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.

2017 locavore index released, Iowa slips in ranking


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(Strolling of the Heifers)
Jenna Ladd | May 18, 2017

For the sixth year in a row, Iowa’s position on the state locavore ranking has continued to slide downward.

Strolling of the Heifers, a farm and food advocacy organization out of Vermont, ranks the 50 states (plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia) by their dedication to local food each year. This year the group used seven metrics to rank states: farmers markets per capita, community-supported agriculture per capita, farm-to-school food programs, food hub programs, direct farmer-to-consumer sales, USDA local food grants per capita, and hospitals sourcing local foods.

The state of Iowa was ranked 18th in 2017, a far cry from its second place ranking in 2012. Iowa has slid down the list each year, ranking 10th in 2014, 13th in 2015, and 14th last year. According to this year’s report, Iowa ranked in the top ten for farmers markets per capita and community-supported agriculture per capita. However, the state ranks 50th for local food-to-school programs. Iowa performs in the middle of the pack when it comes to direct farm-to-consumer sales and USDA local food grants per capita.

The 2017 index features a new metric: hospitals sourcing local foods relative to the state’s population. Hospitals and local food organizers in Vermont have led the way, but the report notes that healthcare centers across the country have been pushing for 10 to 20 percent locally-sourced food in recent years.

Steven R. Gordon is President and CEO of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital in Brattleboro, Vermont. He said,

“Brattleboro Memorial Hospital is proud to be a leader in supporting local farms and producers of fresh and healthy food. Sourcing local produce not only supports our local economy but also helps our patients heal faster. Often times, when a person is ill or on various medications, their appetite diminishes and their tastes are altered. Providing our patients with in-season and locally-produced food allows us to provide meals with high flavor and nutrition.”

The state of Iowa ranked just inside the top 20 for local foods served in hospitals. The Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems explains their journey to a more sustainable food system for hospitals and the benefits they’ve reaped thus far in the video posted below.

Iowa Flood Center featured in American Meteorological Association flagship publication


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Iowa Flood Center’s Iowa Flood Information System was featured on the front page of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society this March. (Iowa Flood Center)
Jenna Ladd | May 5, 2017

The Iowa Flood Center was featured in the March 2017 edition of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, also known as BAMS.

BAMS is the flagship publication of the American Meteorological Society. The bulletin, which is released monthly, features scientific articles related to weather, water, and climate as well as news stories and editorials.

Witold Krajewski, the Iowa Flood Center’s director, is lead author on the article featured in BAMS. Titled “Real-Time Flood Forecasting and Information System for the State of Iowa,” the academic article provides a detailed understanding of the Iowa Flood Center’s (IFC) flood forecasting and information dissemination system.

IFC established the system following the record floods of 2008. Using scientific models and mathematical equations, the Iowa Flood Information System (IFIS) is able to provide rainfall and streamflow forecasts every fifteen minutes. Iowans from over 1,000 communities can access these real-time observations using the interactive IFIS web platform.

Prior to the development of this system, floods frequently occurred without warning in Iowa, as they did in 2008. The report reads,

“Devastating floods that inundated Cedar Rapids came as a surprise, leaving residents and businesses little time to evacuate; residents of Iowa City and the University of Iowa campus watched helplessly as floods compromised more and more buildings after the Coralville Dam lost its controlled-release functionality. Overall, the 2008 flood upended countless lives and livelihoods and caused between $8 billion and $10 billion in damages—at the time, the fifth-largest disaster in the history of the United States.”

Nine years later, the IFC is now able to consistently measures rainfall every five minutes across the state, and Iowans can have peace of mind heading into the rainy summer months.

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.

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.”

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.”

CLE4R project continues to educate Iowans, improve air quality


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In an effort to educate Iowans about particulate air pollution, CLE4R has made Air Beam air quality monitors available for check out at the Dubuque Public Library, Dubuque Community School Districts and at the University of Iowa. (Taking Space)
Jenna Ladd | March 28, 2017

Clean Air in the River Valley, also known as CLE4R, is a collaborative effort to improve air quality in the city of Dubuque and nearby communities.

The project is a partnership between University of Iowa IIHR—Hydroscience and Engineering the city of Dubuque, and surrounding Upper Mississippi River Valley communities. Founded in October of 2015, CLE4R’s four pillars are environmental education, technology, partnerships, and planning.

Most parts of eastern Iowa and western Illinois experience air pollution that makes the air unhealthy for residents during at least some part of the year. CLE4R aims to reduce particulate matter in the air that is smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5). This type of air pollution is particularly common in Iowa’s Upper Mississippi River Valley communities.

Dr. Charles Stanier, University of Iowa associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering, is director of the program. He said, “We have reached over 1,000 Iowans with high quality information about air quality and the health benefits of clean air. We have done this through our in person events, our website, media coverage, and social media.”

CLE4R has also worked to offer Iowans the practical experience of measuring air pollution in their communities independently. Stanier explained, “CLE4R has introduced all the stakeholders in the project: city staff, teachers, environmental groups, and local businesses, to the AirBeam hand held particulate [matter] monitors that are available for checkout from the City of Dubuque, the University of Iowa, and the Dubuque School District. ”

The project is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Education Program and is set to end this July. Representatives from CLE4R will be present at the Dubuque’s Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) festival on April 22nd and at Iowa City’s Science Technology Engineering Art and Math (STEAM) festival on April 23rd.