Why Do Iowa Farmers Grow Corn?

Modern corn culture came to Iowa with the settlers that moved across the United States. Farmers, hopscotching westward to Indiana, Illinois and Iowa from the valleys of Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, brought the agriculture of the Upland South with them- Dent corn and hogs.

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Building Youth Leadership Capacity Through Project-Based Learning

“ The world needs people who can lead others to make a change for the better if anything is gonna change for the better.”

This is a reflection from a Davenport North High School junior, one of the first students to experience environmental science education through a pilot program called “The Watershed Project,” sponsored by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and administered by the Iowa Water Center (IWC).

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Researchers Looking into the Effects of Pharmaceuticals on Fish in Iowa’s Waterways

Written by Sarah Feehan


At field site in Coralville, Iowa. 

Lab-reared, native minnows have been living in fish cages placed in a stream for the last four days, and now a team of researchers collects them to study the impacts of water quality on aquatic organisms.

For nearly the past two years, these researchers have been measuring chemical concentrations in the same stream, and this caged fish experiment is one of the ways researchers are connecting chemical presence in the environment to possible biological effects.

Greg LeFevre, an assistant professor of environmental engineering and faculty research engineer for IIHR at the University of Iowa, studies water quality, wastewater, and toxic substances.

LeFevre conducting a fish dissection. 

LeFevre, a principal investigator (PI) of the study, is researching what happens when pharmaceuticals enter our waterways. His research is funded through a National Competitive Grant under the USGS 104(g) Program. A goal of this program is to promote collaboration between the USGS and university scientists in research on significant national and regional water resources issues.

This working group consisted of representatives from the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). There were PIs, graduate students, and USGS scientists.

“We have a number of different things we are working on both in the lab and in the field to try and answer the questions comprehensively through multiple fields of expertise,” LeFevre says. “And out of this one grant, because there are so many things coming out of this, we hope that this field site will be the locus for a bunch of other research.”

Fish dissection for lab testing.

Wastewater-derived contaminants of emerging concerns (CEC) have demonstrated harmful effects to aquatic organisms. LeFevre believes that there is a critical need to understand how the changing complex mixture composition of CECs relates to biological effects. This understanding is critical in order to better protect ecosystem health in freshwater resources and inform stakeholder decisions.

“Everything that happens on the land is ultimately very connected to what goes on and into the water,” says LeFevre. “What we want to do is to develop some kind of understanding of the exposure to fish as well as some of the biological facts that are going on there.”

They hope to see the effects on fish throughout different areas of the stream. They will study a control group that permanently remains at the lab, a different group released in cages in the waterway after being brought up in the lab, and native fish who have spent their whole lives in the natural stream.

The waterway they are putting fish in and pulling fish from comes from an upstream wastewater treatment facility LeFevre describes as, “one of the best in the state.”

Preparing fish for dissection. 

The North Liberty Wastewater Treatment Plant, upstream of the tested waterway, has a membrane bioreactor, zero E. coli that comes out of the plant, and biological phosphorus and nitrogen removal. All of which is far beyond the permit requirements.

Rebecca Klaper, professor at the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, is a co-principal investigator on the study has also been a key collaborator to LeFevre’s research.

Regarding the data, Klaper explains, “The detection part is fantastic and the fact that we’ve gotten so much better at measuring these things is great. We might detect hundreds of chemicals in the water, but they might have no effect at all. So, the other part is trying to figure out if we really need to be concerned about them.”

“Today has been really exciting,” PhD candidate and research assistant at the University of Iowa Hui Zhi says. Zhi is one of four Iowa Water Center (IWC) Graduate Student Research Competition recipients for 2019.

“I think we were overprepared, which is great,” she says. “Having everything ready to go makes our work more efficient. And we also have so many people from our labs working together, making everything work very smoothly.”

Part of Zhi’s research through the IWC grant encompasses the sorption and biodegradation of pharmaceuticals in Iowa’s water. “It’s important we understand what’s in our drinking water, what’s in the treated wastewater, and what’s in the streams and rivers,” Zhi says.


Sarah Feehan is the communications specialist for the Iowa Water Center. She holds a BS in Journalism and Mass Communication with a minor in Political Science from Iowa State University. In fall of 2019, Feehan will begin acquiring her JD from Drake Law School.

Bridging the Divide in Water Resource Management

Written by Hanna Bates, Program Coordinator for the Iowa Water Center

Regardless of who you are and what path you are on; we all make an impact on water. This belief was the overarching theme of the 74th Soil and Water Conservation Society International Annual Conference held July 28-31 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

This city, at the confluence of three rivers and contains 446 bridges, is a town of connections that bridges one side of a river to another. This set the scene for the conference in which diverse ideas were brought together to represent our anthropogenic impact on water resources. Conference attendees included those from private industry, public institutions, and government agencies. The three days of presentations, symposia, and tours enabled attendees to debate ideas and address critical questions about the future of our soil and water resources.

Iowa water resource professionals were well represented on the agenda and covered a vast array of topics. These topics included outreach, education, and community engagement; conservation models, tools, and technologies; professional development; engaging the private sector; water resource assessment and management; and social sciences informing conservation.

On the third day of the conference, I attended a tour on how the City of Pittsburgh alongside several other organizations are restoring impacted landscapes within the city and in nearby rural areas. For several decades, the coal and natural gas extraction industries and steel mills had a negative impact on the surrounding landscape due to the establishment of mine drainage areas and dump areas for slag, a waste product from steel production. Tour stops showcased areas that are in the process of being restored.


One stop of the tour was the Pittsburgh Botanic Garden, which is an outdoor garden that spans approximately 450 acres of land. Opened in 2015, this is a long-term program to reintroduce native plant species. During a one-year span in 2015, the garden staff planted 9,000 flowering bulbs and 1,500 saplings. Each year, thousands more are planted. The goal is not only to restore the landscape, but also to provide a place for outdoor education and enjoyment of nature. On the day we visited, approximately 40 acres of the 450 acres were rehabilitated and open for the public to visit.

Another stop on the tour was at Pittsburg’s Frick Park and the 9-Mile Run Watershed. This 6.5-square mile watershed flows through the park and carries on to a slag dump site that was in operation from 1922-1972. Restoration projects in collaboration with the City of Pittsburgh and the 9-Mile Run Watershed Association have improved the site to make it the beautiful walking trail and recreational area that it is today. The area is located near vulnerable communities in Pittsburgh, and so it was restored with the belief that everyone deserves access to nature because of the positive impacts it can have on health and well being.

The Soil and Water Conservation Society along with the Pennsylvania Chapter of SWCS did an excellent job fostering conversations among meeting attendees as well as highlighting the natural resource challenges and solutions in the Pittsburgh area. Next year the 2020 SWCS Conference will be celebrating its 75th year in Des Moines, Iowa.


Save the date for July 26-29, 2020 so that you can be a part of the celebration!

Zhi Selected as a Recipient for the Iowa Water Center’s Institute Research Grant Competition

Written by Sarah Feehan, Communications Specialist

AMES, IOWA – The Iowa Water Center (IWC) annually administers a statewide grant competition known as the IWC Graduate Student Research Competition.

The purpose of this funding is to enable graduate students to complete additional research objectives beyond the scope of their current work, with an emphasis on submitting their research to peer-reviewed publications.

Hui Zhi has been selected among three other graduate students from across Iowa. She and the other recipients will receive funding for a variety of proposed research.

Hu Zhi Headshot
Hui Zhi, PhD candidate at the University of Iowa.

Zhi’s proposed research encompasses sorption and biodegradation of pharmaceuticals in Iowa’s water. It is titled ‘Quantifying Differential Sorption and Biodegradation of Pharmaceuticals in a Wastewater Effluent-dominated Stream in Iowa’.

Associate Director of the IWC Melissa Miller says, “Water Resources Research Institutes like the Iowa Water Center were authorized by Congress in part to address emerging water resources concerns through research. The fate and transport of pharmaceuticals in our water is of critical interest to both the state and region, and we look forward to sharing the results of Ms. Zhi’s work.”

“From this research, we’ll better understand the fate and transformation of pharmaceuticals in the surface water. It’s important we understand what’s in our drinking water, what’s in the treated wastewater, and what’s in the streams and rivers. And, how they change spatially and temporally,” Zhi says.

Get to Know Hui Zhi, PhD Candidate at the University of Iowa

Typically, Zhi wakes up around 6:30 A.M. and makes herself breakfast and a cup of black coffee. Once at her office, she checks emails and reads journal article updates.

One early morning in her office, Zhi received an email about the IWC’s grant competition and thought, “it would be a really great opportunity to apply for.” She spoke to her adviser about the competition and he encouraged her to write and submit a proposal.

“It caught my eye,” Zhi says of the grant competition email. Zhi’s research from this grant work will be a one-year study that employs both field and laboratory research approaches.

Zhi says, “I really enjoy working in the lab and look forward to getting the results.”

Hui Zhi Lab Work
Zhi conducting lab work at the University of Iowa.

Zhi grew up in China, where she completed her bachelor’s degree in an environmental science program at China Pharmaceutical University.

The environmental crisis in China influenced Zhi to continue school and to focus on environmental engineering. She decided to continue her studies here in the United States, where Zhi believes, “the best programs in the world for environmental engineering are at.”

She received her master’s degree at Cornell University and is now a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa. Her anticipated completion year is 2020.

With her research, Zhi hopes people will better understand the behaviors of pharmaceutical mixtures in the water and their associated ecological impacts.

She explains, “The results will be able to help the right people, whoever is responsible for our water policy regulations, set in place science-based water quality regulations for pharmaceuticals. Regulations not just for our drinking water, but also in the treated wastewater that is discharged into our environment. Hopefully then, we will have a cleaner water environment.”

Instead of just focusing solely on the quality of our drinking water, Zhi thinks knowing what’s going on in all our water systems, for example streams and rivers, is vital to a healthy environment.

Pharmaceuticals can have impacts on aquatic species, such as fish, living in the water. If pharmaceuticals are accumulating in fish and people are eating these fish, the accumulation of pharmaceuticals ends up in human bodies.

Therefore, not only are we drinking pharmaceuticals, but we are also eating fish that have been accumulating pharmaceuticals over time. “People need to know what’s happening in the streams nearby that they’re swimming in and also in the waters their fish are found because there are potential impacts on the human body that we don’t clearly know yet,” Zhi says.

To help prevent research burnout, Zhi enjoys exercising. “Whether it’s cardio, yoga, boxing, rock climbing, or swimming, I love it. All these different sports help relieve any pressure from research, and I have a lot of fun doing them,” Zhi says.

 For more information about this year’s recipients, please visit https://iawatercenter.wordpress.com/. To reference the general press release for all four recipients, please visit: http://www.water.iastate.edu/news/iowa-water-center-announces-2019-grant-recipients.

The Iowa Water Center is a federally funded organization, part of the National Institutes for Water Resources. Located on the Iowa State University campus, it is one of 54 institutes located throughout the United States and U.S territories. The purpose of the Iowa Water Center is to identify water-related research needs, provide outreach and education opportunities, and disseminate information about Iowa’s water resources to the public to form better policies and everyday practices. Learn more at https://www.water.iastate.edu/.

0Sarah Feehan is the communications specialist for the Iowa Water Center. She holds a BS in Journalism and Mass Communication with a minor in Political Science from Iowa State University. In fall of 2019, Feehan will begin acquiring her JD from Drake Law School.