Roadside prairie: little strips of sustainability

Native prairie plants are hardy and beautiful (flickr).

Julia Poska | January 17, 2019

Over the past 200 years, Iowa’s once ubiquitous prairies have been almost totally edged out by farmland and urbanization. Only a fraction of one percent of what used to be remains. It is unlikely that Iowa’s prairies will ever be restored to their full former glory, but some counties are regenerating slivers of native prairie along county roadsides.

The practice, called Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management, cannot reestablish the value of Iowa’s lost prairies, but it does help humans and nature coexist little more sustainably. The strips of prairie:

  • Create habitat for species like pollinators, birds and small mammals
  • Trap pollutants and sediments that would otherwise contaminate water and soil, like motor oil and road salt, while remaining tough enough to withstand harm
  • Promote soil health and reduce flooding by incorporating air and organic matter into the soil structure
  • Give drivers a glimpse at the state’s historic beauty

Counties aim to manage these areas sustainably with minimal use of pesticides, strategically timed mowing and burning. These efforts are funded through the Living Roadway Trust Fund and supported by the University of Northern Iowa Tallgrass Prairie Center. Over 100,000 acres have been planted since the start of the program in 2009.

To learn more about what this program has accomplished and see some pretty flowers, check out this online presentation from the Tallgrass Prairie Center.



Wild reindeer shrink in size and number

A recent study found that the largest herd of wild reindeer in the world’s population is decreasing rapidly due to warming temperatures in northern Russia. (Hermanni Tommonen/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | December 13, 2016

The wild reindeer, a holiday icon, is facing sharp population decline due to climate change.

Andrey Petrov, director of the University of Northern Iowa Arctic Center, led a study of the largest reindeer herd in the world, located on the Taimyr Peninsula in the northernmost tip of Russia. Petrov’s work shows that the herd’s population has dropped from 1 million reindeer in 2000 to about 600,000 today. Scientists say rising temperatures in the region may be the cause.

Petrov said, “Climate change is at least one of the variables.” He added, “We know in the last two decades that we have had an increase in temperatures of about 1.5C overall. And that definitely impacts migration patterns.” During his presentation at the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco on Monday, Petrov explained that the longer distance the animals have to travel in order to find cold weather is increasing calf mortality. When the reindeer have to travel further and to higher elevations in the winter, it is also more difficult to find land bearing food in the summer months. Petrov also explained that the region’s rivers are growing wider as ice in the area melts, causing more deaths as the herd attempts to swim across bodies of water.

“Reindeer are tremendously important for biodiversity – they are part of the Arctic food chain and without them other species would be in trouble,” he said. Petrov added, “Thousands and thousands of people rely on wild reindeer; it is the basis of their subsistence economy. So it’s about human sustainability too.”

Wild reindeer are also shrinking in size. Scottish and Norwegian researchers recently released a study which found that the average weight of reindeer on Svalbard, a chain of islands north of Norway, has fallen from 121 lb. in the 1990’s to 106 lb. today. Professor Steve Albon, an ecologist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, said, “Warmer summers are great for reindeer but winters are getting increasingly tough.” The researchers explained that less snowfall during warmer winters means that the reindeer have to traverse sheets of ice, making it harder for the animals to reach food sources.

In contrast to the Tamiyr population, the Svalbard herd is growing in size.”So far we have more but smaller reindeer,” Albon said. He added that the growing population means competition for food has become more intense.

On The Radio – Environmental activist Sandra Steingraber visits UNI

Sandra Steingraber is an American biologist, author, and cancer survivor. Steingraber writes and lectures on the environmental factors that contribute to reproductive health problems and environmental links to cancer. (Flickr)

Jake Slobe | September 26, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses Sandra Steingraber and her recent visit to the University of Northern Iowa

Transcript: Long time environmental activist, Sandra Steingraber recently hosted a lecture, film showing and discussion at the the University of Northern Iowa.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Steingraber visited UNI to discuss three of her recent articles and give a lecture entitled “Be Arrested If Necessary.” She spoke about the role of environmental science as a catalyst for political and cultural change.

Sandra Steingraber, lives in Trumansburg, New York and has worked for years with government officials and other activists to bring about changes in her home state and around the country. She is a co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York and New Yorkers Against Fracking and is currently the science advisor to Americans Against Fracking. In twenty-fourteen she led a successful campaign against fracking, resulting in the process being banned in the Empire State.

Steingraber is working hard to bring awareness to the effects of environmental degradation due to chemical contamination, fracking, shale gas extraction and climate change.

For more information on Sandra Steingraber and her environmental efforts visit

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.



Study finds consumers, retailers waste about half the produce grown in the U.S.

(Nick Saltmarsh/Flickr)
(Nick Saltmarsh/Flickr)
Nick Fetty | July 15, 2016

New research suggests that as much as half of the food produce in the United States is wasted.

“demand for unattainable perfection” in the appearance of fruits and vegetables is largely to blame for the vast amount of wasted food. Fruits and vegetables are often led in the field to rot, fed to livestock, or shipped directly to landfills when deemed unsellable because of cosmetic imperfections. According to government data, about 60 million tons of produce, worth about $160 billion, is wasted by American retailers and consumers annually. Globally, about 1.6 billion tons, valued at about $1 trillion, is wasted each year.

Despite these findings, researchers recognize that there is currently no clear way to account for food loss in U.S. However, the World Resources Institute and other thinktanks are developing methods to more accurately account for food waste. Wasteful food production practices are detrimental to efforts to fight global hunger and climate change.

Last year U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack called for a 50 percent reduction in food waste by 2030. However, one expert argues that Vilsack’s goal could have a negative effect on food economics. Roger Gordon – founder of the Food Cowboy – told The Guardian that a 50 percent reduction in food waste could reduce the profit margin of produce at grocery stores by half. He added that fresh produce accounts for about 15 percent of supermarket profits.

The University of Northern Iowa’s Iowa Waste Reduction Center was established in 1988 with the intention of helping businesses reduce food waste in the Hawkeye State. In 2013, the center released a report entitled “Iowa Food Waste Reduction Program Market Analysis.”

Coralville event focuses on management practices within Clear Creek Watershed

IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering Director Larry Weber presents at the Iowa Watershed Apparoach Kickoff meeting at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering Director Larry Weber presented at the Iowa Watershed Apparoach Kickoff meeting at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Nick Fetty | June 16, 2016

Officials with the University of Iowa’s IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering hosted an event Wednesday in Coralville focused on reducing flood damage and improving water quality within the Clear Creek Watershed.

IIHR-Hydroscience & Engineering Director Larry Weber was the event’s main presenter as he discussed efforts in the Clear Creek Watershed which will in part be funded by a $96.9 million grant awarded to the state of Iowa in January by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). More than 60 were in attendance for Wednesday’s event at the Coralville Public Library including representatives from city, county, and state governments, Iowa’s three regent universities, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), landowners, farmers, and various engineering firms. Weber said he thinks cooperation between public and private entities will be key in many of the upcoming projects.

“It is a great partnership between the public and private sectors. With the federal and state agencies they have a jurisdiction and they have an authority. So they all work within in their authority to contribute to the program,” said Weber. “Then we have the private sector involved through design consultants, engineering services, technical assistance, and what I was really impressed with in today’s meeting were the number of landowners that were here. So there’s interest. We know there is interest in landowners wanting to make their waters better and to have that number of landowners here interested in the program, already thinking about practices they might want to enroll on their property, that’s exciting.”

Jeff Geerts, Special Project Manager for the Iowa Department of Economic Development, answered questions during the Clear Creek Watershed event at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)

The $96.9 million grant was awarded to Iowa through the National Disaster Resilience Competition. The landlocked Hawkeye State received the fourth largest amount of funding behind disaster-prone coastal areas. Weber said this large sum of funding shows the need for pursuing these projects in Iowa.

“It is really interesting especially since this competition was born out of Superstorm Sandy. The largest recipient was the state of New York followed by Virginia and then New Orleans which has been impacted by every landfall and gulf coast hurricane over the last decade,” said Weber. “Iowa was fourth behind those disaster-prone areas so it really spoke to how well the partnership was, how sound the approach is, and how great the ideas are.”

Weber also said that IIHR’s prior involvement in HUD-funded projects made the process easier when pursuing the most recent grant.

“The Iowa Flood Center and IIHR was fortunate to be part of the team that helped to create this proposal and having the experience from running the previous HUD project we knew what the needs were. We needed money for conservation, we needed technical design assistance, we needed project coordinators, we needed the monitoring and modelling and other outreach services that we provide. So when we saw how all of those elements could fit together we wrote a compelling story for HUD and then ended up with a successful proposal.”

Another reason Iowa was successful in receiving the HUD funding was because of programs and other efforts already in place that will contribute to the HUD project. The Iowa Flood Center, the Iowa Nutrient Research Center, the Iowa Geologic Survey, the Iowa DNR, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and other agencies already have programs in place which HUD felt could be further developed with the funding it granted to Iowa.

Coralville Mayor John Lundell. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)
Coralville mayor John Lundell also spoke at the Clear Creek Watershed event at the Coralville Public Library on June 15, 2016. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)

In addition, Weber said Iowa was unique among its adversaries in the National Disaster Resilience Competition because of the amount of local financial support for the practices outlined in the state’s plan.

“We have 25 percent local support of these practices. So think about going to a coastal area where they’re going to build a seawall. They don’t ask the residents behind that seawall to commit 25 percent of the funding yet here we’re building practices on private land for public benefit and we’re getting that landowner to cover 25 percent of that cost.”

Weber credited the Iowa legislature and other state leaders for their support with establishing the Iowa Flood Center and funding other water-related activities in the state which helped Iowa’s case when applying for the recent HUD funding.

“Without that commitment we wouldn’t have had the leverage that we did and we wouldn’t have been successful like we were,” he said.

Wednesday’s meeting was part of an eight watershed tour that concludes today in Vinton.

On The Radio – UNI study examines Iowans’ views on water quality

(Iowa Department of Natural Resources)
(Iowa Department of Natural Resources)
Nick Fetty | May 9, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment looks at a recent survey conducted by researchers at the University of Northern Iowa which examined Iowans’ behaviors and views related to water quality.

Transcript: UNI study examines Iowans’ views on water quality

A majority of Iowans are willing to change their behavior to help improve water quality, according to a University of Northern Iowa survey.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Public Perceptions of Water Quality in Iowa: A Statewide Survey, produced by the UNI Center for Social & Behavioral Research, recorded answers to a range of questions posed to Iowans on their views on water quality. Seventy percent of those surveyed said they would be willing to change a single behavior to improve water quality.

Andrew Stephenson (Project Coordinator, Center for Social and Behavioral Research): “One of the many aims of this project was to gather baseline information on Iowans’ reported engagement in positive behaviors related to water quality, such as picking up pet waste, washing vehicles at commercial car washes, and properly disposing of hazardous waste. Using this information, the Department of Natural Resources will work to develop an outreach campaign that educates the public and encourages positive behavior change among Iowans to improve and protect the quality of Iowa’s lakes, rivers, and creeks. Additionally, these data can serve as a benchmark to which the DNR can compare future measures to evaluate the effectiveness of their outreach efforts.”

Water-saving behavior changes could include refraining from pouring fat or oils down the drain, avoiding the garbage disposal and composting instead, going meatless for one day per week, and even placing a brick or half-gallon jug in a toilet tank to save water when flushing.

For more information from the survey, visit

From the UI Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research, I’m Betsy Stone.

Study brings together researchers from Iowa and Nepal

A section of the Bagmati River between Lalitpur and Kathmandu. (Sundar1/WikiMedia)
A polluted section of the Bagmati River between Lalitpur and Kathmandu in Nepal. (Sundar1/Wikimedia Commons)

Nick Fetty | November 11, 2015

Researchers at the University of Northern Iowa are working with their counterparts at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, Nepal on a study that will examine the Bagmati River.

The Bagtami River is “the principal river of the Bagmati Basin in central Nepal.” Industrialization and urbanization in Nepal’s capital city of Kathmandu (pop. 1,003,000 [2011]) have contributed to ecological and environmental issues in the river. Through the study researchers hope to develop an “effective hydrologic assessment scheme for the polluted body of water.”

The project is led by UNI earth science professor Dr. Mohammad Iqbal.

“Students will learn about global environmental problems, particularly issues that are directly linked to human health,” Dr. Iqbal said in a press release. “This will be a great opportunity for our students to develop respect and understanding for people of a different culture, specifically for those people who are living in adverse environmental conditions.”

The researchers started on the project during May of this year when Dr. Iqbal and two of his students traveled to Nepal. The researchers conducted water and sentiment sampling, analyzed procedures, and implemented policy changes using scientific data. The team is expected to continue working on the project through the end of 2016. Funding for this project was made possible because of a $56,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The Bagmati River study is just one of the international research efforts in which UNI is participating. Last month NSF awarded UNI with nearly $750,000 to study environmental sustainability in the arctic. UNI will work with researchers from in Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden on the project.

UNI, Cedar Valley Recycling team up for mixed-recycling initiative

An aerial shot of the University of Northern Iowa. (University of Northern Iowa)
An aerial shot of the University of Northern Iowa. (University of Northern Iowa)

Nick Fetty | September 9, 2015

The University of Northern Iowa has teamed up with Cedar Valley Recycling & Transfers to handle mixed-recycling collected on the UNI campus.

“There is a significant savings recognized by recycling and avoiding expensive landfill fees,” Mike Zwanziger, director of UNI’s Physical Plant said in a press release. “Trees and water are saved by recycling, less oil and other natural resources are used to recycle materials in lieu of using new materials, and less waste is being sent to a landfill, lessening the need to expand or open new landfills.”

Recycling bins are scattered across the UNI campus to collect paper, cardboard, plastic, and metal materials which will then be sorted at the recycling center. Despite being recyclable, the vendor is unable to accept styrofoam or glass containers.

UNI has teamed with the City of Cedar Falls to provide a recycling substation on the southwest corner of campus since 2012. During that time, 411.52 tons of paper, 248.6 tons of cardboard, 128.92 tons of plastic, 52.92 tons of glass, 33.41 tons of tin, and 8.52 tons of plastic bags have been collected.

The Princeton Review named UNI to its 2016 Green College Honor Roll recognizing not only recycling and sustainability practices but also research and outreach initiatives like the Center for Energy and Environmental Education and the Iowa Waste Reduction Center. Iowa State University was also named to the list of the nation’s top 24 environmentally conscious colleges and universities. The list was compiled using several different criteria including efforts to purchase local and organic food, overall waste diversion rate, and amount of campus energy generated from renewable sources.

CGRER 25th Anniversary Profiles: Laura Jackson

Laura Jackson (center) and her students work on a display of a prairie plant root system. (University of Northern Iowa)

Nick Fetty | August 14, 2015

Laura Jackson is a biology professor at the University of Northern Iowa and has been a CGRER member since the the center was established in 1990. In addition to her research, which focuses on ecological restoration of agricultural landscapes and forb establishment dynamics in tallgrass prairie reconstruction, Jackson also participates in outreach efforts to educate the public ecology of Iowa plant systems.

“It’s giving us an opportunity to start a conversation about ecosystems processes and what it means to have a diverse perennial root system in the ground as opposed to an annual row crop system,” she said.

Jackson and her team create plant displays using a special growth medium in 10-foot deep pots. Thus far they have displays in 20 Iowa counties and Jackson said she expects to add an additional 10 counties each year. Part of her goal with the public outreach is to dispel the notion that scientific research is tied to a poltical or ideological agenda.

“There’s a lot of people who don’t understand how science works at all and they are encouraged to think that it works like politics works, you try to prove your point somehow,” she said. “Showing people that science is really a process of trying to eliminate as many biases and inaccuracies as possible and that it doesn’t set out with any other agenda than to understand better what’s going on and that’s just as true for environmental science or ecology as it is for medical science, probably more so in fact.”

This article is part of a series of stories profiling CGRER members in commemoration of the center’s 25th anniversary this October.

UNI event focuses on solar energy


Nick Fetty | June 4, 2015

An upcoming event at the University of Northern Iowa aims to educate the public about solar energy, its economic feasibility, and other related topics.

The Solar Energy Fair is scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday at Center for Energy & Environmental Education on the UNI campus. The event “is intended to make solar energy accessible and easy to find; to connect businesses and homeowners with local and regional solar installers and contractors; and to show that solar energy systems are available, practical and cost-effective.

Scheduled speakers include Mike Barnes of Hawkeye Community College, Warren McKenna of Farmers Electric Co-op, and Pete Olson of Cedar Falls Utilities as well as representatives from the UNI Center for Energy & Environmental Education and the Iowa Waste Reduction Center.

The event coincides with an announcement by Cedar Falls Utilities to construct a solar energy garden expected to produce roughly 500 kilowatts of energy which is enough to power about 100 homes for a year. The project – Simple Solar – will take up as many as 8 acres in Prairie Lakes Park, about three miles south of the UNI campus. Cedar Falls residents can purchase a share of the garden for $399. The utility is providing about 3,000 shares with each share expected to provide about 2.5 percent of an average home’s electricity consumption. Construction on the project is expected to be completed by mid-2016.

Saturday’s event is free and open to the public. Funding was provided by the Iowa Energy Center.