Oxbow restoration improves water quality, habitat


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An aerial view of existing oxbows along a waterway in Northern Iowa. (G. Witteveen/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 25, 2017

Conversations about water quality improvement on agricultural land usually include talk of terraces, wetland restoration and curbed pesticide application. One strategy, oxbow restoration, is often left out.

Prior to European-Americans converting Iowa’s prairies into cropland, most of the waterways that flow through the state regularly took long twists and turns. In order to maximize agricultural space, farmers straightened creeks in the 20th century. IIHR researcher Dr. Chris Jones said that this causes water to move quickly downstream, increasing nutrient runoff, erosion and the likelihood of flooding downstream.

Jones is one part of an effort to restore an oxbow in Morgan Creek Park in Linn County. In an interview, he explained that oxbow restoration is a cheaper conservation method because most oxbows were located on land that is not usable for farming anyway. He said, “It’s very cheap habitat—$10,000 to $15,000 to restore one of these.”

Jones, along with UI Dr. Keith Schilling and graduate student Bryce Haines, hope to measure the water quality benefits of oxbow restoration. The researchers have installed water level monitoring wells near the project on Morgan Creek, the first of its kind in eastern Iowa. Linn County Conservation has reintroduced native plants to the area, which is close to one of the park’s hiking trails. Jones said, “It’ll provide opportunities for people to look at birds.”

Schilling has already seen the positive impact oxbow restoration can have on a watershed. His research team restored an oxbow along White Fox Creek in the Boone watershed last year. Schilling reported that the oxbow removed 45 percent of the nitrate flowing into the stream from surrounding farmland, which is equal to what one might expect from bioreactors or wetlands.

Schilling and Jones agree that oxbows provide a multitude of benefits. “Oxbows can provide a triple benefit of habitat, flood storage, and stream water-quality enhancement,” Jones said, “And all for not much money.”

To read IIHR’s full report on the project, click here.

Iowa Flood Center featured in American Meteorological Association flagship publication


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Iowa Flood Center’s Iowa Flood Information System was featured on the front page of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society this March. (Iowa Flood Center)
Jenna Ladd | May 5, 2017

The Iowa Flood Center was featured in the March 2017 edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, also known as BAMS.

BAMS is the flagship publication of the American Meteorological Society. The bulletin, which is released monthly, features scientific articles related to weather, water, and climate as well as news stories and editorials.

Witold Krajewski, the Iowa Flood Center’s director, is lead author on the article featured in BAMS. Titled “Real-Time Flood Forecasting and Information System for the State of Iowa,” the academic article provides a detailed understanding of the Iowa Flood Center’s (IFC) flood forecasting and information dissemination system.

IFC established the system following the record floods of 2008. Using scientific models and mathematical equations, the Iowa Flood Information System (IFIS) is able to provide rainfall and streamflow forecasts every fifteen minutes. Iowans from over 1,000 communities can access these real-time observations using the interactive IFIS web platform.

Prior to the development of this system, floods frequently occurred without warning in Iowa, as they did in 2008. The report reads,

“Devastating floods that inundated Cedar Rapids came as a surprise, leaving residents and businesses little time to evacuate; residents of Iowa City and the University of Iowa campus watched helplessly as floods compromised more and more buildings after the Coralville Dam lost its controlled-release functionality. Overall, the 2008 flood upended countless lives and livelihoods and caused between $8 billion and $10 billion in damages—at the time, the fifth-largest disaster in the history of the United States.”

Nine years later, the IFC is now able to consistently measures rainfall every five minutes across the state, and Iowans can have peace of mind heading into the rainy summer months.

Study finds that flood patterns are changing across the U.S.


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The threat of moderate flooding is generally increasing in the northern U.S. and decreasing in the southern U.S. (American Geophysical Union.)
Jake Slobe | May 3, 2017

The risk of flooding is changing by region throughout the United States and two of the reasons could be shifting rainfall patterns and changes in groundwater.

University of Iowa engineers, in a new study, have determined that the threat of flooding is growing in the northern half of the U.S. while declining in the southern half. The American Southwest and West are experiencing decreasing flood risk.

UI engineers Gabriele Villarini and Louise Slater compiled water-height information from 2,042 stream gauges operated by the U.S. Geological Survey. They then compared the data to satellite information gathered over more than a dozen years by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment mission showing the amount of water stored in the ground.

The study found that northern sections of the country have an increased amount of water stored in the ground and are at increased risk for minor and moderate flooding. Meanwhile, flood risk is decreasing in the southern portions of the U.S., where stored water has declined.

Why some sections of the nation are getting more, or less, rainfall is not entirely clear. The researchers say one cause could be the redistribution of rains as the regional climate changes.

The researchers hope their findings can change how flood patterns are discussed. In the past, flood risk trends have typically been discussed using stream flow, or the amount of water flowing per unit time. The UI study views flood risk through the lens of how it may affect people and property and aligns the results with National Weather Service terminology understood by the general public.

Extreme weather takes the lives of 14 people


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Tornados ripped through eastern Texas on Saturday night. (Red Cross/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 2, 2017

Flooding and tornados swept across the Midwest and southern U.S. this weekend, leaving at least 14 people dead.

The National Weather Service reported that four tornados moved through eastern Texas beginning Saturday evening. The twisters left an area of destruction 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in Van Zandt County, according to Canton, Texas Mayor Lou Ann Everett. Primarily small towns were affected in the mostly rural area east of Dallas; four individuals lost their lives.

Strong winds and flooding in Arkansas took the lives of five residents near Madison county. Four additional deaths were reported in Missouri and Mississippi, also due to flash flooding and strong winds.

Tragically, severe weather events like these are becoming more common as climate change rears its ugly head. According to archived data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s webpage prior to President Trump’s inauguration, “In recent years, a larger percentage of precipitation has come in the form of intense single-day events.” Similarly, the amount of precipitation falling on the heaviest rain days has increased in the last few decades. Many regions of the U.S. are seeing significantly more severe river flooding, while other areas are ravaged by drought. The Midwest, Great Plains, and Northeast have seen a significant increase in flooding, but the Southwest has experienced a decrease.

Scientists are still evaluating the relationship between climate change and twisters. The EPA notes that climate change does lead to stronger and more frequent thunderstorms, which can cause tornados, but there is a lack of empirical data on the matter.

Researchers can confidently conclude that climate change has caused more intense and frequent heat waves, fewer frequent and less intense cold waves, and regional changes in floods, droughts, and wildfires.

Iowa legislators restore funding for Iowa Flood Center in amended budget proposal


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The Iowa Flood Center was established after the devastating flood of 2008. (Alan Light/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | April 14, 2017

The Iowa legislature has amended its 2018 budget proposal to restore $1.2 million in funding to the Iowa Flood Center.

The 2018 fiscal year budget plan was released earlier this week. The education spending bill proposed by Republicans included $20 million in cuts and originally featured a $1.5 million decrease in funding for the flood center. Wednesday evening the House Appropriations committee reinstated 2018 funding for the flood center by transferring $950,000 out of general appropriations to the University of Iowa and another $250,000 from a National Guard educational assistance program.

Representative Ashley Hinson, a Republican from Marion, worked as a news anchor, reporter and producer for KCRG-TV9 in Cedar Rapids during the 2008 floods. He said, “I do know the value of the Flood Center to Cedar Rapids and Linn County, and immediately started having those conversations about its importance to our area specifically with our budget chairs and other appropriations committee members.”

Some Democrats are not pleased with the decision to transfer funds from the University of Iowa, calling it “robbing Peter to pay for Paul.” 

“The solution we found was based on trying to balance our priorities with a tough budget year,” responded Hinson. He added, “It was also my understanding that the Flood Center was a ‘priority’ for the University of Iowa, which is why we felt it appropriate to essentially have them share in funding it. I’m happy we were able to find a solution within our current budget constraints.”

Iowa Flood Center endangered by state budget proposal


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The Iowa Flood Center’s Iowa Flood Information System provides an easy way for Iowans to access real-time flood and rainfall information. (Iowa Flood Center)
Jenna Ladd | April 13, 2017

The Iowa Legislature released a budget proposal on Tuesday that would effectively close down the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa.

The proposed budget cuts would eliminate $1.5 million in state funding for the Iowa Flood Center (IFC), which was established by the legislature shortly after floods devastated much of eastern Iowa in 2008.

Dave Wilson is Johnson County Emergency Manager. He said, “Before the floods of 2008, it was hard to communicate the risk to the public in a form they can understand. Pulling the funding for that project would be shortsighted. I’m kind of shocked they are even considering it.”

Slashed funding would mean that the center’s Iowa Flood Information System (IFIS) would also be shut down, according to a statement by IFC’s co-directors Larry Weber and Witold Krajewski. IFIS is an online tool that provides free, user-friendly access to “flood alerts and flood forecasts, more than 250 IFC real-time river and stream gauge sensors, more than 50 soil moisture/temperature sensors, flood inundation maps for 22 Iowa communities and rainfall products for the entire state.”

The center is also in the middle putting a $96 million federal grant to use through the Iowa Watershed Approach. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Disaster Resilience grant is currently funding flood mitigation and water quality improvement projects in nine Iowa watersheds.

State Representative Art Staed of Cedar Rapids serves on the Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s Flood Mitigation Board. Staed said, “We have repeatedly witnessed the devastating impact that floods have on our Iowa communities and it’s our responsibility as state lawmakers to work with local communities to minimize and mitigate flooding and the resulting damage to life and property.”

The proposed budget would not decrease funding for K-12 education, which is expected receive a 1.1 percent budget increase this year. However, it does eliminate $397,000 in state funding for the Iowa State University Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

IFC co-directors urged concerned citizens to contact state legislators to express support for the continuation flood center funding. They write, “This bill is expected to move very quickly so it is imperative you reach out as soon as possible.”

Winter tornados move through Midwest


West of Tuscaloosa, Alabama
(Frank/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | March 2, 2017

More than 20 tornados ripped through parts of Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee on Tuesday.

The severe thunderstorms and tornadoes killed at least three people and left thousands of residents in the Midwest and Southeastern U.S. without electricity. While tornados during winter months are rare, they seem to be happening with increasing frequency.

Typically wintertime tornados form when a forceful jet stream moves across the Southern U.S. and meets colder, retreating air fronts. According to The Weather Channel, usually these tornados crop up in the Deep South, however, in February 2016 severe tornados touched down in Pennsylvania and Virginia, ultimately killing seven people.

On average, February is second-least tornadic month of the year, but recently averages for that month are increasing. February 2008 had 146 total tornados, making it the most tornadic February since the 1950s, and February 2016 came close behind with 138 total twisters.

While an abundance of scientific evidence links climate change with the increasing frequency of extreme weather events like heat waves and coastal flooding, the relationship between climate change and tornado frequency remains unclear.

Due to particularly strong jet-stream level energy characteristic of the winter months, winter tornados can occur at any time of the day or night, unlike more predictable spring and summer tornados that almost always form during the late afternoon and evening. The Weather Channel also points out that it is common for winter twisters to be wrapped in rain, making them more difficult to spot.

Experts remind Midwestern and Southeastern U.S. residents that severe weather in the winter months can be deadly and to create or review their severe weather plans.

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(The Weather Channel)