Iowa State’s agricultural and biosystems engineering program ranks best in country


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Bird’s eye view of Iowa State University’s new Biorenewables Complex which was completed in 2014. (Iowa State University.)
Jake Slobe | October 12, 2016

Iowa State University’s agricultural and biosystems engineering undergraduate program was recently ranked No. 1 in the country by U.S. News and World Report’s 2017 Best Colleges.

The report stated that, “Students who enroll at this major research, land-grant university experience a unique personal, welcoming environment, and a rich collection of academic and extra-curricular programs that help them discover their own individual greatness.”

Department Chair Steven Mickelson credits much of the ranking to the university’s new Biorenewables Complex. The complex, consisting of Elings Hall, Sukup Hall and the Biorenewables Research Laboratory, opened in 2014 and offers cutting-edge classrooms and laboratories.

While the new complex has been significant in boosting the level of ISU’s engineering department, it is just one of many changes within the program in the last few years.

In the summer of 2013, ISU teamed up with the Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) to invest in a 3-D metal printer that will contribute to students’ learning. The new laser printer has been building parts for Iowa manufacturers since last fall and allows students to learn about the advantages of adopting metal 3D printing as part of the design and manufacturing process.

The department has also recently acquired a state-of-the-art water flume.  The new water flume allows students to simulate Iowa streamflow which assists them in crop research.

“These two new pieces of technology are used for teaching and learning that gives great experience to help students with jobs and research,” Mickelson said.

Mickelson also attributes the ranking to the program’s growth in undergraduate and graduate students. The program has seen a 46 percent increase in undergraduate students and a 25 percent increase in graduate students over the last 5 years.

He emphasizes the importance of hands-on learning experiences in the classroom. He says hands-on learning curriculum accounts for 38 percent of all classes in the department.

“Hiring high-quality faculty, getting the right people on the bus to being with is what makes this department great.”

Iowa scientists urge action on Climate-Smart Agriculture


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 Jake Slobe | October 5, 2016

Iowa researchers and educators at nearly every college and university in the state have produced annual statements describing the real impacts Iowans are experiencing from climate change.

Released today, the sixth annual statement titled, “Iowa Climate Statement 2016: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture,” was signed by 187 science faculty and researchers from 39 Iowa colleges and universities. Listen to the statement here:

This year’s climate statement comes shortly after a month of heavy rain and flooding throughout Iowa.

Director of  Environmental Science and Policy Program at Drake University David Courard-Hauri has been involved with the Iowa Climate Statement since its inception in 2011. He says,

“Iowa’s recent extreme rainfall events and flooding reminds us that climate change is real and needs to be addressed on both the farm and in our communities.” 

This year’s statement illustrates the need and benefits of more widespread adoption of proven soil conservation practices. Specifically, it discusses U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Tom Vilsack’s initiative, Building Blocks for Climate-Smart Agriculture. The USDA plans to implement climate-smart agriculture primarily by increasing incentive-based programs allowing farmers to confront these challenges head on.

Co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research Jerry Schnoor said that Iowan farmers are beginning to experiencing real impacts from climate change in the forms heavier rains, increased flooding and soil erosion.

“We believe Iowa should play a leadership role in this vital effort, just as our state has already done for wind energy.  We urge our representatives to help Iowa’s innovative farmers and land managers establish a multi-faceted vision for land stewardship by vigorously implementing federal, state, and other conservation programs.” 

More information about this year’s climate statement as well as all previous Iowa climate statements can be found here.

On The Radio – Flood barriers protect Cedar Rapids


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Workers stand on a flood wall made of Hesco barriers on the bank of the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall / AP)
Jake Slobe | October 3, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the flooding that recently took place in Cedar Rapids.

Transcript: An intricate system of temporary floodwalls largely protected Cedar Rapids homes and businesses Tuesday as the river that runs through the city reached its second-highest peak ever.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

City officials said the ten-mile system of Hesco barriers erected over the weekend was largely successful in holding back the rising Cedar River. The barriers were quickly assembled along the river at a cost of five to six million dollars over the course of a few days. The city also deployed 250,000 sandbags, many of which remained dry and can be recycled.

The city received good news as the river crested at 22.1 feet, three feet lower than previous estimates. That was nine feet below the 2008 flood that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in the worst natural disaster in Iowa history.

City crews worked all through the night before the crest to patch any weaknesses in the barrier system and prepare to pump out any water that seeped through the barriers or came up through the saturated ground.

Cedar Rapids deserves high marks for its preparedness and response.

To learn more about the flooding, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

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

Iowa Flood Center completes watershed management sites along Beaver Creek


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Beaver Creek watersheds project engineer Robert Larget provides design details and outcomes at watershed management sites at a tour earlier this month. (Joe Bolkcom/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | September 27, 2016

Just ahead of major flooding that has plagued northeastern Iowa this month, citizens from communities surrounding the Beaver Creek watershed toured three of six flood control structures in the area that were funded by the Iowa Watersheds Project in 2013.

The project, a part of the Iowa Flood Center’s (IFC) effort to prevent flooding and improve water quality, is the product of a U.S. Department of Urban Housing and Development grant that was awarded to the center following the 2008 floods. The Iowa Watersheds Project provided 75 percent cost-share assistance to landowners to construct water management structures like wetlands and ponds near Beaver Creek, Otter Creek, and South Chequest Creek.

The tour, held on September sixth, marked the completion of the flood prevention structures along Beaver Creek. Participants were bussed to three finished sites along with project engineer Robert Larget, who said that the structures’ designs are encouraging. He said, “The minimal for a hundred-year flood on one site should be in the peak of about twenty-four percent. We have two structures in combination that for that same event will reduce flood flows downstream by about ninety percent.”

Doug Bohlen, a participating landowner near Beaver Creek, said that his structures provide benefits beyond flood control and improved water quality for his family’s land. Bohlen said,

“With my sons and grandsons, it’s going to be good recreation for our family. I’ve always wanted a pond down there, and now there’s one. There’s so many different species of ducks. It’s hard to believe that four days after water started into the pond, there was four swans on it and there was nine sandhill cranes.”

Following the tour, participants listened as IFC civil and environmental engineer Allen Bradley presented an evaluation of the project’s performance. Researchers provided computerized models that are able to predict flood events following major rainfall. Impact differed based on on location, the size of structures, and other factors, but overall, Beaver Creek area residents will see a significant reduction in downstream flooding as a result of the watersheds project.

Iowa Supreme Court hears Des Moines Water Works lawsuit oral arguments


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A drainage tile flowing into a waterway in Sac Country, Iowa. (iprimages/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 16, 2016

Five Iowa Supreme Court Justices heard arguments on Wednesday in a legal suit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against three northwest Iowa counties for the pollution of 500,000 residents’ drinking water.

A Des Moines Water Works attorney asked the court to reconsider the legal immunity that drainage districts have been granted for nearly a century and to determine whether the water utility could seek monetary damages. Removing nitrates that flowed into the Raccoon and Skunk rivers cost Water Works $1.5 million last year alone. The utility said that the water has exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit of 10 milligrams per liter several times in recent years.

Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe said that monetary damages for past contamination and increased federal oversight of drainage districts are both important. As nitrate levels in waterways increased throughout the 1990’s, Des Moines Water Works built the largest ion exchange nitrate removal facility in the world, with a $4.1 million dollar price tag. The utility said that a larger facility will be necessary by 2020, claiming the project would cost up to $183.5 million dollars. Farming communities in Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties are concerned that farmers will be responsible for payment should the damages be awarded. Typically, if county officials decide to lay new drainage tiles or repair old ones, farmers have footed the bill.

Michael Reck, a lawyer representing the three counties, presented several examples in which Iowa courts honored the legal immunity of drainage districts. Des Moines Water Works attorney John Lande said that this is the first time public health has been at stake in such court proceedings. He argued that drainage districts were established to protect the public health of  Iowa communities. He said that they have repeatedly failed to do so when nitrate levels were found to be four times the EPA’s limit downstream.

Whether or not damages are awarded, the Iowa Legislature has been moved to consider water quality protection measures. A reallocation of tax money from public schools to water quality projects failed to pass last year, as did a 3/8-cent water quality sales tax bill. Some say that they are hopeful the sales tax proposal will be reintroduced this year. The policy would generate $150 million dollars a year for built water quality management projects.

State approval of new wind farm echos rising support for wind energy nationwide


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Evening skies over the Century Windfarm in Blairsburg, Iowa. (Brain.Abeling/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 1, 2016

A $3.6 billion dollar wind energy project was approved by the Iowa Utilities Board late last week.

The initiative is a part of MidAmerican Energy’s goal to eventually provide 100% renewable energy for its customers in Iowa. Expected to be completed by late 2019, the Wind XI project will add 1,000 wind turbines to Iowa’s grid. Ashton Hockman, a spokesperson for MidAmerican, said in an email earlier this week that while the exact locations are still being finalized, the farm will be located on multiple sites around the state. She added, “Wind XI will add up to 2,000 megawatts of wind generation in Iowa and is the largest wind project MidAmerican Energy has ever undertaken.”

MidAmerican Energy plans to earn back all $3.6 billion dollars through federal production tax credits over the course of ten years. As such, the company did not seek financial support from the state and will not need to raise rates for customers, according the MidAmerican representatives.

Iowa has long been a top producer of wind energy nationwide. It became the first state in the country to produce more than 30% of its total energy using wind earlier this year, and is second only to Texas in total megawatts produced, a state nearly five times its size.The project, first announced by MidAmerican CEO Bill Fehrman last April, will be the largest wind operation in the country according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

New findings from AWEA show that support for wind energy production is on the rise, even across party lines. Polling results show that public support for wind energy seems to rise as the industry grows. In Texas, the top wind producing state in the country, over 85% of voters support wind energy. Nationwide 70% of registered voters have a favorable impression of wind energy, including 60% of Republicans and Independent voters. As the election draws nearer, AWEA CEO Tom Kiernan said,

“Candidates running for office on both sides of the aisle in this important election year should take note: The more wind farms we build, the stronger support from U.S. voters grows. As wind power has more than tripled over the last eight years, so have its economic and environmental benefits. Wind technician is the fastest growing job in the U.S., and the billions of dollars of investment in local economies have revitalized many rural communities.”

Federal emergency declaration in Flint to expire soon


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(George Thomas/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | August 11, 2016

The federal state of emergency declared by President Obama for the city of Flint, Michigan will end this Sunday, August 14.

President Obama announced the state of emergency on January 16, 2016 after thousands of Flint residents were exposed to toxic amounts of lead in tap water. The declaration authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to spend up to 5 million in federal money to supply the community with clean water, water filters, and other necessary items. Since January, FEMA has covered 75% of costs associated with providing more than 243,000 water filter replacement cartridges, and about 50,000 water and pitcher filters. After the emergency status ends this Sunday, the state government will be responsible for those costs.

Bob Kaplan, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Acting Regional Administrator, said that while water quality is improving, their work is far from finished, he said, “We won’t be at the finish line until testing can confirm that Flint residents are receiving safe, clean drinking water.”

Researchers at Virginia Tech University spent two weeks in the Michigan city at the end of June testing water samples for lead, iron, and Legionella, a bacteria that causes Legionnaire’s disease and responsible for the deaths of ten Flint citizens. In a press conference today, the research team concluded that Legionella colonization was very low, and while lead levels have decreased, Flint citizens should still use filters or bottled water until further notice from the State or EPA.

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said that rebuilding Flint citizens’ trust in the government is going to require more support from government agencies. She said, “We don’t think we’ve gotten everything that the citizens deserve as a result of what has happened…It hasn’t been enough and it hasn’t been fast enough.” Weaver added, “…the only way people will truly feel comfortable is when we have new pipes in place.”