Sierra Club sues Iowa DNR over proposed cattle feedlot


Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | September 24, 2021

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is being sued by the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The lawsuit regards the 11,600-head cattle feedlot that was approved by the department. The building is set to be built in Clayton County. Prior to its approval, the feedlot received harsh criticism from various environmental groups. According to The Des Moines Register, the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club is arguing that the feedlot used a skewed nutrient management plan to receive approval from the Iowa DNR. The plan, they allege, uses incorrect information.

Supreme Beef LCC, the group behind the project, received approval on the 11,600 cattle-lot feedlot in April 2021. The lawsuit alleges that the company underestimated how much nitrogen and phosphorus that is needed by the facility would need annually.

The Sierra Club alongside other environmental groups opposed the project since its initial proposal in 2020 due to the land being an environmentally sensitive area. The project also initially included plans to hire developers to generate a plan to capture the methane from the plant. Those plans were scrapped.

Air quality, climate bulletin highlights quality patterns, shifts


Screenshot from YouTube.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | September 7, 2021

The World Meteorological Organization published its first Air Quality and Climate Bulletin on Sept. 3, discussing where air patterns are improving and deteriorating across the globe.

The report discusses the strong connection air quality and climate change have because of the chemical species that impact both. One of the similarities is the affect the combustion of fossil fuels has on air’s breathability and on global warming. A large problem when it comes to air quality is wildfires, according to the bulletin. The report said the fire seasons expose people to “varying levels of pollutants” alongside putting millions of people at high or very high health risks as a result of being downwind from wildfires.

Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research co-director Greg Carmichael assisted in the creation of the organization’s bulletin. He serves on the editorial board for the bulletin and chairs the Environmental Pollution and Atmospheric Chemistry Scientific Steering Committee of the World Meteorological Organization, the group that inspired the report.

Iowa saw poor air quality this summer because of the wildfires in Western states. In late June, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources issued air quality alerts due to winds from the West Coast changing the air quality in some Midwestern states. The alert specifically focused on warning sensitive groups to limit their outdoor exertion within the state. According to the Des Moines Register, these alerts also signaled several towns in the state having “unhealthy” air based on the Air Quality Index. Poor air quality returned later in the summer to Iowa, as residents saw more alerts in August.

The bulletin by the World Meteorological Organization included a section on how COVID-19 and air quality have impacted one another — something that has worried some health officials in Iowa. During various lockdowns of differing degrees, international emissions of air pollutants fell drastically, improving air quality across the world. The report showed nitrogen dioxide emissions dropped nearly 70 percent as a result of COVID-19.

The World Meteorological Organization intends to continue putting out bulletins with more air quality information in the future.

Iowa beaches under advisories due to pollution


Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | August 17, 2021

More than a dozen state and federal beaches in Iowa are currently under “swimming not recommended” advisories due to bacterial pollution.

The beaches under new advisories are spread out across the state, with four in the southwest corner of the state and the other eight on the eastern half. 10 of the beaches were already under these advisories, but three were added on Friday. The advisories stem from high fecal bacteria levels in the water. The bacterial levels mean its likely that individuals who enter the water can catch pathogens. The bacteria can also harm animals.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ website said children, the elderly, and individuals with weakened immune systems have an increased risk of illness if they swim in contaminated waters. No beaches have been closed for the levels of fecal bacteria. Beaches also have not been put under advisories for toxic algae.

The risks of the water at these 13 beaches include intestinal illness and infection. The change in advisories comes a few weeks after the Iowa DNR issued a dozen toxic beach warnings. These warnings came from microcystin, a toxin produced by blue-green algae blooms in a body of water.

The Iowa DNR regularly tests beach water from Memorial Day to Labor Day to diagnose water contaminants.

Lake Darling Faces Continuing Bacteria Problems Despite $12 Million Restoration


Via Flickr

Elizabeth Miglin | July 6, 2021

Once the pinnacle of Iowa perennial lake improvement, Lake Darling now reports one of the highest amounts of swimming advisories in Iowa. 

Despite a $12 million restoration concluded in 2014, Lake Darling has had problems maintaining its renewed water quality. A study by the Iowa Environmental Council found Darling had 30 beach advisories for fecal bacteria and nine for algae toxins between 2014 and 2020. In a rare discovery for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, Darling was found to have violated three state swimming standards in a single round of tests last week. Only seven other lakes received “swimming not recommended” warnings.

The restoration of Lake Darling began in the early 2000’s after Iowa DNR tests for bacteria found high levels of animal waste due to the local area’s high concentration of hog confinements. Animal bacteria and algae toxins can result in intestinal and other illnesses in humans, especially those with weakened immune systems. However, many of these concerns seemed to be put to rest due to the restoration. In 2007, the Iowa DNR even published an article titled “Lake Darling: A snapshot of success.

In an interview with the Iowa Capital Dispatch, Alicia Vasto, the associate water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, said the increase in algae toxin microcystin has been a major concern. Vasto noted the beginning of July is very early in the season for microcystin advisories, however the precipitation patterns and drought increases the difficulty to draw conclusions. 

Majority of Iowa currently experiencing some degree of drought


Via Flickr.

Eleanor Hildebrandt | June 11, 2021

Nearly 90 percent of Iowa’s land is experiencing a drought of differing degrees due to low levels of precipitation in May.

32 percent of the state rated abnormally dry, 47 percent is in a moderate drought, and 10 percent received a severe drought rating according to the most recent U.S. Drought Monitor map. Precipitation in May was more than an inch below average this year. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources reported on Thursday that the statewide average was 3.71 inches, ranging from 1.95 to 8.53 inches across Iowa. The start of June also saw a below average rainfall, dragging drought indicators lower.

The warm and dry conditions in the last month mixed with a below-average rainfall has expanded the land impacted by drought conditions. Northern Iowa saw drought conditions increase to cover two-thirds of the top half of the state according to the report. Southern Iowa saw similar levels of drought expansion as well.

Current weather conditions led to “below normal” stream-flow conditions across half of Iowa. Several river basins in the state are seeing lower flows, but portions of the Raccoon and Des Moines river basins have “much below normal flows”. The decrease could lead to about 69 percent less runoff than normal at the Missouri River basin above Sioux City, the report said.

As of June 10, only southeastern Iowa is free of drought and abnormal dryness conditions.

After a dry winter, Iowa DNR says flood risk remains high


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Photo from Jo Naylor, flickr

Tyler Chalfant | March 12th, 2020

This February has been warmer and drier than usual in Iowa. As a result, streamflow conditions have generally decreased, but the Iowa Department of Natural Resources says that the risk for flooding on the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers remains high for this spring. 

Though severe drought has impacted other areas of the country, there have not been drought conditions in Iowa. In total, December, January, and February saw about 3 inches of snow, which is 0.33 inches less than normal, improving stream levels across the state. 

Last year saw historic flooding in both river basins, with over 200 miles of compromised levees, and 81 of Iowa’s 99 counties put on flood warning last spring. This resulted from heavy rainfall accompanied by an unusually high amount of snowmelt from Minnesota. The Iowa Policy Project released a report warning that such flooding events are likely to become more frequent and severe as climate change makes weather patterns more difficult to predict. 

2019 was the third wettest year for the Missouri River Basin on record, meaning the basin is going into 2020 with wetter-than-normal soil. Runoff this year is expected to be more than 140% as much as normal, which would place this year in the top ten for the basin.

Iowa landowners are restoring native habitats


Prairie Grass
Photo by David Cornwell, Flickr

Tyler Chalfant | October 1st, 2019

Tall grass prairie once covered 70-80% of Iowa, but today, less than 0.1% of that remains. Some conservationists and landowners are working to change that, planting native species to restore Iowa’s natural ecosystems. 

The fourth annual Linn Landowners Forum was held in Marion on Sunday, educating landowners large and small on restoring native habitats, planting pollinators, and reviving the monarch butterfly population. Mark Vitosh, from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, spoke at the forum about the effects of invasive species, which can push out native plants and disrupt natural habitats.

The Iowa DNR Prairie Resource Center purchases thousands of acres per year to restore natural habitats. The loss of prairie has caused the decline of many native species. Tall grasses provide winter cover for a variety of species and are home to insects and small mammals important to the ecosystem’s food chain. Additionally, native grasses can slow soil erosion and nutrient runoff, protecting lakes, rivers, and streams from pollution.

The event’s finale featured the release of 500 monarch butterflies, captured by the Monarch Research Station, which tags hundreds of butterflies each year to track their migration patterns. According to the station’s manager Mike Martin, those patterns are often disrupted by habitat loss, pesticide and herbicide use, and the elimination of milkweed. 

Mid-American Monarch Conservation Strategy draft released


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Female monarchs lay their eggs in milkweed pods. (Charles Dawley/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | March 15, 2018

A draft of the Mid-America Monarch Conservation Strategy was released on Monday, and Iowa plays an integral role in its success.

North American monarch butterfly populations have decreased by 80 percent in the last two decades, and their numbers are less than half of what is needed to guarantee a sustainable population. The black and gold pollinators spend their winter months in Mexico and southern California and travel to the northern midwest for the summer. Female monarchs lay eggs exclusively in milkweed pods.

Released by the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, the conservation strategy draft explains that midwestern states plan to establish 1.3 billion new milkweed stems over the next two decades. The Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is included within the midwestern effort. Written by Iowa State University’s Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, its aims to establish between 480,000 and 830,000 acres on monarch habitat by 2038.

Mike Naig, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, said, “The consortium has worked collaboratively with diverse stakeholders to develop a comprehensive plan to expand habitat on our agricultural land, urban areas, roadsides, and other public land. We appreciate the many partners that have been involved and are encouraged by the work already underway.”

Iowa’s strategy provides evidence-based recommendations for creating monarch habitat and aims to document all voluntary efforts. 127 to 188 million new milkweed stems are estimated to be planted in Iowa in accordance with the plan.

Given that the vast majority of Iowa land is in agricultural production, the plan’s authors emphasize that agricultural lands must be a part of the solution. The strategy considers both expanding on existing conservation practices and planting milkweed stems in underutilized farm land as viable options. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services will decide in June 2019 whether the monarch butterfly should be protected under the Endangered Species Act.

Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said, “Iowa falls entirely within the monarch’s northern breeding core. This means that every patch of milkweed habitat added in Iowa counts, and Iowa is perfectly situated to lead the way in conservation efforts for the monarch butterfly. The recovery cannot succeed without Iowa.”

The full draft of the Mid-American Monarch Conservation Strategy is available here.
The complete Iowa Monarch Conservation Strategy is available here.

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.