DNR begins locally led water quality project


The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is employing volunteer “citizen scientists” to monitor water quality. The efforts will be locally-led, delegated from a position that used to exist within the DNR.

Katelyn Weisbrod | July 27, 2017

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources has launched a new water quality monitoring program led by local volunteers in communities around the state.

This announcement comes just weeks after the DNR announced several cutbacks as a result of budgetary shortfalls.

Volunteer water quality programs have existed in the DNR since 1998, but the new program focuses more on the local leadership. The old program has been without a coordinator for some time now, and its database has not been updated in two years. The new program aims to delegate the leadership to local leaders, and to keep data in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Quality Exchange.

“Volunteer water monitoring is best able to inform local water quality goals if the decision-making and coordination is locally led,” said Steve Konrady with the DNR’s Water Quality Bureau in a press release. “We can help interested communities, watersheds, counties, and regions get started and have an opportunity to take ownership and derive more value from their locally led volunteer water monitoring programs.”

Those interested in participating as “citizen scientists” can get involved on the DNR website.

“It’s pretty simple in the end. If you’ve ever done … a pH test strip, that’s about as hard-core as it gets for the water-quality tests that we do,” Konrady said to The Daily Iowan.

Wildfires become more common and intense as Earth warms up


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Smoke billows from the Lodgepole Complex wildfire of eastern Montana. (Montana Public Radio)
Jenna Ladd| July 26, 2017

A wildfire as large as New York City is currently ripping across eastern Montana, and experts say climate change making fires like these larger and more common.

As climate change takes hold, wet areas are becoming wetter and dry areas are becoming drier. Rising temperatures in spring and summer months mean that soils are remaining dry for longer, which makes drought more likely, thereby lengthening the wildfire season.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfires have become more likely and more intense since the 1980’s. They last nearly five times as long, occur almost four times as often and burn more than six times the land area on average.

Moving forward, residents of fire-prone regions can expect the wildfire season to lengthen. In the southwestern U.S., scientists predict wildfire season will increase from  seven months to twelve months.

The economic impacts of wildfires are staggering. Since 2000, the U.S. Forest Service has spent more than $1 billion on fire suppression in one fiscal year on two occasions. During the first decade of the 21st century, wildfires cost an average of $665 million per year in economic damages.

In their full report on this issue, the Union of Concerned Scientists say it’s not too late for humans to slow the course of climate change. They write,

“The global temperature is increasing and the climate is changing due to the greenhouse-gas emissions we have already produced, leading to a likely rise in the incidence of wildfires. But it is not too late. What we do now has the power to influence the frequency and severity of these fires and their effects on us.”

Researchers use climate data to predict Zika outbreaks


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The Aedes aegypti mosquito transmits many diseases including Zika. (Sanofi Pasteur/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 25, 2017

Zika virus spread rampantly throughout the Americas in 2014 and 2015. While the infection itself presents with few noticeable symptoms, it has been linked to an increased number of babies born with microcephaly and Guillain-Barré syndrome, which can result in paralysis.

So far, there have been 5,932 cases of the virus reported in the U.S. and nearly 40,000 in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico. Zika is transmitted by the Aedes mosquito and human sexual contact.

In a study published recently in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers developed a way to predict Zika outbreaks before they happen. The scientists used climate data from Zika-prone areas to build computer models for Aedes mosquito populations.

One of the study’s authors, Dr. Ángel Muñoz of Princeton University, said, “Both the mosquitos that transmit Zika and the virus itself are climate-sensitive.” He continued in an interview with E & E news, “High temperatures, like the ones observed during the record-breaking years 2015 and 2016, generally increase the virus replication rates and also the speed of mosquito reproduction. The overall effect of high temperatures is an increase in the potential risk of transmission.”

The researchers used their computer model to test how well their projections of the virus spreading matched with what actually occurred in 2014 and 2015. They found that their model could consistently predict a Zika outbreak one month before it occurred. In some areas, the model predicted an epidemic three months in advance.

Their computer model is not without its limitations. First, the study notes that scientists can only confidently make predictions for entire countries and regions, not cities or towns. Second, Aedes mosquitos also carry dengue and chikungunya, so the model does not distinguish whether the mosquitos are carrying Zika or another vector-borne disease. It simply indicates when conditions for disease transmission are highly suitable.

Dr. Benjamin Beard is deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. Referring to the changing climate and increased international travel, he said in an email, “We are seeing an accelerated threat from mosquito-borne diseases overall. Over the past few decades, we have seen a resurgence of dengue and the introduction of West Nile, chikungunya, and now Zika virus into the Western Hemisphere.”

On The Radio – Urban areas to suffer economic costs of climate change


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According to a recent study, the world’s larger cities, such as New York City, will be hit hardest by global warming. (Chris Goldberg/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 24, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment describes how climate change will have a disproportionate economic impact on urban areas.

Transcript: A recent study by an international group of economists found that climate change will likely cost cities twice as much as rural areas.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, found that the largest quarter of the world’s cities could see more intense temperature spikes by 2050 due to the combined effect of global warming and urban heat island effects. Urban heat islands are formed when naturally cooling surfaces like vegetation and bodies of water are replaced by surfaces that trap heat like concrete and asphalt.

Higher temperatures in cities have negative economic impacts including less productive workers, higher cooling costs for buildings and poorer water and air quality. On average, the global gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to drop by 5.6 percent by 2100 due to climate change. The combined climate change and heat island effect means that the most-impacted cities are expected to lose about 11 percent of their GDP in the same period.

The economists noted that some actions can be taken to mitigate these effects including installing cooling pavements and green roofs and reintroducing vegetation in urban areas.

To read the full story and for more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

Global sand shortage due to development


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A silica sand mine in Jordan, Minnesota. (flickr/MPCA)
Jenna Ladd | July 21, 2017

After a day at the beach, you’ll find sand lingering in all the wrong places: between the pages of your book, wrapped up in beach towels, and cemented to bathing suits. Despite sand’s unrelenting presence in beachgoers’ personal lives, there is a global shortage of the stuff and it’s having real environmental impacts.

International demand for sand has skyrocketed in recent years thanks to rapid urbanization in Asia. Sand is used to make the concrete and asphalt for every new building, road, and residence. More than thirteen billion tons of sand were mined for construction last year, 70 percent went to Asia. According to a report from the BBC, China used more sand in the last four years than the U.S. used in all of the 20th century. It’s not just Asia, though, the number of people worldwide living in cities has quadrupled since 1950.

Sand is formed when rocks are pulverized by natural forces and then transported to shores by wind and water over the course of millions of years. At present, it is being extracted at a rate much too fast for natural systems to keep up with.

To keep pace with exploding demand, sand miners are dredging lakes and rivers, chipping away at coastlines and disappearing entire small islands. Sand extraction in rivers often deepens the channel, making bank erosion more likely. Similarly, when miners remove sediments, they often also remove plant life, which can have adverse impacts on aquatic food chains. The practice can have disastrous effects for infrastructure too. For example, for many years, sand for construction in Shanghai was mined from the Yangtze River. The practice was banned in 2000 after entire bridges were undermined and 1,000 feet of riverbank fell into the river.

Many other countries are imposing regulations on sand mining. In the United States, sand cannot be mined near large residential areas or offshore. Export limits and mining restrictions are in place in several Asian countries like Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and India, but the “sand mafia” in India is making regulators’ job difficult. The illegal sand mining industry is expected to be worth more than $2 billion a year.

Wealthier western countries have begun moving toward sand alternatives. For example, asphalt and concrete can be recycled and crushed rock can be used instead of sand in some cases. Twenty-eight percent of building materials used in the United Kingdom in 2014 were recycled, according Britain’s Mineral Products Association. Moving forward, the European Union plans to recycle 75 percent of its glass by 2025, which should decrease some demand for sand.

Kent Park Lake improvement projects underway


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Kent Park Lake was drained this spring in preparation for water quality and recreation improvement projects. (Iowa Water Science Center)
Jenna Ladd | July 20, 2017

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Johnson County Conservation Board continue moving forward with plans to improve water quality and recreation opportunities at F.W. Kent Park Lake.

Johnson County and the state of Iowa are splitting the cost of the $700,000 project. The state’s money comes from a $96 million ten year plan that was approved by the Iowa legislature in 2014 to restore lakes statewide.

In partnership with the Johnson County Conservation Board and Stanley Consultants, Iowa DNR plans to wrap up the first phase of park improvements this fall, which include restoring and constructing catch basins, adding ADA complaint facilities and installing bio-retention cells to keep storm water run-off from entering the lake.

Kent Park Lake was drained this spring in preparation for lake restoration projects. In this second phase, DNR plans to remove sediments from the lake basin, reshape parts of the bank and lake basin and add fish habitat.

The 27 acre lake is currently on the DNR’s impaired waters list, which is a list of bodies of water that fail to meet federal water quality standards. A central issue in the state of Iowa is the accumulation of nutrients in waterways, which feed blue green algae blooms that produce a bacteria called microcystin. Too much microcystin in water can cause rashes, breathing problems and stomach problems for people and death for pets.

The project aims to provide filtration for these nutrients before they reach the lake. Brad Freidhof of the Johnson County Conservation Board said, “We want the water to settle the soil particulates and nutrients that are in that water to be utilized by plant communities or settle out in the catch basins and that will happen several times before it ends up in the lake” in a report by KCRG.

Project officials will hold a public meeting on July 25 at 6:30 pm at the Conservation Education Center at F.W. Kent Park to discuss preliminary plans for phase two. 

Linn County joins growing coalition still committed to Paris Climate Accord


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The Linn County Board of Supervisors recently voted to stay committed to the Paris Climate Agreement. (cedar-rapids.org)
Jenna Ladd | July 18, 2017

The Linn County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on Monday to remain committed to the Paris Climate Accord, despite President Trump’s withdrawal at the federal level.

Linn County joins a group of more than 1,200 mayors, governors, college and university leaders, businesses, and investors that make up the We Are Still In coalition. An open letter from the coalition, which makes up more than $6 trillion of the U.S. economy, reads:

“In the absence of leadership from Washington, states, cities, colleges and universities, businesses and investors, representing a sizeable percentage of the U.S. economy will pursue ambitious climate goals, working together to take forceful action and to ensure that the U.S. remains a global leader in reducing emissions.”

Iowa City, Johnson County, Des Moines and Fairfield are also members of the coalition.

Following the board’s decision, businesses, local organizations and local leaders spoke during a news conference. Linn County Supervisor Stacey Walker said, “Leadership on the tough issues can originate at the local level. One community can make a difference, this is our hope here today,” according to a report from The Gazette.

Local leaders emphasized that to keep the U.S.’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent before 2025, coalition members must walk-the-talk. Walker continued, “In absence of leadership in the federal government, the job is up to us locally.”