New study assesses flood risks for schools nationwide


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The impact of flooding on schools is often compounded by aging infrastructure, according to a recent study. (FEMA)
Jenna Ladd| August 8, 2017

A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts generated flood risk scores for 84,123 primary and secondary schools nationwide.

The report’s authors pointed out that flooding is the most costly and common natural disaster, affecting every region of the U.S. Many times, severe floods badly damage schools, causing them to close. For example, the study points out, floods in West Virginia in June 2016 cost $130 million in damage to regional schools.

Researchers used three metrics to generate county-wide composite flood risk vulnerability scores for schools in all fifty states including: a school’s location within a designated flood zone, the percentage of a school’s neighborhood (as represented by ZIP code) located within a flood zone, and the number of historical flood-related federal disaster declarations in that county.

Among the study’s major findings are that flood risk is distributed across diverse regions of the country. Schools with the highest flood risk scores were located in the Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast, Mississippi River corridor, and southwestern Arizona. Similarly, those schools with the highest composite flood risk scores were located in both coastal and inland regions. Those 100 counties with the highest composite flood risk scores include 6,444 schools that serve almost 4 million students.

The study made some recommendations for steps policymakers can take to increase flood resiliency for schools. They included generating up-to-date local flood maps, developing pre-disaster flood plans for schools, working to leverage federal assistance, and relocating schools out of floodplains if possible.

The Pew Charitable Trusts full analysis can be found here.

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The highest flood risk areas are scattered across many regions of the country. (Pew Charitable Trusts)

On The Radio – Kent Park Lake sees improvements


Iowa DNR officials hope to remove the lake from the Impaired Waters List. (Iowa Water Science Center)

This week’s On The Radio segment provides details about restoration and improvement projects at Kent Park Lake in Johnson County.

Jenna Ladd | August 7, 2017

Transcript: The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is on track with its plans to improve water quality and recreational opportunities at Kent Park Lake in Johnson County.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

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 included 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 the second phase, DNR plans to remove sediments from the lake basin, reshape parts of the bank and lake basin and add fish habitat. According to a press release from the department, the project’s aim is to remove the lake from the Iowa DNR Impaired Waters List and to provide more recreational activities for park visitors.

Project officials held a public meeting last month at Kent Park to discuss the preliminary plans for phase two with local residents.

For more information about the project, visit iowa-environmental-focus-dot-org.

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

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. 

The role of climate change in extreme weather events presented in interactive map


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A screenshot of Carbon Brief’s new interactive map. Extreme weather events attributable to human-induced climate change are in orange, those that are not are in blue. (Carbon Brief)
Jenna Ladd | July 14, 2017

The body of scientific research examining the extent to which extreme weather can be attributed to human-induced climate change is growing. Carbon Brief, a climate journalism site out of the United Kingdom, recently created an interactive map that color-codes these studies, making it easy to discern which events were caused by climate change and which were not.

Carbon Brief mapped a total of 144 extreme weather events worldwide that have been included in “extreme event attribution” studies.  The investigators determined that 63 percent of all extreme weather events studied thus far “were made more likely or more severe” by human-induced climate change. Extreme heat waves account for almost half of those events that can be attributed to human-induced global warming.

Roz Pidcock is one of the map’s creators. She said, “The temptation is to look at the result of one study and think that is the definitive last word, but in reality, the evidence needs to be considered in its entirety to make sense of how climate change is influencing extreme weather.”

In 14 percent of the studies, scientists determined that humans had no discernible impact on the likelihood or severity of the weather event. For five percent of the weather events studied, climate change made the event less likely or less intense. The vast majority of these occurrences included cold, snow and ice events.

Perhaps the most striking finding included in the report is the overwhelming effect climate change has on the intensity and severity of heat waves. The investigators looked at 48 heat wave attribution studies and determined that 85 percent of those events were made more severe or more likely thanks to global warming.

The authors write, “One study suggests that the Korean heatwave in the summer of 2013 had become 10 times more likely due to climate change, for example. Only one study on extreme heat didn’t find a role for climate change – an analysis of the Russian heatwave in 2010.”

Fewer than ten extreme weather attribution studies have been published so far in 2017. Carbon Brief plans to continue adding updating its map and providing analysis for new studies as they are published in peer-reviewed articles.

Research profile: Dr. Art Bettis


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Dr. Art Bettis presents during a Clear Creek Watershed bus tour in June of last year. Dr. Bettis serves as site coordinator for the Clear Creek critical zone observatory project. (Nick Fetty/CGRER)

Dr. Art Bettis acts as program director for the UI Environmental Sciences program and is a professor in the Earth and Environmental Science department. He also holds a joint appointment with the Institute of Hydraulic Research. Dr. Bettis has been at the university since 2000.

We sat down with Dr. Bettis to discuss his work within the Critical Zones Observatory program. The Critical Zones Observatory is an interdisciplinary research initiative examining the processes that take place at specific research sites across the U.S. and how those processes are altered by human action. Dr. Bettis’ work centers around the impacts of industrial agricultural on sites in the Midwest.

Jenna Ladd: What is your research focus?

Dr. Art Bettis: I am really interested in lots of things, but my main focus lately has been on soils and how they’re connected to the deeper geology. It’s how water moves through them, how water interacts with the solid materials and with the organic materials and how that impacts both the soils and the water that ends up in river and streams.

Jenna Ladd: Tell me about the Critical Zones Observatory and how it came to be.

Dr. Art Bettis: The Critical Zones Observatory (CZO) is a National Science Foundation Project that was conceived about almost ten years ago. The idea with the CZO was to sort of try to document and understand the processes that were taking place from the top of the canopy of the vegetation to the bedrock surface or to some sort of deep aquifer. It’s an integrative science program so it involves geology and hydrology and biology and land-use studies, all sorts of things. Originally, there were five observatories across the country that were funded for five years. After the first five years, there was another call for proposals and they funded four of the original observatories again and brought in another seven new observatories and the Clear Creek observatory or the Intensively Managed Landscapes (IML) critical zone observatory was one of the new ones. This is our fourth year that we’re in with this project. It’s primarily National Science Foundation (NSF) funded, but it’s also, part of the whole idea of the CZO program is to engage other agencies and groups in research. It’s supposed to be sort of a research tank where people start doing things and it attracts other people to come and start doing more things.

JL: So, there are three research sites in Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota. Why were these locations selected?

AB: Well, the whole idea of the Intensively Managed Landscape CZO was to look at this critical zone in an area that really is an very important regional area that hasn’t been looked at. The other CZOs were all in mountainous areas or in forested regions and none of them were agricultural landscapes at all. So, that was the general impetus for setting up the Intensively Managed Landscape program. The idea was to try to capture some of the range of settings that are present to see how they may have similar issues or similar mechanisms or if they differ significantly. So, we chose Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota because they’re three really different landscapes. There’s a different lay of the land, different water issues, but they all share a common intensive row crop agricultural land use.

JL: You mentioned that these Midwestern states were brought in to see if there were similarities in the natural processes that are happening. Have you found similarities?

AB: Oh yeah, there are a lot of general things. Row crop agriculture dominates all three areas. Agricultural tile drainage is a really common thing in all three areas. Degradation of surface waters is a really common thing. The impacts on streams and lakes is a really common element. Also, sort of a non-scientific thing, the economy of all those areas is really heavily dependent upon this kind of land use. There’s a lot of commonalities. Even though it may be a really different kind of landscape, just the intensity of agricultural land use makes it similar to the Central Valley in California or places in Europe or places in China or something like that that are under those same kinds of pressures from intensive agricultural use.

JL: So humans have almost forced them into uniformity?

AB: Yeah, exactly. It’s mostly intentionally engineered for crop production. That engineering of the landscape has really made it behave in ways that are more similar among those drastically different places than they would normally be.

JL: Within Iowa, why was the Clear Creek watershed selected specifically?

AB: It’s sort of a historical thing. There was a guy, Thanos Papanicolaou, who used to be a researcher in engineering at IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering, who had already started doing quite a few projects out there, maybe five or six years previous to the first call for the CZOs. So, he had already had a watershed experiment station kind of set up there and had already been doing some things. Then also, Clear Creek is really typical of a large part of the landscape in the Midwest that wasn’t glaciated during the last glaciation so it’s an area that has the same kinds of issues and same kinds of landscapes and soils and stuff that a lot of the other areas in the region do too, plus it’s close [laughs]. But that wasn’t the reason why. Mostly it was the previous investigations and then this similarity to a lot of other areas.

JL: So what are some of the CZOs major findings so far?

AB: What we’ve found, you know, no surprise, the workings of the landscapes have been altered a whole lot. Basically, the main finding that is sort of driving things along is that prior to intensive agricultural land use, the landscape and the processes on the landscape acted to transform materials on the landscape: To turn dead vegetation into organic matter, to turn decaying organic matter into nutrients for plants and animals without having them end up in a stream to degrade the stream. Basically, processes were around where there was a lot of contact time and things were moving sort of slowly through the system, and with agricultural land use, in an effort to increase crop production, they’ve sped everything up and the landscape has really changed from a transformer of materials into a transporter of materials. So, there’s really short residence time on the landscape: sentiment gets moved to the stream quickly, nutrients go through the system really quickly, that’s why we have to add so much now and a lot of what we add goes through the system. That’s had huge impacts, both locally and off site. That presents us with lots of problems and lots of opportunities to try to figure out how to change the system so that it transforms more things. We’re not going to go back to the way it was, we’ve changed it to where it can’t go back to the way it was, but there might be some things that can be done to alter the way things work on a landscape now in its new mode of operation.

JL: I’ve never heard it describe that way, in terms of transformation versus transportation. That’s a really nice way to conceptualize it.

AB: It’s sort of the essence of what it’s about.

JL: Can you expand a little bit about the impacts of a transportive system?

AB: A transportive system does a lot of things. Number one, it’s very efficient. Water doesn’t stay on the landscape a long time so you don’t have areas that are too wet to plant in the spring, thanks to agricultural drainage. You don’t have places that are too wet year round for agriculture. You are able to control moisture conditions in seedbeds to where your seeds are more likely germinate or find favorable conditions.

With sediment, you know, there are not a lot of positives with transportation because we removed soils and remove solid materials from the landscape and we clog streams and lakes with sediment. The downside of the water moving fast is that the water doesn’t move all by itself. It moves with either sediment or with nutrients. Really what it’s about is that the system now is better for growing crops without considering the costs. So, whether the system is better in the long run, I think, is fairly debatable.

JL: What steps has the CZO taken to engage the general public?

AB:  We have an education and outreach component. We have led several field trips for both agencies and local people. Then we also engage K-12 teachers every summer. We had a workshop last summer for twelve K-12 teachers, and this year we’ve got eleven or twelve K-12 teachers that Ted Neal, over in the education  department is working with. So, they’re working in the CZO. They get to choose what kind of things they’re interested in and how they want to develop some curriculum.

That’s the other thing about the CZO, the data is publicly available really fast. Of course, it’s data that might be hard for the public to digest, but the whole idea is to have it available for people that want to use it and then to make it available as things are going along. So, it’s not like data that gets stored away for years and years and nobody has access to it. That’s part of the NSF program, is to make the data very readily available to anybody who wants to use it. So there’s a really short period where the data is not available and then it’s out there for everybody.

JL: It seems like farmers get much of blame when it comes to erosion and water quality issues in Iowa. What are your thoughts on that?

AB: We work on farms so we work with farmers and we have some really great cooperators. On one side, as an environmental scientist, row crop agricultural and industrial farming is really not very good for our landscape or for our environment. On the other hand, I know these people that are totally engaged in it and sort of see that they are indeed concerned about the environment, but they’re kind of between a rock and a hard place because it’s how they make a living. It’s been really interesting to sort of see both sides of this story and come to the realization that, you know, most farmers, just like most people, are good people and want to do right, but they also have to make a living, just like we all have cars. [laughs]

JL: How does climate change affect these intensively managed landscapes?

AB: That’s a huge thing. Obviously, climate change will have an impact and is having an impact on our crops on many fronts. I think we’re going to see more of these large storms and seasonal pattern issues and then along with that is just a change in weather. Like this last winter, you know, case in point. It was very weird, it froze but not for very long and so that really changes the whole subsurface hydrology and all of the relationships of what goes on geochemically and biologically in the ground.

But yeah, climate change is going to be huge. Floods are the things we think about when we’re in towns, but out in the country, whenever there’s that much water, that water is full of sediment so it’s also erosion that’s going right along with that flood—both in the channels and off the fields. That’s a real tough aspect of how we deal with our soils that intensively. Soil is like a bank account and before people started using it heavily for agriculture, there were a lot of deposits, lots of organic matter and lots of nutrients. We’ve been withdrawing for a long time [laughs], and we’re at the point now where they don’t have much in reserve so if you don’t put on chemicals, you can’t grow a crop very well after a few years. That’s also going to be really impacted by climate change because, once again, this stuff doesn’t do any good if it’s not there when the plant needs it.

JL: Are you concerned that CZO funding will be affected by the new administration?

AB: We don’t know. There was just a national meeting in Virgina earlier this month for the CZOs with NSF, and NSF is very pleased with how the CZOs have gone and there’s no talk of not having another five year funding round, which will be next year. So, you know, between you and me, it’s easy not to say climate in the CZO [laughs] and I think that’s kind of a good thing right now. There are one or two or three principle investigators for each CZO, but each one of them has probably at least 15 different investigators from different institutions. So, that’s kind of what NSF likes to see and it’s really worked well in this program. There’s a large network of international sites that are starting to come up. They’re not funded by NSF, they’re funded by their own countries. China has five now and they’re building four more real soon, Germany has three. I think there are forty of them internationally or something like that so the concept has caught on.

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A Critical Zones Observatory researcher collects soil samples at the Clear Creek watershed intensively managed landscape research site. (Critical Zones Observatory)

EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Larry Weber on flood mitigation and water quality improvement projects


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Jenna Ladd | June 29, 2017

In episode 7 of EnvIowa, we sit down with Dr. Larry Weber to learn more about the Iowa Watershed Approach. Dr. Weber is a UI professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of IIHR–Hydroscience and Engineering, which is the parent organization of the Iowa Flood Center.

Dr. Weber explains how the $96.9 million project came to be and how it improves quality of life for Iowans while protecting our natural resources and health. He tells of successes the Iowa Flood Center has had with its flood reduction and water quality improvement programs and discusses the organization’s fight to maintain state-funding earlier this year.

The director and his team work many long days and spend hours each week driving around the state to each of the nine watersheds included in the Iowa Watershed Approach. For Dr. Weber, his work’s motivation is clear. He said,

“As an Iowan, I grew up here, I’ve worked and spent my whole career here, and I plan to retire here. I want a livable state in which we can enjoy our water and natural resources, enjoy being in the outdoors, enjoy interacting with the rivers, lakes and streams of Iowa, and, you know, programs like the Iowa Watershed Approach, I think, are vital to the long-term sustainability of our resources in Iowa.”

The EnvIowa podcast is also available on iTunes and Soundcloud, a complete archive of EnvIowa episodes can be found here.

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Nine watersheds are a part of the Iowa Watershed Approach’s effort to reduce flooding, improve water quality and protect natural resources. (Iowa Watershed Approach)

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.