Monthly Archives: May 2014

National Climate Assessment: More Drought, Floods in Iowa

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Released this week by the White House, the new National Climate Assessment includes a dire look at the impacts of climate change on Iowa and the heartland. Here’s the Press-Citizen headline: Iowa vulnerable to more floods, drought

The report also warned that residents in Iowa and Midwest cities could see greater climate issues. It predicts “increased heat-wave intensity and frequency, increased humidity, degraded air quality, and reduced water quality will increase public health risks.”

Cities’ aging infrastructure are “particularly vulnerable to climate change-related flooding,” the report said. Already, heavy downpours are contributing to “discharge of untreated sewage due to excess water in combined sewage-overflow systems.”

The report pointed to floods in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Iowa City and Ames — all suffering multimillion-dollar losses since 1993 — as an example of existing climate change impacts.

Here’s the direct link to the chapter on climate change and the Midwest:

Ecopolis Iowa City? Launching the Regenerative City Discussion

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As a collaboration between the University of Iowa Office of Sustainability and the City of Iowa City Sustainability program, Iowa City residents came together last night at the public library to hear stories and songs about the “regenerative cities” movement. The Daily Iowan reports:

UI Office of Sustainability Director Liz Christiansen said Iowa was once considered a very rural state, but now has more population living in cities than in rural areas. “Cities have been viewed as resource-intensive, but with proper planning and new priorities, it may be possible that they can be positively renewing our environments.” Christiansen said.

With this comes the issue of food supply and how a large number of people can be fed. Christiansen said the event sought to challenge residents to vision how such a change might take place here in Iowa City.

An oped in the Press-Citizen by UI Sustainability Writer-in-Residence Jeff Biggers explores the ecopolis idea behind the regenerative city concept:

Over 120 years ago, a writer compared Iowa City to St. Omer in France, as beautiful riverfront communities of the future. That future is now: In front of the St. Omer train station, high-tech tiles convert kinetic energy from walking commuters, powering lighting and electrical devices. Across the English Channel in London, organic vegetables grow in underground bomb shelters thanks to hydroponics and LED light advances.

Such breakthroughs have led to a watershed rethinking of our own communities of the future.

No one understands this better than Iowa City; volunteers filled 6 million sandbags to hold back the historic flood of 2008. What if we applied that same sense of urgency and investment to build on our current sustainability efforts and create “an ecopolis” showcase in the riverfront district?

“Creating a circular rather than a linear urban metabolism — giving plant nutrients back to nature, storing carbon in soils and forests, reviving urban agriculture, powering human settlements efficiently by renewable energy, reconnecting cities to the regional hinterland,” writes World Future Council founder Herbert Girardet. “These measures are the basis for creating viable new urban economies which are so badly needed in this time of financial and economic crisis.”

Nitrate Monologues: Climate Narrative Fellow Rachel Serslev on EcoWatch!

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Is there such a thing as a river ethic?

Climate Narrative Project fellow Rachel Serslev asks that question in her research, “Nitrate Monologues: Stories from the Water and Farm Frontlines in Iowa.” Featured in the national environmental journal, EcoWatch, Rachel interviews farmers, water specialists and students to explore the impact of agricultural runoff on streams and the Iowa River.

Here’s an excerpt:

Thanks to incentives for ethanol, fuel has become the number one use for corn in America. As noted in a recent Associated Press (AP) investigation, this intense development of the corn-belt in Iowa and across the heartland includes a loss of nearly five million acres of prairies and woods across the nation in areas that were originally set aside for the Conservation Reserves land program. This loss has had a significant impact on our landscapes, natural drainage systems, and the health of the rivers in Iowa and those downstream from them, all the way to where the Mississippi empties into the gulf. Not to mention the impact this is having on our climate.

In 2008, a study in the journal Science concluded that, “plowing over conservation land releases so much greenhouse gas that it takes 48 years before new plants can break even and start reducing carbon dioxide.”

As part of the biofuels rush, between 2005 and 2010, American corn farmers increased their use of nitrogen fertilizer by more than one billion pounds. So, where do excess chemicals go? In recent years the Gulf of Mexico has turned into an extreme dead zone due to the increased use of nitrates and phosphates. The runoff of these chemicals is intensified by the weather events that lead to record drought and rainfall that comes with climate change.

In this time of extreme drought and extreme rainfall, what is the impact of one acre of corn on our river? When a field floods the excess nitrates and phosphates that have not been taken up by the crops run into Iowa’s waterways; into our drinking water.

Carol Sweeting sits before me in a dim, bustling café. She is the water treatment and distribution information coordinator for Iowa City. Her untouched iced coffee sweats beside her as I ask her to describe her personal relationship with the river.

Climate Narrative Fellow Liz Behlke Story Featured in EcoWatch!

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Climate Narrative fellow Liz Behlke’s story, Water is Wide: Women, Climate Change and the Iowa River, is featured today on the national environmental news site EcoWatch. A native of Iowa City, Liz’s personal essay explored the role of women today and during the historic floods in 2008 and 1993–including the very day of her birth.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

The Iowa River flooded from early June to early July that year. It crested at 31.5 feet, a new record, flooding up to twenty University of Iowa buildings, most of which were in the art department. More than $300 million worth of art owned by the university was moved in preparation for the flooding. The university shut down its main source of power in order to avoid structural damage. Summer courses were postponed until further notice and Mayflower Hall was evacuated. Only the Burlington Street Bridge remained open. Regenia Bailey, the mayor of Iowa City at the time, issued a curfew restricting unauthorized persons from being within 100 feet of flooded areas between 8:30 p.m. and 6 a.m.

TV screens showed helicopter footage of little houses in Cedar Rapids with dirty river water up to the doorknobs. KCRG TV 9 News at 10 was the anthem of that summer and head anchors Bruce Aune and Beth Malicki were our river guides.

This footage inspired Julie Tallman to get involved. Tallman, a development regulation specialist for Iowa City, tells me over the phone that her interest in the Iowa River peaked during the summer of 2008.

“Something that wasn’t supposed to happen, happened,” Tallman states. “One hundred year flood, 500 year flood, those are false terms.”

According to the U.S. Geological Survey website, a 100 year flood is a flood that typically has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year, while a 500 year flood has a .2 percent chance.

“The river is so powerful and yet so vulnerable to the activities we allow around it,” Tallman says. “We need to think more cautiously and carefully—we must create awareness for the risk we run.”