Why is Iowa experiencing record flooding this year?


Extreme weather has pummered the Midwest for weeks| Photo by Jo Naylor on Flickr.

Sthefany Nóbriga | June 6th, 2019

The ongoing flooding tormenting the Midwest and nearby states, has its origins in a series of unusual and recording setting weather events impacting Iowa and the Midwest.

University of Iowa assistant research engineer, Antonio Arenas with the help of his colleagues at IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering and the Iowa Flood Center created an easy to use digital timeline that describes extreme weather events that have occurred in the Midwest over the last year and their impact on Iowa. 

The timeline starts with the months of June and July 2018 as being months with above-average rainfall. Arena also documents record Iowa rainfall in the fall of 2018, as well as the heavy snowfall in the Midwest this past winter and how it all has contributed to record flooding in Iowa this spring.

Antonio Arenas states that these weather events are noteworthy and for some, are record setting. However, he also believes it is equally important to note that all of these weather fluctuations had all occurred within a 12-month window. 

The digital timeline offers information on the past 12 months of extreme weather events such as the Polar Vortex, extreme precipitation, a rare bomb cyclone, ice dams, heavy snowfall, frozen ground, and more.

Arena invites people to click through the animated slides, videos, maps, satellite images, and brief descriptions to see how these recent extreme weather events have impacted Iowa and the Midwest.

Flood Center co-founder Larry Weber serves on Flood Recovery Advisory Board


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Larry Weber, a notable flood expert from the University of Iowa (photo from IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering).

Julia Poska| April 26, 2019

The Flood Recovery Advisory Board, formed by Governor Reynolds to coordinate statewide recovery and rebuilding following this year’s devastating floods, will gain  expertise from Larry Weber, a co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center.

Dr. Weber can offer valuable experience and insights in several areas related to flooding. He is a former director of IIHR Hydroscience & Engineering at the University of Iowa, conducting research in areas including river hydraulics, hydropower, ice mechanics, water quality and watershed processes.

Weber also conducts research for the UI Public Policy Center and worked with the state legislature in 2013 to implement the Nutrient Reduction Strategy. He and his wife have won several awards for conservation work on their own property.

Recently, he wrote an op-ed about his vision as leader of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s $96 million Iowa Watershed Approach. This program addresses factors that contribute to Iowa’s increasing flood risk in nine distinct watersheds, with the ultimate goals of reducing risk, improving water quality and increasing resilience.

In the piece, Weber said he aims to restore natural resiliency through conservation measures like farm ponds, wetlands and terraces. Floodplain restoration is another important piece of his plan.

“We need to allow our rivers room to flood,” he said. “The floodplain is an integral, natural part of the river. They also keep people safe and remove us from the heartbreaking cycle that so many Iowans know all too well: Lose everything to a flood.”

His expertise in all-things-flooding, from hydraulics to conservation to policy, will surely prove valuable as Iowa begins to move forward from this year’s floods and better prepare for  flooding to come.

 

 

 

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***

Soybeans may play bigger role in nitrate levels than previously thought


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IIHR’s water-quality monitoring network has generated interesting data that contradicts some widely-held beliefs regarding corn and soybeans and their impact on nitrate in Iowa’s streams. (IIHR)

Jake Slobe | September 28, 2016

New research shows that soybeans may play a key role in the transport of nitrate from farmed fields to the stream network.

As Iowa farmers have planted more acres of corn to meet the increasing demand, many models predicted that nitrate concentrations in Iowa streams would increase as a consequence. However, a new study conducted by the UI’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering group and the Iowa Soybean Association, published in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, challenges many of these predictions.

As the amount of corn planted increased and the amount of soybeans decreased, fertilizer application increased by 24 percent in the watershed. Surprisingly, the nitrate levels in the river saw no increase and in some cases saw slight decreases.

The study evaluated 7,000 water samples in the Raccoon River Watershed from 1999- 2014 and had access to fertilization data for 700 fields in the watershed. The result from the study has led researchers to believe that nitrate levels are less dependent on corn production than previously thought.

IIHR —Hydroscience & Engineering researcher Chris Jones says that clues to the reduction in nitrate levels can be found in the differences between corn and soybean  growth, soil chemistry, and the decay of other crop residues. Conversely, the dead and decomposing soybean plants can increase the amount of nitrate in the soil vulnerable to loss.

“We know we can’t just focus on fertilization of corn. We need a systems approach to improve water quality. It also demonstrates the power of monitoring water quality. Without this data, we could easily have missed this important and counter-intuitive conclusion.” 

As a result, Jones says he believes that declining amount of soybeans planted may have reduced the cropped areas most susceptible to nitrate loss, more than compensating for the increased fertilizer inputs on corn production.

 

Iowa DNR seeks volunteers for Wapsipinicon River cleanup


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Nick Fetty | June 18, 2015

The Iowa DNR is seeking volunteers for a cleanup project on the Wapsipinicon River next month.

The 13th annual Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition) will begin in Independence on July 11 and finish near Olin on July 16. Participants will travel 65 miles (16 miles per day) through three eastern Iowa counties picking up trash and other debris along the way. DNR officials and other experts will also offer daily classes and demonstrations on various topics from nature to the humanities.

The University of Iowa’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering and Iowa Flood Center as well as University of Northern Iowa Outdoor Recreation are among this year’s group of sponsors. IIHR will cover meal costs for student volunteers. Contact Teresa Gaffey for more details: teresa-gaffey[at]uiowa.edu.

Registration, meal prices, route maps, and other information for the general public can be found on the Iowa DNR website. Participants may sign up for one or multiple days and must register before June 19 to avoid a $10 late fee. Canoes will be available for rent on a first-come, first-served basis.

Last year volunteers netted 31 tons of garbage from the Sioux River, much of which was recycled.

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On the Radio: Iowa organizations work to reduce flooding risks


Photo by U.S. Geological Survey, Flickr.

Listen to this week’s radio segment here or read the transcript below. This week’s episode highlights efforts of two Iowa organizations that are working to reduce flooding risks.

Efforts to increase flood preparedness in Iowa continue four years after the 2008 disasters.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Continue reading

UI Engineer gets NASA grant to study Iowa soil erosion


Photo by Irum Shahid

UI News Services Release

With rising commodity prices bringing more farm land under cultivation, a University of Iowa researcher is checking to see whether soil erosion may also be on the rise.

Thanos Papanicolaou, professor in the UI College of Engineering Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has received a three-year, $642,000 federal grant through the University of Northern Iowa to study agricultural soil erosion and the carbon cycle in Iowa. Papanicolaou is also a faculty research engineer at IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering with a secondary appointment at the Iowa Public Policy Center.

Thanos Papanicolaou

Funded by NASA, the Carbon Cycle program will test the development of methods and models of carbon budgets at a smaller, regional scale, which will eventually be applied at larger scales. The proposed analysis is a critical component of any system for determining carbon credits that may be developed in the future, according to Papanicolaou.

The project, involving collaboration between the UI, the University of Northern Iowa and the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment, investigates how soil erosion may be threatening climate mitigation policies within the state and Midwest.

“Recently, the production of bioenergy crops has surged due to U.S. government policies calling for an increase in locally produced biofuels to lessen United States dependency on foreign oil supplies and help mitigate the burning of fossil fuels,” said Papanicolaou. “For example, there is an increase in corn acreage, as well as cash corn prices, in the Midwest because of its use in ethanol production. Continue reading