Major hydrologic shifts observed by NASA


5954768335_2291ba01fc_b
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


Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 9.22.27 PM.png
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


32502118803_368fbe2081_o
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


38215759474_08bba2aa75_k
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.

Iowans ask to halt CAFO construction until water is clean


12662848663_b1a625de55_o.jpg
Large livestock feeding operations often pollute local waterways with organic waste. (Waterkeeper Alliance/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | January 19, 2017

Local, state and national organizations showed up at the capitol in Des Moines this week to ask lawmakers to halt Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO) construction until fewer than 100 of Iowa’s waterways are impaired.

Called Iowa Alliance for Responsible Agriculture, the coalition rallied behind Independent Senator David Johnson of Ocheyedan as he introduced a group of 15 bills designed to tighten environmental regulations on large hog farms. At present, 750 of the state’s waterways are polluted to the point of impairment due to industrial agriculture byproducts.

Bill Stowe, CEO of the Des Moines Water Works and member of the coalition, said that industrial agriculture is making Iowa’s “rivers, lakes and streams filthy — filthy with nutrients, filthy with bacteria, filthy with organic matter,” according to the Register.

He added, “Iowans need to push back on this and join together with leaders here in the Legislature to stop the status quo.”

There are 13,000 CAFOs in the state of Iowa and that number continues to grow. The current regulatory document for new hog facilities was developed in 2002 and only requires CAFOs to meet 50 percent of its requirements to be approved for construction.

Senator Johnson’s package of bills would also require CAFO applicants to notify nearby landowners and give county supervisors the power to determine CAFO locations. Johnson said, “It’s time to get tough on the poor siting of hog confinements, including those being built in environmentally sensitive areas, where the smell and sound of someone else’s money is in your bedroom every night.”

A spokesperson for Gov. Reynolds has said that she would consider the legislation if it reaches her desk.

After 3 years, the Flint water crises is still happening


Screen Shot 2017-11-09 at 2.55.28 PM
Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | November 9, 2017

It has seemed like a while since the Flint water crises has hit news circuits. The small city in Michigan has reached an almost celebrity status as a beacon of misfortune, plagued by lead poisoning, poverty, and, famously, unemployment, as examined in Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary Roger and Me.

There are layers to the water crises that are slowly being revealed as time goes on. The public knows this: The water issues started when Flint changed water sources to the Flint River in 2014. The switch was meant to be a temporary one, a sort of placeholder while Flint officials waited to connect to the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline, a move estimated to save the region millions of dollars.

What followed in the next few years was improper water treatment, corroded pipes, and government inaction, all of it cumulating into what has eventually become a massive nationwide discussion on ethics, the environment, and how the two intertwine.

On October 16th, 2015, the water supply was switched back to the Detroit River, but the level of corrosion in the pipes was still a major concern for Flint citizens, resulting in several declarations of urgency: a state of emergency order from Obama in January of 2016, and an emergency order from the EPA.

Recently, criminal charges have been filed against three Michigan Department of Health and Human Services employees, all of them found guilty of withholding a report on the unsafe levels of lead found in Flint children.

A paper detailing the possible effects of the water crises on fertility is currently being worked on by Daniel Grossman from West Virginia University and David Slusky from the University of Kansas. Both have released their comparisons of birth and miscarriage rates from before and after the water crises, and have found that birth rates in Flint have decreased by 12% while fetal death rates have increased by a staggering 58%.

Flint is a black-majority city with a poverty rate of around 40%, and while this doesn’t at first seem to have an effect on the crises at hand, studies have found that communities of color are hugely more disproportionately affected by lead poisoning and environmental health risks than white communities.

Midwest drinking water quality symposium draws large crowd


DSC_0065
The symposium’s attendees included students, state legislators, water utility workers, environmental and public health representatives and farmers. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 18, 2017

Approximately 150 people gathered at Drake University in Des Moines for the “Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest-A Symposium” on September 21 and 22. Sponsored by several University of Iowa centers including the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (EHSRC), Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), and the UI Public Policy Center, the event featured thirteen speakers.

Four plenary discussions about topics such as the health impacts of nitrate in drinking water, how to communicate with the public about water quality, unregulated contaminants in drinking water and more.

Complete PowerPoint presentations from the symposium’s presenters can be accessed here.