Midwest drinking water quality symposium draws large crowd


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The symposium’s attendees included students, state legislators, water utility workers, environmental and public health representatives and farmers. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | October 18, 2017

Approximately 150 people gathered at Drake University in Des Moines for the “Challenges to Providing Safe Drinking Water in the Midwest-A Symposium” on September 21 and 22. Sponsored by several University of Iowa centers including the Environmental Health Sciences Research Center (EHSRC), Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER), and the UI Public Policy Center, the event featured thirteen speakers.

Four plenary discussions about topics such as the health impacts of nitrate in drinking water, how to communicate with the public about water quality, unregulated contaminants in drinking water and more.

Complete PowerPoint presentations from the symposium’s presenters can be accessed here.

On The Radio – Petition to strengthen regulation for livestock operations denied


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A confined dairy feeding lot in northeastern Iowa. (Iowa State Univesity)
Jenna Ladd | October 16, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how a recent attempt to strengthen regulatory standards for livestock facilities in Iowa was shut down by the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission. 

Transcript: A petition to make it more difficult to build animal feeding operations in the state of Iowa was recently denied by the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Under current law, applicants seeking to construct livestock facilities must meet only 50 percent of the state’s master matrix of rules and regulations pertaining to the structures. The petition, filed by two environmental groups, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and Food & Water Watch, requested that applicants meet at least 86 percent of the matrix’s requirements.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources sided with the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission and recommended against passing the petition, both groups said that the proposed changes would be too stringent. Proponents of the petition pointed out that just two percent of applicants are denied permission to construct livestock feeding operations in the state of Iowa.

The current animal feeding operation master matrix was developed fifteen years ago by state lawmakers.

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

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

Climate change made California wildfires more severe


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Smoke looms over homes in California during the Solano fire of 2013. (Robert Couse-Baker/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| October 13, 2017

A report published on Thursday in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review stated that human-induced climate change is likely to blame for the nearly two dozen wildfires ripping across northern California.

The wildfires have burned nearly 190,000 acres so far and killed 31 residents. While the source of the initial flames remains unknown, MIT points out that parts of California recently experienced a five-year drought which was “very likely” caused by climate change. The long drought left more than 100 million dead trees in its wake, which added to the amount of fuel available to this week’s wildfires. Couple that with record-setting heat in California this summer, another consequence of a changing climate, and conditions were perfect for fire.

Climate change is impacting the frequency and intensity of wildfires across the country. Since the 1980’s they’ve become more likely and more severe. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wildfires now last five times as long, occur nearly four times as often and burn an average of six times more land area than they used to.

Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University, recently published a study looking at the impact of human-induced climate change on the size of the area wildfires have burned the western U.S. Referring to climate change, he said, “No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear.”

Drainage districts have power to improve water quality


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One-third Iowa cropland is a part of a tile drainage system, which are regulated by drainage districts. (USGS)
Jenna Ladd | October 12, 2017

A new report out of a non-partisan Iowa City-based research center, Iowa Policy Project, states that drainage districts have the power to improve water quality in the state.

About one-third of cropland in Iowa is tiled for drainage. Agricultural drains channel water, which often carries heavy nitrate loads, from fields into local water waterways. Iowa’s nitrate runoff is a primary contributor to the growing Dead Zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

Researchers Sarah Garvin, Michael Burkart and David Osterberg recommended using Iowa’s “quasi-governmental” drainage districts an agent of change. The report explains that the districts have the statutory authority to mitigate nitrate runoff by “requiring water quality monitoring and reporting, wetland conservation and restoration, and mandating the installation of bioreactor at discharge points to reduce nitrate loads.”

The report also points out that under statutory mandate, drainage should be “a public benefit and conducive to the public health, convenience and welfare.” Nitrate levels in water at or below the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard of 10 mg/L is considered safe for consumption. However, some new research suggests that nitrate levels below this can pose some health threats. In either case, the report reads,”Public health and welfare should be interpreted to mean keeping our waterways free of nitrate pollution.”

David Osterberg, lead energy and environment researcher at Iowa Policy Project, said, “It’s going to require managers of drainage districts to step up at a time when their county supervisors cannot, even if they wanted to, and at a time the state legislature has stood in the way of local authority on industrial agriculture.” He added, “In this case, with drainage districts, the authority to take some steps already exists.”

The executive summary and the full report can be found here.

On The Radio – Leaves drop early due to fall drought


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Some leaves in Iowa fell to the ground before changing color this year due to drought. (Liz West/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 9, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how drought conditions in late September pushed some trees into early dormancy.

Transcript: Tree leaves in Iowa began changing colors and falling to the ground earlier than usual this year due to drought conditions.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Leaf color change is closely tied to weather conditions. During the last week of September, the U.S. Drought Portal reported that about thirty percent of Iowa was experiencing abnormally dry conditions and about twenty-five percent of the state was in a moderate drought.

Officials from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources explained that if trees do not have enough moisture, they can be pushed into dormancy earlier than usual. As a result, many leaves died and fell from trees before they bursted into autumn’s hues of red, yellow and orange this year.

In a typical year, leaves change color in northern Iowa between the last week of September and the second week of October, from the first to third weeks of October in central Iowa and from the second to fourth weeks of October in southern Iowa.

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

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

Alliant energy offers trees at significant discounts to costumers


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Maple trees make up one-third of all trees in Iowa, making them more susceptible to disease and pest problems. (Dee McIntyre/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 4, 2017

Alliant Energy’s Operation ReLeaf tree distribution program will continue this week and into October. During this time, the company provides landscape-quality trees to their customers at a significant discount. Thoughtful placement of trees can cut energy costs for homeowners by providing shade in the warmer months and wind blocks during colder months.

Customers can buys trees that typically retail for $65 to $125 for just $25 each. Residential tree distributions will be held in Buena Vista, Fayette, Lee, Linn, Lucas and Story counties this October.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources provides several resources for homeowners looking to select the appropriate tree for their yards. In one of the DNR’s publications, “Rethinking Maple: Selecting Trees For Your Yard,” officials point out that maple trees make up more than one-third of all trees in Iowa, which increases their risk for disease and pest problems. The pamphlet encourages homeowners to consider other tree species based on desired qualities such like vibrant fall color, storm resistant, salt tolerant and others.

Trees will be distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis at the following locations on the following dates:

Buena Vista County – Storm Lake

Partner: City of Storm Lake

Location: Kings Point Park

Date: Oct. 4, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Lee County – Montrose

Partner: Lee County Conservation

Location: Lee County Conservation Center

Date: Oct. 5, 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Tree planting and care workshop: 5:45 p.m.

Linn County – Marion

Partner:  Linn County Conservation Board

Location:  Squaw Creek Park

Date: Oct. 7, 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m.

Tree planting and care workshop:  8:15 a.m.

Story County – Ames

Partner: Story County Conservation

Location: East Petersen Park

Date: Oct. 19, 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Tree planting and care workshop: 5:15 p.m.

Cooler August slows melting in Arctic


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The orange line indicates a median ice extent from 1981-2010, while the white areas represent current ice cover. (National Snow and Ice Data Center)
Jenna Ladd | September 27, 2017

The summer melting period has come to an end in the Arctic, and ice cover is at not quite as minimal as scientists had predicted.

Arctic sea ice reached its seasonal minimum extent of 1.79 million square miles on September 13, the eighth lowest of a 38-year satellite record.

The Arctic saw its record minimum ice coverage in 2012 and officials from the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) were expecting lows after this summer to near record lows, but there was a twist in the plot. August brought more cloud cover and lower temperatures to the region and slowed melting.

Still, the 2017 ice cover minimum was 610,000 square miles below the minimum average recorded between 1981 and 2010. In an interview with the Guardian, Ted Scambos of NSIDC noted that Arctic ice melt has been linked to heatwaves, floods and extreme winters in many parts of the world.

Scambos said that although there is some variation from year to year, “The Arctic will continue to evolve towards less ice. There’s no dodging that.”