Incentives Alone are Not Enough to Solve Iowa’s Dirty Water Problem


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | October 29, 2020

Governor Kim Reynolds plans to revive her stalled Invest in Iowa plan during the legislative session next year, but experts warn that tax money going towards voluntary farm-based projects to improve Iowa’s water quality is not enough to make a difference.

Gov. Reynolds introduced the Invest in Iowa plan as a way to improve Iowa’s business climate and boost the state’s image. The plan would raise Iowa’s sales tax to fill the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, lower income taxes, provide mental health funding and improve water quality, according to an article in The Gazette.

The funds for improving water quality would go towards incentive-based farm projects aimed at reducing fertilizer runoff into Iowa’s waterways. However, the plan does not include any accountability measures to ensure that funded projects are actually successful. University of Iowa professor Larry Weber, a co-founder of the Iowa Flood Center and former director of the IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering Institute, said in a panel that adding restrictions is crucial to the plan’s success. He also noted that Iowa’s nitrate load has doubled over the last 20 years even though the state has payed farmers $600 million over that time period for conservation projects.

On top of adding restrictions, many environmental experts also believe the state needs to reduce the rate of agricultural intensification, ensure farmers volunteering for these programs are educated and understand the problem, discourage the overuse of manure and commercial fertilizers and rethink the state’s system for siting livestock confinement operations. Livestock confinements are a big contributor to water pollution, but they are quickly increasing in number in Iowa’s watersheds.

Iowa’s water quality problem is a complex issue that requires multiple solutions. However, these additional solutions would require changes in law that would get a lot of pushback from powerful ag interests that sell seed, feed and fertilizer, so experts like Larry Weber fear that Iowa’s water quality will continue to decline under Gov. Reynolds’ plan.

Iowa DNR Issued Water Quality Warnings for Half of State Park Beaches This Summer


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | September 17, 2020

The Iowa DNR issued advisories for over half of state park beaches this summer due to unsafe levels of E. Coli bacteria or microcystins in the water.

DNR conducted weekly tests Memorial Day through Labor day, and 39 state park beaches had at least one week during the summer where toxin levels were high enough to trigger a warning. They reported a total of 118 advisories over the summer, an increase from the 79 advisories issued in 2019, according to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article.

E. Coli, which indicates the presence of feces in the water, was responsible for most of the warnings. However, elevated levels of microcystins, which caused 12 advisories, can lead to a range of health problems in people exposed to them. These include gastroenteritis, allergic reactions and potentially life-threatening liver damage. Microcystins are produced by certain types of freshwater blue-green algae.

Studies have shown that much of the bacteria and toxins causing the warnings come from manure runoff and contaminates from nearby fields. Sandy beaches also tend to have higher levels of bacteria from manure from geese and other animals. Higher levels of toxic algae blooms, however, can have a variety of causes. Weather, temperature, nutrient availability and other environmental stressors are all factors, according to Dan Kendall, and environmental specialist in charge of the beach monitoring program.

The DNR’s Lake Restoration Program has plans to begin reducing bacteria in some of Iowa’s lakes that have been most heavily affected and continue testing each summer to monitor toxin levels.

Iowa Soybean Association Receives 2020 U.S. Water Prize


Via Flickr

Nicole Welle | July 23, 2020

The Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) received the U.S. Water Alliance 2020 U.S. Water Prize.

The U.S. Water Alliance selected ISA for its solutions that benefit both farmers and the environment. ISA promotes farming practices that help build stronger soils and achieve cleaner water, and the ISA Center for Farming Innovation conducts watershed analyses to help find solutions, according to a KIWAradio article.

Agricultural runoff is the leading source of pollutants in Iowa’s lakes and waterways. Agricultural activities that cause non-point source pollution include plowing too often or at the wrong time, and the improper application of pesticides, irrigation water and fertilizer, according to the EPA. ISA works to educate Iowa farmers about these issues and help them switch to more sustainable practices.

“A special thank you goes out to our farmers leaders who provide oversight and guidance in these efforts,” said Roger Wolf, ISA director of innovation and integrated solutions. “And, of course, our farmer champions and participants in these water quality initiatives. We are unable to do this work without your participation and engagement.”

EPA Suspends Enforcement of Environmental Compliance Reporting During COVID-19 Pandemic


(Image via Flickr)

Nicole Welle | April 16th, 2020

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released an order on March 26 announcing the suspension of the enforcement of environmental compliance reporting in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before this change, businesses were required to report and limit all air emissions and water discharges, meet requirement for hazardous waste management and maintain standards for safe drinking water. Businesses that failed to meet these EPA-issued standards could face fines.

The recent order states that factories, power plants, and other facilities are encouraged to keep records of any instances of non-compliance with EPA instituted regulations. However, they will not face any fines for violations as long as the EPA agrees that the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than intentional disregard for the law, is the cause.

In its order, the EPA did not designate an end date for the suspension or address the potential ramifications this decision could have for public health and safety. Allowing industry to police itself could cause air and water pollution to go unchecked and put the safety of drinking water at risk, according to the Iowa Environmental Council.

Compromising access to clean water could make it more difficult for the U.S. healthcare system to provide the sanitary conditions necessary for fighting the COVID-19 pandemic according to the IEC. The Washington Post also reported that the wording of the EPA’s order is broad enough that companies could get away with practices that put public health at risk well into the future.

The City of Dubuque Partners With Farmers to Improve Water Quality


Maxwell Bernstein| April 10, 2020

The city of Dubuque, IA formed a partnership with the Department of Natural Resources to work with upstream farmers to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous levels in the water, according to the Des Moines Register

The agreement establishes the first use of Iowa’s Nutrient Reduction Exchange, a strategy that relies on the cooperation and incentivization of farmers to reduce phosphorous and nitrate levels in the water. Farmers and the city of Dubuque will invest in cover crops, wetlands, and other conservation practices that improve water quality. 

The Register reported that the city of Dubuque, IA is faced with investing $11 million toward improving water quality through upgrading its wastewater treatment facility to meet new state water quality goals. The city hopes this agreement will reduce the cost of improving water quality by reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorous at the source; reducing the burden on cities in paying for and improving water quality.

This agreement is the first of its kind and could provide a blueprint for other Iowa municipalities to collaborate with farmers in their regions to reduce erosion and chemical runoffs. Four other Iowa cities and towns are interested in replicating Dubuque’s deal with their local farmers, according to the Register.  

CGRER Looks Forward: Co-director Jerry Schnoor


Julia Poska | January 25, 2019

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Photo courtesy of Jerry Schnoor, 2018.

Sometimes Jerry Schnoor looks like a typical engineer, running models and making projections using computers and mathematics. Other times he looks more like a forester, working with soil and seeds to clean up chemical contamination through a process called phytoremediation.

The co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research has spent over 40 years in civil and environmental engineering, studying some of humanity’s greatest challenges. His work primarily focuses on climate change and environmental contamination, with an emphasis on water quality.

“I guess it’s all a part of sustainability, written large,” Schnoor said. “We want there to be an adequate supply of water for people and biota and industry and agriculture forever. Ad infinitum. That’s what sustainability is about.”


Schnoor discusses his work with phytoremediation. 

Iowa’s water is so bad, he said, he wouldn’t want to swim in our lakes or eat fish caught in our streams. Most of the pollution comes from the state’s predominant agricultural landscape.

Soil constantly washes off of farm fields and into waterways. It brings with it nitrogen and phosphorous, which occur naturally in the soil and are often boosted with fertilizers. High concentrations of these nutrients cause harmful algal blooms, which create issues on a local and global scale.

Such blooms can release toxins that make water unsuitable for drinking and recreation. They also trigger a chain of ecological reactions which eventually starve the water of oxygen, making it inhospitable for aquatic life. Runoff into the Mississippi River from farm states like Iowa has created one such “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico spanning over 6,000 square miles.

“We’re not there yet, but I have to think that we’re poised to make real improvements,” Schnoor said of these issues.

He looks forward to better soil management on farms—adoption of practices like cover crops and reduced tillage to minimize erosion—but climate change will likely put more pressure on such solutions.


Schnoor discusses his work involving climate change. 

Experts project that Iowa will see an increase in severe storms in coming decades. More storm water will create more issues with flooding, as well as more soil erosion and nutrient-laden agricultural runoff.

Schnoor’s students run computer models that forecast water quality and crop conditions in climate change scenarios. If humanity fails to dramatically rein in carbon emissions in coming years, these impacts could be drastic.

“I hope that’s not true,” he said. “I hope we’re going to have comprehensive energy and greenhouse gas legislation in the future in this county, and that all countries abide by the promises that they made in the Paris Climate Agreement.”


Schnoor discusses responsible citizenship in the age of climate change. 

Schnoor stressed especially that scientists like him can’t save the world on their own. He’s an engineer, but not a technology optimist.

He believes real progress requires changed hearts and minds among the masses and their elected representatives. People must recognize the urgency of the situation at hand.

“Technology holds some promise, but we won’t solve these problems without a change in the way we think,” he said. “The unilateralist approach won’t work because, after all, we are one planet.”


***This post is the first installment of “CGRER Looks Forward,” a new blog series that will run every other Friday. We aim to introduce readers to some of our members working across a wide breadth of disciplines, to share what the planet’s future looks like from their perspective and the implications of environmental research in their fields. ***

 

Climate Assessment predicts water stress on multiple levels for U.S.


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This graphic from the Fourth National Climate Assessment shows groundwater depletion in U.S. aquifers a decade ago. Today, these underground water supplies are even more depleted. 

Julia Poska| November 30, 2018

We already know climate change is having major impacts on rainfall. The 2018 Iowa Climate Statement said the strongest rainfall events of the year may double in intensity by 2025.  Climate change will alter the hydrologic cycle in other ways as well, majorly changing society’s relationship with water.

The Fourth National Climate Assessment, controversially released Black Friday, details the forecasted changes to water supplies in the U.S.. It compiles the findings of over 300 experts and has been reviewed by 13 federal agencies, in an effort to inform top decision-makers and common citizens.

More intense rainfall will be met with more intense drought and reduced snowpack, which is bad news for communities that rely on glacial melt for their water supply. These changes are exacerbating water availability issues caused primarily by overuse of groundwater aquifers in much of the U.S..

As higher temperatures create even higher demand for water for drinking and irrigation, this problem will only get worse and worse, which will have major implications for both the food supply and the industrial sector.

The altered hydrologic cycle will impact the quality of our limited quantity of water as well. Rising water temperatures will impact the health of ecosystems, and changes  runoff patterns of pollutants into water will impact human health and pose challenges for water treatment facilities. Sea level rise could also threaten coastal drinking water supplies with the potential intrusion of saltwater flooding.

The report says the biggest water issues for the Midwest are adapting stormwater management systems and managing harmful algae blooms. Iowa is already familiar with floods produced by intense rainfall.  Algae blooms, fueled by nutrient-runoff from farm fields, will be further increased by rising temperatures.

Other water-related challenges detailed in the assessment include the deterioration of water infrastructure and managing water more strategically in the future.

 

Heavy rainfall events more common nationwide


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This map illustrates the percent increase in heaviest precipitation events from 1958 through 2016. (Climate Central)

Jenna Ladd | May 11, 2018

As the climate continues to warm, many U.S. cities are experiencing heavy rainfall more frequently.

Research and news organization, Climate Central, examined the number of days per calendar year that each of 244 sites nationwide experienced 0.25, 0.50, 1, and 2 inches of precipitation from 1950 through 2017. The report found that incidents of heavy rain events are increasing in frequency in all regions of the U.S. In Des Moines, the number of days per year where the city experienced two or more inches of precipitation has increased by about seven percent since 1950.

For each 1°F of global warming, Earth’s atmosphere becomes four percent more saturated with water. This makes more moisture available to condense and fall down as precipitation. As a result, extreme floods are more likely to happen now than they were in the past. According to NOAA, 29 flood disasters that cost more than $1 billion each have happened since 1980. In Iowa alone, floods have caused more than $18 billion in damages in the last thirty years. That puts us in fourth place nationwide for the number of floods experienced since 1988.

The northeastern United States has seen a 55 percent increase in heavy precipitation events from 1958 through 2016, the sharpest increase in the nation, according to the report. The midwest follows close behind, with a 42 percent increase in heavy precipitation events.

Users can determine whether incidents of heavy rainfall have increased in Dubuque, Mason City, Ottumwa, Sioux City, and Waterloo by using Climate Central’s interactive map.

Earth Day Network encourages year-round environmental effort


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Plastic tangles with ocean vegetation on a beach near San Francisco. (Kevin Krejci/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | April 25, 2018

It seems that spring in Iowa finally arrived by this Sunday, April 22nd, which also happened to be Earth Day, and many celebrated by spending time outside.

But what was the 48th Earth Day all about, if not only outdoor picnics and joyous winter-is-finally-over selfies? According to the Earth Day Network, the aim for 2018 is to End Plastic Pollution. A noble cause indeed; more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year worldwide. About fifty percent of that is used just one time and thrown away. Plastic Oceans, a non-profit dedicated to reducing plastic use and pollution, estimates that more than eight million tons of plastic are dumped into the ocean annually. Much of this plastic ends up in the Pacific Ocean. More than 6,000 pounds of the stuff was removed during an Earth Day clean up on Hong Kong’s beaches this year, and the effort barely made a dent in the local pollution problem.

The Earth Day Network points out that April 22nd has been a day for civic engagement and political activism since 1970, when millions of Americans marched to call attention to the environmental degradation that had been caused by more than a century of unchecked industrial development. With carbon dioxide levels at their highest level in 650,000 years, there is a strong case to live as though every day is Earth Day. Officials from the Earth Day Network have several suggestions for how to do so. From using nontoxic cleaning products to changing vehicle air filters regularly to reading documents online rather than printing them, small changes made by many people can make a big difference.

Individuals interested in learning more about plastic pollution and how to reduce the amount of plastic they consume can also join the End Plastic Pollution campaign. Participants can calculate their own plastic consumption and create a Personal Plastic Plan to reduce consumption and keep track of progress online.

Report outlines economic benefits of clean water in Iowa


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Trees are reflected in a clear Iowa pond. (Richard Hermann/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 21, 2018

A recent report from Iowa State University argues that removing nutrient pollution from Iowa’s water would provide economic benefits for the state.

Economists with ISU’s Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD) first summarize the cost of nutrient pollution in Iowa’s waterways. They write that forty-nine public water systems treat water for nitrate pollution either by using nitrate removal equipment or blending the water; these systems serve more than 10 percent of Iowa citizens. The report estimates that Iowa’s public water systems have paid $1.8 million to treat nitrate in the water since 2000.

Smaller communities and rural areas are disproportionately affected by the economic consequences of polluted water. Many small town public water systems do not have the resources to purchase costly nitrate removal equipment and as a result, may not be able to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality regulations. Private wells go largely unregulated, so consumers are responsible for picking up the water treatment costs. Findings suggest that as many as a quarter of Iowa’s wells have unsafe nitrate levels in them.

The report also comments on the lost revenue from water recreation income for the state. The number of beaches and waterways under advisory or closed each summer because of harmful algae blooms, which are fed by nitrate, continues to grow. Economists estimate that improving water quality in Iowa’s lakes by meeting Nutrient Reduction Strategy goals would increase recreational benefits for all Iowans by $30 million per year.

Iowa Legislators recently passed a bill that will allocate $282 million to water quality improvement projects in the state over the next 12 years. Critics recognize, however, that scientists with the Nutrient Reduction Strategy have estimated that it will cost billions of dollars to adequately remove nutrient runoff from waterways in Iowa.

To read CARD’s full report, click here.