Water quality researcher/blogger puts fresh perspective on stinking problem

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This map from Chris Jones’ blog relates the “real populations” (based on animal waste) of Iowa watersheds to the human populations other global areas.

Julia Poska| March 21, 2019

The public rarely gets its science straight from the source; we depend largely on the media to distill complicated academic research for us. University of Iowa researcher and adjunct professor Chris Jones is one of a rare breed of scientists who can adeptly communicate science on his own.

Jones has spent his career monitoring and researching the Iowan environment for institutions ranging from Des Moines Water Works to the Iowa Soybean Association. As an IIHR research engineer today he conducts original research and runs a blog where he explores the systems and nuances surrounding Iowa’s degraded water.

Recently, Jones calculated “Iowa’s real population” based on the nitrogen, phosphorus and solid matter in animal waste. He explained that Iowa’s millions of hogs, cattle, chickens and turkeys produce as much waste as 134 million people. The map pictured above matches the human populations of global cities and U.S. states to the “real populations” of Iowa’s watersheds.

“Managing the waste from these animals is possibly our state’s most challenging environmental problem,” he wrote. Weather and plant life cycles create a limited time window to apply it to fields, and hauling and handling it presents other challenges. When nutrients from manure enter waterways, they contribute to harmful algae blooms locally and in the Gulf of Mexico.

In another recent post, Jones used public data to compare the amount of nitrate purchased commercially and produced via manure in each Iowa watershed with the Iowa State University recommended application rate for corn. He found that, on average, Iowa farmers over-apply synthetic nitrogen by 35 pounds per acre. The addition of manure brings that surplus to 91 pounds per acre.

Other posts explore historical, social and political angles. Earlier this week, a post called “Ransom” related efforts to protect Lake Eerie in Ohio to the economic reality of farming and agribusiness in Iowa. “Who is getting the outcomes that they want from our policies, and in particular, the old school policies targeting improved water quality?” Jones asked.

Overall, Jones’ blog offers an informative and rather accessible expert perspective on a hugely complex issue. To subscribe yourself, visit here and enter your email at the bottom of the left sidebar.

***In an earlier version of this post, the number “134 million” was incorrectly written as simply, 134. Big difference! Thanks so much to those who pointed out the error***

Nitrates often released back into rivers

Photo via Jason Mrachina; Flickr
Des Moines cityscape. Photo via Jason Mrachina; Flickr

According to the Des Moines Register, Des Moines’ nitrate removal facility was responsible for dumping approximately 13,500 pounds of the contaminant into the Raccoon River last year.

Nitrates can be detrimental to human health if consumed in high enough quantities, which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires drinking water to be monitored for the compound. However, once nitrates are removed from the drinking water, they are often released back into Iowa’s waterways.

The Des Moines location is not alone in this practice. The majority of Iowa’s other 15 nitrate removal facilities follow the same routine, and many do not monitor what quantity of nitrate they are releasing.

Although this practice is completely legal, it has serious environmental ramifications. The Raccoon River is part of the Mississippi River watershed, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Midwest fertilizer runoff from the watershed, high in nitrates, is largely responsible for the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone. Nitrate levels in the Gulf’s water allow algal blooms to thrive, which in turn leads to low oxygen levels that are deadly for many aquatic species.

The future is not completely bleak; progress is being made towards preventing the nitrates from reaching water systems in the first place. Farmers and researchers are collaborating to explore and advance environmentally sustainable agricultural practices.

ISU professor testing sustainable agricultural practices

Nick Fetty | June 14, 2014
Corn field in Black Hawk County, Iowa. Photo via PARSHOTAM LAL TANDON; Flickr
Corn field in Black Hawk County, Iowa.

Iowa State University agronomy professor Matthew Liebman has been experimenting with crop rotation as a means of reducing waterway-polluting fertilizer usage, according to a recent article in National Geographic.

Liebman used a three- and four-crop rotation – consisting mostly of corn, soy, oats, and alfalfa – across 22 acres. The study concluded that crop rotation not only reduced nitrogen levels – a byproduct of fertilizers that pollute waterways – but also produced higher corn yields. These pollutants contribute to contamination in the Mississippi River which has lead to a virtual organic “dead zone” where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Iowa’s Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers has seen record high nitrate levels in recent years. Iowa corn farmers produced 2.2 billion bushels across 13.1 million acres in 2013 which is expected to rise to 2.4 billion bushels across 13.6 million acres.

On the Radio: Freshwater Clam Research

Photo by user tlindenbaum; Flickr

This week’s On the Radio segment covers research being done at the University of Iowa that looks into the relationship between freshwater clams and excess nitrogen in rivers. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Continue reading

Nitrogen pulse bad news for Gulf of Mexico

Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Amy Heather; Flickr
Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Amy Heather; Flickr

Researchers at the University of Nebraska, the University of Iowa, and Coe College have been studying a major nitrogen pulse in the Cedar and Iowa River watersheds. This release of excess nitrogen, mostly from agricultural runoff, may be partially responsible for the increased expansion of the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, which has doubled in size since last year. Continue reading

EPA does not plan to regulate nitrogen levels in Iowa’s water

Gulf of Mexico. Photo by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Flickr

The Des Moines Register reports that the EPA has no plans to regulate nitrogen levels in Iowa’s water. Many farmers use nitrogen fertilizers; the runoff from these fertilizers hurts Iowa’s water quality, and is responsible for creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

As described in our On the Radio piece, the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is an area in the gulf that is unlivable for most marine life. Some years, the dead zone exceeds 22,000 square kilometers. The dead zone is mainly caused by the nitrates and phosphates found in nitrogen fertilizers.

Only three states regulate nitrogen in rivers and streams statewide: Florida, Hawaii and Vermont. Six other states have site-specific regulations – Iowa has none.

Read the Des Moines Register’s full article here.

Learn more about nitrogen and phosphorous pollution from the EPA here.