Friday, June 27, 2008

Midwest Floods, Global Warming, and Managing Associated Challenges

Learn more about the increasing frequency of heavy rain, how floodplains are being managed, and how we can be better prepared in the future by tuning in to a teleconference on July 1 at 10 am Eastern time and 9 am Central. This teleconference is presented by the National Wildlife Federation. Speakers will include Dr. Amanda Staudt, a National Wildlife Federation Climate Scientist who will discuss the latest science on global warming, heavy rainfall, and increased flooding risk. David Conrad, who is the senior resource specialist with the National Wildlife Federation, will speak about national flood insurance legislation that is poised to move in Congress. The president of the Iowa Wildlife Federation, Joe Wilkinson, will share his on-the-ground perspective on the flooding. Nicholas Pinter from the Department of Geology at Southern Illinois University will talk about why flood levels have increased systematically through much of the Mississippi system, and how new estimates appear to dramatically underestimate the actual modern frequencies of large floods. To join in the call, dial 1-800-791-2345 pin 64083#.

NOTE: Birl Lowery and Pete Nowak from the University of Wisconsin-Madison are organizing a special symposium at the SWCS Annual Conference on conservation issues related to the Midwest floods. The symposia will be held on Tuesday, July 29th as a part of the 2008 SWCS International Conference in Tucson, Arizona. For more information, go to

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Improving Industrial Farm Animal Production

Current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) practices have several problems that need to be fixed according to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. First, IFAP practices put public health at risk. By having so many animals in close quarters, the opportunity for spreading disease is great. Farmers spend more time in closer contact with the animals, increasing the likelihood that disease will spread across species. IFAP animals are often fed antibiotics in an attempt to ward off disease, and this creates a golden opportunity for bacteria and other disease-causing organisms to become antibiotic-resistant as well.

Another problem the Pew Commission identifies is the IFAP’s impacts on the environment. For example, large amounts of animal waste accumulate at these facilities. While in theory, this waste could be used for fertilizer, there is too much waste, concentrated in too small of an area for it to be useful. When this waste is used as fertilizer, it allows nutrients, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, hormones, and heavy metals to be washed into waterways. All of these chemicals can contaminate water. The excess nutrients promote algal blooms that use up all the oxygen in the water, causing sea life to leave or suffocate to death. Furthermore, these animal confinements are bad for the environment because of the release of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane.

Finally, the Pew Commission recommends the IFAP practices need to change because of the unjust treatment of animals. While we do our best to protect livestock from predation and disease, this does not justify intensive confinement of animals (gestation crates for pigs or battery cages for hens). They should be allowed to move around and proceed with natural behaviors. This helps keep distress at a minimum.

After identifying these problems, the Pew Commission came up with these recommendations to help the IFAPs improve:
1. Ban the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics and other microbials.
2. Implement a disease monitoring program for food animals to allow 48-hour trace-back of those animals through aspects of their production in a national database.
3. Implement a new system to deal with farm waste to protect Americans from the adverse environmental and human health hazards of improperly handled IFAP waste.
4. Phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce the risk of IFAP to public health and improve animal wellbeing (i.e., gestation crates and battery cages).
5. Federal and state laws need to be amended and enforced to provide a level playing field for producers when entering contracts with integrators.
6. Increase funding for, expand, and reform, animal agriculture research.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Conservation Tillage and the Floods

This post was the beginning of an email exchange among the members of the Science and Policy Committee of the Soil and Water Conservation Society. We've posted Pete Nowak's (UW-Madison) original comments as well as subsequent comments from Jerry Hatfield (NSTL), Dewayne Johnson (SWCS), and Andy Manale (EPA) over at the SWCS Network to prompt further discussion ( ~Dewayne

Early last week I had a chance to drive from Madison to Nebraska City, Nebraska for a workshop at the Lied Center. This trip took me across SW Wisconsin, Central Iowa, and SW Iowa shortly after the significant rain events (I could not cut down and pick up I-80 as the Interstate was closed outside of Iowa City due to flooding).

What I saw was a tragedy in terms of our soil and water resources. I have not seen washing and gullies to this extent since I was a wet behind the ears assistant professor at Iowa State University in the early 1980s. Many of you will remember that this was before widespread use of various conservation tillage systems, and it was still a "normal" practice to moldboard plow fall soybean ground. The streams and rivers I crossed were dark brown with major streambank slumping evident. The travesty is what the science and policy communities allowed to happen on our agricultural lands in the Heartland. The only exception was those rare fields where continuous no-till was in use.

So you might be asking what this situation has to do with science and policy? I believe the science and policy questions revolves around how we could allow something like this to occur. When was the last time you saw conservation tillage or no-tillage being listed as a major research issue? Yet many of those "systems" failed in the rains last week. I suspect that many failures had more to do with how they were implemented rather than the inherent capacity of those systems. I do not buy the argument that this was a "natural" event where nothing could be done to prevent it! The lack of grassed waterways and other conservation practices that should have been part of the tillage system were absent in most cases. The Kansas City conference on conservation at the landscape scale had much to offer relative to explaining why this occurred, but to what extent are the science recommendations from that conference being addressed by the SWCS Board? Should not our committee be pushing the SWCS Board to reach out to other scientific societies to explore how we can design conservation at the landscape scale?

The policy side of last weeks tragedy is even worse. It was clear that a number of farmers were overcome with greed in pursuing high crop prices at the expense of common sense on how to treat the land. More important, where were our federal agencies in enforcing compliance on these now highly eroded land? We have laws in place but these laws are not being enforced by NRCS and others. Why not is a legitimate policy question. Another policy question is how we can be giving away tens of millions of federal dollars in the Conservation Security Program yet apparently this had little impact last week (a great research question). Any individual looking at the amount spent on conservation versus what happened has to wonder whether there was any thought given to how those dollars were allocated.

It seems to me that our agricultural federal agencies and Districts have redefined their role to one where they give away government checks with no expectation or responsibilities relative to conservation. It also seems to me that a lot of land grant university and federal agency research is focused on the latest "hot themes" where there is no obligation to finish the hot topics of yesteryear. Who has the responsibility to speak for the soil and water resources of this country if not the federal agencies and land grant scientists charged with this mission? Again, a messy policy issue that we would all rather avoid.

Let me repeat what I have stated many times with this committee in the past. Our mission is to raise the hard and unpopular questions with the SWCS Board. Ours is not to conduct a polularity contest where we all agree with the laest trends or research areas with new funding. There are some hard and unpopular questions that need to be addressed or at least raised for discussion. Under no circumstances should we allow the Board to be "blind-sided" by a science issue or policy question they did not anticipate. We (our committee) needs to be one step ahead of the SWCS Board on both science and policy themes.

Someone in Iowa or elsewhere is going to raise the questions listed above. Will the press catch on that we have another situation where it looks like all is going great until there is a real need, and then the system falls apart? Will the SWCS Board know how to respond? Look at the mission statement of SWCS and then ask whose job it is to work for the right science to be conducted on soil and water conservation questions. The same could be said for policy.

Let me repeat myself; if we will not speak for our soil and water resources, then who will?


Pete Nowak
Professor, Environmental Studies, Nelson Institute Soil & Water Conservation Specialist, UW-CALS ERC University of Wisconsin-Madison
64 Science Hall550 North Park Street
Madison, WI 53706608-265-3581

To participate in the discussion or read the other posts in the topic, please visit

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

SWCS Comments on Climate Change Strategy

The Soil and Water Conservation Society (SWCS) recently provided input to the US Environmental Protection Agency's National Water Program Climate Change Strategy.

In a letter to the agency (available here), SWCS President Peggie James recommended the following priorities for immediate action:

1. Focus more attention in planning and program implementation processes on currently well-understood practices that reduce damage from concentrated flow.
2. Focus more attention in planning and program implementation processes on protecting or repairing stream and riparian corridors.
3. Use current models and monitoring systems to indentify high-risk and high-value tributary watersheds that would benefit from focused conservation efforts.
4. Update climatic parameters used in conservation tools and planning approaches to include the most recent data and ensure that routine and periodic updates are completed in the future.

These recommendations are based on an SWCS special report available here.

Eroded soil sends message: Step up conservation

Guest column in The Des Moines Register • June 18, 2008
BILL LEONARD of Des Moines is a former Register editorial writer.

Eroded soil sends message: Step up conservation
A huge hunk of Iowa is washing away with the Flood of '08 - a disaster whose magnitude dwarfs the visible impact.Soil scientists consider a soil loss of five tons per acre per year to be acceptable on most tillable soils. That's a small fraction of an inch off the top of the field. But this month, some Iowa farms lost more than that in a single day. That's the nutrient-rich topsoil that makes Iowa the nation's agricultural powerhouse - and that helps create a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, where chemicals washed from Midwestern farms choke the oxygen supply needed by aquatic life.

It could have been prevented, or at least mitigated to a major degree. Read more...

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

World Food Summit

Recent stories on the World Food Summit...

From The Economist:
June 5: Only a Few Green Shoots
"Some good ideas, but too little cash, were among the fruits of a global gathering"
Full story at:

From the Guardian:
June 5: Rome food crisis summit ducks crucial issues
June 6: Food summit fails to agree on biofuels
"The world food summit in Rome has come to a delayed end after some angry exchanges in the closing stages, but it ended without agreement on some of the key policy decisions now confronting governments."
Full stories at:

June 6: Food Summit: Some Progress But More Needs to be Done
"The UN food summit closes with a strong statement on agriculture, but fails to adequately address trade, biofuels, safety nets, and implementation."
Press release from IFPRI

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Water Leaders Form Water Policy Institute

Leaders representing various sectors of the water industry formed a new institute to collaborative develop solutions to water availability and use issues.

Kathy Robb, Esq., Partner, Hunton & Williams LLP

Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA Administrator and New Jersey Governor

Advisory Panel
Leslie Carothers, President, Environmental Law Institute
Gabriel Eckstein, Professor, Texas Tech School of Law
Paul Faeth, Executive Director, Global Water Challenge
David Freestone, Senior Adviser, World Bank
Craig Manson, Professor, McGeorge School of Law
Tracy Mehan, Principal, The Cadmus Group
Mark Van Putten, President, ConservationStrategy LLC
Robert Stavins, Professor, Harvard University

More information:

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Real-Time Water-Quality Information Available

The US Geological Survey WaterQualityWatch Web site ( provides continuous real-time water-quality information about surface waters at over 1,300 sites in the United States.

Users can choose to view national or state maps showing the latest measurements of water temperature, turbidity, specific conductance, dissolved oxygen, pH, and discharge/stream flow.

Such real-time water-quality data may be useful an input to conservation planning and research site selection, as well as guide a wide range of decisions regarding sources of public drinking water and the safety of locations for water recreation.