Bird flu damages estimated at $1 billion for Iowa, Minn


Iowa leads the nation in egg production. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)
Iowa leads the nation in egg production. (Phil Roeder/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | May 19, 2015

Estimates released Monday show that the recent bird flu outbreak is expected to cause a $1 billion loss in the economies of two of the countries biggest poultry producers: Iowa and Minnesota.

The Hawkeye State alone has lost about 20 million egg-laying chickens, more than one third of the state’s total, and economic losses are estimated around $600 million. These loses affect “feed suppliers, trucking companies, and processing plants.” Thus far the outbreak has been reported in 15 different states and cases reported in Iowa and Minnesota are expected to increase.

Poultry producers and landfill operators are now struggling with ways to dispose of the contaminated bird caucuses which number around 26 million. Landfill operators in northwest Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota – among the country’s hardest hit regions – have turned away the dead birds out of contamination fears. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Iowa governor Terry Branstad, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, and other top officials have urged landfills to begin accepting birds caucuses before improper disposal leads to odors, flies, and other problems. It may be a year or longer before poultry producers are able to fully recover from this setback.

“They are not going to come back all at once. It’s going to take one to two years for these layer facilities to be back into full production, it’s a gradual process,” said Maro Ibarburu, a business analyst at the Egg Industry Center at Iowa State University, during an interview with the Associated Press.

UI study finds that Midwest is experiencing more serious floods


Coralville, Iowa during the Flood of 1993. (Alan Light/Flickr)
Coralville, Iowa during the Flood of 1993. (Alan Light/Flickr)

Nick Fetty | February 12, 2015

The Midwest has seen a greater number of serious floods in recent decades compared to previous years, according to a report by researchers at the University of Iowa.

“It’s not that big floods are getting bigger, but that we have been experiencing a larger number of big floods,” said Gabriele Villarini, UI assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and a co-author of the study.

The report – which was published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change – examined 774 stream gauges in 14 Midwestern states (Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wisconsin). The researchers concluded that 34 percent of the sensors detected an increase in flooding events between 1962 and 2011. Nine percent of the gauges showed a decrease in flood events during that same time. The region including Illinois, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, and North Dakota experienced the greatest increase of flood frequency.

The authors wrote: “Most of the flood peaks in the northern part of the [Central United States] tend to occur in the spring and are associated with snow melt, rain falling on frozen ground, and rain-on-snow events.” However, the report “does not attempt to pinpoint precisely how climate change might be directly responsible for these increased flooding events.”

Serious floods have inundated the region in 1993, 2008, 2011, 2013, and 2014 and have caused more than $260 billion in damages between 1980 and 2013.

Funding for this research was provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources, the Iowa Flood Center, IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering, and the National Science Foundation.

Cool July temps helped farmers now hoping for more rain


Nick Fetty | August 22, 2014
A corn field in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)
A corn field in Polk County, Iowa. (Carl Wycoff/Flickr)

July 2014 ranked as the fifth-coolest July the Hawkeye State as seen in 142 years of record keeping.

These lower than usual temperatures have been beneficial for farmers in Iowa. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects corn production in Iowa to set a record of 2.44 billion bushels, with an average yield of 185 bushels-per-acre. If this per acre number is reached it will beat the previous record of 182 bushels-per-acre set in 2009.

While corn thrives when temperatures are lower than average, it can be detrimental to soy beans. Soy beans require slightly higher temperatures than corn in order for the bean pods to develop. However, the cooler temps have provided a reduction in disease and insect problems for soy bean crops. Soy bean production is also expected to set a record yield of 3.8 billion bushels according to the USDA.

Even though this past June ranked as one of the wettest in the state’s history, a fairly dry July has farmers now hoping for more rain. Despite the lack of rain, it has not hurt water levels on the Mississippi River.

Iowa is expected to retain its spot as the nation’s top corn-producing state. Illinois is right behind Iowa with an expected yield of 2.22 billion bushels followed by Nebraska with 1.51 billion bushels and Minnesota with 1.34 billion.

Iowa City film fest to feature documentary about frac sand mining


Nick Fetty | August 21, 2014
A frac sand mine operation in Wisconsin. (Caroll Mitchell/Flickr)
A frac sand mine operation in Wisconsin. (Carol Mitchell/Flickr)

The 8th annual Landlocked Film Festival will take place in downtown Iowa City this weekend and among the films being shown is a documentary that examines the affects that frac sand mining has had on the environment as well as the communities in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The Price of Sand – directed by Minnesota native Jim Tittle – examines the recent boom in mining operations for pure silica. This silica is used in hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) operations as well as for manufacturing materials such as glass and toothpaste. The silica acts as a proppant or “a material used in hydraulic rock fracturing in order to keep the fissures open and thereby aid extraction.” The size and shape of different proponents play “a critical role in keeping fractures open and at the desired conductivity.”

These frac sand mining operations are most common along the “driftless area” – also called the Paleozoic Plateau – which “is a unique region of the Upper Mississippi River Basin with a landscape that is rich with ecological and economic opportunities. The area was by-passed by the last continental glacier and has differential weathering and erosion that results in a steep, rugged landscape referred to as karst topography.” The driftless area includes portions of southeast Minnesota, southwest Wisconsin, northwest Illiniois, and northeast Iowa. Allamakee and Winneshiek counties in Iowa currently have a “moratorium on mining.”

Proponents of the practice say that frac sand mining provides a valuable resource while creating jobs. Opponents say that it brings increased traffic as well as wear and tear on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure to rural areas. Opponents are also concerned about the potential health effects associated with frac sand mining.

The viewing will take place at 4 p.m. on Friday August 22 in Room A at the Iowa City Public Library. It will be followed by discussion from a panel of experts from the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health.

“The size and the shape of silica make it a particularly dangerous substance. It is regulated as a human carcinogen. It causes siliceous, it causes tuberculous, it causes problems with kidney disease. According to studies on siliceous we can get a certain amount, maybe up to three micrograms per cubic meter, and we have no ill health effects but above that level, so if we have agricultural dust as well as dust coming from a sand plant, we may be above that threshold and then we may begin to see the scarring and the progression of disease associated with silica exposure.”

-University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Associate Nursing Professor Crispin Pierce during an interview with Iowa Public Radio on August 21, 2014.

University of Minnesota research shows grassland-to-cropland conversion is contributing to groundwater contamination


Nick Fetty | August 14, 2014
A southern Minnesota farm just before harvest. (keeva999/Flickr)
A southern Minnesota farm just before harvest. (keeva999/Flickr)

Southeast Minnesota farmers converting their grassland into cropland could be contributing to increased nitrate levels in groundwater, according to researchers at the University of Minnesota.

The research estimates that it will cost between $700,000 and $12 million over the next 20 years to address increased nitrate levels in private wells throughout southeastern Minnesota. Researchers Bonnie Keeler and Stephen Polasky used biophysical models and economic valuation to draw their conclusions.

Between 2007 and 2012, more than one-quarter of grassland in southeastern Minnesota were converted into cropland. This led to higher amounts of fertilizer being used which then led to higher nitrate levels in waterways. This creates both health and financial risks for 70 percent of Minnesotans who rely on groundwater as well as for the 1 million residents who get their water from public wells.

The southeastern portion of Minnesota is especially vulnerable to groundwater contamination because of its karst geology which contains cracks and fissures in underground rock formations that can easily be penetrated and jeopardize the quality of the water. Researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota Extension found tillage to be the most effective method to protect water quality in southeastern Minnesota.

Both the Upper Iowa River and Cedar River Watersheds begin in southeastern Minnesota and travel down through portions of eastern Iowa before draining into the Mississippi River.

Wartburg College receives grants for environmental research


Nick Fetty | July 16, 2014
Dancing St. Francis statue on the Wartburg College campus. Photo via Wikipedia Commons
Dancing St. Francis statue on the Wartburg College campus.
Photo via Wikipedia Commons

Faculty and researchers at Wartburg College have received two grants for different types of environmental research.

A grant awarded by the U.S. Forestry Service will provide funding for studying and improving streams. Students, faculty, and other researchers will study steams and adjacent areas in the Superior National Forest located in northeast Minnesota.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources also awarded Wartburg with funding so researchers can study the presence of rusty crayfish in the Shell Rock and Winnebago River drainages. The rusty crayfish, which is non-native to Iowa, displaces native crayfish, reduces certain fish populations, and causes other ecological problems.

The college also received funding to participate in a three-year project that aims to offer advanced online degrees.

Wartburg is a private liberal arts college with 1,747 undergraduate students located in Waverly, Iowa.  A second campus, Wartburg College West, is located in Denver, Colorado.

Large solar energy project proposed for Mitchell County in northern Iowa


Nick Fetty | July 3, 2014
Concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) solar farm in Canyon County, Idaho. Photo by Nicolas Morgan; Flickr
Concentrated photovoltaics (CPV) solar farm in Canyon County, Idaho.
Photo by Nicolas Morgan; Flickr

A $1.5 million solar array project – expected to be one of the largest in the state – has been proposed for Mitchell County in northern Iowa and is pending final approval from county officials.

The Heartland Power Cooperative will install 1,200 solar panels across 4 1/2 acres just east of St. Ansgar.  The cooperative has partnered with the National Renewable Cooperative Organization, National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation, and Federated Rural Electric Insurance Exchange for this project.

Construction is expected to be completed by late fall and the operation should be running by 2015.

Heartland Power Cooperative serves approximately 2,500 members in northern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota.

EDIT: Post originally stated project was finalized however it is in the “Request for Proposal” stage and has yet to receive final approval from county officials.