On the Radio- Flooding in Polk County


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A view of downtown Des Moines (Jason M/flickr)

Eden DeWald | July 30, 2018

This week’s segment discusses the recent flooding in Polk County.

Transcript:

Flooding in Polk County has impacted over five thousand homes this summer.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

A June 30 torrential rain storm brought unprecedented volumes of rain as high as nine inches primarily to Des Moines and surrounding areas, leaving residents displaced and sixteen million dollars in damage to public infrastructure, homes, and businesses.

Des Moines has set aside over eleven million dollars to buy out eighty of the most devastated homes, and is offering interest free loans to its residents for repairs.

And it’s not just the monetary damage. The floods resulted in at least one death when flash-flood waters swept away a sixty-five-year-old man trying to get to safety.

As reported by The Des Moines Register, some of the flood damage to homes and businesses was due in part to insufficient storm sewer systems.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dog-org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.

Iowa DNR warns against swimming at nine beaches


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The Iowa DNR’s map of affected beaches (/IowaDNR)

Eden DeWald | July 18th, 2018

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has advised beach goers against swimming at nine Iowa beaches across the state due to high levels of E.coli in the water. Signs have been posted to warn Iowans about the high levels of E.coli, but there is still no shortage of swimmers on the affected beaches.

E.coli, or Escherichia coli, is a bacterium that lives in the digestive tracts of humans. However, pathogenic strains of E.coli can cause infections in humans with symptoms including diarrhea and vomiting, and in some serious cases, kidney failure. Exposure to pathogenic bacteria can occur via contaminated food, water or contact with another infected person. Young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems are the most susceptible to an E.coli infection.

The DNR recognized that it is hard to pinpoint what causes these high levels of E.coli in water. However, E.coli outbreaks in lakes and beaches have been linked to human and animal waste. A paper from the Iowa Public Policy project published earlier this year also links E.coli to waste from concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, of which there are an estimated 10,000 in Iowa.

Increase in nitrate pollution from Iowa


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The Mississippi River transports nitrogen to the Gulf of Mexico. (Ken L/flickr)

Eden DeWald | June 27, 2018

A new study from the University of Iowa finds that nitrogen pollution coming from Iowa has increased by close to 50 percent during the year of 2016 when compared to previous annual averages. The pollution from synthetic fertilizer made its way off of farms and into the greater water system. Twenty-three watersheds in Iowa were assessed, all of which drained either into the Mississippi or Missouri River, both of which eventually drain into the Gulf of Mexico.

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 Register article 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.

Major hydrologic shifts observed by NASA


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Researchers found that drier areas, like this drought-stricken field in Texas, are getting drier in a recent study. (U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | May 18, 2018

A recent study by NASA, the first of its kind, found that significant amounts of water are shifting around Earth’s surface.

Scientists used data from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE), two satellites, to track gravitational changes made by hydrologic shifts in 34 regions around the world. From 2002 through 2016, they paired this information with satellite precipitation data, NASA/U.S. Geological Survey Landsat imagery, irrigation maps, and public reports of human activities related to agriculture, mining and reservoir operations.

In short, researchers found that wetter areas are getting wetter and drier areas are getting drier. Jay Famiglietti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is one of the study’s authors. He explains, “We see a distinctive pattern of the wet land areas of the world getting wetter – those are the high latitudes and the tropics – and the dry areas in between getting dryer. Embedded within the dry areas we see multiple hotspots resulting from groundwater depletion.”

Scientists point to a couple of things to explain freshwater depletion in areas that are getting drier. In Saudi Arabia and many other parts of the world, for example, ground water has been depleted for agricultural purposes. The study also found that groundwater availability changes with periods of drought. From 2007 through 2015, southwestern California lost enough freshwater to fill 400,000 Olympic size swimming pools because the region saw less precipitation and snowpack during that time and had to rely on groundwater more heavily.

Freshwater loss in many regions was attributed to global warming that caused glaciers and ice sheets to melt away. However, Famiglietti said that much more research is needed to determine whether climate change caused the other hydrologic shifts.

GRACE Follow-On, GRACE’s successor, will continue to monitor the movement on water on Earth and is set to launch on May 22nd from Vandenberg Air Force Base California.

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.

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.

Cape Town in water crisis


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Cape Town’s booming tourism industry will likely suffer along with its residents as the city runs dry. (Harshil Shah/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | February 1, 2018

Day Zero is coming for Cape Town, South Africa, and it’s just as scary as it sounds.

Day Zero is the term officials have given to the day, April 16th, that the tourist city is expected to run out of water. Beginning today, city officials are enforcing stricter water restrictions in order to stretch the supply further. Each person will be allotted to 13.2 gallons of consumption per day and those found in violation will be subject to steep fines.

After about three years of below-average rainfall, the city’s dams are less than 25 percent full. Cape Town’s population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years as well, putting additional stress on natural resource supply. Residents may still be able to collect water from local springs and pumps after the taps are turned off on Day Zero but can expect a strong police presence. Reporting from National Public Radio states that South African police and soldiers plan to guard over 200 natural spring and waterhole sites in the city after Day Zero, limiting each person’s supply to 6.6 gallons.

At present, just 55 percent of Cape Town residents are honoring the city’s water consumption restrictions. Sitar Stodel is a 26 Cape Town resident that was interviewed by NBC. She described what she’s seen, “People are still watering their lawns, filling their pools and bathing. They seem happy to just pay the fines. It’s so upsetting. I think ‘Day Zero’ is inevitable, we’re at the point of no return. Cape Town will just have to deal with the consequences that day when it arrives.”

The city is working to access alternative water sources, but none of its seven projects are more than 60 percent completed.