President Trump discusses wind energy, Paris agreement in Cedar Rapids


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President Trump and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt after the administration announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. (Associated Press/Andrew Harnik)
Jenna Ladd | June 23, 2017

President Trump hosted a campaign-like rally at the U.S. Cellar Center in Cedar Rapids Wednesday night and made false claims related to renewable energy and climate policy.

With roughly 5,000 of his supporters in the audience, the president used his 70-minute speech to discuss his hatred for the media, the Republicans’ new health care plan, Georgia’s recent special election and more. President Trump is not known for his consistency, but he made two specific false statements related to renewable energy and climate policy which were later set straight by the Washington Post’s Energy 202.

First, the president mocked the use of wind energy in the state of Iowa. He said, “I don’t want to just hope the wind blows to light up your house and your factory as the birds fall to the ground.” This statement aligns with pre-election comments referring to wind turbines as “ugly” and claiming that they kill all the birds.

Energy 202 notes that according to the National Audubon Society, wind turbines are responsible for less than 0.01 percent of all human-related bird deaths. Far more birds are killed each year by vehicles and tall buildings. Second, the Hawkeye state generated 30 percent of its total energy from wind last year. The industry is also expected to provide 7,000 additional jobs and $9 billion in economic activity over the next three years.

Trump also mentioned his administration’s recent decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. He said, “They all say it’s non-binding. Like hell it’s non-binding.”

The problem here, Energy 202 points out, is that the agreement is non-binding. The accord called on each country to set their own goals for limiting greenhouse gases, which is likely the reason President Obama was able to get nearly all of the Earth’s nations to sign on.

On The Radio – 38 million pieces of trash found on remote Pacific island


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The most recent recorded density of litter on Henderson Island was 671 items per square meter. (Jennifer Lavers/Associated Press). 
Jenna Ladd| June 19, 2017

This week’s On The Radio segment discusses how an extremely remote island in the Pacific ocean bares the highest litter density in the world. 

Transcript: Henderson Island is one of the most remote islands in the world and is also the most affected by pollution from plastic debris.

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus.

When researchers traveled to the tiny, uninhabited island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, they were astonished to find an estimated 38 million pieces of trash washed up on the island.

The island is situated at the edge of the South Pacific gyre, where ocean currents meet in a vortex that captures floating trash, carrying some of it from as far away as Scotland.

Over 99 percent of the debris on the island is made of plastic—most pieces are unidentifiable fragments. The researchers say that fishing-related activities and land-based refuse likely produced most of the debris.

The researchers say the density of trash was the highest recorded anywhere in the world, despite Henderson Island’s extreme remoteness. The island is located about halfway between New Zealand and Chile and is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.

To learn more about the island, visit iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

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

Spawning stress fish kill in Tama County


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More than 1,000 black crappies were reported dead at Lake Casey yesterday due to spawning stress. (Georgia Aquarium
Jenna Ladd |June 8, 2017

A fish kill has been reported at Casey Lake in Tama County. More than 1,000 black crappies were reported dead at the Hickory Hills Park Lake yesterday. Crappies are a North American freshwater sunfish that are indigenous to Iowa. Fish kills can be caused a number of factors including pesticide contamination, high temperatures, algal blooms and more.

“When we get calls about one species of dead fish during the spawning season, it is usually caused by spawning stress,” said Dan Kirby, fisheries management biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Like many freshwater fish, crappies move closer to the shoreline to spawn in the late spring and early summer. Spawning activities require fish to expend a lot of energy, leaving them susceptible to infections and illness. It is common for spawning fish to sustain abrasions from jagged rocks and debris at the water’s edge. These cuts and scrapes are vulnerable to infection that can cause death. Typically, spawning stress fish kills occur slowly over the course of weeks. It is unclear how long the fish at Casey Lake were piling up near shore.

“Fish surveys conducted this week on Casey Lake showed that largemouth bass and bluegills are doing well, and black crappies are abundant,” Kirby added.

Iowa DNR encourages residents to call their 24-hour phone line at 515-725-8694 if they notice dead fish accumulating in lakes or rivers.

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.

Scientists find that less tilling means more earthworms


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Anecic earthworms live deep in the soil and emerge at night, providing a helpful mixing of soil in agricultural fields. (The Earthworm Society of Britain)
Jenna Ladd | May 16, 2017

Wriggly earthworms are the unsung heroes of agricultural fields around the world. Their tiny bodies make it easier for water and air to enter the soil, transform organic matter into nutrients that is available to plants and can improve crop productivity by more than 50 percent.

A study recently published in the journal Global Change Biology sought to better understand which agricultural conditions are optimal for worms. Dr. Olaf Schmidt and Dr. Maria Briones analyzed 215 studies from over 40 countries that explored the relationship between tilling practices and worm population health.

The meta-analysis showed that disturbing the soil less (i.e. no-till farming, conservation agriculture) resulted in significantly more abundant earthworm populations. For example, no-till farmland saw a 137 percent increase in worm populations and a nearly 200 percent increase in soil biomass. Those areas of land in reduced-till for more than ten years saw the most earthworms return to the soil. In contrast, those field that were heavily plowed lost half of their original worm population.

Researchers observed the affect of tilling on 13 species of worms and found that the largest species were most heavily impacted. These creatures, called anecic earthworms, live deep down in the soil. At night-time they wriggle up a single channel, grab food, such as plant matter or manure, and then slide back down the same permanent burrow.

The researchers write that restoring earthworm populations through practing reduced-till or no-till farming “will ensure the provision of ecosystem functions such as soil structure maintenance and nutrient cycling by “nature’s plow.””

Georgia wildfire inches closer to rural communities


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The Incident Information System regularly posts the latest developments in the West Mims Wildfire and other wildfires across the country. (InciWeb)
Jenna Ladd | May 9, 2017

The West Mims Wildfire near the Georgia-Florida state line has been burning for weeks and shows few signs of slowing down.

The wildfire was ignited on April 6th when a lightening strike touched down inside the swampy Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Since then, the fire has torched more than 133,000 acres and counting. Until this weekend, the wildfire did not pose a threat to humans in the area. After the fire crossed manmade fire breaks this weekend, an evacuation notice was sent out to residents of two small rural communities in Charlton county, St. George and Moniac.

By Monday, the fire had already burned about 37 square miles in Charlton county and 210 square miles total. Susan Heisey is supervisory ranger for the Okefenokee refuge. She said, “The accumulated moisture in the vegetation is at record-breaking lows right now. These fuels, they’re getting one little piece of ash and the fire’s just picking up and moving.”

A high pressure system in the southeast United States contributed to temperatures nearing 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the area on Monday, with humidity at just 20 percent. As temperatures remain high for the next few days and dry winds continue to blow across the West Mims fire, spokespeople for fire-fighting effort expect the fire to continue burning wherever fuel is available to it.

So far, there are 624 personnel working to keep the fire under control. A detailed incident report outlines predictions of the fire’s status over the next 72 hours. The report reads, “The drying trend will continue causing more fuels to become available to burn in the swamp. Fire activity will increase in areas that have not seen much heat over past few day. Re-burn potential remains very high.”

Climate change has lengthened the wildfire season in the U.S. by 78 days since the 1970’s. Rising temperatures and more frequent, intense droughts have contributed to more intense wildfires across the country.

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.