning opportunity enables students from high needs communities to engage in international climate change concerns and dialogs that they may have never been exposed to. Students are introduced to life changing skills like, decisive decision making, critical thinking, public speaking and cross cultural understanding, all skills in which these young leaders need in order to succeed.  The climate change mini-simulation classroom curriculum is allowing these students the opportunity to do just that by successfully shaping college and career ready young people.”

Alpha Kappa Alpha is the nation’s first and oldest sorority for African American college trained women. The Des Moines Graduate chapter consists of women who have graduated from colleges and universities nation-wide including alumnae of the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and Drake University.

For more information about the sorority’s efforts, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

On The Radio – Iowa experienced unusually warm and wet conditions in 2015


Storm clouds roll through Polk County south of near Elkhart in November 2015. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
Storm clouds roll through Polk County south of near Elkhart in November 2015. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | February 1, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at unusually high temperatures and precipitation levels that Iowa experienced at the end of 2015.

Transcript: Warm fall and winter

While global temperatures continued to set records, Iowa experienced an unusually warm and exceedingly wet winter in 2015.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The United States Department of Agriculture reports that between August 31 and December 31, only 25 days recorded below average temperatures in Iowa. Temps during that period were 5.8 degrees Fahrenheit above normal, the warmest for that period since 1931.

Iowa also experienced by far its wettest December ever in both rain and snow, with a single storm system in mid-December shattering the records set by most winter months since record keeping started in 1873. Grundy Center’s 8.2 inches of precipitation dwarfed its previous December record of 3.7 inches set in 1982, while Des Moines’ 5.4 inches broke its previous record of 3.7 inches set in 1931. This continued a trend of unpredictability in weather patterns – which even included the first ever recorded tornado warnings in December. The heavy precipitation contributed to devastating flooding downstream from Missouri to Texas.

For more information about Iowa weather, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Des Moines water bills expected to increase 10 percent in 2016


The Des Moines River near downtown Des Moines. (Michael Leland/Flickr)
The Des Moines River near downtown Des Moines. (Michael Leland/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | December 30, 2015

As 2015 wraps up, Des Moines residents can prepare for a 10 percent increase on their water bills in 2016.

The rate increase comes in the midst of a lawsuit between the Des Moines Water Works and three northern Iowa drainage districts. The water utility claims the drainage districts are not doing enough to prevent nitrate pollution in public waterways which has forced the utility to operate its Nitrate Removal Facility. The additional equipment costs up to $7,000 per day to operate which is eventually passed on to the more than a quarter of a million customers in the Des Moines area.

Rates are expected to go up in April of 2016. Bill Stowe – CEO of the Des Moines Water Works – recently told Iowa Public Radio that it will cost $80 million to update its nitrate removal system and that he’s been disappointed by the state’s political leadership regarding the situation.

“I’m particularly disappointed in the last year that we haven’t had political leadership from either party in Iowa to step forward and move this towards some kind of negotiated settlement…We believe we’re going to prevail in a court of law.”

Stowe added, “If we don’t [previal] we believe there will be big public policy consequences from that.”

A lawyer representing the water districts is arguing that the districts little authority outside of draining land and therefore cannot be held accountable “for damages that result from actions over which the districts have no control,” as reported by the Sioux City Journal. Earlier this year a motion was filed asking U.S. District Court Judge Mark W. Bennett to drop eight of the 10 charges against the drainage districts.

Bennett expects to have a ruling on the issue by mid-January.

On The Radio – Des Moines mayor touts ability of city governments to pursue sustainability


CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor (left) interviews Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie at COP21 in Paris. (CGRER)
CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor (left) interviews Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie at COP21 in Paris. (CGRER)
December 21, 2015

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie and sustainability initiatives he has led in Iowa’s capital city.

Transcript: Des Moines mayor touts ability of city governments to pursue sustainability

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie was among more than 500 mayors from around the world in Paris earlier this month as part of the COP21 international climate conference.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Mayor Cownie sat down with University of Iowa civil and environmental engineering professor Jerry Schnoor at the international climate conference in Paris to discuss ways that city governments can help in the global effort to reduce carbon emissions and also to discuss specific initiatives taken in Iowa’s capital city. One such initiative was Des Moines’ LEED platinum-certified World Food Prize building, which at the time of its opening was the largest single-owner, single-occupant LEED platinum building in the world.

Des Moines was also one of the first cities to the sign the Compact of Mayors agreement, which is an accord by mayors from roughly 120 cities across the United States that have responded to the president’s plea to address climate change through local government initiatives. Cownie said he thinks that the smaller size of city government makes it easier to implement certain measures compared to state and federal initiatives.

COWNIE: “We don’t need to have an act of congress or an appropriation that might come 12 to 16 months down the road. If there are things that need to be done we can do them today. We’re working in preparedness and mitigation techniques. We recognize from past experiences some of the vulnerabilities we have even in Iowa.”

For full text and video from the interview with Mayor Cownie, visit Iowa-Environmental-Focus-dot-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Nick Fetty.

COP 21 event focuses on insurance for climate-related natural disasters


A panel with representatives from France, Germany, and Spain were part of a panel that discussed the role of insurance companies when covering natural disasters. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Representatives from France, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland were part of a panel that discussed the role of insurance companies when covering natural disasters. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | December 9, 2015

PARIS – Representatives from various European nations got together as part of a COP 21 conference on Wednesday to discuss the role of the insurance industry when dealing with the natural disasters, many of which are worsened by the effects of climate change.

Caisse Centrale de Réassurance (CCR) sponsored the conference entitled “The challenges of natural disasters insurance against the future climate.” Margareta Wahlström – who serves as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction at the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction – kicked off the event by discussing the relationship between natural disasters and climate change to roughly 200 people in the Green Zone’s Nelson Mandela Auditorium.

“The face of climate change unfortunately is the increasing frequency, the increasing cost – be it social economic and political –  of the disruptive phenomenon we call [natural] disasters,” she said. “I think the questions we want to debate today are about how and where can the insurance agency do more to be part of the solution.”

She emphasized the need to understand the social impacts of natural disasters which can have devastating effects on communities.

“What is the impact on education? Employment? Poverty?” she asked, adding “Almost every disaster in world increases poverty in rich countries and in poor countries.”

Following Wahlström’s presentation, the auditorium was shown the premier of “Get Ready: Adapting to cope with natural disasters,” a 30-minute documentary that highlighted several recent natural disasters around the world and the role that insurance and mitigation efforts can play in the aftermath of such events.

One such event was the serve flooding that hit Thailand in 2011, resulting in more than 800 deaths and $32 billion in damage. The ripple effects of the floods were seen worldwide as prices rose for hard drives and automobiles produced in the southeast Asian country.

The documentary also addressed efforts taken by communities to mitigate the effects of flooding and other natural disasters. The southern French town of Sommières was one place where new ideas have been implemented to mitigate the effects of flooding. Sommières now has it so that only businesses can occupy the ground level of buildings throughout the four square mile town. Additionally, the town installed mobile electric boxes and parking meters which can be easily removed in the event of another flood. In 2012, the United Nations recognized Sommières as a model city for its efforts to mitigate flood damage.

Another example of mitigation efforts came from a Duth engineer who designed a way to put homes, roads, and other structures on floats that rise and lower with the level of the water. Similar efforts have been tried in England and France has considered adopting such measures.

The conference concluded with a panel of insurance experts discussing various ways that insurance companies can adapt their services to better serve the needs of those affected by natural disasters. Much of the discussion focused on increased cooperation between private insurance companies and governmental agencies. (Editorial Note: I’ve chosen not to quote any of the panelists as many of them spoke in French and I was only able to understand them through an English translator.)

The issue of natural disaster insurance is relevant to Iowans as major floods in 1993 and 2009 caused billions of dollars in damage to homes, businesses, and other property across the state. Additionally, Iowa’s capital Des Moines has been called “a global hub of the insurance industry, trailing only Hartford, Connecticut and megacities like New York.”

Jerry Schnoor Q&A with Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie


University of Iowa civil and environmental engineering professor Jerry Schnoor interviews Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie as CGRER grad assistants Nick Fetty and KC McGinnis shoot video. (CGRER)
University of Iowa civil and environmental engineering professor Jerry Schnoor interviews Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie as CGRER grad assistants Nick Fetty and KC McGinnis shoot video. (CGRER)
Nick Fetty | December 7, 2015

As the COP 21 climate conference enters its second week, three representatives from the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and regional Environmental Research (CGRER) are on the ground in Paris to cover the event. CGRER co-director Jerry Schnoor and graduate assistants Nick Fetty and KC McGinnis got together Monday afternoon for a question and answer session with Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie.

*Some quotes have been edited for length and clarity*

SCHNOOR: Today at COP 21, there was a meeting of the BlueGreen Alliance. Michael Brune – executive director of the Sierra Club – said cities are able to make dramatic progress compared to those at the national level, what’s he talking about and is that true?

COWNIE: What he’s talking about is the ability of cities to make decisions immediately. We don’t need to have an act of congress or an appropriation that might come 12 to 16 months down the road. If there are things that need to be done we can do them today. The federal government, short of a national emergency, is very slow to respond and react. We’re working in preparedness and mitigation techniques. We recognize from past experiences some of the vulnerabilities we have even in Iowa to extreme weather events such as flooding and extreme downpours which result in water issues: flooding, water quality issues, erosion. It talks about the future of the state of Iowa. It talks about the future of the city of Des Moines. So we’re able to jump in there and start working with it and we can immediately start working with some of our local players. So as mayor of the city of Des Moines, I can enlist some of my local businesses, schools, other governmental agencies, counties. We can partner together also talking to people in their own residences, their own homes, on what they can do to make some progress lowering their utility bills but more importantly, at least in the discussion here about carbon, by lessening their utility bills they can save 30, 40, 50 percent on their bill, it’s 30, 40, 50 percent less carbon they’re putting through their furnace.

SCHNOOR: For the city of Des Moines, what specific things can you cite in the area of sustainability and lowering your carbon footprint?

COWNIE: Well first of all, we’re one of the cities that signed on the Compact of Mayors agreement. There’s 120 cities that responded to the plea by the president of the United States to get local government to respond. What does that mean? It means that we’ve signed up and we’ve committed. Additionally, we’re going to do an inventory of our greenhouse gas emissions. The city of Des Moines has already done that. And then what you do is make a plan to mitigate and target for reductions. In Des Moines we’ve added hybrids and electric vehicles in our fleets. We’ve redone, re-purposed, re-energized buildings with new furnaces, new heating plans, new cooling plans, new windows, new doors, new insulation. Some of which we’ve really taken to the extreme level. Our old library, as you know you and I did a meeting there, that building is over 100 years old. It’s on the national historic registry. Now the World Food Prize is there. It’s a LEED platinum building and a historic structure. We’re doing all kinds of things with the public sector doing what we can do. Leading by example. And also using our powers at the city level to encourage our businesses to do the right thing. So when Wellmark made their new building, we offered some tax increment dollars to get them to rethink how they were going to build their new building and they came to an agreement with us and built the world’s largest – at the time of their opening – single-owner, single-occupant LEED platinum building in the world. Those are the kinds of things we like to see because it speaks to not only energy but it speaks to the health of buildings. It speaks to the food they serve. How people get to and from work using public transportation. So many aspects of it touch on carbon use.

SCHNOOR: Is an action agenda for a city like Des Moines somewhat easier to implement than say for a whole country?

COWNIE: That’s right. At the local level, one of the inspiring things we can do is I know mayors from around the country, I know them around Iowa. We share good ideas. I try to call it legitimate larceny. If somebody has a really good idea on how we can make improvements and achieve further reductions, I’ll steal their good idea and I hope they’ll steal mine.

SCHNOOR: There’s some wariness here at COP 21 that we’re going to fall short. There’s an emissions gap between what’s needed to control the environment to less than two degree warming, we seem to be short. And they’re talking about a more ambitious agenda. Could some of that ambition come from the Compact of Mayors and people like yourself?

COWNIE: Yes. I think that some of the talk I’ve heard is that if they have the cities and the cities commit, and the cities actually do the work and meet their goals, that could account for about 25 percent of that gap that you’re talking about achieving that two degree goal. But I think that one of the things that we all worry about is that there’s so much carbon in the atmosphere that there’s sort of a pent up increase that’s going to happen over the next 50 to 100 years, that we can’t do anything about today so we’ve got to lower the emissions. Figure out how to capture carbon. How to do so many different things and aggressively raise our ambitions to achieve many higher levels. I think local government is one of the places it can really move forward  and we can spread that 25 percent hopefully to 50. We know that 70 percent of the energy that’s used happens in cities and the expansion and GDP and future is mostly going to be in cities so let’s rethink how the city ought to operate and let’s hope Des Moines is on the right track so we can get to a net zero city at some point or another.

Stay tuned to Iowa Environmental Focus throughout the rest of the week for continued coverage of the event. Follow CGRER and its reporters on Twitter: @CGRER, @JerryatCOP21, @nick_fetty, and @McGinnisKC.

Also check out the coverage by Iowa media about the trip: KGANDes Moines RegisterThe Daily NonPareilThe Daily Iowan.

On The Radio – Several Iowans to attend Paris climate conference


The Paris climate conference, also known as COP 21, begins today and continues through December 11. (Robin Tournadre/Flickr)
The Paris climate conference, or COP 21, begins today and continues through December 11. (Robin Tournadre/Flickr)
November 30, 2015

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at Iowans attending the climate conference in Paris which begins today and continues through December 11.

Transcript: Several Iowans to attend Paris climate conference

Several prominent Iowa researchers and policy makers will be at an international climate summit being held in Paris this month.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The 21st Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be held from November 30 to December 11. There, delegates from 196 nations will seek to reach a legally-binding agreement on a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Des Moines mayor Frank Cownie, University of Iowa professor of civil and environmental engineering Jerry Schnoor, and Dubuque mayor Roy Buol will be among the Iowans present at the conference. Two dozen Mississippi River mayors have met since September to discuss the impacts of climate change on their river economies and the importance of cleaning up the Mississippi. A group of these mayors including mayor Buol will discuss these issues with delegates from seven of the world’s major river basins.

Dr. Schnoor will be reporting on findings from the conference for the American Chemical Society while the University of Iowa’s Andrea Cohen will be representing the Iowa United Nations Association. CGRER will also be providing continuous updates from the conference.

For more info about the Paris climate talks visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

http://www.cop21paris.org/

On the Radio: Iowans favor water works suit


The Des Moines skyline (Scott Grissom / Flickr)
The Des Moines skyline (Scott Grissom / Flickr)
April 20, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at favorable public opinion of the currently underway Des Moines Water Works lawsuit. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Water Works Suit

A strong majority of Iowans favor the current Des Moines Water Works lawsuit aimed at  counties with high nutrient runoff, according to a recent survey.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A Des Moines Register poll conducted in February found that 63 percent of Iowans believe the Des Moines water utility is right to pursue a lawsuit against three northwest Iowa drainage districts. The Water Works has recorded nitrate levels six times higher than the federal limit for drinking water in parts of the Raccoon River that are fed by drainages in Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties. These high nitrate levels create headaches for the utility, which is required to activate a facility to remove the nutrients at a cost of about 4,000 dollars per day.

The lawsuit intends to bring farmers in the northwest Iowa counties under the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act. Farmers are currently applying Iowa’s voluntary Nutrient Reduction Strategy as an attempt to reduce nutrient runoff.

For continued updates on the Water Works lawsuit, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.

https://www.scribd.com/fullscreen/257077948?access_key=key-37ieSUtkBIFSOhDkvuF3&allow_share=true&escape=false&view_mode=scroll

http://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/money/agriculture/2015/02/26/iowa-poll-water-quality/24091173/

Hundreds gather for Environmental Lobby Day 2015


Environmental Lobby Day/REAP Day 2015 took place at the capitol in Des Moines on Tuesday, February 16. (Katie Haugland/Flickr)
Environmental Lobby Day/REAP Day 2015 took place at the capitol building in Des Moines on Tuesday, February 16. (Katie Haugland/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 19, 2015

More than 250 people attended the annual Environmental Lobby Day/REAP Day at the state capitol in Des Moines on Tuesday.

Thirty-three different conservation groups set up station’s in the statehouse’s rotunda to appeal to legislators and other attendees. Groups in attendance included Iowa Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Iowa Conservation Education Coalition, the State Hygienic Lab, and others.

The event also included speeches from state senators Bob Dvorsky (D-Coralville) and David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan), Iowa Natural Resources Commission chair Margo Underwood, Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation president emeritus Mark Ackelson, and Iowa Environmental Council executive director Ralph Rosenberg.

REAP (Resource Enhancement and Protection) funding was one issue discussed at Tuesday’s event. Sixteen million dollars was appropriated to REAP for the current fiscal year with an additional $500,000 coming from natural resources license plate sales and gaming revenues. The money will be distributed to several state departments including Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Cultural Affairs, Natural Resources, Transportation and the State Historical Society. This funding will cover a variety of projects from city and state parks to soil and water enhancement.

While environmental issues were the main focus of the event, public health matters were also addressed. Chris Squires – a University of Iowa professor representing the American Cancer Society – advocated for legislation to prevent anyone under the age of 17 from using tanning beds while Eileen Fisher from Rural Cedar Township pushed for a smoking ban in Iowa casinos.

VIDEO: KCAU-TV/ABC9 – 35 Conservation Groups Gather at Iowa Statehouse

State could face possible lawsuit for water quality issues


Des Moines Water Works utilizes the Des Moines River (pictured) and the Raccoon Rivers as its two main water sources. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)
The Des Moines Water Works utilizes the Des Moines River (pictured) and the Raccoon River as its two main water sources. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | January 6, 2015

The Des Moines Water Works – Iowa’s largest water utility – is considering bringing a lawsuit against the state challenging the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Last month an unusually high surge of nitrate levels in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers forced officials with the Des Moines Water Works to activate its nitrate removal facility which costs roughly $7,000 per day to operate. These costs have been passed on to the Des Moines Water Works’ more than a quarter of a million customers. High nitrate levels that go untreated can lead to multiple health complications such as blue baby syndrome as well as various cancers and miscarriages.

Bill Stowe – CEO and General Manager of the Des Moines Water Works – has been critical of state’s voluntary nutrient-reduction strategy. In an editorial he wrote for the Des Moines Register in October 2014, Stowe stated: “Until industrial agriculture is no longer exempt from regulations needed to protect water quality, we will continue to see water quality degrade and our consumers will continue to pay.”

The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy “is voluntary for farmers [and] calls for a 45 percent reduction in nitrogen and phosphorus pollution leaving the state.” Critics of the strategy say that the voluntary approach has been ineffective in improving Iowa’s water quality.

The Des Moines Water Works board of directors is scheduled to meet Thursday and a decision on whether to bring legal action against the state may be discussed at that meeting.