Water quality researcher/blogger puts fresh perspective on stinking problem


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This map from Chris Jones’ blog relates the “real populations” (based on animal waste) of Iowa watersheds to the human populations other global areas.

Julia Poska| March 21, 2019

The public rarely gets its science straight from the source; we depend largely on the media to distill complicated academic research for us. University of Iowa researcher and adjunct professor Chris Jones is one of a rare breed of scientists who can adeptly communicate science on his own.

Jones has spent his career monitoring and researching the Iowan environment for institutions ranging from Des Moines Water Works to the Iowa Soybean Association. As an IIHR research engineer today he conducts original research and runs a blog where he explores the systems and nuances surrounding Iowa’s degraded water.

Recently, Jones calculated “Iowa’s real population” based on the nitrogen, phosphorus and solid matter in animal waste. He explained that Iowa’s millions of hogs, cattle, chickens and turkeys produce as much waste as 134 million people. The map pictured above matches the human populations of global cities and U.S. states to the “real populations” of Iowa’s watersheds.

“Managing the waste from these animals is possibly our state’s most challenging environmental problem,” he wrote. Weather and plant life cycles create a limited time window to apply it to fields, and hauling and handling it presents other challenges. When nutrients from manure enter waterways, they contribute to harmful algae blooms locally and in the Gulf of Mexico.

In another recent post, Jones used public data to compare the amount of nitrate purchased commercially and produced via manure in each Iowa watershed with the Iowa State University recommended application rate for corn. He found that, on average, Iowa farmers over-apply synthetic nitrogen by 35 pounds per acre. The addition of manure brings that surplus to 91 pounds per acre.

Other posts explore historical, social and political angles. Earlier this week, a post called “Ransom” related efforts to protect Lake Eerie in Ohio to the economic reality of farming and agribusiness in Iowa. “Who is getting the outcomes that they want from our policies, and in particular, the old school policies targeting improved water quality?” Jones asked.

Overall, Jones’ blog offers an informative and rather accessible expert perspective on a hugely complex issue. To subscribe yourself, visit here and enter your email at the bottom of the left sidebar.

***In an earlier version of this post, the number “134 million” was incorrectly written as simply, 134. Big difference! Thanks so much to those who pointed out the error***

Cover crop planting on the rise, but still used by just a small fraction of Iowa farmers


Iowa farmers planted 600,000 acres of cover crops last year. (flickr/CAFNR)

Katelyn Weisbrod | June 14, 2017

Iowa farmers planted 600,000 acres of cover crops last fall. This is an increase of over 60,000 acres, but covers just 2.6 percent of the 23.4 million acres of corn and soybean crops in the state.

Various state and federal conservation programs provided funding for 353,000 of these acres, including a cost-share program through the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, as part of the Iowa Water Quality Initiative to meet the needs of the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy.

Cover crops provide land with a vegetative cover during the months that crops are not actively growing, between the harvest and replanting. This helps to reduce the amount of nutrients that are washed into Iowa’s water bodies from agricultural lands, ultimately protecting the water quality. According to a report by the Environmental Working Group, cover crops can reduce the amount of nitrates leaching from the soil by 35 percent, and they are the the most effective practice for retaining nitrogen in the soil.

Washington County leads the state with the most acres of cover crops planted, followed by Cedar and Iowa counties, Wallaces Farmer reports.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey told Wallaces Farmer that he is encouraged by the increase in the practice.

“It’s obvious with the interest we’ve seen over the past few years that farmers are seeing the benefits that cover crops provide,” Northey said to Wallaces Farmer. “Cover crops are an important tool to help improve water quality and soil health in Iowa, and it is great to see an increasing number of farmers use this practice.”

Iowa could soon face water situation similar to Toledo


Nick Fetty | August 7, 2014
Blue green algae growing on Lake Eric. ( NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory/Flickr)
Blue green algae growing on Lake Erie. (NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory/Flickr)

Algae blooms in Iowa could contaminate the water supply, similar to what recently happened in Toledo, and according to one expert, “it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus inundate Iowa waterways and that coupled with high temperatures provides the perfect breeding ground for algae. The state has implemented a voluntary plan which encourages farmers to practice agricultural techniques that will lessen the amount of fertilizer run-off which leads to contaminated waterways in Iowa.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently advised beach-goers to avoid the waters at Lake Red Rock in Marion County due to excessively high levels of blue green algae which is known to contain toxins that are harmful to humans and can be lethal for animals. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources advises swimmers to take extra precaution in Iowa lakes during this time of the year. There are currently about dozen state-operated beaches in Iowa where swimming is not advised.

Attornys general from Iowa and 14 other agricultural and ranching states have spoken out against a recent U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed rule for the Clean Water Act, fearing the proposal would place excessive regulations on farmers and ranchers. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has defended the proposal and said it does not intend to place strict federal regulations on farmers.

Approximately 600 households in southwest Iowa were recently issued a boil order before consuming tap water after water quality tests concluded that chlorine levels were not sufficient. Chlorine is used to kill bacteria and other harmful toxins as part of the water filtration process but there was no indication that bacteria or other toxins had actually contaminated the water supply.

Toledo drinking water contamination is sign of bigger problems for Lake Erie


Nick Fetty | August 5, 2014
Blue green algae grows near Duncan's Dam in Northern Ireland. (Bobby McKay/Flickr)
Blue green algae floats near Duncan’s Dam in Northern Ireland. (Bobby McKay/Flickr)

The recent water contamination in Toledo, Ohio is yet another instance of the pollution that is a growing problem for Lake Erie.

Local health officials advised residents that both boiling and filtering the water were ineffective in eliminating the toxins which affected the water supply of nearly half a million residents. Toledo’s public water supply was deemed unfit to consume on Saturday and remained so until Monday when Mayor Michael Collins drank a glass of tap water in front of residents and media to signal that it was once again safe for consumption. During the shortage, football players and other athletic staff from Bowling Green State University drove 26 miles up I-75 to provide fresh water for their rivals at the University of Toledo who started practice on Sunday.

Fertilizer runoff, livestock operations, and faulty septic systems have all contributed to increased nitrogen and phosphorus levels in Lake Erie, which has seen seen greater levels of phosphorus compared to the other Great Lakes. However, this algae problem is not unique to the Great Lakes region.

Iowa waterways too have been contaminated with algae. Heavy rainfall in the spring and early summer led to an estimated 15 million pounds of Iowa soil being eroded away which causes runoff and other contamination in Iowa waterways. Blue green algae can produce toxins that are harmful for humans and can be deadly for animals. Officials with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources advise beach-goers to take extra precaution when swimming in Iowa lakes this time of year since algae blooms are at their peak.

On the Radio: Nutrient Management Research


Photo courtesy of Adrianne Behning Photography; Flickr

This week’s On the Radio segment covers research happening at the University of Iowa that looks into contaminant behaviors throughout watersheds. Listen to the audio below, or continue reading for the transcript.

Continue reading

Freshwater Mussels


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Craig Just; UI Civil and Environmental Engineering

Craig Just, a University of Iowa faculty member, is studying freshwater mussels with respect to the nitrogen cycle.

His team is trying to find ways to restore river habitats that have been depleted by excessive algal blooms.

By understanding how freshwater mussels process the nitrogen they consume from the algal blooms, researchers will know whether the mussels contribute to or remove nitrogen from the rivers.

 

For more information on Just’s research, click here. 

Nitrogen pulse bad news for Gulf of Mexico


Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Amy Heather; Flickr
Gulf of Mexico. Photo by Amy Heather; Flickr

Researchers at the University of Nebraska, the University of Iowa, and Coe College have been studying a major nitrogen pulse in the Cedar and Iowa River watersheds. This release of excess nitrogen, mostly from agricultural runoff, may be partially responsible for the increased expansion of the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone, which has doubled in size since last year. Continue reading