EnvIowa Podcast: Dr. Larry Weber on flood mitigation and water quality improvement projects


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Jenna Ladd | June 29, 2017

In episode 7 of EnvIowa, we sit down with Dr. Larry Weber to learn more about the Iowa Watershed Approach. Dr. Weber is a UI professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of IIHR–Hydroscience and Engineering, which is the parent organization of the Iowa Flood Center.

Dr. Weber explains how the $96.9 million project came to be and how it improves quality of life for Iowans while protecting our natural resources and health. He tells of successes the Iowa Flood Center has had with its flood reduction and water quality improvement programs and discusses the organization’s fight to maintain state-funding earlier this year.

The director and his team work many long days and spend hours each week driving around the state to each of the nine watersheds included in the Iowa Watershed Approach. For Dr. Weber, his work’s motivation is clear. He said,

“As an Iowan, I grew up here, I’ve worked and spent my whole career here, and I plan to retire here. I want a livable state in which we can enjoy our water and natural resources, enjoy being in the outdoors, enjoy interacting with the rivers, lakes and streams of Iowa, and, you know, programs like the Iowa Watershed Approach, I think, are vital to the long-term sustainability of our resources in Iowa.”

The EnvIowa podcast is also available on iTunes and Soundcloud, a complete archive of EnvIowa episodes can be found here.

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Nine watersheds are a part of the Iowa Watershed Approach’s effort to reduce flooding, improve water quality and protect natural resources. (Iowa Watershed Approach)

Extreme weather takes the lives of 14 people


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Tornados ripped through eastern Texas on Saturday night. (Red Cross/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | May 2, 2017

Flooding and tornados swept across the Midwest and southern U.S. this weekend, leaving at least 14 people dead.

The National Weather Service reported that four tornados moved through eastern Texas beginning Saturday evening. The twisters left an area of destruction 35 miles long and 15 miles wide in Van Zandt County, according to Canton, Texas Mayor Lou Ann Everett. Primarily small towns were affected in the mostly rural area east of Dallas; four individuals lost their lives.

Strong winds and flooding in Arkansas took the lives of five residents near Madison county. Four additional deaths were reported in Missouri and Mississippi, also due to flash flooding and strong winds.

Tragically, severe weather events like these are becoming more common as climate change rears its ugly head. According to archived data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s webpage prior to President Trump’s inauguration, “In recent years, a larger percentage of precipitation has come in the form of intense single-day events.” Similarly, the amount of precipitation falling on the heaviest rain days has increased in the last few decades. Many regions of the U.S. are seeing significantly more severe river flooding, while other areas are ravaged by drought. The Midwest, Great Plains, and Northeast have seen a significant increase in flooding, but the Southwest has experienced a decrease.

Scientists are still evaluating the relationship between climate change and twisters. The EPA notes that climate change does lead to stronger and more frequent thunderstorms, which can cause tornados, but there is a lack of empirical data on the matter.

Researchers can confidently conclude that climate change has caused more intense and frequent heat waves, fewer frequent and less intense cold waves, and regional changes in floods, droughts, and wildfires.

2016 to be hottest year on record


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2016 will likely be the third consecutive year that shatters global temperature records, according to the World Meteorological Organization. (Fosco Lucarelli/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | November 15, 2016

The World Meteorological Organization (WHO) released a report yesterday which predicts 2016 to be hottest year on record.

The report, which was published at the global climate summit in Morocco, found the current global temperature to be 34 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. Earth’s global temperature has reached a new peak for the last two years, and 2016 could make three. Experts say that the El Niño weather phenomenon is partly responsible for higher temperatures during the first part of the year, but human activity can be blamed for the rest. Petteri Taalas is the WMO secretary general. He said, “Because of climate change, the occurrence and impact of extreme events has risen. Once in a generation heatwaves and flooding are becoming more regular.”

Extreme heat waves have been reported around the world throughout the year. Temperatures soared to 109 degrees Fahrenheit in South Africa in January, 112 degrees Fahrenheit in Thailand in April and 129 degrees Fahrenheit in Kuwait during July. WMO stated that at least half of the extreme weather events of recent years have been human-induced, they noted that the risk of extreme heat has increased by ten fold in some places. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has found extreme weather and climate-related events effect the farming and food security of over 60 million people worldwide.

Climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University responded to the report. He said,

“It is almost as if mother nature is making a statement. Just as one of the planet’s two largest emitters of carbon has elected a climate change denier [Donald Trump] – who has threatened to pull out of the Paris accord – to the highest office, she reminds us that she has the final word.”

Mann added, “Climate change is not like other issues that can be postponed from one year to the next. The US and world are already behind; speed is of the essence, because climate change and its impacts are coming sooner and with greater ferocity than anticipated.”

Not all of the report’s findings were negative. Carbon emissions have largely stabilized over the last three years after decades of growth, which experts say is mostly due to China burning less coal. Also, even though 2017 promises to be an extremely hot year, it most likely will not break records.

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


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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


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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.

Iowa scientists urge action on Climate-Smart Agriculture


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 Jake Slobe | October 5, 2016

Iowa researchers and educators at nearly every college and university in the state have produced annual statements describing the real impacts Iowans are experiencing from climate change.

Released today, the sixth annual statement titled, “Iowa Climate Statement 2016: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture,” was signed by 187 science faculty and researchers from 39 Iowa colleges and universities. Listen to the statement here:

This year’s climate statement comes shortly after a month of heavy rain and flooding throughout Iowa.

Director of  Environmental Science and Policy Program at Drake University David Courard-Hauri has been involved with the Iowa Climate Statement since its inception in 2011. He says,

“Iowa’s recent extreme rainfall events and flooding reminds us that climate change is real and needs to be addressed on both the farm and in our communities.” 

This year’s statement illustrates the need and benefits of more widespread adoption of proven soil conservation practices. Specifically, it discusses U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Tom Vilsack’s initiative, Building Blocks for Climate-Smart Agriculture. The USDA plans to implement climate-smart agriculture primarily by increasing incentive-based programs allowing farmers to confront these challenges head on.

Co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research Jerry Schnoor said that Iowan farmers are beginning to experiencing real impacts from climate change in the forms heavier rains, increased flooding and soil erosion.

“We believe Iowa should play a leadership role in this vital effort, just as our state has already done for wind energy.  We urge our representatives to help Iowa’s innovative farmers and land managers establish a multi-faceted vision for land stewardship by vigorously implementing federal, state, and other conservation programs.” 

More information about this year’s climate statement as well as all previous Iowa climate statements can be found here.

On The Radio – Flood barriers protect Cedar Rapids


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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 iowaenvironmentalfocus.org.

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