Urgent environmental challenges like climate change have made it increasingly vital for the public to know the facts. General audiences get information largely through news media, but distilling complicated science accurately is not always easy for writers. Friendly collaboration between scientists and journalists is crucial, for the sake of accuracy and public good.
An Environmental Journalism Summit in Grinnell, Iowa brought students and professionals in both fields together Tuesday to share thoughts on improving environmental science communication.
The University of Iowa’s Environmental Health Sciences Research Center organized the summit and presented on three “hot topics” in environmental news. Peter Thorne, head of the UI Department of Occupational and Environmental Health, spoke about his experiences advising the EPA under changing administration. Dr. Robert Blount discussed his medical research on air pollution and tuberculosis. Darrin Thompson, associate director of the UI Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), shared his knowledge and research on neonicotinoids, a controversial class of pesticides.
Two expert panels shared their knowledge and answered questions from moderators and audience members. The “Science and Media” panel featured Iowa Public Radio’s Amy Mayer, journalism professor Daniel Lathrop, Iowa Watch executive director Lyle Muller and engineer Craig Just, who discussed the complexities of communicating science. They stressed the importance of fact checking, including people in storytelling and maintaining responsibility to the audience.
Another panel focused on nitrates and water quality, featuring IIHR research engineer Chris Jones, CHEEC director David Cwiertny and Kajsa Dalrymple, who researches media effects on agricultural practices. They discussed gaps in coverage of the issue, the magnitude of the problem and the complex system that created it.
Researchers also participated in more journalistic activities, like generating story ideas on hog manure. The summit ended with a showcase on Cedar Fall High School’s news team, which has published award-winning investigations on pesticide drift, climate change education and drinking water nitrates through Iowa Watch.
Excess nitrogen in a water system spurs algae growth. After these algae blooms eventually decompose, bacteria or other small organisms feed on the dead algae and deplete oxygen within the water. This process is known as aquatic hypoxia, or eutrophication, and is responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Iowa is not the only state that has problems with runoff, but with 72 percent of Iowa’s land being used for farming, Iowa is a major contributor to the eutrophication process.
The rise in nitrate pollution has occurred despite Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which just marked its five year anniversary earlier this year. The Nutrient Reduction Strategy is a voluntary program which involves 8,000 farmers and focuses on conservation methods such as cover crops and no-till techniques. Mike Naig, Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, wrote in a Des Moines Registerarticle that he sees outreach and education about the effect that nitrates have on the water system as an essential aspect of improving Iowa’s water quality.
Scientists who have been working to curb nutrient runoff in Iowa’s waterways since 2010 through the Nutrient Reduction Strategy have publicly estimated that it would cost billions of dollars to adequately address Iowa’s water quality problem. Senate File 512 falls short, allocating $282 million to water quality improvement over the next twelve years. The plan draws money from an existing tax on tap water that used to go into the state’s general fund and gambling revenue that was once used for infrastructure projects.
Republican John Wills of Spirit Lake spearheaded the bill’s passing. According to the Register, he said, “The bill builds upon the successful implementation of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction strategy and provides for long-term and sustainable funding. This is just the beginning, not the end.”
While the measure passed the House of Representatives 59-41, both Republicans and Democrats criticize the bill for not going far enough to clean up Iowa’s nearly 700 impaired waterways. Republican representative Chip Baltimore of Boone, Iowa said “I don’t know about all of you, but I did not come down here to check a box. Just because the words ‘water quality’ are in the title of a bill does not make me proud to vote for it so that I can put it on a postcard when I go campaign.”
Iowa’s largest environmental coalition, the Iowa Environmental Council, released a statement criticizing the bill. In the statement, the organization’s Executive Director Jennifer Terry, said, “Our legislature today chose a failed business-as-usual approach to cleaning up our polluted lakes and rivers.” She continued, “The legislation passed today lacks a scientifically-proven watershed approach, lacks funding for adequate financial and human capital, lacks required water quality monitoring or assurance of public access to data about Iowa’s water quality.”
The coalition calls on Republican Gov. Reynolds to veto the bill.
Conversations about water quality improvement on agricultural land usually include talk of terraces, wetland restoration and curbed pesticide application. One strategy, oxbow restoration, is often left out.
Prior to European-Americans converting Iowa’s prairies into cropland, most of the waterways that flow through the state regularly took long twists and turns. In order to maximize agricultural space, farmers straightened creeks in the 20th century. IIHR researcher Dr. Chris Jones said that this causes water to move quickly downstream, increasing nutrient runoff, erosion and the likelihood of flooding downstream.
Jones is one part of an effort to restore an oxbow in Morgan Creek Park in Linn County. In an interview, he explained that oxbow restoration is a cheaper conservation method because most oxbows were located on land that is not usable for farming anyway. He said, “It’s very cheap habitat—$10,000 to $15,000 to restore one of these.”
Jones, along with UI Dr. Keith Schilling and graduate student Bryce Haines, hope to measure the water quality benefits of oxbow restoration. The researchers have installed water level monitoring wells near the project on Morgan Creek, the first of its kind in eastern Iowa. Linn County Conservation has reintroduced native plants to the area, which is close to one of the park’s hiking trails. Jones said, “It’ll provide opportunities for people to look at birds.”
Schilling has already seen the positive impact oxbow restoration can have on a watershed. His research team restored an oxbow along White Fox Creek in the Boone watershed last year. Schilling reported that the oxbow removed 45 percent of the nitrate flowing into the stream from surrounding farmland, which is equal to what one might expect from bioreactors or wetlands.
Schilling and Jones agree that oxbows provide a multitude of benefits. “Oxbows can provide a triple benefit of habitat, flood storage, and stream water-quality enhancement,” Jones said, “And all for not much money.”
To read IIHR’s full report on the project, click here.
IowaWatch’s 2016 investigative work titled, “Crisis In Our Wells” is a multiple-part special report which explores Iowa’s rural well water contamination problem.
According to the report, an estimated 288,000 people rely on private wells for their water supplies. However, rural well water quality is not regulated, so many well owners may not know what is in the water they’re drinking. IowaWatch spent much of 2016 testing for nitrogen, bacteria, arsenic and lead in southwest Iowa private wells, and found that a large number had high nitrate and bacteria levels.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health standard for nitrate contamination is 45 milligrams per liter. IowaWatch, which is a nonpartisan, non-profit news organization, tested 28 wells in May and June. Eleven of the tested wells had nitrate levels above 45 milligrams per liter, with one rural home’s water coming in at 168 milligrams per liter. Some wells contained trace amounts of arsenic and lead, while fifteen wells had unsafe bacteria levels.
County sanitarians that perform tests for these contaminants told IowaWatch that they often have trouble convincing homeowners that testing well water is important. Sherry Storjohann is an environmental health specialist that has been testing wells in Crawford and Carroll counties for a quarter century.
Storjohann said, “What’s out of sight is out of mind.” She explained, “I have so many people with hand-dug wells that say they’ve got the best tasting water, the clearest water, the coldest water. Yet, what they realize after they test is just how unsafe that water is.”
Recent research from the University of Iowa Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination found that nitrates in drinking water can lead to birth defects among pregnant women, certain types of cancer and thyroid problems. Bacteria in drinking water is not necessarily harmful to residents but can be a sign that the well is open to outside contaminants such as agricultural runoff, vermin or septic system leaks. The health risks associated with low levels of lead and arsenic are unknown, but the EPA sets those contamination limits at zero.
In 1987, Iowa legislature established the Grants to Counties Program as a part of the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act. The program provides funds to county health departments to provide well-related services to residents. All of Iowa’s counties, except for Marshall county, participate in the program. Funds for the program are generated by fertilizer and pesticides taxes and are split equally among counties each year. The money can be used for total nitrate, coliform bacteria as well as arsenic testing in private wells.
Carmily Stone is bureau chief of the Bureau of Environmental Health Services at the Iowa Department of Public Health. She said, “Some counties don’t spend all of their money, and some counties go through their money rather quickly.”
Spending can vary for several reasons. Some counties have more rural water unities while others have more private wells, other counties simply do not have enough public health employees to provide services to everyone. Beginning in 2016, Iowa legislature added a mid-year funding reallocation for those counties that do not spend all of the Grants to Counties money.
Stone said, “We will look at the spending patterns of the counties. If there are counties that have already spent their money, that’s awesome. We want them to spend it all. But if there are counties that still have money left, then we will look at that and say, ‘Okay, how much money is still here?’ If there is quite a bit of money still sitting there, then we will consider a reallocation plan.”
Stone said that those funds leftover are given to counties that have spent all of their money for the year.
Despite the availability of free testing services and health risks associated with contaminated water, environmental health specialist Storjohann said that some people do not consider the issue a priority. Storjohann said that her parents and grandparents never tested their private wells. She said, “They were of the adage: ‘We’ve been drinking it this long, you know. It’s never harmed us.”
Storjohann continued, “I’ve gotten to the point now in the last number of years where I actually send out a personal letter to homeowners trying to explain our services, hoping to generate that interest and make them understand the good service this is and what we can provide and that this is all for their benefit.”
This week’s On The Radio segment discusses an emerging debate about the best way to measure water quality in Iowa.
Transcript: A debate has emerged over the best way to measure the success of water improvements in Iowa.
This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.
A big part of Iowa’s efforts to improve its rivers, streams and lakes centers on farmers adopting conservation practices spelled out in the state’s ambitious Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which seeks to slash nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the state’s waterways by 45 percent.
However, an emerging and controversial debate is occurring about how the state should measure whether spending on water improvement is working.
Environmentalists, water advocates and scientists want Iowa to rely on real-time water-quality monitoring, building on the state’s existing work to measure how well the state’s conservation efforts are working.
In general, farm groups would rather the improvements be measured by counting how many acres of cover crops, grassed waterways and other conservation practices have been put in place, presuming that the more Iowa has, the better its water quality will be. They are working with Iowa State University scientists on a plan to precisely track conservation gains.
The problem is that neither of these methods guarantee Iowa will be able to quickly measure whether water quality is actually improving. This is because farm practices that cut nitrate and phosphorus levels will likely take more than a decade to produce results in major Iowa rivers and lakes.
For more information about Iowa water quality improvements, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.
From the UI Center for Regional and Environmental Research, I’m Jenna Ladd.
On episode three of EnvIowa, we sit down with Dr. Chris Jones, IIHR Research Engineer, to discuss his recent research, which looks at the effects of soybean crops on water quality in Iowa. Much of the research over the last 40 years has been focused on corn, given that corn plants require more fertilizer than soybean plants. However, studies in 2009 and 2016, both of which Dr. Jones co-authored, suggest that soybeans play a larger role than previously understood.
Dr. Jones helps us understand why nutrient pollution has increased steadily as more and more farmers have integrated soybeans into crop rotation, replacing smaller grains and cover-crops, and what it will take to turn this science into water quality policies that benefit Iowans.
The EnvIowa podcast can also be found on iTunes and soundclound. For a complete archive of past episodes, click on the EnvIowa Podcast tab at the top of this page.
As a part of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1962, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the nitrate limit for drinking water at 10 milligrams per liter in order to prevent blue baby syndrome, which was a prevalent at the time. While the last known case of blue baby syndrome in Iowa was in the 1970’s, recent studies suggest that nitrates’ health impacts extend beyond this condition. The council’s report “Nitrate in Drinking Water: A Public Health Concern for All Iowans” provided an overview of several studies that linked high nitrate levels in drinking water with birth defects, cancers and thyroid problems.
The report said, “While most of the associations have been found when nitrate levels are higher than the drinking water standard, some research suggests that nitrate concentrations even lower than the drinking water standard may be harmful.”
Historically, some communities in Iowa have had trouble remaining in compliance with current drinking water nitrate limits. Based on a state drinking water compliance report, eleven public drinking water supplies exceeded the 10 milligrams per liter limit in 2015. Iowans that get their drinking water from private wells are at an increased risk. According to a Des Moines Register report, 15 percent of private wells that were voluntarily tested between 2006 to 2015 had nitrate levels that exceeded federal standards.
Concerns about nitrates from agricultural drainage tiles, rural and urban fertilizers, and water treatment systems seeping into water ways have been on the rise in Iowa. The Environmental Council is among many groups in the state that seek to bolster the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which aims to curb nitrogen and phosphorous that enters into Iowa’s streams and rivers by 45 percent. The group also supports a movement for an additional three-eighths of 1 cent sales tax to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Sixty-three percent of Iowans voted to approve this amendment in 2010, but state legislators did not approve funding for the measure.
Peter Weyer is interim director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa and has studied the relationship between long-term exposure to low-level nitrates in water and cancer in women. He said, “Based on our research and elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad, it looks like nitrates are problematic for other health effects.”
According to the Des Moines Register, Des Moines’ nitrate removal facility was responsible for dumping approximately 13,500 pounds of the contaminant into the Raccoon River last year.
Nitrates can be detrimental to human health if consumed in high enough quantities, which is why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires drinking water to be monitored for the compound. However, once nitrates are removed from the drinking water, they are often released back into Iowa’s waterways.
The Des Moines location is not alone in this practice. The majority of Iowa’s other 15 nitrate removal facilities follow the same routine, and many do not monitor what quantity of nitrate they are releasing.
Although this practice is completely legal, it has serious environmental ramifications. The Raccoon River is part of the Mississippi River watershed, which empties into the Gulf of Mexico. Midwest fertilizer runoff from the watershed, high in nitrates, is largely responsible for the Gulf of Mexico’s Dead Zone. Nitrate levels in the Gulf’s water allow algal blooms to thrive, which in turn leads to low oxygen levels that are deadly for many aquatic species.