Renewable energy and Iowa schools

We’re asking for your help as we seek to better understand where and why schools are choosing to invest in renewables and whether they are seeing benefits.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Almost five years ago IPP put out a report on Iowa schools that were using (or were considering using) wind power to generate electricity. We’re thinking about doing a followup report that might look at not only wind, but solar energy as well.

Do you know of schools around you that have solar panels on their property? Are any thinking about installing solar panels? Are solar panels or wind turbines being used in science classes or other parts of the curriculum in schools in your town? Has the installation of renewable energy generation impacted the way people think of renewables? We’re asking for your help as we seek to better understand where and why schools are choosing to invest in renewables and whether they are seeing benefits.

One example of a school that recently installed a small solar array on it is the Oak Ridge Middle School in Marion, Iowa.  A generous donation from the Linn County REC allowed the school to install 20 solar panels totaling 2.6 KW of capacity.  The solar array has been integrated into class work and is a valuable learning aide.  Real-time data about the system’s output is available online.

Iowa schools are expected to graduate students with a knowledge base that will serve them in the future. Clearly wind and solar power are a part of that future and students who grow up around renewable energy will likely be more comfortable with and accepting of the role renewable energy can and should play across Iowa.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Give thanks for what we do and do not have

Iowa does not have a reputation for having great water quality, but it could be worse.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

My job here at IPP requires me to think a lot about water. Iowa does not have a reputation for having great water quality, and there are certainly plenty of threats, but it could be worse. As Thanksgiving approaches here are a few things I’m thankful for:

1) We don’t have companies extracting natural gas using unknown chemicals and potentially fouling our groundwater like Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan and other states do.

2) We have adequate water (for the most part). You don’t have to go too far to find areas where water quantity is a serious concern, like in Nebraska and Wisconsin. Travel further, to places like Florida and the American southwest and the issues get even more serious. Certainly increased chances of drought in the Midwest are recognized as a possibility with climate change, but to date we’ve avoided drought for a few decades.

3) We don’t (yet!) have major oil pipelines running across our state. It just so happens that they rupture occasionally like this one did in Michigan. A few years ago, Wisconsin had an oil pipeline break, too. And now there’s a pipeline proposed that would cross Nebraska.

4) While we’ve seen our fair share of flooding in parts of the state, we’re not going to see the problems that coastal cities will as sea levels rise.

5) We don’t have acutely toxic groundwater like this city in California does.

We in Iowa are plenty busy working on polluted runoff, CAFOs, emerging contaminants and seasonal flooding, among other things. That’s plenty for now.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Legacy vote message: clean air, water, land

The message from the vote last week is that voters want environmental quality and outdoor recreation initiatives to thrive. How will policy makers respond?

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Amid all the sorting of implications from the November 2 election, one message should not be missed: Iowa’s land, air and water are important to the state’s residents.

Iowa’s Water and Land Legacy Amendment passed with over 60 percent of the vote — a margin that surely understates the support for environmental programs. The constitutional amendment creates a dedicated trust fund that will be funded upon the next state sales tax increase.

Overwhelming approval of the trust fund must be seen as a “floor” for support of water quality improvements, soil protection, state parks, recreational trails and better wildlife habitat. Support no doubt is much greater than the vote last week reflects. That’s because the trust fund is tied to a potential sales-tax increase that many more environmental proponents would oppose on various philosophical grounds — objecting to any tax increase, or that type of tax increase, or earmarking funds outside the legislative process by constitutional amendment.

Rather, the vote recognizes that longtime budget trends are shortchanging environmental quality efforts. Such programs largely have been dependent upon gambling revenue and have been underfunded for years.

Clearly, Iowans care about the environment and want increased funding for programs that protect our air and water and add additional outdoor recreation opportunities. And a vast majority favored the Legacy Amendment approach. Still, it depends upon a sales-tax increase that faces significant political challenges.

The message from the vote last week is that voters want environmental quality and outdoor recreation initiatives to thrive. Improvements to our natural resources can help attract economic development for Iowa cities and towns. How, policy makers must ask themselves, will they meet that firmly stated desire of Iowa voters?

Many eyes will be watching.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Why is Iowa government smaller?

Iowans might be surprised to learn that sensible measures indicate Iowa government actually has declined.

Andrew Cannon, research associate
Andrew Cannon

Calls for smaller government carry a number of distortions. Our roads, schools and public health, to name just a few publicly financed services, often operate with the bare minimum financing as it is.

The primary distortion, however, involves concepts about the size of our state government.

Iowans might be surprised to learn that sensible measures indicate Iowa government actually has declined.

Iowa’s General Fund spending as a share of the economy has decreased by more than 26 percent since the early 1990s.

When measured by personal income — all the income generated each year by all Iowans — General Fund spending peaked in Fiscal Year 1997, at 6.4 percent. In FY10, General Fund spending was just 4.7 percent of Iowans’ personal income.

And that is not just a result of the recent Great Recession and the 10 percent across-the-board budget cut by Governor Culver. In FY09, spending as a share of personal income was 5.5 percent — nearly a full percentage point lower than the high-water mark of the late 1990s.

Posted by Andrew Cannon, Research Associate

Figure 1 from IFP brief, "Getting Public Value Out of Our Public Dollars"
Figure 1 from IFP brief, "Getting Public Value Out of Our Public Dollars"

Farm fields or lawns? New report on water pollution

The quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers that are applied to corn and soybean fields dwarfs that of lawns and golf courses.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

How many of you have been in a conversation about Iowa’s water quality that went something like this?

  • Person 1:  Iowa’s waters really are filthy.
  • Person 2: They sure are. I know a lot of that is because of our state’s agriculture and all the fertilizers that farmers use.
  • Person 1: That’s probably true, but you know what is really a problem?  The fertilizers my neighbors are always putting on their grass. They put so much on all the time and sometimes even in the rain. Why? For a lawn that they never use?
  • Person 2: You’re probably right. I just drove across the river downtown and it was so gross. And I saw several lawn chemical companies out this morning.

If you’re anything like me you’ve probably heard people downplay the role of agriculture in degrading our waters and shift the focus to our urban areas. I recently had dinner with a small group of environmentally aware citizens and a conversation much like the above occurred.

I asked the group what percentage of the applied fertilizers in Iowa are put on farm fields and got responses ranging from 50 to 80 percent. It just so happened that I knew the real answer and it was way higher than the guesses I heard.

IPP’s latest report focuses only on the chemical fertilizers that are applied to the state’s farm fields, lawns and golf courses. It conclusively shows that the quantity of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers that are applied to corn and soybean fields dwarfs that of lawns and golf courses. It isn’t even close. Roughly 98% of the nitrogen and phosphorus applied in fertilizers goes on the state’s farm fields.

On average the pounds applied per acre of these fertilizers are higher on lawns and golf courses but the total area that receives treatments is so miniscule relative to the acres of corn and beans in this state. In addition, these fertilizers are applied to areas that have plants that can immediately use the nutrients, whereas many fertilizers are applied to crop fields that do not.

This is not to say that lawn fertilizers in urban areas are blameless. Indeed, in some urban watersheds they may be a significant source of the nutrient pollution entering Iowa’s waters, but overall it’s safe to say that agriculture is where the vast majority of the nutrients that start as applied fertilizers originate. Throw in manure applications and the relative contribution of agriculture gets even larger.

Can that be changed? With cover crops, perennial crops, better cropping practices, and improved nutrient management plans among other things, that gap can be narrowed.  Narrowing that gap will bring with it improved water quality. That is something we can all celebrate.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

‘Loading the dice’ for the ‘new normal’

I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward extreme weather events. This means we must prepare for more frequent major floods — but also even larger floods.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

Flooding is more and more a serious concern in Iowa. Some call it the “new normal.”

A book released earlier this year, A Watershed Year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008, edited by Iowa historian and environmentalist Connie Mutel, helps us understand the “new normal” phenomenon. We are likely to see more frequent and possibly larger floods as rainfall patterns change as a result of climate change.

Can we, with any scientific validity, directly attribute any flood, heat wave, snowfall, hurricane or drought to climate change? Not yet. But the fact remains that the sorts of rainfall patterns Iowa has seen recently, and many of the extreme weather events seen across the world are exactly what climate models predict, as noted by a recent report from Environment Iowa.

I’ve heard it said that climate change is “loading the dice” toward making certain extreme weather events more likely to occur. What this means for Iowa is that we now have to prepare for more frequent major floods, but also be ready for even larger floods.

What can we do? There are no simple answers and clearly the solution is going to involve a combination of things. Iowa is taking the right steps by developing some excellent resources for municipal officials and local residents. But does the political will exist to make the difficult choices? Should we allow development in flood plains? (The Cedar Falls city council has decided to say no.) Should we build more levies around cities to protect them (but push flooding on to communities downstream)? Should we prohibit a net increase in runoff from any development site? Should we require or even pay farmers to reduce runoff from their fields?

In both rural and urban areas, healthy soil is the first line of defense against flooding as it can slow, store and clean prodigious amounts of rainfall and runoff. Unfortunately, as outgoing DNR Director Rich Leopold noted in an excellent and sobering editorial, our soils are not healthy. We’ve lost, and continue to lose, huge amounts of topsoil from our croplands and the soils in our urban developments aren’t really much better than concrete at holding onto water.

Healthy soil means cleaner water, less flooding, excellent crops and — quite possibly — dice that are a little less loaded. That’s a win-win-win-win for everyone.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate

Plenty of blame for Iowa floods

We can’t continue to follow the practices and policies that have created flooding problems, or create new policies that pose greater risk.

Will Hoyer
Will Hoyer

In 2008 it was Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. This year Ames is getting a turn. Oh, and throw in some serious flooding around Oskaloosa, Manchester, Colfax and elsewhere, not to mention the dam failure at Lake Delhi.

What’s going on? Why are towns, universities, farmers, the wealthy and the poor in Iowa all suffering from flood damage with frequencies far exceeding statistical expectations?

Point your finger at what you want: more development in flood plains and pavement everywhere, fewer functioning wetlands, degraded soil, more agricultural drainage tile, more row crops, and increasing frequency of heavy rains as a result of climate change. All play a role in causing havoc in Iowans’ lives and generating steep bills that have to be paid by someone, somehow.

What can be done? There are lots of things that need to be done, but a guiding principle that must be adhered to is a simple one: first, do no harm. We can’t continue to follow the practices and policies that have created the problems in the first place, or worse yet, create new policies or programs that create even greater flooding risk. Should we continue to build in flood plains? Should we continue to pave over agricultural land to build sprawling surface parking lots? Should we continue to follow agricultural cropping practices that degrade soil quality and reduce the natural ability of the soil to hold on to water? Should we “improve” field drainage so that water flows into rivers and streams even faster? The simple answer to all of these questions is no. Of course nothing, including finding policies that will address these issues while not causing harm elsewhere, is ever simple.

Stay tuned as IPP will be looking at some of these issues in encouraging policies that improve the management and quality of Iowa’s waters in ways that benefit all Iowans.

Posted by Will Hoyer, Research Associate