Iowa communities along the Mississippi River will most likely see major flooding this spring.
A National Weather Service flood outlook released last week shows an over 50% chance of extensive inundation all along the state’s eastern boundary. Probability of moderate flooding is at 95% in most areas. Western Iowa faces lower, but still significant risk.
Heavy precipitation in 2019, still-saturated soils and heavy snowpack to the north contribute to the elevated flood risk.
Radio Iowa reported that Gov. Kim Reynolds said official are coordinating with local emergency management teams. Reynolds said the Army Corps of Engineers is releasing water already to make room for melted snow to the north.
Last summer’s Mississippi River flooding was the longest in recorded history, lasting nearly 200 days. A coalition of river city mayors estimated damage to be over $2 billion along the length of the river.
A decade after Iowans approved a constitutional amendment to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund (IWILL), Governor Kim Reynolds has proposed a sales tax increase to fund the program. The fund requires three-eighths of a cent from a sales tax increase to be set aside as a permanent and protected source of funding dedicated towards conserving and improving the state’s water quality, farmland, and natural wildlife habitats, and providing opportunities for recreation. Critics say that the governor’s plan provides much less funding than was promised.
Peter Fisher, Research Director of the nonpartisan Iowa Policy Project say that the new proposal would provide $82 million for environmental conservation and restoration programs, which should be $200 million based on what was passed in 2010. Another criticism is that the sales-tax increase has been paired with an income-tax decrease that favors the wealthy and results in a net loss in state tax revenue.
A report from the Iowa Fiscal Partnership found that the plan also excludes digital goods and services, resulting in a loss of $31 million for the fund. The new formula also transfers existing funds, rather than relying on new funding sources for new programs. It also gets rid of much of the outdoor recreation funding approved in 2010 amendment. You can read the full report here.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed an executive order declaring that future diesel engine vehicles purchased by the state must be able to use 20% biodiesel Tuesday at the Iowa Farm Bureau’s Annual Meeting.
The Iowa Department of Transportation fleet has already been using B20 biodiesel since 1994, a press release said. While the order may not drastically change Iowa’s existing vehicle purchase tendencies, it is a gesture of support to an industry long dissatisfied with federal biofuel policies.
Iowa farmers and others have for months expressed displeasure with the Trump administration’s repeated Renewable Fuel Standard exemptions to oil refineries. The exemptions undercut what would otherwise be guaranteed demand for biofuel, and several failed ethanol plants have blamed the exemptions for their closure.
Environmentalists and other stakeholders argue about the environmental benefits of ethanol and biodiesel. The fuels reduce fossil fuel use and emissions but are produced through resource-intensive agriculture, which expends almost as much energy as the fuels store.
The fuels are pivotal to Iowa’s economy regardless. A Des Moines Register article about the executive order said Iowa is the nation’s biggest ethanol and biodiesel producer.
In a 2010 referendum, Iowans approved a constitutional amendment to create the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, a permanent and protected source of funding dedicated towards conserving and improving the state’s water quality, farmland, and natural wildlife habitats, and providing opportunities for recreation. Nearly a decade later, that fund still remains empty.
The fund requires a state sales tax increase of 3/8th of a cent, something the legislature never approved. Recent polling has found that 69% of Iowans support this increase, up from 63% who voted for the amendment in the first place. Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver says that the funding would have to be a part of a net decrease in Iowans’ tax burden, while some Democrats are concerned that the tax is regressive, as it disproportionately places the burden of fixing environmental problems on those with low to moderate incomes who did not cause them.
Still, Governor Kim Reynolds has said she’s working on a plan to fill the fund which could be voted on during the legislative session starting in January. A one-cent increase in Iowa’s sales tax would generate an additional $547 million, $170 million of which would be directed to the Trust Fund. The constitutionally protected funding would primarily be committed to natural resources, soil, water, and watershed conservation, as well as the resource enhancement and protection program known as REAP and local conservation partnerships.
Invasive species often travel across continents via human transportation vessels and the cargo they carry. These species often have no natural predators in their new homes, so their populations explode. The native species that the invaders in turn prey upon are not adapted to defend themselves against these new predators, giving the invasive species an advantage over the native predators that now must share their prey. The result is a devastating chain reaction that can ripple through entire ecosystems.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds declared May Invasive Species Awareness Month to encourage the public and private sectors to join forces and amp up the fight against ecosystem invaders. Invasive species in Iowa harm agriculture and seriously degrade state parks, which are a source of tourism revenue.
One of Iowa’s most problematic invasive pests is the Emerald Ash Borer, a beetle from east Asia that has killed millions of ash trees across the country in the last 17 years. Another common offender is Garlic Mustard, a tasty herb which is spreading rapidly through Iowan woodlands and crowding out native plant species. A full guide to problematic invasive plant species found in Iowa’s woodlands can be found here.
Gardeners will be familiar with many invasive bugs and weeds, like the Japanese Beetle, the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug and bull thistles. These pests and others can pose real threats to Iowa farmers, and many are tracked by the Iowa State Ag Extension Office.
How can you help?
Do not buy or sell firewood from outside your county. Firewood can contain and spread invasive insects like the Emerald Ash Borer.
Scrub shoes and clean clothes before and after trips outdoors to avoid spreading seeds, especially when visiting public lands.
Remove invasive plants where you recognize them. Some groups and parks host volunteer days to pull invasive species.
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.
The Iowa Legislature and Governor Reynolds passed a bill this week in support of chemical recycling facilities for plastic in the state.
The bill defines gasification and pyrolysis, two chemical recycling methods, as processes that convert waste plastics into raw materials like crude oil, gasoline and other chemicals by heating and melting them in oxygen-deficient environments then processing them accordingly. Those materials can be used to make new plastic products or as “feedstock” to fuel industrial processes. Plants conducting these activities in Iowa will be regulated more like manufacturing plants than solid waste disposal facilities, according to the trade publication Plastics Recycling Update.
There are obvious benefits to recycling plastics. Transforming plastic waste into useful materials will keep it out of landfills, rivers and oceans. A National Geographic story on plastic recycling said that pyrolysis plants can handle filmy plastic bags, which most traditional recycling plants cannot. Recycling also reduces the amount of new material that must be manufactured to meet demands.
Recycling Today reported that five advanced recycling facilities could generate $309 million annually by converting 25 percent of Iowa’s plastic waste into industrial feedstocks or transportation fuel. According to National Geographic, however, it is still cheaper to make diesel from fossil fuel than plastic. The article said pyrolysis startups have closed in the past because they haven’t been able to make money or meet pollution control limits.
Plastics Recycling Update said the Iowa Recycling Association had been opposed to the bill but did not say why. This post will be updated if and when the Iowa Environmental Focus is able to learn more.
Iowa’s flood season started off with an splash this week. The state saw road closures, city evacuations and one even one collapsed bridge. In wake of major damage from east to west, Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a statewide disaster proclamation Thursday.
The official proclamation activates the State Emergency Operations Center to coordinate disaster response using state resources. It also activates the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program for qualifying residents; those with household incomes up to twice the federal poverty level have 45 days after the proclamation to apply for up to $5,000 in flood damage repairs.
The proclamation also activated the Disaster Case Management Program in 21 counties. Case managers help those seriously affected by disasters overcome adversity by helping them create a disaster recovery plan and offering guidance, advice and referrals.
Better safe than sorry
The flood season has only just begun and is expected to be brutal this year. Flood insurance takes 30 days from purchase to become active, but flood risk is an all-year hazard, especially in Iowa. It is not too late to protect your household from future floods.
Do you live in a flood plain? Find out here and remember that over 20 percent of flood insurance claims come from properties outside the supposed “high-risk” zone. The average claim is about $30,000: six times more than the maximum granted by the Iowa Individual Assistance Grant Program and with no income requirement.
Be aware of present flood risk as well. Watches are ongoing in much of the state. Be sure to…
Avoid driving across even shallowly flooded roads.
Keep at least a day’s supply of shelf-stable food and water in your home, especially if you live in a floodplain.
This week, Gov. Kim Reynolds designated January as “Radon Action Month” for the state of Iowa. Various areas across the country share that designation. Reynolds and the Iowa Department of Public Health encourage people to test their homes for radon and take steps towards resolving the issue if a problem is discovered.
Radon is a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that forms when naturally occurring uranium in soil and rocks decays. It often leaks from soil into homes via water, cracks in foundations and walls, or poorly sealed windows. Long-term exposure to elevated levels of radon is the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers in the U.S.
Iowa has high levels of radon across the board. Every county is listed as EPA Radon Zone 1, meaning over 50 percent of tested households had radon levels above the EPA’s 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter) threshold for recommended testing. In 2014, testing in some Iowa counties indicated average levels above 10 ppi. The U.S. average is 1.3 pC/I, according to the Iowa Radon Homebuyers and Sellers Fact Sheet.
If a homeowner determines that radon in their home is above 4 pCi/L, public health agencies recommend mitigating the issue. First, call Iowa’s Radon Hotline (1-800-383-5992) for information and guidance. Then contact a registered radon mitigation contractor to determine how to best solve the issue in your home and implement strategies like suction, sealants and pressurization. According to the Kansas State University National Radon Program Services, such a system typically costs about $800 to $1500 dollars.
Testing kits can be purchased cheaply your local county health department, at the Iowa Radon Hotline (1-800-383-5992), or online (ratings here).
Information about mitigating a radon issue can be found here.
The Iowa Department of Public Health’s official list of registered radon mitigation specialists can be found here.
Learn about radon data for your locality here.
*** Keep in mind that these data are based on averages from a small sample of homes in the area, and may not be a useful indicator for radon exposure risk in your home.
A report released Monday finds that math and science proficiency rates for Iowa students from low-income and minority families lags below their peers.
The third annual report – which was compiled by researchers from Iowa’s three public universities – points out that while overall student achievement in math and science has improved since Governor Terry Branstad launched his Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Advisory Council in 2011, there is still room for improvement.
“Amidst plenty of good news, there’s also reminders that our work is not done and there’s more to do,” Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds told the Mason City Globe Gazette. “So while we have made progress, and that’s something that we can celebrate, we know that we still have work to do.”
The report also found that interest in STEM careers was higher for elementary-school students compared to those in middle and high school, that 90 percent of students who participated in a STEM “Scale-Up” program in 2014-2015 had a greater interest in at least one STEM subject or career, and that more than 60 percent of Iowans surveyed said they were familiar with efforts to improve STEM education in the Hawkeye State. Earlier this summer, Iowa State University hosted a workshop for grade school teachers to better implement STEM programs into their classrooms.
Despite the lower rates for minority students at the K-12 level, the report also concluded that completion of community college STEM-related degrees for minorities has improved 69 percent since 2010. Overall, STEM degrees at Iowa’s public universities have increased 12 percent and 11 percent at private colleges since 2010.