It’s Invasive Species Awareness Month!


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Familiarize yourself with invasive Garlic Mustard, pictured here,  so you can pull it when you see it (flickr). 

Julia Poska| May 10, 2019

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.

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.

 

 

 

Iowa passes new bill on advanced plastic recycling


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Pyrolysis technology can recycle the bottles inside these bags AND the bags (flickr).

Julia Poska| April 12, 2019

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.

Burning plastics releases carbon and toxins into the atmosphere, albeit at fairly low rates  according to industry experts. Michigan State University Extension says gasoline and diesel produced from plastic appear to contain more energy and less carbon that traditional fossil fuels, too.

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.

Flood fallout: statewide disaster proclamation and precaution


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The Iowa Flood Information System as of Thursday night. 

Julia Poska | March 15, 2019

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.
  • Check here for up-to-date road closures.
  • Visit the Iowa Flood Information System for flood alerts and more.

It’s ‘Radon Action Month’ in Iowa (for very good reason)


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The entire state of Iowa is at risk for high levels of radon (Wikimedia Commons).

Julia Poska | January 17, 2019

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.

RESOURCES

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.

More information on radon

Report: STEM scores lower for minority, low-income students in Iowa


Students get hands on experience learning about science at Chicago's Argonne National Laboratory. (Argonne National Laboratory)
Students get hands-on experience learning about science at Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory. (Argonne National Laboratory)

Nick Fetty | August 5, 2015

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.

Branstad in Hot, Dirty Water with Environmental Groups


Photo by Dylan; Flickr

Environmental groups are accusing Governor Terry Branstad of favoring agricultural practices over water quality and the environment.

Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, the Environmental Integrity Project, and the Iowa Sierra Club filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking documents about negotiations between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Continue reading