Iowa DNR fails to obey some state regulations


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A recent audit found Iowa DNR has failed to follow a state law related to the establishment of wetlands near close agricultural drainage wells. (Iowa DNR)
Jenna Ladd | September 8, 2017

A state audit released on Tuesday revealed that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources has failed to follow state law related to identifying and safeguarding wetlands, monitoring public works projects on the local level and establishing a clean air advisory panel.

In its defense, Iowa DNR claims that state law pertaining to these issues are often duplicative or less stringent than federal requirements, according to a report from the Des Moines Register. Federal requirements for wetland protection specifically exceed regulation put forth by the state, Iowa DNR director Chuck Gipp told the Register. He said, “We recognize and understand the value of wetlands.” The Iowa law “is asking us to do something that would be even less stringent than the federal code.”

In response, Iowa Environmental Council’s water program coordinator Susan Heathcote noted that federal oversight related to water quality is questionable at present, considering that President Trump is expected to repeal and revise an Obama era water quality regulation soon.

More specifically, the audit found that the Iowa DNR has not established a program aimed at assisting in the development of wetlands around closed agricultural drainage areas, which would aid in the filtration of nutrient rich water flowing into municipal taps. The news that the state is failing to abide by existing water quality-related regulations comes after another legislative session during which state legislators failed to provide funding for more robust water quality measures Iowa voters approved more than seven years ago.

End-of-summer means more fish kills statewide


The end of the summer is when fish are most vulnerable to changes in their environment, so even a small amount of pollution can cause major fish kills in Iowa’s waterways. (flickr/AgriLife Today)

The state Department of Natural Resources warns Iowans to consider how fish are affected when using chemicals and fertilizers.

The end of the summer is when fish are most vulnerable — temperatures are high, and dying and decaying plant life reduce dissolved oxygen in the water. Fish and other aquatic wildlife are stressed, meaning pollution can lead to more fish kills.

In 2016, the DNR reported 15 fish kills, 11 of which occurred in the latter part of the summer, after July 15. In the last two weeks, the DNR has investigated four fish kills around the state.

The DNR reminds farmers and homeowners that what they put on their fields or lawns will wash into waterways, where it could harm wildlife. Even a small amount of a chemical can cause serious damage.

“We have received several reports of small summer fish kills at many lakes, ponds, and a few streams throughout Iowa,” said Chris Larson, fisheries supervisor for the DNR in southwest Iowa, in a press release. “We have also had some fish kills caused by pollutants.”

Rarely, however, will all of the fish in a single body of water die at once. Usually the ecosystem can bounce back from a fish kill and balance its population again within a few years.

Farmers and homeowners can prevent pollution-caused fish kills by not applying chemical fertilizer or manure before it rains, and following disposal instructions on pesticide labels.

Iowa DNR dissolves Bureau of Forestry and other programs


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The State Forest Nursery and urban foresters program will stay in tact amid multiple program eliminations. (Joshua Mayer/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | July 7, 2017

Iowa legislators approved a $1.2 million cut to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this year, resulting in the elimination of the Bureau of Forestry and several other positions.

The department announced on Wednesday that it terminated the Forest Bureau Chief Paul Tauke. All other foresters were reassigned to other divisions within the DNR. Alex Murphy is a spokesperson for the department. In an interview with Iowa Public Radio, he said, “We’ve moved these employees under different areas and actually eliminated the bureau itself, although all the functions of the bureau exist, just in different bureaus or divisions.” The changes saved the department around $277,000.

The DNR Trail Crew program was abolished along with two full-time program DNR employees. The Trail Crew team was comprised of 15 Americorps members that traveled around the state with DNR employees to develop and improve Iowa’s 500 miles of nature trails. Other Americorps programs within the department were eliminated as well.

State Geologist Bob Libra also lost his job. The state plans to contract UI geologists to take over geological research projects. Among the other positions eliminated are the department safety officer, animal feeding operations coordinator and art director for the DNR’s magazine.

UI environmental science program graduate Megan Henry warned that the elimination of positions in environmental sciences may drive more young people out of Iowa. Her letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register reads,

“Now the university will likely also equip natural science students in geology with even more hands-on experience, because “without a state geologist, the DNR will contract with the University of Iowa for geological research and technical assistance.” The only problem: How do you attract students to this vital work, if the jobs only exist while they are paying tuition?”

Spawning stress fish kill in Tama County


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More than 1,000 black crappies were reported dead at Lake Casey yesterday due to spawning stress. (Georgia Aquarium
Jenna Ladd |June 8, 2017

A fish kill has been reported at Casey Lake in Tama County. More than 1,000 black crappies were reported dead at the Hickory Hills Park Lake yesterday. Crappies are a North American freshwater sunfish that are indigenous to Iowa. Fish kills can be caused a number of factors including pesticide contamination, high temperatures, algal blooms and more.

“When we get calls about one species of dead fish during the spawning season, it is usually caused by spawning stress,” said Dan Kirby, fisheries management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Like many freshwater fish, crappies move closer to the shoreline to spawn in the late spring and early summer. Spawning activities require fish to expend a lot of energy, leaving them susceptible to infections and illness. It is common for spawning fish to sustain abrasions from jagged rocks and debris at the water’s edge. These cuts and scrapes are vulnerable to infection that can cause death. Typically, spawning stress fish kills occur slowly over the course of weeks. It is unclear how long the fish at Casey Lake were piling up near shore.

“Fish surveys conducted this week on Casey Lake showed that largemouth bass and bluegills are doing well, and black crappies are abundant,” Kirby added.

Iowa DNR encourages residents to call their 24-hour phone line at 515-725-8694 if they notice dead fish accumulating in lakes or rivers.

Study finds Iowa groundwater is extracted at unsustainable rate


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The Jordan Aquifer lies beneath most of Iowa; locations with water use permits for tapping into the aquifer are shown above. (Iowa DNR)
Jenna Ladd | February 7, 2017

A recent study found the groundwater in Iowa’s Jordan Aquifer to be much older than previously known, and scientists say that could have implications for water use in the state.

Researchers from the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa in collaboration with Grinnell College, the UI Geology Department and Iowa Department of Natural Resources used isotopic age dating to estimate the age of groundwater in the Jordan Aquifer. The study measured major and minor ions, stable isotopes (d18O and dD) and
the radioactive isotope Chlorine 36 in eight wells scattered across the aquifer. The peer-reviewed journal article explains that the groundwater in northern and central Iowa is somewhere between 70,000 to nearly 180,000 years old.

The study points out that ethanol production in the state relies heavily on groundwater from the Jordan aquifer, which also provides roughly 300,000 residents with drinking water. From 2003 to 2013, annual use of groundwater from the aquifer for ethanol production increased by 7.4 billion liters per year.

Keith Schilling is a research scientist at the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa and the study’s leading author. He said,

“The implications for biofuel refineries and any water use of the aquifer is the realization that the groundwater is very old. It is not going to be recharged in any human timeframes so we should make sure that water from the aquifer is being managed appropriately.”

Beyond the lagging groundwater regeneration rate, the study also notes that increased groundwater pumping can result in detrimental water quality changes such as radium contamination. The authors conclude with a call for new ethanol refineries to steer clear of the Jordan Aquifer and utilize more sustainable groundwater sources instead.

Report provides inventory of water monitoring efforts in Iowa


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Constructing wetlands is a proven practice that helps to reduce nutrient runoff from agricultural land. (USDA/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 23, 2016

A 2016 report from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources in partnership with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship summarizes Iowa’s water quality monitoring efforts.

The report, which was also supported by Iowa State University and the University of Iowa IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering Center, provides a complete list of all nutrient-specific water monitoring sites in the state. The first of its kind, it was developed to inform the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy aims to monitor and reduce nutrients delivered to Iowa waterways and subsequently to the Gulf of Mexico by 45 percent.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey said,

“Iowa has a comprehensive water quality monitoring effort in place that is supported by a variety of partners. Monitoring results were central to identifying the practices highlighted in the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy and have provided valuable information as we have established priority watersheds. It continues to be an important part of our efforts as we work to increase the pace and scale of practice adoption needed to improve water quality.”

The report outlined all water monitoring efforts according their type and scale:

  • Edge-of-field monitoring
    • Researchers partner with farmers to monitor water quality on the edge of farm fields in order to accurately prioritize nutrient reduction practices.
  • Paired watershed monitoring
    • These are sites wherein the effectiveness of conservation practices are tested on two similar watersheds, one watershed receives intentional conservation measures and the other does not.
  • Large watershed monitoring (950,000 total acres)
    • These sites are either part of University of Iowa’s IIHR – Hydroscience and Engineering management of 45 real-time management stations or Iowa DNR’s 60 statewide sites.
  • Small watershed monitoring (22,500 total acres)
    • Several small watershed monitoring projects are ongoing including 18 established by the Iowa Water Quality Initiative. Many of these projects measure the effectiveness of conservation practices implemented by farmers.

The report also detailed the many challenges associated with nutrient-specific water quality monitoring. Complicating factors can include frequently changing land-use, varying streamflow and precipitation, and a lack of long-term monitoring records.

Iowa DNR director Chuck Gipp said, “While challenges exist, we believe continued nutrient monitoring is critical to understanding what Iowa can do to be successful.” He added, “All partners involved in developing this report know the value of long-term evaluation and are committed to continuing with a science-based approach to nutrient reduction in Iowa waters.”

On The Radio – 2016 ‘water year’ much wetter than average


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Each  Water Summary Update provides the current status of water resources in Iowa measuring precipitation, stream flow, shallow groundwater, and drought monitoring. (Iowa DNR)
Jake Slobe | October 31, 2016
This week’s On The Radio segment discusses Iowa’s 2016 Water Summary Update, released by the Iowa DNR in October.

Transcript: Iowa’s 2016 Water Year, which ended on September thirtieth, is the third wettest year on record in 144 years.

 This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

 The Iowa Department of Natural Resources recently released its most recent Water Summary Update. The report provides an overview of the status of Iowa’s water resources and significant events that affect water supplies using four categories: precipitation, stream flow, shallow groundwater, and drought monitoring.

 The most recent update is a snapshot of the state’s water resources from August 31 through October 10. The update reveals that average statewide rainfall was 6.29 inches or 2.91 inches above average, making it the rainiest September since 1986.

 “The 2016 water year, which began in October 2015, and continued through September of this year, surprised Iowans with major unseasonal events including flooding on Thanksgiving last year, rainfall in January, and major flooding in September. While perhaps unexpected, these are consistent with early predictions from climate scientists that global warming will be characterized by increased variability of weather patterns. For Iowans, this implies that we have to be vigilant and prepare year round. Always stay tuned to the current weather conditions and forecasts.”

Streamflow was also found to be above average throughout the state. Following heavy rain events at the end of September in the Cedar and Wapsipinicon River basins, peak streamflow in several locations was found to be the second-highest in recorded history. These values were only topped by the historic 2008 flood.

 For more information about weather and climate in Iowa, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

 From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jenna Ladd.