Kent Park Lake improvement projects underway


UpperKentPk_IA
Kent Park Lake was drained this spring in preparation for water quality and recreation improvement projects. (Iowa Water Science Center)
Jenna Ladd | July 20, 2017

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources and the Johnson County Conservation Board continue moving forward with plans to improve water quality and recreation opportunities at F.W. Kent Park Lake.

Johnson County and the state of Iowa are splitting the cost of the $700,000 project. The state’s money comes from a $96 million ten year plan that was approved by the Iowa legislature in 2014 to restore lakes statewide.

In partnership with the Johnson County Conservation Board and Stanley Consultants, Iowa DNR plans to wrap up the first phase of park improvements this fall, which include restoring and constructing catch basins, adding ADA complaint facilities and installing bio-retention cells to keep storm water run-off from entering the lake.

Kent Park Lake was drained this spring in preparation for lake restoration projects. In this second phase, DNR plans to remove sediments from the lake basin, reshape parts of the bank and lake basin and add fish habitat.

The 27 acre lake is currently on the DNR’s impaired waters list, which is a list of bodies of water that fail to meet federal water quality standards. A central issue in the state of Iowa is the accumulation of nutrients in waterways, which feed blue green algae blooms that produce a bacteria called microcystin. Too much microcystin in water can cause rashes, breathing problems and stomach problems for people and death for pets.

The project aims to provide filtration for these nutrients before they reach the lake. Brad Freidhof of the Johnson County Conservation Board said, “We want the water to settle the soil particulates and nutrients that are in that water to be utilized by plant communities or settle out in the catch basins and that will happen several times before it ends up in the lake” in a report by KCRG.

Project officials will hold a public meeting on July 25 at 6:30 pm at the Conservation Education Center at F.W. Kent Park to discuss preliminary plans for phase two. 

PCB sources located inside schools


7841950486_4537a73c12_o
School buildings built in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s that have not been remodeled are most likely to contain high concentrations of PCBs in the air due to dated building materials. (Kevin Jarrett/flickr)
Jenna Ladd| July 11, 2017

In the largest study of its kind, UI researchers have detected polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in six schools throughout the midwest.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a class of manmade organic chemicals that were heavily used in construction and industry from 1929 until they were banned in 1979. PCBs are now known to cause cancer as well as immune, endocrine and reproductive system problems.

The Iowa Superfund Research Program took indoor and outdoor air samples from six schools from 2012 through 2015. While none of the schools had enough PCBs in the air to surpass the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s action level, the researchers did make new discoveries about the main sources of PCBs in schools.

The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, revealed that regardless of the school’s location: rural areas of Columbus Junction, Iowa or heavy industry areas of East Chicago, concentration of PCBs were higher indoors.

Project leader and UI College of Engineering Professor Keri C. Hornbuckle said in an interview with Iowa Now, “This is the first time we’ve been able to pinpoint the source of PCBs inside schools. This study shows that the indoor air is contaminated, and that contamination is due to materials that remain in use in the school buildings.” The study points to florescent light ballasts, calking and oil-based paints as likely sources.

Research has shown that exposure to PCBs during childhood can cause significant neurological deficits, visual impairment and learning difficulties. Schools in the U.S. are not currently required to measure PCBs concentrations but concern is growing.

Dr. Peter Thorne is the principal investigator on the study. He said, “Our nation’s schools must provide a safe and healthy environment for growing and learning. In addition to protecting children from risks such as asthma and obesity, schools need to be free of elevated exposures to persistent pollutants, including lead and PCBs.”

Iowa DNR dissolves Bureau of Forestry and other programs


Savanna, Overlooking Wet Prairie
The State Forest Nursery and urban foresters program will stay in tact amid multiple program eliminations. (Joshua Mayer/flickr)
Jenna Ladd | July 7, 2017

Iowa legislators approved a $1.2 million cut to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) this year, resulting in the elimination of the Bureau of Forestry and several other positions.

The department announced on Wednesday that it terminated the Forest Bureau Chief Paul Tauke. All other foresters were reassigned to other divisions within the DNR. Alex Murphy is a spokesperson for the department. In an interview with Iowa Public Radio, he said, “We’ve moved these employees under different areas and actually eliminated the bureau itself, although all the functions of the bureau exist, just in different bureaus or divisions.” The changes saved the department around $277,000.

The DNR Trail Crew program was abolished along with two full-time program DNR employees. The Trail Crew team was comprised of 15 Americorps members that traveled around the state with DNR employees to develop and improve Iowa’s 500 miles of nature trails. Other Americorps programs within the department were eliminated as well.

State Geologist Bob Libra also lost his job. The state plans to contract UI geologists to take over geological research projects. Among the other positions eliminated are the department safety officer, animal feeding operations coordinator and art director for the DNR’s magazine.

UI environmental science program graduate Megan Henry warned that the elimination of positions in environmental sciences may drive more young people out of Iowa. Her letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register reads,

“Now the university will likely also equip natural science students in geology with even more hands-on experience, because “without a state geologist, the DNR will contract with the University of Iowa for geological research and technical assistance.” The only problem: How do you attract students to this vital work, if the jobs only exist while they are paying tuition?”

New climate science standards require Iowa students to engage in scientific process


ngss
Ted Neal (right) and Kris Kilibarda (left) explain the Next Generation Science Standards at the 2016 Iowa Climate Science Educators Forum. (Jenna Ladd/CGRER)
Jenna Ladd| June 16, 2017

Iowa educators will soon adopt new science education standards, with help from the University of Iowa Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) and College of Education.

The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative, an effort of CGRER and the College of Education, aims to ease the transition for teachers to the Next Generation Science Standards. Rather than require educators to teach that human-induced climate change is occurring, the standards provide an opportunity for students to reach that conclusion independently.

The Iowa Board of Education approved the new standards in August 2015. They include four primary domains: physical science, life science, earth and space science, and engineering. Of the dozens of standards, thirty-six require students to explore the climate system.

According to University of Iowa clinical science instructor Ted Neal, students will be given relevant data and asked to formulate their own research questions. In an interview with Iowa Watch, Neal said, “They will look at facts relevant to those questions and draw conclusions that answer their questions.”

In short, students will be challenged to engage in the scientific process. Kris Kilibarda is the science consultant for the Iowa Department of Education. She said, “We’re saying here’s evidence, here’s how you determine if the evidence is valid, and here’s how you develop a scientific argument. You determine what the argument would be. We would never say there’s only one way it can be, but we will say here’s the scientific evidence.”

A fall 2016 survey revealed that teachers felt they needed access to observations and data, help aligning lesson plans and materials with climate science education and the Next Generation Science Standards in order to most effectively transition to using the new science standards. The Iowa K-12 Climate Science Education Initiative is tackling all of these requests.

Currently the group is working to develop tools for 8th grade teachers. The group recently introduced a four to eight week pilot lesson called “How Iowans Use Their Land.” The curriculum hits on nine of the 25 total 8th grade science standards including one that requires students to “develop a model to describe the cycling of water through the earth’s systems driven by energy from the sun and the force of gravity.” Next, the initiative plans to work with sixth and seventh grade teachers before eventually moving onto high school curriculum.

The standards will not be mandatory for another few years, but many Iowa teachers are ahead of the game. On an NGSS EnvIowa podcast episode, Neal said, “One of the nice things about Iowa and Iowa teachers is that they care so much they’re trying to get ahead the game. They’re not looking at this with apprehension.”

Research profile: Dr. Craig Just


dr flush
Dr. Craig Just (right) stands with Senator Senator Bob Dvorsky (left) at this year’s Iowa legislative breakfast, where many researchers from the University of Iowa came to share their work with legislators. (Iowa Senate)

Dr. Craig Just is an assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa. Up for tenure this summer, Dr. Just teaches graduate level courses along with an undergraduate principles of environmental engineering course. His research interests range from freshwater mussels’ impacts on the nitrogen cycles in rivers and streams to the fate of explosive chemicals once they are released into the natural environment. Iowa Environmental Focus caught up with Dr. Just to discuss his research on wastewater treatment in smaller communities.

Jenna Ladd: I wanted to focus on your wastewater treatment research in smaller communities. So, why can’t people in smaller communities flush their toilets affordably?

Dr. Craig Just: So, in a town like Iowa City, we just had an over $15 million expansion to our wastewater treatment plant but that cost was spread, you know, among a population base of 75,000 or 80,000 people so the per person cost for such an advance treatment system is under probably a thousand bucks each, give or take, prorate over a certain amount of time. But for smaller towns, who have increasingly rigorous environmental regulations they have to meet, particularly with respect to the discharge of ammonia and bacteria, they’re small so when you have to do a technology upgrade, it’s more expensive per resident and that’s one of the main issues. The other issue is that it also becomes more expensive then to pay an operator for the plant, someone that has the expertise needed to operate an increasingly more sophisticated treatment system. So, then you have to spread that cost amongst a small population base as well and so both of those factors are really scaling issues that, really, small towns have a problem dealing with compared to some other places. Those are some of the main issues going on there.

Jenna Ladd: How were those issues brought to your attention?

Dr. Craig Just: Sometimes it’s with screaming mayors at small town hall meetings. I’ve been going to Des Moines to talk about this issue since at least 2005. Legislators know it’s a problem, their constitutes tell them it’s a problem. In 2010, I was one of the co-leaders of what’s known as the faculty engagement tour. We get faculty who are typically stuffed in their offices and labs and we stuff them in a bus and took them all around Iowa to say, “You know, here are the people that pay your salaries, really, in a way, and let’s be aware.” So, we had a town hall meeting in Goodell, Iowa, town of about 225 people facing a $2.2 million waste water treatment plant upgrade bill and the mayor of that town and the mayor of three or four other towns came to this meeting. Over 100 people showed up to this meeting in all that was left of the school, the old gymnasium. The school’s gone….Everybody came out, it was such a big deal. People were mad, they were shouting. They viewed me as part of the cultural elite who wasn’t doing enough for them in rural Iowa, and that we were putting unrealistic environmental constraints on them that led them to essentially go bankrupt as a town. So I’ve heard it in casual conversation, I’ve heard legislators talk about it, I’ve heard it in town hall meetings. Candidly, at this point it’s hard for me to get away from. I’m from rural Iowa, you know, that’s where I’m from. So I’ve seen it first hand, it’s not hard to see.

JL: Are these newer wastewater treatment regulations or are communities just kind of playing catch up to those regulations that were already in place?

CJ: They’re new, and I would say that they’re based at the federal level. I would say one of the things that’s happening, and it’s a challenge for Iowa in particular, so the population in the U.S. has gone up. I think in just the U.S. alone, we’re up to like 330 million people now, whatever, 50 years ago, I think it was like 200 million or something. I don’t know those numbers, but the point is the overall population density has been going up. Most towns in these watersheds that have a discharge into a stream, most of them have gotten more dense so then you have to have more stringent regulations to not kill the stream. But when you apply those things at the federal level for the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, it kind of puts a disproportionate burden on the places that haven’t grown. In fact, in rural Iowa, it’s less dense but then you still have to meet these federal standards which are somewhat one-size-fits all and so, I don’t disagree with the fact that the federal standards have become more strict but it’s difficult to apply it in a place that’s population and tax base isn’t growing. It puts rural Iowa at a very special pinch point where those two things converge.

JL: Are there any solutions you’ve come up with for this problem?

CJ: Well, first of all, there are already some alternative technologies, they’re called, that are approved in Iowa that are robust and more affordable, not as affordable as you might like but still more affordable. So, one of the things that we’re doing in partnership with H.R. Green Consulting Engineers, one of our alums there Matt Wildman has really kind of led the use of this technology in Iowa. We’ve partnered with them and the community of Walker, Iowa to extensively test one of these alternative technologies called—it’s a lagoon modification—a submerged attached growth reactor, essentially rocks in a box. A couple lagoons. The lagoons are aerated, they take care of some of the wastewater issues and then it goes to these rocks in a box where the bacteria then are attached to the rocks, they further covert the ammonia with aeration to nitrate, which you can still legally discharge in Iowa—it’s a fertilizer though. It doesn’t solve all of our problems if you look at the broader watershed problems with respect to nutrient discharges, but yet it removes the acute toxicity associated with ammonia discharges. So, that works out well in many regards. It still doesn’t solve all the problems because at least, approximately half the cost of the system is just the pipes that collect the waste from each house and those systems are deteriorating in these towns as well. So, even if we’re improving the system at the end of all those pipes it still kind of tricky to deal with that.

I’m even thinking of almost having your toilet be more like an appliance where you don’t have to convey your waste someplace else. If we could find a way to do that, almost like a compost toilet would work, the composting waste you’d have to collect. The nice thing about that sort of a mentality is you could then use that waste as a resource because there are nutrients in there, there is energy value in that waste. Right now we send it to a lagoon and then one of these box of rocks with bacteria, we treat it but we don’t harvest any of the energy…in fact, we have to put energy in. I think if we could find ways to do that, even in these small towns, then it would make them more sustainable. It would give them extra resources that I think would be valuable. So in the future, I think it would be valuable to maybe not have these lagoons at all. Especially for these towns that are increasingly small, you know, like 600 people or less.

But anyway, so I’m thinking even longer term, but in the short-term, these alternative technologies are better. One of the things that we’ve been able to do then, with all this data collection that’s been going on in Walker since 2013 is now, we can more appropriately size the technology. Since we didn’t have very much data before, we kind of over-sized it in the name of kind of a safety factor. Now with data, we can shrink the size which then makes it cheaper. So that’s where the researcher comes in. As a researcher, I can come in, get this data, say “No, it doesn’t need to be this big” and then work with Iowa Department of Natural Resources to get that approved. That just recently happened. So, now going forward this particular technology can now be about a third smaller, which would have saved Walker, Iowa about $150,000 on a 2.5 million project. That’s real money. 750 people and $150,000 saved, that would be a lot. You multiple that across the nearly 800 or 900 communities these technologies are targeting so that’s a lot of money that Iowans can save. That’s kind of where research and the practical nature of trying to make things affordable come together. Sizing things appropriately so they still work and then making sure the operators still know how to handle any disruptions and understand why things do get disrupted from time to time.

JL: Are you communicating with people working to solve these problems in rural communities in other states?

CJ: In general, Iowa is a little bit behind. Even our peers on our borders: Minnesota would be ahead of us in many regards, some other places too. A lot of these alternative technologies have been utilized in warmer climates. Since they’re biological processes, the bacteria work better when they’re warm, just like you or I do. I don’t move so fast when I’m cold and neither do bacteria. So the challenge for Iowa has been even though some other states have been embracing these alternative technologies more readily, they are easier case studies too. So really, for Iowa, it’s been “How do we manage the cold weather?” that we have and “Will these systems still work when it’s cold?” So, we’ve applied what we can from other states in trying to catch up and now we have to deal with that in our own Iowa circumstance going forward. So yeah, we’ve learned from other places, but we still have to make sure we deal with, you know, Iowa’s situation.

JL: In what ways does this research relate to your teaching?

CJ: Increasingly, developing countries, where again you lack a population base and kind of a resource base and a tax base, some of the challenges are like rural areas in the United States. They’re kind of falling into some of those same categories sometimes so I want our engineers that graduate from our program to understand the rural dilemma. It’s relatively easy to be an engineer when you have all the resources you need, you got money. Yeah, shoot, design away, and it’s fun to kind of do it like that, but when you have to apply your engineering skills and really your community engagement skills at the same time to try to make a difference in a community that’s struggling just to keep their doors open, that’s a cool place. That’s very satisfying and rewarding for an engineer to be operating there. So I’m encouraging our students to do that in some way or another so when they go out into engineering and consulting, they’ll be aware of the issues that small rural communities face in contrast to what growing, urban areas face: fundamentally different engineering problems.

Spawning stress fish kill in Tama County


black-crappie-lg
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.

Two Iowa mayors join 1,200 U.S. leaders committed to the Paris Climate Agreement


2997926269_9a751f3dcd_o
Dubuque Mayor Roy D. Buol is one of 1,200 signatories on a recent climate action statement titled “We Are Still In.” (flickr/S.D. Dirk)
Jenna Ladd | June 6, 2017

More than 1,200 United States governors, mayors, businesses, investors, and colleges and universities released a statement yesterday titled “We Are Still In,” declaring their continued support of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The climate declaration serves as a response to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord last week. The declaration reads, The Trump administration’s announcement undermines a key pillar in the fight against climate change out of step with what is happening in the United States.”

The businesses and investors speaking out for climate action include 20 Fortune 500 companies that generate $1.4 trillion in revenue annually. Participating city and state leaders collectively represent 120 million Americans ranging from New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio to Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scarff.

Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and Dubuque Mayor Roy D. Buol are among the signatories. Cownie said in a written statement, “The recent action by the White House to withdraw from the Paris Agreement does not stop Des Moines’ efforts in advancing our own efforts on climate change. Cities like Des Moines will continue to work to make our communities more sustainable places to live.” Other statement endorsers from Iowa include state Attorney General Tom Miller; J. Bruce Harreld, president of the University of Iowa; Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College; Paula Carlson, president of Luther College.

The City of Des Moines adopted a target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050 in 2016 as a part of the City Energy Project (CEP). CEP is a coalition of cities working to reduce energy use and curb emissions from buildings in urban areas. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department has been phasing in hybrid vehicles and utilizing alternative fuels like biodiesel to power its fleet as well. In an  interview with the Des Moines Register, Cownie said, “We’re trying to look at every part of our operation, including the work we do with business partners and neighborhood where they can afford it.”

Cownie is in good company. Since the White House withdrew from the Paris Agreement, 17 governors have released statements in support of the accord, 13 governors formed the U.S. Climate Alliance and 211 mayors have independently taken on the climate action goals outlined in the Paris Agreement for their communities.

The “We Are Still In” press release concludes, “Today’s statement embraces this rapidly growing movement of subnational and civil society leaders, by announcing that not only are these leaders stepping forward, they are stepping forward together.”

Below, CGRER co-director Jerry Scnhoor interviews Mayor Cownie at COP21 in 2015.