Water sustainability graduate program coming to University of Iowa


 

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The IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering center which sits on the banks of the Iowa River in Iowa City. (University of Iowa)
 Jake Slobe | September 22, 2016

The University of Iowa recently won a $3 million grant to develop a Sustainable Water Development program for graduate students.

The grant comes from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal agency that provides funding for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.

Set to launch in the fall of 2017, the program will train UI graduate students how to address the water, food and energy challenges that face communities with limited resources. This often includes rural areas, agricultural-based communities and developing countries. Around 50 master’s and doctoral students will be accepted into the program.

The new program will train a new, more diverse generation of water sustainability professionals to look at situations individually and apply solutions that are specific to each community, said engineering professor and Civil and Environmental Engineering Department Executive Officer Michelle Scherer, who is a co-principal investigator on the grant.

The Sustainable Water Development program curriculum will  get off to a running start taking full advantage of already existing resources UI campus resources including the UI Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the world-renowned IIHR–Hydroscience & Engineering. The program curriculum is designed to be flexible, prepare students for, both, academic and non-academic careers, allowing them to choose and tailor their training paths to fit their particular goals. 

A graduate certificate in Sustainable Water Development also will be offered to students.

While the new program will be beneficial to the university, advances in water sustainability are not new to Iowa.  This grant comes shortly after a $96.9M grant was given to Iowa from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in order to develop a statewide watershed improvement program, the Iowa Watersheds Approach (IWA).

 

On The Radio- Water quality takes center stage at Farm Progress Show


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Water quality improvement strategies were discussed at this year’s farm show following the Des Moines’ Waterworks lawsuit against three Iowa counties due to high levels of nitrates that were drained into drinking water. (Tony Webster/flickr)

Jenna Ladd | September 19, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the emphasis on water quality at this year’s Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa.

Transcript:  Water quality was on the main stage at this year’s Farm Progress Show.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

Held in Boone, Iowa every summer, the Farm Progress Show aims to educate farmers about new technology for their fields, covering everything from tractor equipment to new seed strains. This year’s show emphasized the importance of water quality.

In twenty-fifteen Des Moines Water Works sued three north western Iowa counties for polluting the drinking water of over five-hundred thousand Des Moines residents. Water Works claims that Sac, Buena Vista and Calhoun counties’ ag drainage systems transported high levels of nitrates from farms into the Raccoon River.

The Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance released a statement at the show, saying that creating and implementing effective solutions to water quality challenges would create economic development in rural Iowa. The alliance aims to identify gaps in building a “conservation infrastructure” that would result in less nitrate and phosphorus runoff from Iowa farms.

The Des Moines Water Works trial was set to begin in August of this year but has been delayed and is now rescheduled to begin in late June of twenty-seventeen.

For more information on the Iowa Agricultural Water Alliance and the Farm Progress Show, visit Iowa environmental focus dot com.

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

Iowa Supreme Court hears Des Moines Water Works lawsuit oral arguments


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A drainage tile flowing into a waterway in Sac Country, Iowa. (iprimages/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 16, 2016

Five Iowa Supreme Court Justices heard arguments on Wednesday in a legal suit filed by the Des Moines Water Works against three northwest Iowa counties for the pollution of 500,000 residents’ drinking water.

A Des Moines Water Works attorney asked the court to reconsider the legal immunity that drainage districts have been granted for nearly a century and to determine whether the water utility could seek monetary damages. Removing nitrates that flowed into the Raccoon and Skunk rivers cost Water Works $1.5 million last year alone. The utility said that the water has exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit of 10 milligrams per liter several times in recent years.

Des Moines Water Works CEO Bill Stowe said that monetary damages for past contamination and increased federal oversight of drainage districts are both important. As nitrate levels in waterways increased throughout the 1990’s, Des Moines Water Works built the largest ion exchange nitrate removal facility in the world, with a $4.1 million dollar price tag. The utility said that a larger facility will be necessary by 2020, claiming the project would cost up to $183.5 million dollars. Farming communities in Sac, Calhoun, and Buena Vista counties are concerned that farmers will be responsible for payment should the damages be awarded. Typically, if county officials decide to lay new drainage tiles or repair old ones, farmers have footed the bill.

Michael Reck, a lawyer representing the three counties, presented several examples in which Iowa courts honored the legal immunity of drainage districts. Des Moines Water Works attorney John Lande said that this is the first time public health has been at stake in such court proceedings. He argued that drainage districts were established to protect the public health of  Iowa communities. He said that they have repeatedly failed to do so when nitrate levels were found to be four times the EPA’s limit downstream.

Whether or not damages are awarded, the Iowa Legislature has been moved to consider water quality protection measures. A reallocation of tax money from public schools to water quality projects failed to pass last year, as did a 3/8-cent water quality sales tax bill. Some say that they are hopeful the sales tax proposal will be reintroduced this year. The policy would generate $150 million dollars a year for built water quality management projects.

Iowa sees record number of blue-green algae advisories


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Microcystin toxins float on top of water and often look like spilled paint or pea soup. (Oregon State University/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | September 9, 2016

Iowa State Park beaches saw a record number of advisories this summer due to unsafe levels of microcystin, a toxin produced by some types of blue-green algae.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) monitors the water at state beaches each season from Memorial Day through Labor Day. DNR issued six beach advisories this week for a total of 37 microcystin warnings this year, surpassing last year’s record of 34,  just as DNR officials predicted earlier in the season.

Microcystin is considered toxic to humans when levels are at or above 20 micrograms per liter (ug/L), according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Swimming in water that has harmful levels of microcystin in it can cause breathing problems, upset stomach, skin reactions, and liver damage. If the water is inhaled, it has been known to cause cause runny eyes and nose, cough, sore throat, chest pain, asthma-like symptoms, or allergic reactions. Contaminated bodies of water can be especially harmful to pets and children, who are more likely to ingest water.

In total Iowa DNR has issued 185 microcystin beach advisories since 2006, and two-thirds (117) have been in the most recent four years. The blue-green blooms that produce microcystin feed on nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that seep into waterways from pollution sources like agricultural fertilizers, livestock waste, septic systems, and urban runoff. Blue-green algae toxins do not only pose a threat to beachgoers. Last month, Des Moines Water Works detected microcystin in treated municipal drinking water.

While DNR monitors 39 State Park beaches across Iowa for these toxins, many public and private beaches are not monitored. As the total number of beach closures rises each year, Ann Robinson, agricultural specialist at the Iowa Environmental Council said, “This is a wake-up call that more needs to be done to reduce the nutrient pollution coming from the farms, city lawns and urban and industrial wastewater plants that are feeding the algae. If we don’t take action on the scale needed, unprecedented numbers of beach warnings will become our new normal.”

More information about identifying harmful blue-green algae blooms and a chart that outlines dangerous levels of microcystin in Iowa’ lakes dating back to 2006 can be found at the Iowa Environmental Council’s website.

Collaborative campaign to offer better understanding of high ozone levels along Lake Michigan shoreline


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Areas that exceed EPA’s ozone compliance level are clustered along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. (Space and Science Engineering Center/University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Jenna Ladd | August 31, 2016

Scientists from the University of Iowa will take part in the Lake Michigan Ozone Study 2017 this summer in order to better understand consistently high ozone levels along the Lake Michigan shoreline. 

Since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered the ozone standard to 70 parts per billion, communities on all sides of the Lake Michigan shoreline have consistently seen ozone levels that are out of compliance with EPA regulation. Before states can work to lower ozone levels into compliance with federal law, they need to test how accurately current ozone models are measuring conditions in the area. The Lake Michigan Ozone Study will work to provide more detailed data that could be used to develop and test new ozone models. The collaborative field campaign consists of scientists from several universities such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Iowa, and many more as well as professionals from the agencies like the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium (LADCO).

Dr. Charles Stainer, an associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the University of Iowa, explains, “You can make new models, but there’s no data to test them against. I mean there is data, but it’s too limited.” Currently, there are two buoys in the lake that measure ozone levels and about fifteen surface stations near the shoreline that do the same. Stainer says this doesn’t cut it, “What you really need is a full map of ozone and a few vertical profiles where you can fully constrain the wind, the water vapor, the ozone, the nitrogen oxides, and then a few other [chemical] species that would be tell-tale signs that the models are too far in one direction or too far in the other.”

Between May 15th 2017 and June 15th 2017, the campaign will have access to an aircraft from NASA that will be equipped to provide the kind of detailed data they need. The aircraft will likely be based in Madison, Wisconsin. Forecast models for weather, ozone, and other chemical factors will be used daily to determine the aircraft’s flight plan. Stainer said that he expects many of the flights will be between Madison, Wisconsin; Cheboygan, Wisconsin; and Chicago, Illinois in some combination.

Brad Pierce, a NOAA Advanced Satellite Products Branch scientist stationed at the Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies (CIMSS) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the campaign also hopes to better understand the complex lake breeze system that affects ozone production.“There are these sites along the lake… that are in violation, and they’re not really areas that have a whole lot of industry,” he explained, “The sense is that a lot of this has to do with lake breeze circulations. We want to go out and measure the lake breeze circulation and the transport of ozone precursors – the emissions that end up producing ozone – in the springtime when this lake breeze is most dominant.”

The campaign is still looking for additional funding that would expand ground measurement sites with high-tech, real-time monitors from various atmospheric chemistry groups from around the country.

In short, Stanier said, “The existing data you can test whether the models predict ozone too high or too low, but this advanced data set would enable you to say why.”

North Liberty Community Pantry Garden fosters health, community


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Garden and Volunteer Coordinator Ilsa Dewald working with youth volunteers in the North Liberty Community Pantry Growing Together Garden. (Steven Williams/Special Projects and Marketing Coordinator)
Jenna Ladd | August 16, 2016

The North Liberty Community Pantry has come a long way since its first days serving families from a First Methodist Church closet.

While the pantry is still an outreach ministry of the North Liberty church, its facilities are hardly comparable to the organization’s modest beginnings in 1985. The pantry is now housed in a modern building that features a client-choice shopping model. The building also features refrigerated and frozen food capacities, which is all part of the pantry’s mission to offer clients equal access to wholesome foods like vegetables, fruits, meat, and dairy. Executive Director Kaila Rome explains, “Everyone deserves to have the option of healthy nutrition choices, along with the access to knowledge and resources to implement healthy eating.”

Two years ago the pantry expanded that effort through the establishment of the North Liberty Community Pantry Growing Together Garden. The pantry received a Gardening for Health grant through the Wellmark Foundation’s initiative to provide healthier options to people experiencing food insecurity. The grant was matched by North Liberty community donations and provided funds for a paid garden coordinator, necessary equipment, and installation. The 9,600 sq. ft. garden is situated just west of the pantry and provided just over 800 pounds of organically grown produce for pantry goers last year.

When produce from the garden hits the pantry shelves, it is often accompanied by cooking instructions and other foods that pair well with it. “We’re still small enough where we get personal interaction with almost every family, or at least we try to, where we can ask them, ‘Hey, have you tried this recipe?’ What worked and what didn’t, people will bounce ideas off of each other so it’s been really great to see that just from having fresh produce. It’s just one of those things that you don’t think can bring people together, but I think it has,” said Rome.

Garden and Volunteer Coordinator Ilsa Dewald also provides more pointed skill-building through the organization of salsa and canning classes for families. Both community members and pantry families attend classes, encouraging cohesion among North Liberty residents. Rome added, “There’s just a big co-mingling of individuals from people who have used our services, maybe need to use our services in the future to people who just stop by the pantry to pick up their CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] share.”

In combination with donations from local farmers, the pantry is able to provide about three pounds of produce to clients per pantry visit. Rome said, “Just because someone is in need doesn’t mean that their needs change, they still need vegetables, they still need produce, they still need meat and dairy items…We’re not just handing out cans of beans and canned soup, but it’s more than that. It’s about giving back, even if you’re receiving services here, people will volunteer in the garden and it really helps them feel like they are able to contribute.”

The Growing Together Garden does more than provide families with the health benefits associated with eating more vegetables and fruits. It also provides a model of a local food system that is not only reserved for those with an abundance of resources such as arable land, start up money, and leisure time, all while curbing greenhouse gas emissions associated with conventional food systems. The garden’s food equity work is echoed by fellow non-profit group Grow: Johnson County, which was recently leased two acres of county land by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors to combat food insecurity and promote health through a garden education program. The organization grows vegetables exclusively for hunger-relief programs like Table to Table and The Crisis Center and provides garden education to disadvantaged populations. Grow: Johnson County’s Education Director Scott Koepke commented on the North Liberty Garden Project during its infancy, “This is not your typical garden. This is designed to be sustainable for years to come, and large enough to provide food for hundreds of people.”

With home and community gardens on the rise, up 200% since 2008, it seems projects like these will only continue to pick up steam; which, according to Koepke is a good thing, “Food insecurity isn’t going away anytime soon.”

New anti-degradation regulations effective today despite criticism


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A construction site on the Iowa River near Dubuque Street in Iowa City, Iowa. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd | August 12, 2016

Major changes to Iowa’s water quality protection rules are effective today, following a decision by the Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) on Wednesday.

The Environmental Protection Commission, an agency that oversees the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR), voted to change anti-degradation rules this week despite criticism from two Iowa environmental groups. Under previous regulation, construction projects that would pollute Iowa’s waterways were required to perform a three-part analysis of the project, including a cost-benefit analysis that considered pollution-reducing alternatives.

After a District Court judge ruled that DNR failed to enforce anti-degradation regulation in March, The Iowa Association of Business and Industry, the Iowa League of Cities, and the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities petitioned for changes to water pollution standards. Proponents of the changes say that the cost-benefit analysis was too unclear and expensive for businesses looking to build or expand operations. Under new rule, cost-benefit analysis is no longer required.

The Iowa Environmental Council and the Environmental Law & Policy Center argue that the regulation change fails to consider the environment, ignoring the value of pollution reduction and economic cost of contaminated water. Environmental Law & Policy Center attorney Josh Mandelbaum said EPC rushed the decision, “This is the fastest I’ve seen rule-making move.”

The formation of previous water pollution and anti-degradation rules took regulators two years and involved stakeholders from municipalities, industry, and concerned citizens. In contrast, the establishment of new regulations spans a five month period. Mandelbaum added, “DNR has made no effort to bring stakeholders together to address these changes, and as a result, the final rules have significant problems.”