CGRER members Jerry Schnoor, Larry Weber and Gene Takle share climate and flood prevention expertise with Iowans

The Iowa River overflows onto the University of Iowa campus following the 2008 flood. (rachaelvoorhees/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 18, 2016

In the face of more frequent flooding and much heavier rains, it is estimated that Iowa will need $4 to $5 billion to protect its communities moving forward. 

Flood mitigation efforts in the state thus far have centered around building levees, flood walls, and protecting utilities, but Iowa researchers have found that upstream structures like wetlands and detention pounds are an effective means of flood prevention. Sen. Rob Hogg of Cedar Rapids said that some lawmakers have acknowledged the need to ramp up these strategies, but the conversation is often buried by health care and education budget arguments. Hogg said, “If you can’t reach agreement over funding the basics, it’s really hard to get to the next level, to discuss funding water management.”

The increasing frequency of extreme rainfall may demand that flood mitigation take center stage at the capital. “We were hard-pressed to get 4-inch rainfalls 100 years ago, and now it’s very common,” said Jerry Schnoor, co-director at the University of Iowa’s Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research. Eugene Takle, director of the climate science program at Iowa State University, agreed, “In the Cedar River basin, we found the 100-year flood a century ago is now very likely to be a 25-year flood.” The Cedar basin’s record flood in 2008 had a $5 billion price tag.

Takle and other experts say these changes are primarily due to climate change. Rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere allow it to hold more water vapor. “When you have more water vapor, you can expect more rain events,” he said. Takle’s data support this claim: atmospheric water vapor has increased by 31 percent in the winter months since 1970 and by 14 percent in the spring; average annual rainfall in Iowa has risen by 33 percent since 1970. Takle said, “This is consistent with what the climate models said would happen. The Midwest has experienced a big increase in extreme events.” According to NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, Iowa has had 26 flood disasters with damages adding up to more than $1 billion since 1980.

Larry Weber, director at the University of IIHR – Hydroscience & Engineering, parent organization of the Iowa Flood Center, said that the loss of prairie potholes and wetlands, which can soak up heavy rainfalls, has contributed to these flooding events. He said, “We’ve taken away a lot of those natural storage areas.”

Iowa lawmakers passed a sales-tax funding plan in 2012 to provide $1.4 billion in flood prevention structures, but more funding is needed. Eight-nine towns and cities have identified $35 million in flood prevention structures that do not have funding. Some Iowa lawmakers are working to increase the sales tax by three-eighths of 1 cent in order to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund, which would provide $180 million each year to restore wetlands, protect wildlife habitat, reduce runoff and improve trails, and more.

One and a half million dollars in federal supplemental aid money allocated to the Iowa Flood Center’s Iowa Watersheds Project after the 2008 flood has reduced flooding downstream by 15-20 percent in the Otter, Beaver and South Chequest watersheds. The center received $98 million in federal grant money this year for similar flood mitigation projects in 25 additional watersheds. Weber said, “We’re making great strides in the places where we work, we just need to be working in more places — whether it’s through our projects, or the work of other state and federal agencies, private landowners, and nonprofit groups.”

2016 ranks third wettest ‘water year’ since 1872

Each bi-weekly Water Summary Update provides the current status of water resources in Iowa in terms of precipitation, stream flow, shallow groundwater, and drought monitoring. (Iowa DNR)
Jenna Ladd | October 14, 2016

Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) released its most current Water Summary Update earlier this week.

DNR prepares the bi-weekly updates in collaboration with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the U.S. Geological Survey, and The Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management Division. Each report provides an overview of the status of Iowa’s water resources and significant events that affect water supplies using four categories: precipitation, stream flow, shallow groundwater, and drought monitoring.

The most recent update is a snapshot of the state’s water resources from August 31st through October 10th. The report notes that different parts of Iowa experienced a wide range of rainfall totals. Heavy rains pelted the Cedar River watershed during much of September, with the largest storm-total rainfall of 10.56 inches near Nora Springs in Floyd County. In contrast, some parts of southeastern Iowa experienced a particularly dry September. Most notably, rain totals were less than one-third of the average near Fairfield and Ottumwa. Average statewide rainfall was 6.29 inches or 2.91 inches above average, making it the rainiest September since 1986.

Streamflow was also reported to be above average for much of the state. The update notes that U.S. Geological Survey employees have been taking additional streamflow measurements following heavy rain events at the end of September in the Cedar and Wapsipinicon River basins. In several locations along the Shell Rock, Cedar, and Wapsipinicon Rivers, peak stream flow was found to be the second-highest in recorded history. These values are only topped by the historic 2008 flood.

October 1st through September 30th is considered the “water year” by experts in the field. The 2016 Water Year, which ended on September 30th, 2016, is the third wettest year on record in 144 years.

Plan to curb air-pollution in India released last week

Haze and particulate matter are visible in this photo taken west of New Delhi. (Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 11, 2016

Ten solutions for breathable air in India were presented at the The Energy and Resource Institute’s World Sustainable Development Summit last week in New Delhi.

The National Clean Air Mission follows a recently released World Bank report which announced that air pollution led to 1.4 million deaths in 2013. The report, which was presented by The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI) along with University of California-San Diego, is a part of a larger governmental initiative called Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission. Seventeen authors from institutions around the world including the University of Iowa, IIT-Kanpur, Stockholm University, University of Maryland, Max Plank Institute, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the California Air Resource Board contributed to the report.

The report said, “This Clean Air Mission should…mandate…government policies for air pollution mitigation across several ministries dealing with transport, power, construction, agriculture, rural development and environment as well as across city and state jurisdiction.” The document also emphasized the need to address the burning of agricultural residue as a major source of air-pollution. It said, “This strategy aims at reducing open burning of agricultural residue and instead of using them as a source of energy.”

Beyond agriculture, the report noted that transportation is a main contributor to air-pollution in the country. Sumit Sharma from TERI said, “Shifting freight transport from road to lower-emission modes like rail and inland waterways and coastal shipping is required.” It also suggested that India scale up its emission trading schemes (ETS), which are government-mandated, market-based systems of controlling pollution. The report read, “The government is already working with ETS in three industrial clusters in Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, which needs to be scaled up.”

The report’s authors also suggested the development cleaner fuel options while focusing on larger particulate matter and ozone in the air.

Media receptive to 2016 Iowa Climate Statement

This year’s climate statement emphasized the many benefits of climate-smart agriculture. (Carl Wycoff/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 7, 2016

The 2016 Iowa Climate Statement was released on Wednesday with the endorsement of 187 scientists from institutions across the state and local media took notice.

A conference call was held on the morning of October 5th to announce the document’s release and to take questions from interested parties. Iowa Climate Statement 2016: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture explains why sustainable farming practices such as reduced tillage, buffer zones, and cover crops are necessary and how they can benefit farmers.

Agriculture makes up about 27 percent of Iowa’s greenhouse gas emissions. The wider implementation of practices like those outlined in the document would not only reduce emissions but store additional carbon in healthier soils, scientists say. The statement asks policymakers to further incentivize farmers to participate in conservation practices. Kamyar Enshayan, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, said, “You can’t just say, ‘Do it when you want to or whenever you can.’ Policymakers need to provide incentives for beneficial action.”

The release marks the sixth annual Iowa Climate Statement, a complete record of previous climate statements can be found here.

Additional press coverage of the 2016 Iowa Climate Statement is available below:

Iowa professor selected to serve on U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce

University of Iowa associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, associate faculty research engineer at IIHR, and Director of the Environmental Policy Research Program, David Cwiertny. (Anne Easker, IIHR)
Jenna Ladd | October 6, 2016

Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) member David Cwiertny has been selected to serve on the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce as minority staff. Cwiertny, who is also the Director of the Public Policy Center’s Environmental Policy Research Program, received the appointment through the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS creates opportunities for scientists to offer their expertise and analytical skills to legislators while also learning more about the policy making process firsthand. Cwiertny said,

“Evidence, rooted in sound science, should whenever possible be used to inform and improve decision making and new policy.  And science has never been more important for informing policy, particularly as society begins to address how best to manage and adapt to a changing climate. So in my discipline of environmental engineering and environmental science, I think there is a real opportunity for scientists and engineers to help advance policy that better enables sustainable development both in the US and around the globe.”   

As an AAAS 2016-2017 Congressional Fellow, he will serve on both the energy and power and environment and economy subcommittees. Cwiertney, who is also an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and associate faculty research engineer at IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering, will function as a technical expert within the two subcommittees, which are responsible for all legislation and regulation related to water, air, and soil quality and energy. He added, “I’m eager to see, first hand, what the major hurdles are to translating scientific discovery into evidence-based decision making, and how we can improve and evolve our craft as researchers to better help policy makers.”

Cwiertny is one of two fellows that were selected from a pool of over 100 applicants.

Nitrates in drinking water linked to various health problems

Iowans that use private wells are more likely to have drinking water that exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s limit. (frankieleon/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | October 4, 2016

A recent review of dozens of health studies by the Iowa Environmental Council suggests that elevated nitrate levels in drinking water are more dangerous to human health than previously thought.

As a part of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1962, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set the nitrate limit for drinking water at 10 milligrams per liter in order to prevent blue baby syndrome, which was a prevalent at the time. While the last known case of blue baby syndrome in Iowa was in the 1970’s, recent studies suggest that nitrates’ health impacts extend beyond this condition. The council’s report “Nitrate in Drinking Water: A Public Health Concern for All Iowans” provided an overview of several studies that linked high nitrate levels in drinking water with birth defects, cancers and thyroid problems.

The report said, “While most of the associations have been found when nitrate levels are higher than the drinking water standard, some research suggests that nitrate concentrations even lower than the drinking water standard may be harmful.”

Historically, some communities in Iowa have had trouble remaining in compliance with current drinking water nitrate limits. Based on a state drinking water compliance report, eleven public drinking water supplies exceeded the 10 milligrams per liter limit in 2015. Iowans that get their drinking water from private wells are at an increased risk. According to a Des Moines Register report, 15 percent of private wells that were voluntarily tested between 2006 to 2015 had nitrate levels that exceeded federal standards.

Concerns about nitrates from agricultural drainage tiles, rural and urban fertilizers, and water treatment systems seeping into water ways have been on the rise in Iowa. The Environmental Council is among many groups in the state that seek to bolster the Nutrient Reduction Strategy, which aims to curb nitrogen and phosphorous that enters into Iowa’s streams and rivers by 45 percent. The group also supports a movement for an additional three-eighths of 1 cent sales tax to fund the Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation Trust Fund. Sixty-three percent of Iowans voted to approve this amendment in 2010, but state legislators did not approve funding for the measure.

Peter Weyer is interim director of the Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination at the University of Iowa and has studied the relationship between long-term exposure to low-level nitrates in water and cancer in women. He said, “Based on our research and elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad, it looks like nitrates are problematic for other health effects.”

On The Radio – Flood barriers protect Cedar Rapids

Workers stand on a flood wall made of Hesco barriers on the bank of the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall / AP)
Jake Slobe | October 3, 2016

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses the flooding that recently took place in Cedar Rapids.

Transcript: An intricate system of temporary floodwalls largely protected Cedar Rapids homes and businesses Tuesday as the river that runs through the city reached its second-highest peak ever.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

City officials said the ten-mile system of Hesco barriers erected over the weekend was largely successful in holding back the rising Cedar River. The barriers were quickly assembled along the river at a cost of five to six million dollars over the course of a few days. The city also deployed 250,000 sandbags, many of which remained dry and can be recycled.

The city received good news as the river crested at 22.1 feet, three feet lower than previous estimates. That was nine feet below the 2008 flood that destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in the worst natural disaster in Iowa history.

City crews worked all through the night before the crest to patch any weaknesses in the barrier system and prepare to pump out any water that seeped through the barriers or came up through the saturated ground.

Cedar Rapids deserves high marks for its preparedness and response.

To learn more about the flooding, visit

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