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.

2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll released


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Jenna Ladd | May 4, 2017

Results from the Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll were released last month, providing insight into rural public opinion on a variety of topics.

The Iowa Farm and Rural Life poll, managed by the Iowa State University Extension Sociology, was established in 1982 and is the longest running survey of its kind. This year’s survey was completed by 1,039 farmers, who were 65-years-old on average. The poll is sent to the same 2,000 farmers every year so that researchers can track changes over time. This year, it asked respondents about conservation techniques, farming practices, monarch butterfly population restoration and trustworthy information sources.

According to the poll, 42 percent of farmers surveyed practice no-till farming, which can be effective in reducing topsoil erosion. On average, farmers lose 5.8 tons of topsoil per acre per year which can lead to a loss of 15 bushels of yield per acre each year, according to the Corn and Soybean Digest. Buffer strips along water ways and field edges to filter nutrients and sediment from runoff was the most common conservation practice among respondents. Forty-six percent of farmers reported using buffer strips in 2015, while fewer than 40 percent reported implementing extended crop rotations, terraces, or ponds.

The survey also asked about participation in The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs. NRCS is the arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture charged with the protection of natural resources on agricultural lands. It provides technical and financial support to farmers looking to conserve soil and water. More than 60 percent of farmers said that they were currently participating in an NRCS program, just about 34 percent said that they were not. For those not enrolled in NRCS programs, their primary reason was that they did not believe they had enough natural resources on their land to warrant participation.

The farm poll also analyzed which sources of agricultural advice respondents were most likely to trust. More than any other source, farmers said they would be most likely to trust another farmer that grows nearby.

The survey is collaborative project of Iowa State University Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, ISU Extension Service and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. “Information from the Farm Poll is used to guide policy decisions and actions and as the basis for public policy seminars, Extension reports, radio and television broadcasts, and newspaper and journal articles,” reads the Iowa State University Extension site.

People’s Climate March set for this Saturday


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Demonstrators gather at the first People’s Climate March on September 21, 2014 in New York City. (Doug Turetsky, flickr)
Jenna Ladd | April 28, 2017

The People’s Climate March will take place this Saturday, on President Trump’s 100th day in office.

The National Park Service has approved a permit for 50,000 to 100,000 to gather on Washington D.C.’s National Mall to advocate for action on climate change. This march comes exactly one week after the March for Science, but Thanu Yakupitiyage, national communications manager for 350.org said this demonstration has a different focus. In an interview with the Washington Post, she said, “The March for Science was really the response of scientists who felt that there was really an assault on rationality and science. This is really more of a community response.”

The first People’s Climate March was held in September of 2014 when over 400,000 people marched through New York City on the day before the UN Climate Summit. Ever year since then, the People’s Climate Movement has organized multiple demonstrations that “Prioritize leadership of front-line communities, communities of color, low-income communities, workers and others impacted by climate, economic and racial inequity.”

While the main event will take place in the nation’s capital, hundreds of other demonstrations are expected to take place around the U.S. Iowa City will host its march titled, “Unifying to Protect Life on Earth” on Saturday, April 29 from 1:30 pm to 3:00 pm. Protesters will meet on the North side of the Sheraton Hotel in the pedestrian mall to “march together for rational military spending, social justice, a living wage, and an ecosystem that flourishes,” according to the event’s webpage.

Another march will be held at the Iowa State Capitol on Saturday from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm. The Des Moines event is sponsored by a diverse group of organizations including the Sierra Club, Indigenous Iowa, the League of United Latin American Citizens, Interfaith Green Coalition and the Citizens Climate Lobby, among others.

The massive climate-action demonstration will take place just three days after President Trump issued an executive order to reevaluate the status of nationally protected lands, possibly freeing them up to drilling for fossil fuels and other types of resource extraction.

Iowa general assembly adjourns, still no water quality funding


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Iowa legislators have failed to approve long-term funding for water quality projects that were approved by voters in 2010. (Michael Leland/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | April 25, 2017

The Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund remains empty after legislators adjourned the 86th General Assembly on Saturday without passing policy to fund water quality improvement in the state.

Long-term funding for water quality was not included in next year’s $7.2 billion state budget, even though the vast majority of Iowa voters supported establishing the fund more than seven years ago. The House and Senate each devised their own plans for funding, but neither plan garnered support from both houses.

Legislators in the Senate proposed an amendment that would have increased Iowa’s sales tax by three-eighths of one cent. The plan would have generated around $180 million dollars per year for the Iowa Natural Resources and Outdoors Trust Fund, 60 percent of which would have gone to water quality improvement projects. The proposal was championed by Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy, a coalition of environmentalists, political leaders and Iowa businesses dedicated to promoting water and land conservation measures. Although the sales tax increase had support on both sides of the aisle, it lost in the Senate vote 34 to 16.

The Iowa House of Representatives proposed a plan that would have redirected money from a sales tax Iowans already pay on tap water to water quality improvement projects. The 6 percent tax currently funds infrastructure projects for community school districts and other municipal projects. The plan was approved by the House, even though some Democrats criticized the it for cutting funds from other state programs.

Kirk Leeds is CEO of the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA). In an interview with CBC, he said, “This year’s legislative session was a missed opportunity to act boldly on improving Iowa’s water.” Leeds continued, “ISA will seek continued partnerships with farmers and cities to make real progress on conservation to the benefit of all Iowans.”

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.”

Neonicotinoids found in University of Iowa drinking water


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Activated carbon filters were shown to effectively remove neonic insecticides from drinking water. (Minnesota Department of Health)
Jenna Ladd | April 7, 2017

Neonicotinoids, a specific class of pesticides, have been detected for the first time ever in tap water according to a recently published study by University of Iowa scientists and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Neonics became widely used by farmers in the early 1990s, mostly because they are harmful to insects but to not other species. The pesticides are still very popular, despite mounting research that suggests they are lethal to bees and other helpful insect species.

A team of researchers compared tap water samples from the University of Iowa drinking water supply to samples of Iowa City municipal tap water. Tap water from each source was tested for three primary neonicotinoid types: clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. The University of Iowa filtration system removed only a minute amount of each insecticide. In contrast, the City of Iowa City successfully removed 100 percent, 94 percent and 85 percent, respectively, of each primary neonicotinoid.

Researchers say this can be explained by the different filtration systems used in each facility. Neonicotinoids readily dissolve in water, they say, and therefore easily slip through the University’s sand filters. The city employs an activated carbon filter that successfully removes the chemicals. Dr. Gregory LeFevre, University of Iowa environmental engineer and one of the study’s authors, said that activated carbon filters can be a cost-effective way to tackle these insecticides in an interview with the Washington Post. In fact, the University purchased a small activated carbon filtration system shortly after the study wrapped up in July 2016.

Levels of neonicotinoids in University water were relatively small, ranging from 0.24 to 57.3 nanograms per liter. LeFevre said, “Parts per trillion is a really, really small concentration.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not set a limit for neonicotinoid levels in drinking water. The study’s authors argue that more research is called for to assess neonicotinoid exposure on a larger scale. LeFevre explained, “Without really good toxicity data it is hard to ascertain the scale of this, but whenever we have pesticides in the drinking water that is something that raises a flag no matter what type of concentration it is.”