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.”

Muscatine business receives governor’s Overall Environmental Excellence Award


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Improper disposal of hazardous waste from household appliances can lead to ozone degradation and water contamination. (Steve Snodgrass, flickr)
Jenna Ladd | August 10, 2016

Weikert Iron and Metal Recycling of Muscatine was one of seven recipients of the governor’s Overall Environmental Excellence Award last week.

Founded in 1982, Weikert Iron and Metal Recycling has specialized in demanufacturing and recycling appliances and properly disposing of hazardous materials since regulations for appliance handling were passed in 2002. In 2015 alone, the company demanufactured over 5,000 refrigerators as well as thousands of air conditioning units, microwave ovens, dehumidifiers, and other appliances. With each disassembly, the business properly disposes of all hazardous materials including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury switches, refrigerants, and sodium-chromates.

A family run business, owner Mike Weikert admits that compliance with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) regulations can be difficult but worth the trouble, as improper disposal can cause water contamination and ozone degradation. Kurt Levetzow, of Iowa DNR, agrees, “The reason these were written was due to the hazardous components found in many of the appliances, some are carcinogens.”

Iowa DNR nominated Weikert Iron and Metal Recycling for the award. Levetzow commends their efforts,”Removal, storage, handling, record-keeping, there’s a lot of things these guys have to do to comply. And they’re probably one of the best in the region at maintaining compliance.”

Six other businesses, organizations, and communities also received the award including: Des Moines Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority; Des Moines
Central Community Schools Global Science Class and the Central Green Team; City of Monona; Pure Fishing, Spirit Lake; Price Creek Watershed Project; Iowa County Soil and Water Conservation District, Williamsburg; Walnut Creek Watershed Coalition, Windsor Heights.

 

On The Radio – New Cedar Rapids sustainability coordinator provides multifaceted momentum


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Eric Holthaus (second from right) leading a waste audit with students in 2013 at the University of Iowa, where he served as Recycling Coordinator from 2012 to 2015. (Lev Cantoral/University of Iowa)
Jenna Ladd | August 8, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment takes a closer look at Cedar Rapid’s first-ever sustainability coordinator and University of Iowa graduate, Eric Holthaus. 

Transcript: New Cedar Rapids sustainability coordinator provides multifaceted momentum

Cedar Rapids has hired its first-ever sustainability coordinator.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Eric Holthaus, a University of Iowa graduate, was hired on to provide focus and strategy to existing city-wide sustainability initiatives and to spearhead new efforts. Since beginning his work with the city in November, he helped implement a 90 kilowatt solar panel array on the roof of the Northwest Cedar Rapids Transit Garage and establish a policy that prohibits city vehicles from idling for longer than one minute.

Upon his hire, Holthaus created a 21-point sustainability assessment of the city. In addition to other findings, he notes that Cedar Rapids has clean drinking water, but difficulty with “food deserts,” or areas of town where populations have restricted access to food.

At the end of June, Holthaus and his team released a document titled, “State of Affairs: Cedar Rapids’ Pursuit of Sustainability.” The document lays a foundational definition for sustainability and why it matters to people in Cedar Rapids.

To Holthaus, sustainability reaches beyond environmental issues,

HOLTHAUS: “And so sustainability to me is be able to have a high quality of life, and it also means to me to connect the social and economic aspects. A lot of people don’t meet their daily needs, you know, if there’s an opportunity for us to eat better, to have cleaner water, to have more access to those resources, how can prioritize people that have the least and build stronger communities when we do that intentionally?”

Cedar Rapids is only the third city in the Hawkeye state to create a sustainability coordinator position, following Iowa City and Dubuque.

To learn more about Eric’s position, or to read more about Cedar Rapids’ sustainability goals, visit Iowa-Environmental-Focus dot org.

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

 

 

Critical Zone Observatory Environmental Science Workshop


(Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | June 29, 2016

Nearly two dozen Eastern Iowa K-12 teachers attended a workshop Tuesday to learn about hands-on activities and lesson plans for engaging students in science.

The Critical Zone Observatory Environmental Science Workshop brought together the University of Iowa College of Education, the UI Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences, the UI State Hygienic Laboratory, and the Intensively Managed Landscapes-Critical Zone Observatory to help teachers connect their students to environmental science. While the workshop focused mostly on science, Leslie Flynn, a clinical assistant professor in the UI College of Education, said the workshop also aims to show teachers and students how science is connected to other fields.

“I think what (earth and environmental sciences professor) Dr. Bettis did that was interesting for the teachers was show them how our landscape has changed over time. As farm practices have changed and more people have moved into the area, it’s changed the Clear Creek Watershed,” said Flynn. “Teachers were drawing connections not just between the science but also the history of the landscape, geography, political considerations in terms of zoning. I think what it showed us is that it’s a very interdisciplinary topic and that we can use the environment and the watershed to look through multiple lenses. Through math, science, social studies, engineering and I think that really struck a chord with the teachers.”

Workshop attendees spent the morning at a research site in rural Iowa County to learn about hands-on activities and potential field trip opportunities related to environmental science. The afternoon session was at the UI State Hygienic Laboratory where teachers developed environmental science lessons plans. Flynn said she thinks inter-departmental cooperation, particularly between she and CGRER member Dr. Art Bettis, was key to the success of the event.

“One thing that’s really important to me is finding people who want to partner. In this project, Art and I said “yes” to each other. We didn’t know each other (prior to this event.) Then the State Hygienic Laboratory welcomed us in here,” said Flynn. “So one of the great things is finding people who say “yes” and when they do you can solve problems for K-12 and the community so it’s just been a great experience.”

AMA: Proper LED steet light technology leads to environmental benefits


A LED street light in Tuscon, Arizona. (Bill Morrow/Flickr)
An LED street light in Tuscon, Arizona. (Bill Morrow/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | June 28, 2016

Proper LED – or light emitting diode – technology for street lights could benefit both human health and the environment, according to the American Medical Association (AMA).

During its annual meeting earlier this month, the AMA “adopted guidance for communities on selecting among LED lighting options to minimize potential harmful human and environmental effects.” About 10 percent of existing U.S. street lighting has been converted to LED which often have economic and environmental benefits compared to conventional lighting. However, despite these benefits, officials with the AMA feel that certain forms of LED technology in street lighting may actually cause more harm than good.

“Despite the energy efficiency benefits, some LED lights are harmful when used as street lighting,” said AMA Board Member Maya A. Babu. “The new AMA guidance encourages proper attention to optimal design and engineering features when converting to LED lighting that minimize detrimental health and environmental effects.”

The lighting from high-intensity LED designs can harm some bird, insect, turtle, and fish species that are naturally accustomed to a darker environment. To avoid these potential ecological threats, national parks in the U.S. have utilized optimal lighting designs in an effort to minimize the effects of light pollution on the environment. In addition to harming the environment, high-intensity LED lighting can cause distractions for drivers and also disrupt circadian sleep rhythms in humans.

Specifically, the AMA recommends that communities use LED technology with the lowest emission of blue light possible. AMA also recommends that LED lighting be properly shielded to reduce glare and that LED lighting be dimmed during non-peak time periods

In 2015, MidAmerican Energy announced plans to convert more than 100,000 Iowa streetlights to LED over a 10-year period.

On the Radio: Record blue-green algae blooms causing health concerns


(Bobby McKay / Flickr)
(Bobby McKay / Flickr)
August 24, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at public health concerns over the record number of blue-green algae blooms in Iowa this summer. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Blue green algae causing health concerns

Toxins from dangerous algal blooms are appearing in record numbers across the state this summer.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The most recent report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources advises Iowans to avoid two beaches that exceed healthy levels of a toxin produced by cyanobacteria, also known as blue green algae. This brings the total number of advisories this summer to 25, already ahead of the record of 24 set in 2013.

Toxic cyanobacteria blooms are an indirect effect of nutrient runoff and weather conditions aided by climate change. That’s according to CGRER’s Peter Thorne, head of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa:

“Higher surface temperatures and reduced mixing of hot surface water with deeper colder water, and increased nutrient loads, produce growth of toxic cyanobacteria which make the water unsuitable for consumption.”

Contact with the blooms can cause severe sickness and even death in humans and animals, and fish kills like one in Crystal Lake that claimed the lives of thousands of fish in July. Continued sunny and dry conditions will likely lead to more warnings in Iowa lakes before the end of the summer.

For more information about algal blooms, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org. From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

On the Radio: Turkey Watershed flood plan goes beyond flood walls


A stream near Elgin, Iowa, part of the Turkey River Watershed (KC McGinnis / CGRER)
A stream near Elgin, Iowa, part of the Turkey River Watershed (KC McGinnis / CGRER)
August 10, 2015

This week’s On the Radio segment looks at the Turkey River Watershed Management Authority’s innovative flood protection plan. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Transcript: Turkey Watershed Flood Plan

To prevent future flooding, one Iowa watershed group is going to the source.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Turkey River Watershed Management Authority, in northeast Iowa, recently unveiled a 32 million dollar flood protection plan that goes beyond floodwalls and levees. Instead, the proposed plan looks to address one of the primary causes of flooding: poor soil infiltration of rainfall. That’s according to Lora Friest, of Northeast Iowa Resource Conservation and Development:

“We have damage to the communities, we have millions of dollars in road and bridge infrastructure. And what do we do? We put up higher sandbags, higher levees; we don’t actually address the problem.”

The plan applies the same techniques experts recommend to decrease nutrient runoff, including cover crops, buffer strips and reduced tillage. The plan cites Iowa Flood Center models that suggest a soil infiltration strategy could cut massive flooding by ten percent, saving watersheds millions over conventional flood plans.

For more information about the flood plan, visit IowaEnvironmentalFocus.org.

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