Northeastern Iowa flash flood waters higher than 2008 levels

Flood waters rose above many bridges along the Upper Iowa River this week. (Michael Massa/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | August 26, 2016

Iowans have seen their fair share of extreme rain events this summer. This week, three northeastern counties were drenched again.

Between six and eight inches of rain fell on Winneshiek, Chickasaw, Allamakee counties over Tuesday night as a series of thunderstorms moved through the area. Upper Iowa River gauges indicated that the river rose more than ten feet overnight near Decorah, Iowa. The area was pelted with almost an inch of rain per hour from Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. Residents in Freeport, a small community just east of Decorah, were hit especially hard. Those living along the Upper Iowa River received little notice. Emergency officials notified the neighborhood at about 5 a.m., after much of the flooding had already occurred.

“I woke up this morning when my neighbor called me and said ‘You out of bed yet?’ and I said no and he said, ‘Well you better get up,’ because the water was up to his deck,” said Ron Teslow of Freeport. Teslow had more than three feet of water standing in his basement, and he was more fortunate than others. Jon Aske, also of Freeport, said his basement collapsed in on itself as a result of the flooding, “About 4:15, 4:30 (Wednesday morning) we just heard a crash and the basement foundation crashed in,” he recalled. An emergency shelter was established at a local church for those that were flooded out of their homes.

In Fort Atkinson, a town twenty minutes south of Freeport,  Rogers Creek, a tributary of Turkey River, was reported to have risen nine feet in three hours. City officials said that they expected the Turkey River to crest more than a foot above the 2008 flood levels later Wednesday afternoon. Mayor Paul Herold wondered, “If they’re going to call that a 500 year flood, what are they going to call this?”

Decorah City Manager Chad Bird said the situation was the same in his town.”In some areas of town, the water was higher today than it was in ‘08,” he said referring to the 2008 floods. He pointed out, however, that this flood was due to flash flood conditions whereas the 2008 incident was a prolonged flooding event.

One causality has been reported after a car was swept off the roadway by water from the Turkey River in Chickasaw County early Wednesday morning. Flood warnings stayed in effect until Thursday for most of Northeast Iowa. Richland and Crawford counties of Wisconsin were also effected.

Iowa Flood Center partners with NASA to improve soil moisture measurement

An artist’s rendering of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive Satellite from outer space. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/NASA)
Jenna Ladd | August 25, 2016

Students and researchers at the Iowa Flood Center (IFC) spent this summer working with NASA on a research project aiming to better understand and measure soil moisture.

The IFC team, based at the University of Iowa, is working to compare soil moisture data provided by NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite with data gathered on the ground by IFC’s soil-moisture monitoring sensors. Researchers are specifically comparing soil moisture data from the South Fork watershed near Ames, a tributary of the Iowa River. IFC’s ground instrumentation provides real-time soil moisture measurements to farmers and researchers, while NASA’s satellite collects information in a different way. Put simply, the SMAP satellite views the Earth surface at a specific microwave-radiation wavelength that allows it to see through vegetation. The more water that is held in the soil, the darker it appears to the satellite. NASA is comparing this data against that which is measured on the ground by IFC to determine whether the water held inside of crops affects the accuracy of satellite imaging.

“As with many remote-sensing products, there is a continued need for evaluation,” says IFC Director Witold Krajewski. Validation of the satellite is a two part process. Researchers began by analyzing NASA’s satellite data from the end of May through early June, when crops were only beginning to emerge from the soil. During this first phase, IFC researchers and graduate students also set out to install and maintain soil-moisture instruments on the ground. They took a second look at soil moisture in early August when corn, soy, and other agricultural crops densely cover the ground in order to determine the satellite’s accuracy.

In addition to these measurements, IFC is taking a closer look the relationship between rainfall and soil moisture. The research team is using two mobile X-band polarimetric radars to study rainfall with increased temporal and spatial precision. IFC is also gathering data using several rainfall measuring tools provided by NASA. Krajewski explains, “Understanding the rainfall variability gives you an idea how much water gets into the soil and how it dries out.”

IFC is working with research partners at Iowa State University as well as those from universities and institutions across the country.


Cover crops to stop the spread of superbugs

A western corn rootworm crawls through corn silks. (Sarah Zukoff/flickr)


Cora Bern-Klug | August 24, 2016

Despite seed producers’ research, superbugs are still making their way into Iowa farmer’s crops. Companies like Monsanto and DuPont have been selling genetically modified seeds since the 1990’s that are designed to thwart insects. Yet pests like rootworms have become resistant to the deadly bacteria in the seeds.

Rootworms are small yellow to green bugs that mate from late summer to early fall. The female deposits her eggs in the ground near corn. When rootworm larvae emerge in May the hungry larvae devour corn roots. This stunts the corn’s growth and according the the Wall Street Journal stunted American farmers’ bottom line by 2 billion dollars in 2015.

In February of 2016 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new requirements that address the corn rootworm’s resistance to a strain of corn known as Bt Corn. The EPA stated that it is “concerned that if the resistance continues, it will lead farmers to use more synthetic chemicals to thwart the bug, creating environmental risks.” Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a bacteria that creates a natural insecticide and has been used for decades by organic farmers. Seed producing companies and labs have genetically modified corn seeds to have Bt incorporated in their genetic code. The companies can then have a pesticide that is designed solely for that seed. Making farmers rely on the company for seed and their pest control.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 10.09.26
Graph provided by the Wall Street Journal

Aside from modified seeds and their related pesticides, another option for farmers is to plant cover crops. A cover crop keeps nutrients from leaving the soil and stops weeds from growing over winter. A cover crop is usually oats or alfalfa. In the case of rootworm prevention, farmers are planting cover crops to get rid of the rootworm larvae. If there is no corn to munch on, there are fewer or no rootworms the following year. The downside to planting oats or alfalfa is the yield price. Oats are worth significantly less than corn, but it may be worth the cost to get rid of the pesky pest.

Through more research and more cover crops, we may see a decrease in rootworms. As farmers get on the cover crop bandwagon we’ll be seeing more and more oats and alfalfa growing in our local Iowan fields.

Oats recognized for environmental, economic benefits

(Alternative Heat/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | August 23, 2016

In the face of falling commodity crop prices and pressure to reduce agricultural runoff, some Iowa farmers are turning to oats.

Corn and soy bean fields cover 95% of all crop acres in the state of Iowa, and farmers watched as their value plummeted in recent years. Some experts say that corn prices could fall lower than they’ve been in a decade this year to $2.30-$2.50 per bushel. Similarly, soybean value could drop to only $8.35 per bushel, while crop production is at a record high for the state. Many farmers have felt increased community pressure to reduce agricultural runoff as well, especially after Des Moines Water Works sued three Iowa countries for contaminating the city’s drinking water with nitrates.

In response to growing economic and environmental burdens, some Iowa farmers are sowing oats. Oats are not generally very profitable crops but can be a profitable investment over the course of a few years, according to Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). First, diverse crop rotations can control weeds with up to six times less herbicide use, thereby significantly reducing economic and environmental costs associated with herbicides. Diverse crops, like oats, also introduce unique root systems to soil and therefore encourage rich microbiol life. Microorganisms and varied root systems help to prevent erosion, improve soil quality, and add to organic matter that fosters plant growth. Farmers that implement a three-year rotation, like those that include oats along with corn and soy, experience 21% less erosion.

Brett Heineman, a farmer in Boone county, planted oats on a field that is prone to flooding, where his family often loses part of their corn and soybean yields. Oats have a much earlier harvest time than corn and soy, leaving fields empty through August. The Heinemanns plan to use that extra time this fall to repair tile draining lines, hopefully meaning more profitable harvests in the future. They point out that leaving the field fallow for the entire year would have been a complete loss. Oats allowed them to turn a bit of a profit, even though tile improvements needed to be made. Oat can also be sold for its straw in addition to the actual grain, helping to make oat profit margins more competitive with those of corn and soy.

PFI in partnership with the Sustainable Food Lab is currently conducting an oats pilot project on about 500 acres between Iowa and Minnesota. PFI staff are providing on-site agronomic advice to participating farmers while the Sustainable Food Lab is working to establish a supply chain for farmers looking to market food grade oats with companies like General Mills.

On The Radio – CGRER’s Schnoor honored by science journal

Jerry Schnoor was recognized for his contributions and his role at the journal  Environmental Science & Technology. (CGRER)

Cora Bern-Klug | August 22, 2016

This Monday’s On The Radio segment discusses the recognition of Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. 

Transcript: University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research co-director Jerry Schnoor was recently recognized by the Environmental Science & Technology journal.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Schnoor was recognized last month for his research contributions and his role as the publication’s long time editor in chief. The commentary was written by Joel Gerard Burken, a former student of Schnoor’s who now serves on the faculty in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Burken – who holds his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD from the University of Iowa – recounted studying under Schnoor in the 1990s and emphasized not only Schnoor’s research and professional achievements but also the strong relationships he builds with his students and colleagues as well as his genuine concern for the environment and public health.

“I really learned a lot during my time with Jerry. He was always committed to the people and their development just as much as he was to the science and research we were doing at the time. His commitment also extended well beyond the lab and classroom. I learned a lot about being the person I am with Jerry as well as developing into the scientist and engineer I am now. Looking back I really owe a lot to the time I had with Jerry and his commitment to me and my work.”

Environmental Science & Technology is a leading biweekly, peer-reviewed scientific journal that covers research in environmental science, technology, and policy.

For a link to the full article and for a list of editorials penned by Schnoor for Environmental Science & Technology, visit

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

July 2016 hottest month on human record

Wildfires have increased in intensity and frequency as global temperatures are on the rise. (Agrilife Today/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | August 19, 2016

July 2016 has gone down in history as the warmest month recorded since global temperature records began in 1880.

A recently released global analysis from the National Centers for Environmental Information reported that July marks the 15th consecutive month that ocean and land temperature departures from average were highest they have been since 1880. The trend is the longest the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has seen in 137 years of recording.

July 2016 was also the 379th month to have at least marginally higher recorded temperature averages. As July is climatologically the hottest month of the calendar year, the global land and ocean temperature of 16.67°C / 62.01°F was the highest for any recorded month, rising above the previous record of July 2015. On average, July 2016 global land temperatures were 1.10°C /1.98°F higher than 20th century averages.

Marginally or drastically higher temperatures were recorded on nearly all global land masses throughout the month. Record warmth was recorded in Indonesia, southern Asia, and New Zealand. Northwestern and north central parts of the United States, eastern Canada, southern South America, southwestern Australia, north central Russia, Kazakhstan, and India experienced average or nearly cooler than average temperatures.

Scientists point to climate change as an explanation for the extreme natural disasters that have plagued parts of the United States throughout the summer. As temperatures rise, the yearly average number of wildfires larger than 1,000 acres in the western U.S. has risen to from about 140 in the 1980’s to about 250 from 2000-2012. In the south, extreme flooding has taken the homes and lives of many. Most recently, heavy rainfall in Baton Rouge, LA displaced tens of thousands of residents and killed at least 11 people. David Easterling, a director at the National Centers for Environmental Information, said that the Louisiana flooding “is consistent with what we expect to see in the future if you look at climate models,” he added, “Not just in the U.S. but in many other parts of the world as well.”

The Baton Rouge flood marks the eighth heavy rainfall event since May 2015 wherein the amount of rainfall in a specific place during a certain window of time exceeded NOAA’s scientific prediction of an amount of rainfall that will only fall once every 500 years.

Iowa farmers recognized by state for environmental stewardship

A buffer strip of trees, native grasses, and terraces protecting Bear Creek from agricultural runoff in Story County, Iowa. (USDA National Agroforestry Center/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | August 18, 2016

Iowa leaders honored 94 farmers yesterday for their leadership in voluntary conservation practices.

Iowa Farm Leadership Award recipients were recognized yesterday at the Iowa State Fair for their commitment to improving soil and water quality. Farmers were selected from a pool of community nominated individuals for using farming practices that improve or protect the environment and encouraging other farmers to do the same. Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey presented the award and noted that it recognizes those that have done more than what is expected of them to help the Hawkeye state lead the way in voluntary conservation practices.

Examples of best practices include reduced till or no-till farming, use of cover crop, rotational grazing of livestock, wetland restoration and maintenance, and contour buffer strips. Charles Hellend of Huxley, Iowa has been working to mitigate erosion and improve water quality on his 150 year old family farm. He said he’s already seen positive change, “We see a lot less water flowing down the hills. We don’t see dirt in the snow drifts in the winter anymore like we did when we were young and I think the water’s getting cleaner.”

The award is a joint effort of the Governor and  Lt. Governor’s office, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, and Iowa Department of Natural Resources. A list of past recipients can be found here.