Nearly 50,000 gallons of oil spill from Iowa pipeline


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Heavy snowfall in northern Iowa early this week complicated diesel oil clean-up efforts in Worth County, Iowa. (echoroo/flickr)
Jake Slobe | Febraury 13, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses a  oil spill onto a Worth County farm that took place last month.

Transcript: An underground pipeline recently leaked 47,000 gallons of diesel fuel onto a Worth County, Iowa farm.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The pipeline, which is owned by Magellan Midstream Partners, was first discovered to have ruptured last month. Situated twelve inches underground, the pipeline stretches across Iowa, Illionois Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

Clean-up crews worked to vacuum the diesel fuel from the soil despite high winds and heavy snow. The spilled diesel fuel was transported to a facility in Minnesota while the remaining contaminated soil went to a landfill near Clear Lake. The spill did not reach the nearby Willow Creek and wildlife reserve.

Transnational oil pipelines remain a controversial issue in the United States. Following President Trump’s executive orders reviving the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, opponents expressed concerns about the environmental and human health impacts associated with refined oil pipelines. Since 2010, 807 spills have been reported, causing an estimated $342 million in property damages.

The spill in Worth County is the largest diesel oil spill since 2010, its cause is still under investigation.

For more information about the oil spill in Worth county, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

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

Iowa Falls family honored with sustainable agriculture award


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Wetlands can improve water quality and create habitat for wildlife on Iowa farms. (Scott Smithson/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 10, 2017

John and Beverly Gilbert were honored with the 2017 Practical Farmers of Iowa Sustainable Agriculture Achievement Award at last month’s Practical Farmers of Iowa Conference.

Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) is a non-profit organization dedicated to “strengthening Iowa farms and communities through farmer-led investigation and information sharing.” Each year PFI offers the Sustainable Agricultural Achievement Award to an individual or couple that demonstrates a strong commitment to practicing sustainable agriculture and sharing that knowledge with others, all while fostering community.

John and Beverly Gilbert of Iowa Falls keep a 770-acre farm featuring corn, soybeans, oats, hay, and some annual crops for forage. The family also milks 50 to 60 Brown Swiss cattle and keeps pastured-raised, antibiotic-free pigs that are sold to Niman Ranch.

The Gilberts’ farm borders Southfork stream, a tributary of the Iowa River. They have taken many measures to improve water and soil quality on their land including stream buffers, extensive grass headlands and waterways, and terraces. The farm also features woodland areas, a prairie marsh remnant, and a restored shallow wetland, all a part of the Gilberts’ conservation efforts.

John said, “The mindset has gotten so focused on raising corn and beans that not many understand the potential of this landscape to support people. I have long thought that if we can’t replace the number of people we have farming, there are serious problems ahead for society.”

Wendy Johnson, PFI board member and farmer near Charles City, commended the recognition of the family. She said,

“Their farming system, management and decision-making encompass all that is or should be good about Iowa: its air, water and soil. They protect these elements alongside creating a viable farming business for multiple families. Their farm is what PFI means to me: a sustainable farm on all levels.”

Hy-Vee supermarkets take on U.S. food waste problem


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Hy-Vee stores have announced a program offering “ugly” produce in order to combat food waste in the United States. (Sarah R/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | February 9, 2017

Iowa’s Hy-Vee supermarket chain announced a new initiative to reduce food waste last month.

The employee-owned corporation began offering “ugly” produce in nearly all of its 242 stores in mid-January. “Ugly” produce are those vegetables and fruits that typically are not sold at market due to industry size and shape preferences. Hy-Vee partnered with Robinson Fresh to offer its original line of Misfits® produce. Depending on what is available seasonally, four to six Misfits® produce items are delivered to Hy-Vee stores where shoppers can purchase them at a discounted price. The program’s produce offerings include peppers, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes and apples, among other fruits and vegetables. On average, consumers can expect to pay 30 percent less for the “ugly” items.

John Griesenbrock is Hy-Vee’s vice president of produce/HealthMarkets. He said, “As a company with several focused environmental efforts, we feel it’s our responsibility to help educate consumers and dispel any misperceptions about produce that is not cosmetically perfect.”

The company’s press release notes that a movement to reduce food waste through the purchase of less-than-perfect produce has spread across Europe and is picking up steam in the U.S. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the U.S. food supply goes to waste. Food waste makes up the vast majority of waste found in municipal land fills and quickly generates methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is 84 times more potent than CO2 during its first two decades in the atmosphere.

Hy-Vee’s Misfit® program supports the USDA and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency effort to achieve a 50 percent food waste reduction nationwide by 2030.

“We understand that there is product left in the field because farmers don’t think there’s a market for it,” said Robinson Fresh general manager Hunter Winton. He added, “With the Misfits program, farmers have an outlet to sell more produce and customers have an opportunity to save money and help reduce waste.”

Iowa Supreme Court issues ruling in Des Moines Water Works case


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The Des Moines Water Works building in Des Monies, Iowa.
Jake Slobe | February 6, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the Iowa State Supreme Court ruling that ruled against Des Moines Water Works.

Transcript: The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled against Des Moines Water Works in its attempt to pursue damage payments from northwest Iowa county drainage districts.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

The Supreme Court ruling was a blow to the Des Moines utility’s lawsuit claiming that underground drainage tiles in Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista counties funnel high amounts of nitrate from farm fields into the Raccoon River.

Water Works hoped to reverse nearly a century of legal precedent that’s given the districts immunity from being sued for damages.

Water Works also wants to force drainage districts to seek permits under the federal Clean Water Act. It’s a move that would increase regulation for about 3,000 districts statewide. That portion of the lawsuit will still move forward toward a trial which will take place in June.

Farm groups celebrated the court’s decision to uphold the longstanding precedent. They said the lawsuit has been a distraction from their work to improve water quality.

Clean water advocates worried the decision would reduce pressure on lawmakers to create a substantial new funding source for water quality improvements and would decrease efforts to set goals for reducing nitrogen levels in Iowa rivers.

The lawsuit has added pressure to implement the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy, a voluntary plan to cut nitrogen and phosphorus levels by 45 percent from rural and urban areas.

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

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

As global temperatures rise, future of agriculture uncertain


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Soybean yields could decrease by as much as 40 percent due to rising temperatures. (United Soybean Board/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 20, 2017

Without further action to curb greenhouse gas emissions, global temperatures are expected to rise as much as 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial averages, which may meaningfully impact agricultural outputs.

According to a recent study by the the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the University of Chicago, rising temperatures could significantly reduce U.S. grain harvests. Using a set of computer simulations, the researchers found that yield reduction could reach 40 percent for soybeans and almost 50 percent for corn by the end of the century if carbon emissions are not cut drastically. Wheat would fare slightly better, with its yields decreasing by an estimated 20 percent.

The researchers said, “The effects go far beyond the U.S., one of the largest crop exporters. World market crop prices might increase, which is an issue for food security in poor countries.”

A report by the European Union’s Joint Research Centre came to a different conclusion. They found that wheat may actually benefit from higher concentrations of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere, while corn yields would decrease.

Although the global temperature has reached record highs for three consecutive years, U.S. corn and soybean yields were seemingly unaffected. Thanks in part to genetically modified seed, which can have adverse environmental impacts, corn and soybean output was higher than ever in 2016.

However, the extreme drought of 2012 serves as a reminder that agricultural productivity is vulnerable to a changing climate. That year, U.S. corn harvests decreased considerably and caused global corn prices to skyrocket.

2016 marks third consecutive hottest year on record


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Ethiopia, among many other African countries, experienced extreme drought and famine in 2016. (European Comission DG Echo/flickr)

 Jenna Ladd | January 19, 2017

Yet another record was set on Wednesday when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) released its annual Climate Report.

The report announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record for the third consecutive year. Deke Arndt is the chief of the monitoring group at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville, N.C.

Arndt said, “[Last year] was the warmest year on record, beating 2015 by a few hundredths of a degree, and together those two years really blow away the rest of our record.” He continued, “And that doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you take that and you average it all the way around the planet, that’s a big number.”

Rising temperatures were not limited to certain regions. Experts said that some part of every major ocean and every major continent experienced record heat. The Arctic, however, saw some of the most extreme warming. During Fall of 2016, temperatures were a full 20 to 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than average across large parts of the Arctic ocean.

Scientists say the long-term warming caused by climate change was intensified by the El Niño weather phenomenon during 2015 and 2016. Their combined effect caused drought and famine in Zambia, Congo, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, among other countries. Now that El Niño is coming to an end, Arndt said that the annual temperature-recording breaking probably will too, but an overall warming trend will continue.

Arndt said, “The long-term warming is driven almost entirely by greenhouse gases. We’ve seen a warming trend related to greenhouse gases for four, five, six decades now.”

The Climate Report, along with a separate analysis by NASA which duplicated its results, were released on the same day that confirmation hearings began for Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who has been nominated by President-elect Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, who staunchly supports the fossil fuel industry, is identified as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” in his official biography.

The complete report and a summary of its findings can be found here.

Contaminants found in private wells pose health risks for Iowans


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Those interested in having their well tested for nitrates can do so for free by contacting their county health department. (co.hardin.ia.us)

Jake Slobe | January 16, 2017

This weeks’ On The Radio segment discusses nitrates in Iowa drinking wells and the negative effects they can have on human health.

Transcript: A 2016 special report found that water from many private wells in southwest Iowa contain high levels of contaminants that pose health risks for humans.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

IowaWatch, a nonpartisan, non-profit news organization, tested twenty-eight wells in southwest Iowa as a part of their special report titled, “Crisis In Our Wells.” Eleven of the wells, which were tested in May and June, contained nitrate levels that exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s health standard limit of 10 milligrams per liter. Water from fifteen of the wells tested had unsafe amounts of bacteria, and a few wells contained trace amounts of arsenic and lead.

The report notes that high levels of nitrates in drinking water can increase residents’ risk for some types of cancer, diabetes, thyroid conditions and reproductive problems. Bacteria in drinking water, while not necessarily harmful on its own, can be a sign that the well is susceptible to outside contaminants such as agricultural runoff or septic system leaks.

About 288,000 Iowans rely on private wells for their drinking water. Those that are interested in having their well water tested can do so free-of-charge by contacting their county health department.

For more information about these findings and for a link to the complete IowaWatch special report, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Jerry Schnoor.