By Todd Neeley
DTN Staff Reporter
DES MOINES (DTN) -- Though some point to recent drought, tornadoes and severe weather as signs of climate change, a climate scientist from Iowa State University said such events are more likely explained by "bad luck."
Chris Anderson, assistant director of the ISU climate science program, said a clearer sign of climate change is that heavy Iowa rain events have become more frequent and the state is in the middle of a 10-to-20-year wet cycle.
Anderson spoke during an extreme weather symposium, "Adapting to Weather Extremes, the Economic Impact in Iowa," hosted by the University of Iowa Public Policy Center in Des Moines on Wednesday.
"The change in rainfall in the Midwest is the primary signal of climate change," Anderson. "A lot of our rain comes from very heavy, rainy days. Without heavy rainfall in the spring maybe we'd be talking about more drought."
Rather than focusing on causes, he said climate scientists are working to get the message out for the need to adapt. That's not to say that drought and flood wasn't costly to agriculture and other sectors of the Iowa economy, Anderson said. In fact, crop dollar losses have grown in recent years.
From 2000 to 2004 Iowa corn crop losses attributed to floods totaled $269 million, he said. From 2008 to 2012 such losses totaled $2.2 billion. From 2000 to 2004, Iowa soybean crop losses from floods totaled $390 million, compared to $600 million between 2008 and 2012.
Chuck Gipp, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said his department is trying to get past the debate about climate change causes.
"My attitude toward climate change and global warming is that we spend too much time talking about the causes," he said. "Regardless of the cause, we need to react to conditions we see today."
Gipp said the 2008 flood in particular led Iowa to form a task force to help rebuild communities and to mitigate future damages caused by extreme weather. The state created the Iowa Flood Center at the University of Iowa, and worked on developing new floodplain maps that allow the state to identify flood-risk communities.
"We have to learn from those mistakes," he said. "Climate is changing, it's always changing. I think we need to learn from the past. If we don't, we're bound to repeat it."
In recent years, Gipp said, the DNR has been approached by an increasing number of property owners who live in floodplains. Many of them are looking to move out of risky areas and asking the state to buy their properties.
WATER USE, SOIL LOSS
Floods and drought have created new challenges for Iowa. In times of drought, property owners turned to deeper water sources, said Tim Hall, chief of the geological and water survey bureau/hydrology coordinator with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. What's more, he said models show pumping is expected to increase 50% by 2029.
In times of flood, water quality becomes an increasing concern as agricultural nutrients tied up in soil move downstream into drinking water sources.
Pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and these concerns are driving forces behind the state's latest efforts to adopt a voluntary nutrients reduction strategy and to promote expanded conservation methods.
Rick Cruse, professor of agronomy and director of the Iowa Water Center at ISU, said the accepted standard that soil loss of five tons per acre is safe for cropland, falls far short of what his research shows is actually happening to Iowa soil.
Cruse said he identified about 6 million Iowa acres where erosion rates are in excess of 10 tons per acre.
"It is greater than we first thought," he said. "The loss of soil has greater implications than the loss of wetlands."
Though biotechnology has paid dividends in times of drought and flooding, Cruse said it won't work if there continues to be soil loss.
"We've basically been enabling risky behavior and now we're looking at rain events," he said.
Much has been made about how $8 corn led Iowa farmers to plant more marginal land.
David Miller, director of research and commodity services and chief science officer for the Iowa Farm Bureau, said higher corn prices also have allowed farmers to expand conservation.
From 2006 to 2012 most Iowa counties saw an increase in acres planted to grasses, primarily in the northern half of the state, he said.
In addition, although environmental groups and others have pointed to a loss of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program as a concern, Miller said much of that doesn't take into account other acres entering the CRP.
Miller, who also farms some 600 acres, said that in order for more farmers to adopt conservation measures including cover crops, they have to make money.
"I spent 60% of my profit this year to put in a cover crop," he said. "That's not sustainable. Am I committed? Yeah I'm committed. You can't pay for conservation out of losses. If you can't profit from conservation, you can't afford conservation."
In addition to billions of dollars in property damage from flooding, there is also concern that water quality will continue to deteriorate as flood events become more frequent.
Bill Stowe, chief executive officer and general manager of Des Moines Water Works, said his department spent about an extra $1 million on clean-up from nutrients runoff from the 2012 heavy spring rains.
"Let's look at tying conservation practices to crop insurance," he said. "My concern is there is a failure to regulate that which actually promotes the use of cover crops and other policies.
"In 150 years we've not been concerned about providing water. In the past two years, we've been very concerned. Now we're talking about water rationing," Stowe said. "Something is very much changing in our state about the availability of water."
Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey said he understands Stowe's concerns. However, he said it would cost $3 billion to enact adequate conservation measures upstream including cover crops, expanded wetlands and other measures to reduce agriculture runoff.
"Many in agriculture look at extremes and say seed technology and planting methods have allowed amazing productivity than in the past," Northey said. "While agriculture experienced extremes, you look back over time and we have always experienced extremes."
As the state tries to promote the use of more conservation practices, Northey said those practices really are about moving water.
"Much of our nutrient issues are more about transport than they are about loading," he said.
So far state monies available for implementing conservation practices falls far short of demand, Northey said. The state budgets about $7 million a year to help farmers implement practices, while the demand is somewhere around $20 million a year, he said.
Aaron Strong, assistant professor with the Public Policy Center and School of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Iowa, said land-use change also is exacerbating Iowa's problems.
Strong said the Raccoon River watershed near Van Meter, for example, shows an upward trend in crops planted. Yet yearly rainfall hasn't really changed in the watershed, he said.
"We're seeing much higher water-level discharges," meaning more crops are putting more strain on the water available, Strong said.
"It's not just about precipitation but changes in land-use patterns. Floods are exacerbated by land-use change. Greater runoff leads to higher concentrations of nutrients."
Todd Neeley can be reached at email@example.com.
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