President Trump discusses wind energy, Paris agreement in Cedar Rapids


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President Trump and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt after the administration announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. (Associated Press/Andrew Harnik)
Jenna Ladd | June 23, 2017

President Trump hosted a campaign-like rally at the U.S. Cellar Center in Cedar Rapids Wednesday night and made false claims related to renewable energy and climate policy.

With roughly 5,000 of his supporters in the audience, the president used his 70-minute speech to discuss his hatred for the media, the Republicans’ new health care plan, Georgia’s recent special election and more. President Trump is not known for his consistency, but he made two specific false statements related to renewable energy and climate policy which were later set straight by the Washington Post’s Energy 202.

First, the president mocked the use of wind energy in the state of Iowa. He said, “I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your house and your factory as the birds fall to the ground.” This statement aligns with pre-election comments referring to wind turbines as “ugly” and claiming that they kill all the birds.

Energy 202 notes that according to the National Audubon Society, wind turbines are responsible for less than 0.01 percent of all human-related bird deaths. Far more birds are killed each year by vehicles and tall buildings. Second, the Hawkeye state generated 30 percent of its total energy from wind last year. The industry is also expected to provide 7,000 additional jobs and $9 billion in economic activity over the next three years.

Trump also mentioned his administration’s recent decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. He said, “They all say it’s non-binding. Like hell it’s non-binding.”

The problem here, Energy 202 points out, is that the agreement is non-binding. The accord called on each country to set their own goals for limiting greenhouse gases, which is likely the reason President Obama was able to get nearly all of the Earth’s nations to sign on.

Iowa teachers lead development of Next Generation Science curriculum


Teachers work in small groups to develop curriculum plans that align with Iowa’s new science standards. (Left to right: Taylor Schlicher, Southeast Junior High; Zach Miller, University of Iowa MAT Science Education; Susanna Ziemer, University of Iowa MAT Science Education; Ted Neal, Clinical Instructor, University of Iowa; Courtney Van Wyk, Pella Christian Grade School; Stacey DeCoster; Grinnell Middle School)

Jenna Ladd| June 22, 2017

Science teachers gathered at the University of Iowa’s Lindquist Center on Tuesday to develop new curriculum for eighth grade students.

The working group was hosted by the UI College of Education and the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) as a part of the Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative. The joint initiative seeks to make the transition to the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which were approved by the Iowa Board of Education in 2015, easier for Iowa teachers. Clinical instructor Ted Neal along with education graduate students Susanna Herder, Andrea Malek and Zachary Miller have begun developing curriculum bundles for 8th grade science classes that meet the NGSS standards.

Many of the NGSS standards require students to explore how the Earth’s climate system works. For its part, CGRER plans to make some of its members’ climate science data available to Iowa educators. Using an open inquiry approach, students can answer their own questions about topics such as land use or weather patterns in their local environment.

During the day’s opening remarks Ted Neal said, “The research is very clear that if we do open inquiry with kids, the learning is off the charts.”

Neal and his team of graduate students presented an eighth grade science course plan that included six curriculum bundles, with each bundle meeting certain NGSS benchmarks. Bundles five and six have already been developed by the College of Education team and CGRER member Dr. Scott Spak. Tuesday’s goal, Neal explained, was for the seven teachers in attendance to take the lead on the development of the four additional curriculum bundles.

Bundle five provides students access to aerial maps of their communities from throughout history. Students are free to observe how land use in Iowa has changed over time and what effects that may have on natural systems. Chelsie Slaba teaches science at Dike-New Hartford High School and tried the map lesson with her students last year. Slaba said, “I was surprised. I heard it here and thought, ‘I don’t know if that will really work.’ I tried and who knew maps could be so interesting to them?” She continued, “They looked at their own family farms, because a lot of my kids live on farms or their grandparents’ [farms] or a special place to them to hone in on.”

Slaba used only NGSS with her ninth grade students last year and plans to implement the standards with her physics students next year. She added, “It was really empowering as a teacher.”

The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative plans to begin developing curriculum bundles for grades five and six in the fall. Ultimately, Neal explained, the group aims to host a free online database where all curriculum and related scientific data are available free of charge to Iowa educators.

The morning session concluded with teachers broken up into smaller groups brainstorming ideas for bundles one through four. The educators rattled off phenomena related to the standards that still resonate with eighth-graders: cell phones to explore energy use, tennis shoes to explain resource extraction, driving cars to investigate physics.

Slaba said that some teachers are afraid to allow for more student-led lessons due to the pressure they feel for their students to perform well on standardized tests. However, her experience thus far may assuage their worries. She said, “Over the three years, my Iowa assessment scores have just gone up by a few percent each time.”

On The Radio – 38 million pieces of trash found on remote Pacific island


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The most recent recorded density of litter on Henderson Island was 671 items per square meter. (Jennifer Lavers/Associated Press). 
Jenna Ladd| June 19, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how an extremely remote island in the Pacific ocean bares the highest litter density in the world. 

Transcript: Henderson Island is one of the most remote islands in the world and is also the most affected by pollution from plastic debris.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

When researchers traveled to the tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they were astonished to find an estimated 38 million pieces of trash washed up on the island.

The island is situated at the edge of the South Pacific gyre, where ocean currents meet in a vortex that captures floating trash, carrying some of it from as far away as Scotland.

Over 99 percent of the debris on the island is made of plastic—most pieces are unidentifiable fragments. The researchers say that fishing-related activities and land-based refuse likely produced most of the debris.

The researchers say the density of trash was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, despite Henderson Island’s extreme remoteness. The island is located about halfway between New Zealand and Chile and is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.

To learn more about the island, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

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

New climate science standards require Iowa students to engage in scientific process


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Ted Neal (right) and Kris Kilibarda (left) explain the Next Generation Science Standards at the 2016 Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd| June 16, 2017

Iowa educators will soon adopt new science education standards, with help from the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) and College of Education.

The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative, an effort of CGRER and the College of Education, aims to ease the transition for teachers to the Next Generation Science Standards. Rather than require educators to teach that human-induced climate change is occurring, the standards provide an opportunity for students to reach that conclusion independently.

The Iowa Board of Education approved the new standards in August 2015. They include four primary domains: physical science, life science, earth and space science, and engineering. Of the dozens of standards, thirty-six require students to explore the climate system.

According to University of Iowa clinical science instructor Ted Neal, students will be given relevant data and asked to formulate their own research questions. In an interview with Iowa Watch, Neal said, “They will look at facts relevant to those questions and draw conclusions that answer their questions.”

In short, students will be challenged to engage in the scientific process. Kris Kilibarda is the science consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. She said, “We’re saying here’s evidence, here’s how you determine if the evidence is valid, and here’s how you develop a scientific argument. You determine what the argument would be. We would never say there’s only one way it can be, but we will say here’s the scientific evidence.”

A fall 2016 survey revealed that teachers felt they needed access to observations and data, help aligning lesson plans and materials with climate science education and the Next Generation Science Standards in order to most effectively transition to using the new science standards. The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative is tackling all of these requests.

Currently the group is working to develop tools for 8th grade teachers. The group recently introduced a four to eight week pilot lesson called “How Iowans Use Their Land.” The curriculum hits on nine of the 25 total 8th grade science standards including one that requires students to “develop a model to describe the cycling of water through the earth’s systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity.” Next, the initiative plans to work with sixth and seventh grade teachers before eventually moving onto high school curriculum.

The standards will not be mandatory for another few years, but many Iowa teachers are ahead of the game. On an NGSS EnvIowa podcast episode, Neal said, “One of the nice things about Iowa and Iowa teachers is that they care so much they’re trying to get ahead the game. They’re not looking at this with apprehension.”

Research profile: Dr. Craig Just


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Dr. Craig Just (right) stands with Senator Senator Bob Dvorsky (left) at this year’s Iowa legislative breakfast, where many researchers from the University of Iowa came to share their work with legislators. (Iowa Senate)

Dr. Craig Just is an assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. Up for tenure this summer, Dr. Just teaches graduate level courses along with an undergraduate principles of environmental engineering course. His research interests range from freshwater mussels’ impacts on the nitrogen cycles in rivers and streams to the fate of explosive chemicals once they are released into the natural environment. Iowa Environmental Focus caught up with Dr. Just to discuss his research on wastewater treatment in smaller communities.

Jenna Ladd: I wanted to focus on your wastewater treatment research in smaller communities. So, why can’t people in smaller communities flush their toilets affordably?

Dr. Craig Just: So, in a town like Iowa City, we just had an over $15 million expansion to our wastewater treatment plant but that cost was spread, you know, among a population base of 75,000 or 80,000 people so the per person cost for such an advance treatment system is under probably a thousand bucks each, give or take, prorate over a certain amount of time. But for smaller towns, who have increasingly rigorous environmental regulations they have to meet, particularly with respect to the discharge of ammonia and bacteria, they’re small so when you have to do a technology upgrade, it’s more expensive per resident and that’s one of the main issues. The other issue is that it also becomes more expensive then to pay an operator for the plant, someone that has the expertise needed to operate an increasingly more sophisticated treatment system. So, then you have to spread that cost amongst a small population base as well and so both of those factors are really scaling issues that, really, small towns have a problem dealing with compared to some other places. Those are some of the main issues going on there.

Jenna Ladd: How were those issues brought to your attention?

Dr. Craig Just: Sometimes it’s with screaming mayors at small town hall meetings. I’ve been going to Des Moines to talk about this issue since at least 2005. Legislators know it’s a problem, their constitutes tell them it’s a problem. In 2010, I was one of the co-leaders of what’s known as the faculty engagement tour. We get faculty who are typically stuffed in their offices and labs and we stuff them in a bus and took them all around Iowa to say, “You know, here are the people that pay your salaries, really, in a way, and let’s be aware.” So, we had a town hall meeting in Goodell, Iowa, town of about 225 people facing a $2.2 million waste water treatment plant upgrade bill and the mayor of that town and the mayor of three or four other towns came to this meeting. Over 100 people showed up to this meeting in all that was left of the school, the old gymnasium. The school’s gone….Everybody came out, it was such a big deal. People were mad, they were shouting. They viewed me as part of the cultural elite who wasn’t doing enough for them in rural Iowa, and that we were putting unrealistic environmental constraints on them that led them to essentially go bankrupt as a town. So I’ve heard it in casual conversation, I’ve heard legislators talk about it, I’ve heard it in town hall meetings. Candidly, at this point it’s hard for me to get away from. I’m from rural Iowa, you know, that’s where I’m from. So I’ve seen it first hand, it’s not hard to see.

JL: Are these newer wastewater treatment regulations or are communities just kind of playing catch up to those regulations that were already in place?

CJ: They’re new, and I would say that they’re based at the federal level. I would say one of the things that’s happening, and it’s a challenge for Iowa in particular, so the population in the U.S. has gone up. I think in just the U.S. alone, we’re up to like 330 million people now, whatever, 50 years ago, I think it was like 200 million or something. I don’t know those numbers, but the point is the overall population density has been going up. Most towns in these watersheds that have a discharge into a stream, most of them have gotten more dense so then you have to have more stringent regulations to not kill the stream. But when you apply those things at the federal level for the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, it kind of puts a disproportionate burden on the places that haven’t grown. In fact, in rural Iowa, it’s less dense but then you still have to meet these federal standards which are somewhat one-size-fits all and so, I don’t disagree with the fact that the federal standards have become more strict but it’s difficult to apply it in a place that’s population and tax base isn’t growing. It puts rural Iowa at a very special pinch point where those two things converge.

JL: Are there any solutions you’ve come up with for this problem?

CJ: Well, first of all, there are already some alternative technologies, they’re called, that are approved in Iowa that are robust and more affordable, not as affordable as you might like but still more affordable. So, one of the things that we’re doing in partnership with H.R. Green Consulting Engineers, one of our alums there Matt Wildman has really kind of led the use of this technology in Iowa. We’ve partnered with them and the community of Walker, Iowa to extensively test one of these alternative technologies called—it’s a lagoon modification—a submerged attached growth reactor, essentially rocks in a box. A couple lagoons. The lagoons are aerated, they take care of some of the wastewater issues and then it goes to these rocks in a box where the bacteria then are attached to the rocks, they further covert the ammonia with aeration to nitrate, which you can still legally discharge in Iowa—it’s a fertilizer though. It doesn’t solve all of our problems if you look at the broader watershed problems with respect to nutrient discharges, but yet it removes the acute toxicity associated with ammonia discharges. So, that works out well in many regards. It still doesn’t solve all the problems because at least, approximately half the cost of the system is just the pipes that collect the waste from each house and those systems are deteriorating in these towns as well. So, even if we’re improving the system at the end of all those pipes it still kind of tricky to deal with that.

I’m even thinking of almost having your toilet be more like an appliance where you don’t have to convey your waste someplace else. If we could find a way to do that, almost like a compost toilet would work, the composting waste you’d have to collect. The nice thing about that sort of a mentality is you could then use that waste as a resource because there are nutrients in there, there is energy value in that waste. Right now we send it to a lagoon and then one of these box of rocks with bacteria, we treat it but we don’t harvest any of the energy…in fact, we have to put energy in. I think if we could find ways to do that, even in these small towns, then it would make them more sustainable. It would give them extra resources that I think would be valuable. So in the future, I think it would be valuable to maybe not have these lagoons at all. Especially for these towns that are increasingly small, you know, like 600 people or less.

But anyway, so I’m thinking even longer term, but in the short-term, these alternative technologies are better. One of the things that we’ve been able to do then, with all this data collection that’s been going on in Walker since 2013 is now, we can more appropriately size the technology. Since we didn’t have very much data before, we kind of over-sized it in the name of kind of a safety factor. Now with data, we can shrink the size which then makes it cheaper. So that’s where the researcher comes in. As a researcher, I can come in, get this data, say “No, it doesn’t need to be this big” and then work with Iowa Department of Natural Resources to get that approved. That just recently happened. So, now going forward this particular technology can now be about a third smaller, which would have saved Walker, Iowa about $150,000 on a 2.5 million project. That’s real money. 750 people and $150,000 saved, that would be a lot. You multiple that across the nearly 800 or 900 communities these technologies are targeting so that’s a lot of money that Iowans can save. That’s kind of where research and the practical nature of trying to make things affordable come together. Sizing things appropriately so they still work and then making sure the operators still know how to handle any disruptions and understand why things do get disrupted from time to time.

JL: Are you communicating with people working to solve these problems in rural communities in other states?

CJ: In general, Iowa is a little bit behind. Even our peers on our borders: Minnesota would be ahead of us in many regards, some other places too. A lot of these alternative technologies have been utilized in warmer climates. Since they’re biological processes, the bacteria work better when they’re warm, just like you or I do. I don’t move so fast when I’m cold and neither do bacteria. So the challenge for Iowa has been even though some other states have been embracing these alternative technologies more readily, they are easier case studies too. So really, for Iowa, it’s been “How do we manage the cold weather?” that we have and “Will these systems still work when it’s cold?” So, we’ve applied what we can from other states in trying to catch up and now we have to deal with that in our own Iowa circumstance going forward. So yeah, we’ve learned from other places, but we still have to make sure we deal with, you know, Iowa’s situation.

JL: In what ways does this research relate to your teaching?

CJ: Increasingly, developing countries, where again you lack a population base and kind of a resource base and a tax base, some of the challenges are like rural areas in the United States. They’re kind of falling into some of those same categories sometimes so I want our engineers that graduate from our program to understand the rural dilemma. It’s relatively easy to be an engineer when you have all the resources you need, you got money. Yeah, shoot, design away, and it’s fun to kind of do it like that, but when you have to apply your engineering skills and really your community engagement skills at the same time to try to make a difference in a community that’s struggling just to keep their doors open, that’s a cool place. That’s very satisfying and rewarding for an engineer to be operating there. So I’m encouraging our students to do that in some way or another so when they go out into engineering and consulting, they’ll be aware of the issues that small rural communities face in contrast to what growing, urban areas face: fundamentally different engineering problems.

On The Radio – Pace of sea level rise tripled since 1990


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A new study found that sea levels are rising nearly three times faster than in previous centuries. (Chris Dodd/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| June 12, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses a recent study that found sea levels are rising at a significantly faster rate than in the past. 

Transcript: Scientists, in a new study, have found that the Earth’s oceans are rising nearly three times as quickly as they were throughout most of the 20th century.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

This new finding is one of the strongest indications yet that a much-feared trend of not just sea level rise, but its acceleration, is now underway.

Their paper, published in May’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, isn’t the first to find that the rate of rising seas is itself increasing — but it finds a bigger rate of increase than in past studies.

The new paper concludes that before 1990, oceans were rising at about almost a half an inch per decade. From 1993 through 2012, though, it finds they rose by almost one and a quarter inches per decade.

To learn more about the study, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

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

Spawning stress fish kill in Tama County


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More than 1,000 black crappies were reported dead at Lake Casey yesterday due to spawning stress. (Georgia Aquarium
Jenna Ladd |June 8, 2017

A fish kill has been reported at Casey Lake in Tama County. More than 1,000 black crappies were reported dead at the Hickory Hills Park Lake yesterday. Crappies are a North American freshwater sunfish that are indigenous to Iowa. Fish kills can be caused a number of factors including pesticide contamination, high temperatures, algal blooms and more.

“When we get calls about one species of dead fish during the spawning season, it is usually caused by spawning stress,” said Dan Kirby, fisheries management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Like many freshwater fish, crappies move closer to the shoreline to spawn in the late spring and early summer. Spawning activities require fish to expend a lot of energy, leaving them susceptible to infections and illness. It is common for spawning fish to sustain abrasions from jagged rocks and debris at the water’s edge. These cuts and scrapes are vulnerable to infection that can cause death. Typically, spawning stress fish kills occur slowly over the course of weeks. It is unclear how long the fish at Casey Lake were piling up near shore.

“Fish surveys conducted this week on Casey Lake showed that largemouth bass and bluegills are doing well, and black crappies are abundant,” Kirby added.

Iowa DNR encourages residents to call their 24-hour phone line at 515-725-8694 if they notice dead fish accumulating in lakes or rivers.