Moderate to major flooding continues for northern Iowa


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Cumulative rainfall for the previous eight days is indicated by green to black coloration. Much of northern Iowa is experiencing moderate to major flooding. (IFIS)
Jenna Ladd | September 23, 2016

Parts of northern Iowa have been struck once again with flash flooding and river flooding from Wednesday into early Thursday morning.

Communities in southern Minnesota, northern Iowa, and western and central Wisconsin received anywhere from four to fourteen inches of rain overnight. Rainfall in the area quickly ran over already saturated ground due to several flooding events in the month of August and the region’s hilly geography, according to The Weather Channel.

The Shell Rock River has risen dramatically. According to the Iowa Flood Information System (IFIS), the river is currently cresting at about 961 feet, indicating moderate flood levels at the stream gauge near Marble Rock. Just downstream, residents from six Greene, Iowa homes were rescued overnight. Butler County Sheriff Jason Johnson said that residents in up to 80 homes are expected to move to higher ground within the next day. A few of the town’s streets have been reported to be flooded with up to two feet of water. School was cancelled on Thursday for students in Greene and Clarksville, Iowa.

The heavy rainfall is the result of an east-to-west frontal boundary intercepted by a low-level jet stream. In this kind of weather pattern, several thunderstorms are likely to stall over a given area. The Weather Channel reports that clusters of thunderstorms are possible through Friday morning. If thunderstorms continue to redevelop over the area, one to four additional inches of rain are likely.

For real-time, detailed flood information, forecasts, and visualizations for all communities in Iowa, visit the Iowa Flood Information System. If you’re new to the platform, take a look at this video tutorial for IFIS users.

Water sustainability graduate program coming to University of Iowa


 

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The IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering center which sits on the banks of the Iowa River in Iowa City. (University of Iowa)
 Jake Slobe | September 22, 2016

The University of Iowa recently won a $3 million grant to develop a Sustainable Water Development program for graduate students.

The grant comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that provides funding for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.

Set to launch in the fall of 2017, the program will train UI graduate students how to address the water, food and energy challenges that face communities with limited resources. This often includes rural areas, agricultural-based communities and developing countries. Around 50 master’s and doctoral students will be accepted into the program.

The new program will train a new, more diverse generation of water sustainability professionals to look at situations individually and apply solutions that are specific to each community, said engineering professor and Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Executive Officer Michelle Scherer, who is a co-principal investigator on the grant.

The Sustainable Water Development program curriculum will  get off to a running start taking full advantage of already existing resources UI campus resources including the UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the world-renowned IIHR–Hydroscience & Engineering. The program curriculum is designed to be flexible, prepare students for, both, academic and non-academic careers, allowing them to choose and tailor their training paths to fit their particular goals. 

A graduate certificate in Sustainable Water Development also will be offered to students.

While the new program will be beneficial to the university, advances in water sustainability are not new to Iowa.  This grant comes shortly after a $96.9M grant was given to Iowa from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to develop a statewide watershed improvement program, the Iowa Watersheds Approach (IWA).

 

University Sustainability Charter Committee welcomes new members


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In order to reach the goal of 40% renewable energy by 2020 at the University of Iowa, the Office of Sustainability spearheaded many biomass projects. The university has planted 2,500 acres of mescanthus across the state in order to produce about 22,500 tons of renewable biopower feedstock. (USDA/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 21, 2016

The University of Iowa’s Office of Sustainability has welcomed new team members with a diverse set of skills and backgrounds to continue working toward the 2020 Sustainability Vision.

The 2020 goals were established by President Sally Mason in 2010 as a means to recognize successful sustainability initiatives and to “expand sustainability efforts in several key areas of operations, research, education, and outreach.” Some of the targets include achieving net-negative energy growth, decreasing waste production, reducing the campus’ carbon impact due to transportation, and to support and expand interdisciplinary sustainability-related research.

The Sustainability Charter Committee, overseen by the Office of Sustainability, is comprised of faculty, staff and students that assist in the implementation of sustainable practices within existing campus systems. Tony Senio, sports turf manager for the University of Iowa recently joined the committee, becoming the first person to represent the Athletics Department in the group. Senio has managed all of the Athletic Department’s plants and turf since 2008. He said, “Sustainability can be a weird thing for people. It almost comes off as a negative word, but it’s about perspective. I feel like it’s more about doing the right thing; it’s about simplicity.”

Amanda Bittorf, marketing specialist for University Housing & Dining, also joined the group, becoming the first housing and dining representative to serve on the committee. Bittorf has worked at the University of Iowa for two years and said that she has led several sustainability initiatives. “With housing about 95 percent of the first-year class, I really do think we play an instrumental role in introducing students to sustainable practices and creating habits,” she said.

To round out this year’s new members, the Office of Sustainability also welcomes a new recycling coordinator, Beth MacKenzie. MacKenzie first began working in the recycling industry in 2006 for the City of St. Louis, where she said that she dramatically increased the waste diversion rate for the city. While MacKenzie’s background is primarily in municipal government and non-profit organizations, she said that she’s excited to join the University’s team. “It just has a more vibrant culture that I think will be a fun opportunity to work in. Just being around young people; young people have really great ideas and a fresh perspective on things,” she said.

Iowa State researcher looks at corn’s adaptive powers


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The corn plant can grow in high elevations near mountain ranges or at sea level, researchers at the Iowa State University are taking a closer look at what makes this crop so versatile. (jev55/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 20, 2016

An Iowa State University researcher is taking a closer look at how corn has adapted over many centuries to prosper in several different environments and elevations throughout the Americas.

Matthew Hufford, an assistant professor of ecology and evolution and organismal biology at the University, is co-principal investigator of a collaborative study with scientists from University of California at Davis, University of Missouri, and the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Irapuato, Mexico. The research project recently received a five year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. About $800,000 of those funds will be used to support Hufford’s laboratory at Iowa State University.

Hufford said that gaining a better understanding about how corn adapted to grow beyond its origin in Mexico could help plant breeders to produce crops that perform better. He said, “With this project, we hope to identify good candidates for genes that played key roles in helping maize adapt,” he added, “You could use that new knowledge to design corn to deal with the environmental challenges of today, like climate change and other stresses.”

Corn started growing in the hot lowlands of southwestern Mexico about 10,000 years ago. Hufford explained that in a relatively short amount of time the plant has changed to grow in much higher elevations with different climates across the Americas. After he compared highland corn to lowland corn, Hufford found that highland corn is darker in color and equipped with macrohairs that insulate plant when temperatures drop. Striking differences such as these help explain how the plant is able to grow anywhere from near sea level up to 13,000 feet in elevation.

Moving forward, the researchers plan to cross highland corn with lowland corn in order to study the genetics of parent and offspring varieties.

On The Radio- Water quality takes center stage at Farm Progress Show


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Water quality improvement strategies were discussed at this year’s farm show following the Des Moines’ Waterworks lawsuit against three Iowa counties due to high levels of nitrates that were drained into drinking water. (Tony Webster/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | September 19, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the emphasis on water quality at this year’s Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa.

Transcript:  Water quality was on the main stage at this year’s Farm Progress Show.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Held in Boone, Iowa every summer, the Farm Progress Show aims to educate farmers about new technology for their fields, covering everything from tractor equipment to new seed strains. This year’s show emphasized the importance of water quality.

In twenty-fifteen Des Moines Water Works sued three north western Iowa counties for polluting the drinking water of over five-hundred thousand Des Moines residents. Water Works claims that Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties’ ag drainage systems transported high levels of nitrates from farms into the Raccoon River.

The Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance released a statement at the show, saying that creating and implementing effective solutions to water quality challenges would create economic development in rural Iowa. The alliance aims to identify gaps in building a “conservation infrastructure” that would result in less nitrate and phosphorus runoff from Iowa farms.

The Des Moines Water Works trial was set to begin in August of this year but has been delayed and is now rescheduled to begin in late June of twenty-seventeen.

For more information on the Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance and the Farm Progress Show, visit Iowa environmental focus dot com.

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

Iowa Supreme Court hears Des Moines Water Works lawsuit oral arguments


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A drainage tile flowing into a waterway in Sac Country, Iowa. (iprimages/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 16, 2016

Five Iowa Supreme Court Justices heard arguments on Wednesday in a legal suit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against three northwest Iowa counties for the pollution of 500,000 residents’ drinking water.

A Des Moines Water Works attorney asked the court to reconsider the legal immunity that drainage districts have been granted for nearly a century and to determine whether the water utility could seek monetary damages. Removing nitrates that flowed into the Raccoon and Skunk rivers cost Water Works $1.5 million last year alone. The utility said that the water has exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit of 10 milligrams per liter several times in recent years.

Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe said that monetary damages for past contamination and increased federal oversight of drainage districts are both important. As nitrate levels in waterways increased throughout the 1990’s, Des Moines Water Works built the largest ion exchange nitrate removal facility in the world, with a $4.1 million dollar price tag. The utility said that a larger facility will be necessary by 2020, claiming the project would cost up to $183.5 million dollars. Farming communities in Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties are concerned that farmers will be responsible for payment should the damages be awarded. Typically, if county officials decide to lay new drainage tiles or repair old ones, farmers have footed the bill.

Michael Reck, a lawyer representing the three counties, presented several examples in which Iowa courts honored the legal immunity of drainage districts. Des Moines Water Works attorney John Lande said that this is the first time public health has been at stake in such court proceedings. He argued that drainage districts were established to protect the public health of  Iowa communities. He said that they have repeatedly failed to do so when nitrate levels were found to be four times the EPA’s limit downstream.

Whether or not damages are awarded, the Iowa Legislature has been moved to consider water quality protection measures. A reallocation of tax money from public schools to water quality projects failed to pass last year, as did a 3/8-cent water quality sales tax bill. Some say that they are hopeful the sales tax proposal will be reintroduced this year. The policy would generate $150 million dollars a year for built water quality management projects.

Iowa Environmental Council 2016 Annual Conference


Jenna Ladd | September 15, 2016

The Iowa Environmental Council will host its 2016 Annual Conference titled ECOnomics: Dollars, Sense & Sustainability next month in Ankeny. This year’s conference will focus on policies, programs, and practices that benefit the economy, communities and the environment.

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Keynote Speaker Jon D. Erikson

The keynote address, “We the Planet: Building an Ecological Economy in the Age of Humans,” will be given by Jon D. Erikson. Erikson is a Fellow of the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics and a Professor at the Rubenstein School of Environmental and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont. The daylong event will also feature Speaker of Honor Rob Bilott. Bilott will discuss the regulatory, legal and scientific challenges of ‘unregulated’ drinking water contaminants during his address. The conference also features a panel of business owners that practice environmental stewardship.

ECOnomics: Dollars, Sense & Sustainability will take place at the DMACC Ankeny Campus on October 6th, 2016. The event has been approved for 3.25 hours of Continuing Legal Education (CLE) credit, and discounted rates are available for students. For more details or to register, visit the event website.

Keynote speaker Jon D. Erikson offers a crash course in ecological economics during his work with the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics in 2011.