Drinking water symposium in Des Moines poses tough questions


Jenna Ladd | September 22, 2017

Government officials, college faculty, students of all ages, legislators, farmers and concerned citizens were among the 170 attendees at the Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest, a symposium held at Drake University Thursday and Friday.

Organized by the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination, the one-and-a-half day event featured seventeen speakers from across the country and the state of Iowa.

The hypoxic Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico grew larger than ever before this year, totaling 8,766 square miles, an area equal to the size of New Jersey. It is well known that nitrate runoff from agricultural fields is largely responsible for rendering this part of the Gulf unable to sustain aquatic life, but how does nitrate in our water affect the humans that are drinking it?

Citing past and current studies, Dr. Mary Ward of the National Cancer Institute noted that while nitrate itself is not a carcinogen per say, it does interact with compounds in the body to create nitroso compounds, which are known carcinogens. Nitroso compounds have been found to be carcinogenic in 39 animal species including all nonhuman primates, even when nitrate concentration in drinking water is less than 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L), which is the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for nitrate in drinking water.

The Iowa Women’s Health Study, which monitors the health of 42,000 post-menopausal Iowa women—most of whom drink municipal drinking water—found that women who drank water with elevated nitrate levels for a prolonged period of time had twice the risk of ovarian and bladder cancer. There are some protective measures consumers can take to reduce the likelihood that nitrate will become a carcinogenic once in the body. Eating plenty of vegetables and fruits that are rich in vitamin C and antioxidants can block the formation of cancerous nitroso compounds.

Scientists can also say with confidence that nitrate pollution in drinking water significantly increases the likelihood that pregnant women will give birth to babies with neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly, according to Dr. Jean Brender, professor emeritus at the Texas A&M School of Public Health. Dr. Brender also presented findings that suggested an association between nitrate pollution and children born with cleft palates and limb deficiencies during Thursday morning’s plenary session.

A common thread between most nitrate and human health impact studies is that researchers notice adverse public health effects even when nitrate concentration are at 5 mg/L, which is half of the EPA’s 10 mg/L action level.

After lunch, retired director of the Iowa City Water Department, Ed Moreno, provided the perspective of the water utilities, who work to remove contaminants and provide safe drinking water costing an average of just $0.004 per gallon. Moreno emphasized that drinking water treatment is an increasingly technical process that can be difficult to communicate to the public. With so many health risks related to the consumption of drinking water contaminants, who’s responsibility is it to communicate drinking water quality risks to the public?

Moreno said much of the responsibility lies with the public utility, however, he said, “Explaining the risk is a challenge for us. We need partners, public health people, people who are going to say it like it needs to be said,” Moreno added with a chuckle, “We’re engineers, you know.”

Dr. David Cwiertney, associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa, highlighted the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online, or ECHO, an online database that allows citizens to check their community utility’s compliance with federal environmental regulations free of charge. Cwiertney said, “We should be doing better community education about the resources they have. The internet is a wonderful thing.”

Aside from nitrate pollution, experts in disinfectant byproducts, blue green algae blooms, neonicotinoids, and endocrine disruptors shared their drinking water research at the symposium.

Thursday began with a keynote address from Neil Hamilton, professor of law at Drake University. Hamilton detailed Iowa’s rich history as a nationwide leader in environmental and water quality policy, dating back to the work of Ada Hayden and Aldo Leopold in the beginning of the 20th century. After state legislators failed for the seventh year in a row to approve funding for voter-approved water quality improvement measures, even as Iowans are exposed to heightened risks for cancer and birth defects without it, Hamilton’s closing question echoed loudly in the Drake University conference room, “Has our legacy of leadership become an ephemeral gully of inaction?”

Fresh compost for Iowa Capitol lawn


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Compost will be spread on the west lawn of the state capitol this week. (flickr/Kevin Thomas Boyd)
Jenna Ladd| September 13, 2017

The Iowa State Capitol Terrace lawn is getting covered with layers of fresh compost this week in an effort to improve soil quality and reduce storm water runoff.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is leading the project in partnership with the Iowa Department of Administrative Services, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with technical assistance from the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship urban conservation program. Work crews will blow dark colored compost on the lawn west of the Capitol building. While the mixture of organic material and manure will be visible at first, it will mix in with top soil within a few weeks, according to a statement by the DNR.

“Soil quality restoration is something that people can do in their own backyards as well to improve the water quality in their neighborhood creek or other local water body. It also makes their yard look great, too,” said Steve Konrady of the DNR’s Watershed Improvement Program. He added, “Some communities in Iowa offer assistance to homeowners for this practice, and this Capitol Terrace project is a great opportunity to demonstrate the practice to Iowans, and to work to improve state lands and waters, and cleaner water downstream.”

Des Moines residents that live and work in the area need not worry about any foul odor. “Truly processed compost should be odorless — almost like a potting substance,” Konrady said to The Register.

On The Radio – Global sand shortage presents environmental problems


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What was once a sand mine sits abandoned in Rangkasbitun, Indonesia. (Purnadi Phan/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| August 21, 2017
This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how the international sand shortage is leading to the degradation of waterways.

Transcript: A global sand shortage is having detrimental impacts on waterways.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The demand for sand has skyrocketed in recent years due to rapid urbanization worldwide. Sand is used to make the concrete and asphalt for every new building, road, and residence. More than thirteen billion tons of sand were mined for construction last year, with 70 percent going to Asia.

At present, sand is being extracted too fast for natural systems to replenish. To keep pace with exploding demand, sand miners are dredging lakes and rivers, chipping away at coastlines and destroying entire small islands. Sand extraction in rivers often deepens the channel, making bank erosion more likely. Similarly, when miners remove sediments, they often also remove plant life, which can have adverse impacts on aquatic food chains.

More wealthy western countries are beginning to use sand alternatives. For example, asphalt and concrete can be recycled and crushed rock can be used instead of sand in some cases.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org. From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Global sand shortage due to development


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A silica sand mine in Jordan, Minnesota. (flickr/MPCA)
Jenna Ladd | July 21, 2017

After a day at the beach, you’ll find sand lingering in all the wrong places: between the pages of your book, wrapped up in beach towels, and cemented to bathing suits. Despite sand’s unrelenting presence in beachgoers’ personal lives, there is a global shortage of the stuff and it’s having real environmental impacts.

International demand for sand has skyrocketed in recent years thanks to rapid urbanization in Asia. Sand is used to make the concrete and asphalt for every new building, road, and residence. More than thirteen billion tons of sand were mined for construction last year, 70 percent went to Asia. According to a report from the BBC, China used more sand in the last four years than the U.S. used in all of the 20th century. It’s not just Asia, though, the number of people worldwide living in cities has quadrupled since 1950.

Sand is formed when rocks are pulverized by natural forces and then transported to shores by wind and water over the course of millions of years. At present, it is being extracted at a rate much too fast for natural systems to keep up with.

To keep pace with exploding demand, sand miners are dredging lakes and rivers, chipping away at coastlines and disappearing entire small islands. Sand extraction in rivers often deepens the channel, making bank erosion more likely. Similarly, when miners remove sediments, they often also remove plant life, which can have adverse impacts on aquatic food chains. The practice can have disastrous effects for infrastructure too. For example, for many years, sand for construction in Shanghai was mined from the Yangtze River. The practice was banned in 2000 after entire bridges were undermined and 1,000 feet of riverbank fell into the river.

Many other countries are imposing regulations on sand mining. In the United States, sand cannot be mined near large residential areas or offshore. Export limits and mining restrictions are in place in several Asian countries like Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and India, but the “sand mafia” in India is making regulators’ job difficult. The illegal sand mining industry is expected to be worth more than $2 billion a year.

Wealthier western countries have begun moving toward sand alternatives. For example, asphalt and concrete can be recycled and crushed rock can be used instead of sand in some cases. Twenty-eight percent of building materials used in the United Kingdom in 2014 were recycled, according Britain’s Mineral Products Association. Moving forward, the European Union plans to recycle 75 percent of its glass by 2025, which should decrease some demand for sand.

EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Larry Weber on flood mitigation and water quality improvement projects


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Jenna Ladd | June 29, 2017

In episode 7 of EnvIowa, we sit down with Dr. Larry Weber to learn more about the Iowa Watershed Approach. Dr. Weber is a UI professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of IIHR–Hydroscience and Engineering, which is the parent organization of the Iowa Flood Center.

Dr. Weber explains how the $96.9 million project came to be and how it improves quality of life for Iowans while protecting our natural resources and health. He tells of successes the Iowa Flood Center has had with its flood reduction and water quality improvement programs and discusses the organization’s fight to maintain state-funding earlier this year.

The director and his team work many long days and spend hours each week driving around the state to each of the nine watersheds included in the Iowa Watershed Approach. For Dr. Weber, his work’s motivation is clear. He said,

“As an Iowan, I grew up here, I’ve worked and spent my whole career here, and I plan to retire here. I want a livable state in which we can enjoy our water and natural resources, enjoy being in the outdoors, enjoy interacting with the rivers, lakes and streams of Iowa, and, you know, programs like the Iowa Watershed Approach, I think, are vital to the long-term sustainability of our resources in Iowa.”

The EnvIowa podcast is also available on iTunes and Soundcloud, a complete archive of EnvIowa episodes can be found here.

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Nine watersheds are a part of the Iowa Watershed Approach’s effort to reduce flooding, improve water quality and protect natural resources. (Iowa Watershed Approach)

Iowa fields are eroding at an unsustainable rate, study says


Agricultural runoff in Iowa (Lynn Betts/Flickr)
Agricultural runoff in Iowa (Lynn Betts/Flickr)

The rate of soil runoff from Iowa fields may be many times higher than previous estimates, according to a recent study.

The report, released by Environmental Working Group, shows that Iowa fields are eroding at unacceptable rates, depleting Iowa’s rich topsoil and sending sediment and chemicals into streams and rivers. Between 2002 and 2010, many fields consistently lost more than the sustainable rate of five tons of soil per acre from storms and other erosion events. A single storm in May of 2007 eroded up to 100 tons of soil per acre.

Much of the soil is carried away by gullies that are increasingly appearing in Iowa fields. These low channels are a telltale sign of high erosion, and are often refilled with soil only to be emptied again with the next storm.

High erosion creates high agricultural and environmental risks by carrying away Iowa’s rich topsoil and by polluting waterways with sediment and chemicals. An effective means of curbing this is to plant grass and trees along the edges of fields and in areas where gullies are likely to form. A series of buffers implemented in various fields reduced sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus by more than 90 percent in 2009.

New biomedical building features first green rooftop on University of Iowa campus


Nick Fetty | July 28, 2014
The Old Capitol Building on the University of Iowa campus. Photo by Matthew Anderson; Flickr
The Old Capitol Building on the University of Iowa campus.
Photo by Matthew Anderson; Flickr

The University of Iowa’s new Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building (PBDB) is the first building on campus to feature a green rooftop.

Crews began planting various perennial sedums – such as black-eyed Susan alliums, liatris, and hostas – in the spring. These plants are expected to provide several perks from a social and aesthetic perspective to environmental and sustainability benefits. The green rooftop is expected to not only save money on energy costs but also help to control water runoff and mitigate erosion. This rooftop greenery was key to the PBDB receiving gold-level LEED certification.

The University of Iowa has two buildings with platinum-level LEED certification and six that have achieved gold status. A recent list compiled by College Prowler ranked the University of Iowa the 279th greenest college campus in the nation and 6th amongst colleges in Iowa.

However, the PBDB will not be the only building on campus to utilize a green roof. The new Art Building – which is expected to be completed by 2016 – is projected to include a 14,600-square-foot rooftop garden, more than double the size the garden (6,440-square feet) on PBDB’s roof. The PBDB open earlier this month and is expected to be fully operational in the coming months.